Last week, radical “historian” Howard Zinn suffered a fatal heart attack while on vacation. I was asked by John Leo, director of The Manhattan Institute’s “Minding the Campus” website, to write a critical obituary of him. You can read it here, or in a slightly different version at The New York Post yesterday.
One of the points I make in my analysis is that while it is easy to show how poor a historian Zinn was; indeed, I argue that it is dubious to even honor him with that title, since he was in reality little more than a leftist propagandist. Yet, I argued that Zinn was important because of the vast influence he had, and how many people took him seriously.
Little did I realize how true this was until I opened up yesterday’s New York Times, and read the incredible fatuous column by one of their regulars, Bob Herbert. Because the paper’s editors think they are publishing an objective and centrist newspaper, they have obviously hired Herbert as their left-wing columnist. Paul Krugman, obviously, is not sufficient for that job. Reading Herbert, if anyone does and even takes him seriously, is an arduous chore.
But in yesterday’s column, Herbert outdid himself. Calling Howard Zinn “A Radical Treasure,” Herbert writes that “His death this week at the age of 87 was a loss that should have drawn much more attention from a press corps that spends an inordinate amount of its time obsessing idiotically over the likes of Tiger Woods and John Edwards.” Leaving aside the truth that at one moment, John Edwards was as much the darling of the Left as Zinn, (indeed, many on the Left saw the first exposes of Edwards’s affairs as cheap right-wing smears orchestrated by The National Enquirer) Herbert’s argument rests on what he considers to have been Zinn’s great importance to America.
Ironically, Herbert’s column proves my main point about Zinn’s influence, one that in fact was entirely spurious and in fact harmful to those who still have some hope that reading good history can serve to inform the American public at large. Herbert, of course, is enamored at the TV and film documentary Zinn and Anthony Arnove had undertaken, “The People Speak.” Like Zinn, Herbert believes whatever change came to America came only from “below,” from the dissent and protest of the poor and the oppressed.
In fact, as Frederick Douglass acknowledged before his death, change came from a combination of what abolitionists had put on the nation’s agenda, and the political system created by the Founding Fathers that led great men like Lincoln to function within the existing system and help create democratic politics that could enact legislation that led to a fairer and more just nation.