Tag Archives: Howard Zinn

David Barton wins HNN poll (if “winning” is the correct term)

HNN’s poll to name the “least credible history book in print” has come to a close, and David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies came out on top, just barely beating Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

What strikes me about the poll is that while all the nominated books are undeniably problematic, they’re problematic in very different ways.  Whereas The Jefferson Lies has become notorious for numerous errors of fact and interpretation, most of the HNN readers who left comments about A People’s History seemed to take issue with Zinn’s blatant partiality rather than with any specific claims in the book.  Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is almost in a class by itself, since its whole premise is open to question.

I also think it’s interesting that we had a string of high-profile accusations of plagiarism, fabrication of evidence, and other forms of scholarly malfeasance in the past several years, but none of the books involved in these scandals made the list of front-runners.

Anyway, they say any publicity is good as long as they spell your name right, so perhaps congratulations are in order.

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An interesting tidbit

…from the Boston Globe‘s obit on Howard Zinn: “On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to come along.” 

If you ask me, this sums up the man about as well as anything could.  I don’t doubt that he’s left quite a footprint on the American conscience, but the historian gig was somewhat incidental.  It was the activism that informed his history, not the other way around.

Here’s a little exercise for those who disagree with me.  Zinn wrote some twenty books in addition to A People’s History.  Name one.

When I was in grad school at UT, Zinn came to deliver a speech on “The Uses of History.”  What we got instead was a jeremiad against the Iraq War with a brief, passing, and largely irrelevant reference to the Continental Army.

Nobody seemed to mind the misleading advertising except for me.  That’s what I deserved for assuming that one of America’s most prominent historians might actually say something of substance about history.

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Remind me again which people are speaking

The History Channel recently aired The People Speak, a documentary based on the work of Howard Zinn.  There are many people who would condemn Zinn’s writing for purely ideological reasons, and for that Zinn has no one to blame but himself, since he has worked diligently to keep his scholarship and his activism closely intertwined. 

I think history should inform social and political activity, since it provides the context necessary to understand the way society operates.  However, if you’ve already diagnosed mankind’s ills and devised a cure, as Zinn seems to have done to his satisfaction, then conducting some historical investigation into the subject seems a little beside the point.  What’s the point of asking the questions if you’ve already decided the answers? 

His supporters argue that he gives a voice to the marginalized people left out of traditional history books.  To that I’d ask where these supporters have been for the past few decades.  By the time Zinn published his popular survey of American history in 1980, many scholars had already been engaged in “bottom-up” studies of the past for some time, and with a good deal more diligence and sophistication than is evident in Zinn’s own work.  If his book presented any substantially new information, I’m not yet aware of it, though if some reader out there could correct me on this I’ll gladly make a public note of it.

The strange thing about this film project is that for a movie devoted to the forgotten and marginalized, there seem to be quite a few historical notables represented.

Matt Damon, one of the actors involved, is quoted in some of the online promotional material: “Change doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the bottom.…Without everyday citizens pushing to make a difference, there would be no America.”  What everyday citizen who struggled to initiate change from the bottom does Matt Damon portray in the film?  Congressman/governor/ambassador/cabinet member/party leader/chief executive/planter Thomas Jefferson.  I don’t believe Mr. Damon appreciates the irony here.

By the way, I know Matt Damon is a big Zinn fan, but is he really the most appropriate choice to read the Declaration of Independence?  (Remember this cinematic gem?)

Of course, every thirty minutes The History Channel spends airing this is thirty minutes they can’t spend on this sort of thing, so let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

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