04 February 2010

On Howard Zinn and Refusing to Settle

If it looks a little late for me to say something about Howard Zinn, the best-selling radical historian who died last week, it's because I didn't have anything to say at first. I've never read Zinn's People's History of the United States, and as someone trained as an academic historian I was bound to find that book to general for my taste. I was willing to believe critics who accused Zinn of oversimplifying American history. He was a radical egalitarian and pacifist, as I could tell from the opinion pieces he contributed to The Progressive and other magazines. There's nothing wrong with that, but as an Americanist (academically speaking) I couldn't accept what seemed to be his guiding premise, that the only narrative worth writing in American (or global) history was the struggle of the poor and excluded for greater democracy and equality. I'm the sort who, when watching the scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon disses Gordon S. Wood and praises Zinn, could only conclude that Damon's character wasn't the genius the script claimed he was.

But for the past week I've been following an exchange of obituaries, laudatory and damning, on the History News Network website. Among these was a predictable diatribe from Ron Radosh, who can only see Zinn as someone who hated his country. For people like Radosh the test is pretty simple: either affirm on demand that the United States is the greatest country in the world and the greatest there has ever been, or you hate it. Zinn's critics on the right believe that an exclusively critical approach to American history, as Zinn's appeared to them to be, obscures both the country's positive accomplishments and its moral superiority, warts and all, to other nations, none of which is any more innocent (as we must all admit) than the U.S. These critics will vehemently deny wanting to whitewash or bury the bad bits of our history, but they insist that a more balanced or presumably more objective approach would lead any reasonable student to conclude that the U.S. has been a force for good overall and should be defended as such.

The United States certainly has had a paradoxical history. Advances in freedom and equality have gone hand in hand with enslavement, exploitation and exclusion. One can imagine (and it doesn't really require much imagination) sincerely patriotic Americans making the same claims for their country's essential goodness while slavery was still legal, whether in spite of slavery or while taking it for granted. That's the problem with many conservative historians: their dogged insistence that their country be recognized as the greatest on earth is an implicit demand that people settle for things as they are, even if those things strike one as unfair or unjust. They object to the U.S. being held to a higher standard, just as the slaveholders and their allies 150 years ago howled in protest whenever anyone suggested that there was a higher law than a pro-slavery constitution. Conservatives can argue reasonably that our country's heritage of slavery, Indian-killing, violence against organized labor, and so on does not disqualify the accomplishments of the Founders in crafting a viable democratic republic or the improvements in quality of life made possible by American entrepreneurship. But they cannot argue reasonably that no one has a right to demand better of the nation. They can't forbid people from raising a standard of egalitarian liberty against which all nations, not just ours, are found wanting, in order to inspire people to demand what they decide is their due. And to the extent that Howard Zinn did that, his academic virtues aside, he may well deserve to be regarded as a great American.

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