Saturday, January 30, 2010

'Tis the gift to be Zinnful, NOT

Notices of the death of the American historian Howard Zinn have been overwhelmed by the obituaries of the writer J. D. Salinger, author of "Catcher in the Rye" and other works. This seems appropriate, because while Zinn claimed to be capturing the spirit of the people, J. D. Salinger fundamentally redefined it.

Zinn in fact belongs a long line of writers who attacked elitism in the name of populism. As a kid, I listened, with mounting impatience, as my would-be radical stepfather played over and over again a set of records by the poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), “The People, Yes." Hearing his lugubrious, self-important voice, I shaped my own rebellion, tentatively entitled “The People--yeah, man.”

Howard Zinn’s more prosaic work, "A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present” (1980), was in this vein, but if anything more tendentious. In Zinn’s view the task of the historian is to produce a political document. His book has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold two million copies, and made the author a celebrity. At least his two Hollywood admirers, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are seeking to confirm this status, post-mortem, in their road-show of a filmed version.

The best account of Zinn’s book remains that of Michael Kazin, “Howard Zinn's History Lesson,” published in Dissent 2004. Kazin says flatly, “People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. 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?”

The last question is indeed the operative one. Why is it, in fact, that in the thirty years that have passed since the first publication of Zinn’s opus, the left has been steadily loosing ground?

There are many reasons for this decline, but work such as Zinn’s doesn’t seem to have any effect in reversing the trend.



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