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Bob Herbert's Embarrassing Tribute to Howard Zinn

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.