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.
Herbert, like Zinn, thinks that “our tendency is to give these true American heroes short shrift, just as we gave Howard Zinn short shrift.” Neither is true. The true heroes of whom Herbert speaks—the abolitionists, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, etc.- have in fact been given their just due in all of our contemporary textbooks. Indeed, they are often given the only credit for change and growth to the exclusion of presidents, political leaders, businessmen and the like. As for Zinn, as his own column reveals, the late propagandist (what I prefer to call Zinn) has been given far too much attention. That is especially the case for his forthcoming DVD and the TV special aired two weeks ago.
Herbert likes him and thinks Zinn was not a radical, because all he did was to “peel back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long.” The problem is what Zinn often saw as a rosy veneer was to deprecate those who thought the US was fighting for freedom in efforts such as World War II, which Zinn essentially argued that even that would-be “good war” was one featuring Western atrocities against the innocent of Europe. In that, his critique echoed that of right-wing isolationists like Pat Buchanan.
For Zinn and Herbert it is all black or white. Andrew Jackson was not to be heralded as a good leader, frontiersman, or man of the people, but rather, as a “slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.” Rather than try to put someone like Jackson in the context of his times, and to reveal the complexity of his story- as writer Jon Meacham or a historian like Sean Wilentz have sought to do-Zinn preferred to denigrate and paint all of America’s greatest leaders as part of a long list of warlike oppressors of those who were ground down.
So Herbert thinks that Howard Zinn was not only “a treasure and an inspiration,” but that Zinn was thought of as somewhat of a radical “says way more about this society that it does about him.” If radical is defined as “going to the root,” then it is certainly true that Zinn was not a radical. He did not go to the root. What he did is consciously distort America’s past as part of his effort to mine our history to promote extreme left-wing solutions today.
Herbert approves of those solutions. That is the answer as to why he thinks Zinn must be favorably remembered, and why he offers his readers a one-sided and inaccurate appraisal of Howard Zinn, who was anything but a great historian.