With Howard Zinn, contemporary American academia found its court historian. Zinn, who died January 27 at 87, was like a gigantic echo chamber, accurately reproducing — and actively reinforcing — every left-wing cliché with which the academy has abetted its sense of election these past several decades. “You see how smart he is,” saith the tribe, “he thinks exactly as we do.” Zinn’s biography tells us that he was the author of “more than 20 books.” But only one matters: A People’s History of the United States. Published in 1980 with appropriately modest expectations — it had, I read somewhere, an initial print run of only 5,000 copies — the book went on to sell some 2 million and is still going strong. Its Amazon sales rank as of February 1, 2010, was 7. Seven. That’s a number most authors would climb over broken bottles to achieve 30 days after their books were published. Here it is 30 years on.
How to explain such phenomenal success? The publisher had doubtless assayed the book’s intellectual merits and proceeded accordingly. Left out of account was the presumption of its political message. The extremity and consistency of that message — that America is and always has been an evil, exploitative country — guaranteed its success among the tenured radicals to whom we have entrusted the education of our children. More to the point, this history “from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated” nudged out all other contenders for the prize of becoming the preferred catechism in American — that is to say, anti-American — history. A People’s History is the textbook of choice in high schools and colleges across the country. No other account of our past comes even close in influence or ubiquity. No other, more responsible, telling of the American story had a chance. How could it? Given a choice between a book that portrayed America honestly — as an extraordinary success story — and a book that portrayed the history of America as a litany of depredations and failures, which do you suppose your average graduate of a teachers college, your average member of the National Education Association, would choose? To ask the question is to answer it. What this means is that most American students are battened on a story of their country in which Blame America First is a cardinal principle. No element of our heritage, from the derring-do of Christopher Columbus to the valor of the U.S. military in World War II, escapes the perverting alchemy of Howard Zinn’s exercise in deflationary revision.
To his credit — well, it’s not really to his credit, since he offers the admission only to disarm criticism, but Zinn is entirely candid about the ideological nature of his opus. All history, he says, involves a choice of perspectives. Maybe so. Are we therefore to assume all perspectives are equally valuable? Zinn employs this relativist’s sleight of hand in order to promulgate his preferred species of intolerance, which appeals to latitudinarian sensitivities only because it is an intolerance fabricated in opposition to the established order. If “all history is ideological” (it isn’t really), then why not make your choice based on what appeals to your political sympathies, truth be damned? That’s the takeaway of Zinn’s admission, and it’s all he offers to explain his decision, which he details at the beginning of his book, to tell the story of
the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish–American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by the black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
In other words, what Zinn offers us is not a corrective, but a distortion. It is as if someone said to you, “Would you like to see Versailles?” and then took you on a tour of a broken shed on the outskirts of the palace grounds. “You see, pretty shabby, isn’t it?”
The one indisputably valuable thing about A People’s History of the United States is the way it illustrates a melancholy fact about the place of reasoned argument in human affairs. In brief, it occupies a lamentably attenuated place. Placed in opposition to a wish driven by the Zeitgeist (that’s German for “what the New York Times preaches”), reasoned argument doesn’t stand a chance. Item: Soon after A People’s History of the United States was published, the historian Oscar Handlin wrote a devastating review of the book for The American Scholar (which was still a respectable magazine).
“It simply is not true,” Mr. Handlin noted,
that “what Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.” It simply is not true that the farmers of the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries avidly desired the importation of black slaves, or that the gap between rich and poor widened in the eighteenth-century colonies. Zinn gulps down as literally true the proven hoax of Polly Baker and the improbable Plough Jogger, and he repeats uncritically the old charge that President Lincoln altered his views to suit his audience. The Geneva assembly of 1954 did not agree on elections in a unified Vietnam; that was simply the hope expressed by the British chairman when the parties concerned could not agree. The United States did not back Batista in 1959; it had ended aid to Cuba and washed its hands of him well before then. “Tet” was not evidence of the unpopularity of the Saigon government, but a resounding rejection of the northern invaders.
And on and on. In any normal world, Zinn would have stolen away in the middle of the night, fled to a mountain fastness in Peru, and taken up llama ranching. In this world, however, he went on to fame and fortune.
Oscar Handlin left Zinn’s “deranged . . . fairy tale” in tatters. But the eye of love continued to regard it as an unspoilt beauty. Hence the 2 million copies, the Amazon ranking, the exuberant grief that taxed the powers of hyperbole commanded by obituarists across the republic as they competed with one another to freight the word “progressive” with ever more awesome pulpit tones.
The obituaries of Howard Zinn make for interesting, if not exactly edifying, reading. Zinn himself, of course, is the hero of the moment, the model “progressive” warrior who spoke truth to power, struggled against the demons of American imperialism, and condoled the weak, the oppressed, the inarticulate. The villain of the story was John Silber, former president of Boston University and for the 24 years Howard Zinn taught there the bane of his existence. In the obituaries, Silber is invariably described as “conservative” or “right-wing.” In fact, he is a liberal in the antique, i.e., the classical mode. While a dean at the University of Texas, Silber labored to abolish segregation. He was an energetic supporter of Head Start, was instrumental in Boston University’s involvement in improving an inner-city school, and has battled tirelessly to further the vocation of the liberal arts and the life of the university as a primary institutional home for that vocation. During his disreputable tenure as a professor at Boston University, Howard Zinn did everything in his power to subvert the university, partly by subordinating its intellectual mandate to trendy political causes, partly by short-circuiting with malicious levity the high seriousness of a liberal-arts education. He would, for example, pass around his classes a bag containing bits of paper imprinted with the letters “A” or “B.” Whichever token a student picked denominated his grade, no matter what work he did or didn’t do.
The point? It wasn’t merely grade inflation. More insidiously, it was an expression of contempt for the entire enterprise of which he was a privileged beneficiary. Contempt, in fact, was Howard Zinn’s leading characteristic. Its primary focus was America, because that was the biggest game in town. But he had plenty left over for the rest of the world. As Oscar Handlin observed in his review, “It would be a mistake . . . to regard Zinn as merely anti-American. Brendan Behan once observed that whoever hated America hated mankind, and hatred of humanity is the dominant tone of Zinn’s book. No other modern country receives a favorable mention. He speaks well of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, but not of the states they created. He lavishes indiscriminate condemnation upon all the works of man — that is, upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks.” Howard Zinn has left us. But his repellent ideas — and even more, the contemptuous nihilism that stands behind and fires those ideas — live on.
– Roger Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books, and co-publisher and co-editor of The New Criterion. This essay appears in the February 22, 2010, issue of National Review.