I’ve never bothered to declaim on the fundamental shoddiness of Howard Zinn’s scandalously popular People’s History of the United States, in part because I simply can’t get through it. Every few pages offer egregious errors of fact and even more tendentious interpretations of facts, such that it is impossible to take seriously. I’d rather read Heidegger or grind my teeth.
Certainly an honest history of America (or any country) should include its crimes, mistakes, oppressions, and manifold other defects, and many bland history textbooks can be faulted for doing this poorly (or not at all). But Zinn’s approach includes only that aspect of the American story, and supposes that the evils and shortcomings of America represent the whole of America. And that explains the book’s enormous popularity: it becomes a balm for people who wish to think poorly of America, and as an intellectual boat anchor to sink the republic we have.
A book so biased and so agenda-driven actually cuts off sensible evaluation of past events, and what they might tell us about today. It is possible, though, that even some liberals may be having second thoughts about Zinn, or are coming to recognized that Zinnified history contributes to the campus nihilism that is starting to make their lives increasingly miserable.
My evidence for this is an article appearing recently in Slate, usually thought of as a mainstream liberal site, by Sam Weinberg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, entitled “Howard Zinn’s Anti-Textbook.” Weinberg is not a fan, starting off by noting the books’s formal weaknesses:
Like traditional textbooks, A People’s History relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative. Like traditional textbooks, the book is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps. And, like students’ textbooks, when A People’s History draws on primary sources, these documents serve to prop up the main text but never provide an alternative view or open a new field of vision. . .
Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies that Zinn uses to bind evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right. More is at stake in naming and making explicit these moves than an exercise in rhetoric. For when they encounter Zinn’s A People’s History, students undoubtedly take away more than new facts about the Homestead strike or Eugene V. Debs. They are exposed to and absorb an entire way of asking questions about the past as well as a means of using evidence to advance historical argument. For many students, A People’s History will be the first full-length history book they read—and, for some, it will be the only one. Beyond what they learn about Shays’ Rebellion or the loopholes in the Sherman Antitrust Act, what does A People’s History teach young people about what it means to think historically? . . .
A search through A People’s History for qualifiers mostly comes up short. Instead, the seams of history are concealed by the presence of an author who speaks with thunderous certainty.
But that’s just a warmup for the real critique:
[T]he book resolutely strikes a traditional pose toward historical knowledge. It substitutes one monolithic reading of the past for another, albeit one that claims to be morally superior and promises to better position students to take action in the present. . .
In his 2004 Dissent review, Michael Kazin suggested that the major reason behind Zinn’s success was the timeliness of his narrative: “Zinn fills a need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left … A People’s History offers a certain consolation.” Kazin often hits the mark, but on this score he’s way off. Zinn remains popular not because he’s timely but precisely because he’s not. A People’s History speaks directly to our inner Holden Caulfield. Our heroes are shameless frauds, our parents and teachers conniving liars, our textbooks propagandistic slop. Long before we could Google accounts of a politician’s latest indiscretion, Zinn offered a national “Gotcha.” They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style. . .
A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual torpor. History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity. It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule. Worst of all, it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence. It ensures, ultimately, that tomorrow we will think exactly as we thought yesterday—and the day before, and the day before that.
Actually, that is precisely the goal of the activist left today. Glad to see Prof. Weinberg throwing shade at Zinn, but things are much worse than he knows.