Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Deconstructing Zinn

There's an excellent article by Michael Kazin criticizing Chomskyite fellow traveler Howard Zinn over at Dissent Magazine. Kazin takes Zinn to task for creating a historiography in A People's History of the United States which allows for a disconnected and condemnatory politics which does not engage with Conservatism or with traditional Liberalism and thus leads to an embittered and angry marginalization. I have to say that I think Zinn's shortcomings go much farther then that.

Firstly, A People's History of the United States is bad history. Actually, its shockingly bad history. Particularly in its later sections, where any sort of factual basis gives way to innuendo and Leftist self-mythologization. There is, of course, no citing of sources whatsoever, which makes it difficult to judge the accuracy of Zinn's facts or their context. It is not difficult, however, to deal with Zinn's claims on a macro level, namely that an amorphous "elite" has been ruling America since the day of its founding and exploits all the rest of us in order to maintain its imperial domination over our country and the world. This is not history, but mythology. Former Leftist David Horowitz is absolutely right to compare it to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is a form of theological demonization, not a scholarly assessment of American history. Indeed, anyone who studies American history knows that American society is complex and that no single group or force could be described as ruling it in the omnipotent manner Zinn describes. Dominating groups and ideologies rise and fall, and the ruling trends now were most certainly not those which existed at the time of the country's founding. Or, for that matter, those which existed twenty or even ten years ago. Zinn's thesis is that of a preacher, not a historian. Preaching, of course, is an honorable profession, although I personally find Zinn's condescending rhetoric insufferable ("It was claimed ________, but it was hardly that." repeated ad infinitum). But we should not call theology history, any more then we should call a preacher a historian.

There are worse problems, however, than Zinn's incompetence as a scholar. Put bluntly, his book is pure totalitarianism. Zinn may claim to writing a critical history or to subscribe to anti-authoritarianism, but it is quite clear from reading his book the type of society he has in mind as a cure for his country's evils. Most horrifying of all is the book's closing section, which describes Zinn's vision of a Utopian America. A Utopia which includes, of course, no private property, the conscription of children and old people into slave labor gangs, and numerous other relics of the totalitarian past. He does not mention what might happen to conservatives, capitalists, liberals, property owners, or anyone else who doesn't get with the program, but one can make some guesses. This is Stalinism, pure and simple. This is the ideology that murdered twenty million people in the Soviet Union and millions more around the world. This is political evil at its finest. This is what Howard Zinn is teaching students all over America.

I was most disturbed and disappointed by Kazin's seeming need to defer to Zinn, spending an inordinate amount of time praising the man before criticizing him. For instance, playing into the "Zinn's book is surprisingly popular" myth. In fact, most copies of the book are sold to schools and/or to college students who are forced to buy it by their professors. (An interesting example of the kind of authoritarianism Zinn claims to disdain.) Kazin's criticism, moreover, never really gets to the essence of the issue: the totalitarian nature of Zinn's ideology. Its pretty obvious who has the upper hand in this argument. Kazin clearly considers Zinn a sacred cow who must be dealt with with the utmost care, lest one be accused of what the Stalinists called "ideological deviationism". It is this deference to mass Leftist opinion (such as it is), this fear of appearing to be batting for the other team, which so paralyzes the Left in the face of Chomskyite opposition, and makes Kazin's article into a brilliant missed opportunity. Much the same thing happened to Albert Camus when he published The Rebel. Favorable reviews in the Rightwing press led to his vilification by his former comrades. The fact that Camus was trying to open a conversation on the nature of rebellion and the excesses inbuilt into revolutionary thought, in the hopes of beginning an introspective process that might lead to a more democratic and effective Left, counted for nothing. He had crossed the party line, and this could not be tolerated. He was discredited in the eyes of his former colleagues for daring to question. This kind of intellectual repression leads inevitably to ossification, and, indeed, the French Left could certainly have benefited from an open discussion of the questions raised by Camus. So, indeed, could such questions open a regenerative process on the Left today. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anyone, even at Dissent, with the courage to start asking them.