Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Howard Zinn

** A People's History is bad history

 Zinn reduces 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? 

His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger's Web site than to a work of scholarship.

 According to Zinn, "99 percent" of Americans share a "commonality" that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is "exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent."

His Civil War was another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by "an aura of moral crusade" against slavery that "worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against 'the enemy.'"

THIS IS HISTORY as cynicism.

Zinn omits the real choices our left ancestors faced and the true pathos, and drama, of their decisions. 

In fact, most Populists cheered Bryan and voted for him because he shared their enemies and their vision of a producers' republic. 

Unlike Zinn, they grasped the dilemma of third parties in the American electoral system, which Richard Hofstadter likened to honeybees, "once they have stung, they die."

 And to bewail the fact that liberal Democrats saw an advantage to supporting rights for unions and minorities is a stunning feat of historical naiveté.

 Short of revolution, a strategic alliance with one element of "the Establishment" is the only way social movements ever make lasting changes in law and public policy. 

Zinn's conception of American elites is akin to the medieval church's image of the Devil. For him, a governing class is motivated solely by its appetite for riches and power-and by its fear of losing them. Numerous historians may regard George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton as astute, if seriously flawed, men who erected a structure for the new nation that has endured for over two centuries. But Zinn curtly dismisses them as "leaders of the new aristocracy" and regards the nation-state itself as a cunning device to lull ordinary folks with "the fanfare of patriotism and unity." 

For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them. 

They are like bobble-head dolls in work-shirts and overalls-ever sanguine about fighting the powers-that-be, always about to fall on their earnest faces. 

Zinn takes no notice of immigrants who built businesses and churches and craft unions, of women who backed both suffrage and temperance on maternalist grounds, of black Americans who merged the community-building gospel of Booker T. Washington and the militancy of W.E.B. Du Bois, or of wage-earners who took pleasure in the new cars and new houses those awful long-term contracts enabled them to buy. 

 But Zinn cares only about winners and losers in a class conflict most Americans didn't even know they were fighting. 

Like most propagandists, he measures individuals according to his own rigid standard of how they should have thought and acted.

** Thus, he depicts John Brown as an unblemished martyr but sees Lincoln as nothing more than a cautious politician who left slavery alone as long as possible. To explain why the latter's election in 1860 convinced most slaveowners to back secession, Zinn falls back on the old saw, beloved by economic determinists, that the Civil War was "not a clash of peoples…but of elites," Southern planters vs. Northern industrialists. Pity the slaves and their abolitionist allies; in their ignorance, they viewed it as a war of liberation and wept when Lincoln was murdered. 

THE FACT THAT his text barely mentions either conservatism or Christianity is telling. The former is nothing but an excuse to grind the poor ("conservatism" itself doesn't even appear in the index), while religion gets a brief mention during Anne Hutchinson's rebellion against the Puritan fathers and then vanishes from the next 370 years of history.

**Given his approach to history, Zinn's angry pages about the global reach of U.S. power are about as surprising as his support for Ralph Nader in 2000. Of course, President William McKinley decided to go to war with Spain at "the urging of the business community." Zinn ignores the scholarly verdict that most Americans from all classes and races backed the cause of "Cuba Libre"-but not the later decisions to vassalize the Caribbean island and colonize the Philippines.

 ***Of course, as an imperial bully, the United States had no right, in World War II, "to step forward as a defender of helpless countries." 

Zinn thins the meaning of the biggest war in history down to its meanest components: profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, and the senseless destruction of enemy cities-from Dresden to Hiroshima. 

His chapter on that conflict does ring with a special passion; Zinn served as a bombardier in the European theater and the experience made him a lifelong pacifist. 

But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him. 

The latest edition of the book includes a few paragraphs about the attacks of September 11, and they demonstrate how poorly Zinn's view of the past equips him to analyze the present. 

***"It was an unprecedented assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power," he writes. 

The nineteen hijackers "were willing to die in order to deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy, a superpower that had thought itself invulnerable." Zinn then quickly moves on to condemn the United States for killing innocent people in Afghanistan. 

Is this an example of how to express the "commonality" of the great majority of U.S. citizens, who believed that the gruesome strike against America's evil empire was aimed at them? Zinn's flat, dualistic view of how U.S. power has been used throughout history omits what is obvious to the most casual observer: al-Qaeda's religious fanaticism and the potential danger it poses to anyone that Osama bin Laden and his disciples deem an enemy of Islam.

*****Surely one can hate imperialism without ignoring the odiousness of killers who mouth the same sentiment. 

Perhaps the greatest flaw of his book is that Zinn encourages readers to view so formidable a force as just a pack of lying bullies. 

He refuses to acknowledge that when they speak about their ideals, those who hold national power usually mean what they say. If FDR lied to Americans about the threat posed by Japanese-Americans during World War II, why should anyone believe his prattle about the Four Freedoms?

*****This cynical myopia afflicts an alarming number of people on the left today.

 The gloom of defeat tends to obscure the landscape of real politics, which has always witnessed a clash of ideologies as well as interests, persuasion as well as buy-offs and sellouts. Zinn fiercely details the outrages committed by America's rulers at home and abroad. But he makes no serious attempt to examine why these rulers kept getting elected, or how economic and social reform improved the lives of millions even if they sapped whatever mass appetite existed for radical change.

 In contrast, Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities. His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.

Michael Kazin's latest book, co-authored with Maurice Isserman, is America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s.

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