Roger’s Rules

Howard Zinn, People's Pander

Last week, Howard Zinn, reigning anti-American historian of America, died of a heart attack. He was 87. Zinn’s gift to posterity was A People’s History of the United States, a book that has done more than any other textbook to instill hatred and contempt of America in the nation’s teachers and their students. No wonder it was such a runaway success. First published in 1980, it has gone on to sell some 2 million copies. And its brief against America was memorialized in “The People Speak” a 4-part mini-series that aired in December.

The outpouring of sentimental pap that Zinn’s passing occasioned was as large as it was nauseating. Typical was Bob Herbert’s emetic eulogy in The New York Times. According to Herbert, Zinn was “a radical treasure” an “inspiration, “ etc. In fact, as my PJM colleague  Ron Radosh pointed out, Zinn was chiefly a “propagandist” not an historian. That is, Zinn systematically subordinated historical truth to  ideology. Radosh quotes  Michael Kazin, an historian at Georgetown University, who noted that  Zinn “”educes the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. History: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?”

My answer to is that Zinn didn’t care about “most Americans.” When it came to contempt, he was an equal-opportunity purveyor. I wrote about this aspect of Zinn’s legacy in a piece for National Review.

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.

Read the whole thing here.