Effect Measure

Howard Zinn, 1922 -2010

Howard Zinn died on Wednesday. He was a colleague and more than an acquaintance but a friend, although not a close friend. I knew him for 40 years, although hadn’t seen him recently, the last time was a few years ago when we shared a platform together. The auditorium was packed, not to see me but to see him and he was his usual feisty self. But it was a feistiness that was full of kindness and compassion. Just to be in his presence conveyed a strange kind of empowerment. He made you believe you could make a difference, even when it was crystal clear the one who was really making a difference was Howard Zinn. Howard’s colleague at Boston University, the writer Caryl Rivers, said it best: “He was such a righteous man.”

Howard went to school under the GI bill after serving as a bombardier in World War II. He knew war and its excitement, calling it like crack heroin, although I first got to know him in the Vietnam years, when he was one of the country’s most cogent voices against the war. By that time he was already one of the important voices in the civil rights movement:

After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor?s degree from NYU, followed by master?s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.

Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in 1956. He served at the historically black women?s institution as chairman of the history department. Among his students were novelist Alice Walker, who called him “the best teacher I ever had,” and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of the Children’s Defense Fund. (Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard, Boston Globe)

Here’s some more from the long obituary in the Boston Globe:

“A People?s History of the United States” (1980), his best-known book, had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and union organizers of the 1930s.

As he wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

And here’s what Noam Chomsky, a longtime close friend of Howard’s, said of him:

“He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture. . . He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.” (BU Today)

Above all, Howard was a sweet and gentle man of great courage. He radiated a fierce kindness that lit up, not just a room, but a generation. Nobody lives forever and Howard’s 87 years were as well spent as any human being’s I can think of. You can’t do much better than that. But I’m still going to miss him.

Comments

  1. #1 K
    January 29, 2010

    Righteous but not self righteous.

  2. #2 History Punk
    January 29, 2010

    Zinn was a lousy historian. He failed to cite his sources, particularly on claims that go against well-documented facts. He cited David Irving’s nonsense a generation after Irving himself confessed that he made the shit up. He muddled basic facts such as when he confused The Dayton Accords and the Oslo Accords. Finally, his books are polemics skillfully tilted to bash the US. I like how he always included accounts of “victims” of America’s actions, but never the people we saved. Serbs are quoted to show how mean NATO was to Serbia in 1999. He never quotes anyone talking about the mass graves that are still turning up in Yugoslavia.

    In short, he was a hack. More skillful than most, but still a lousy historian.

  3. #3 MarkS
    January 29, 2010

    Amy Goodman has an extended tribute to Howard on the Democracy Now web site including interviews with Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein. A great American who will be missed.

  4. #4 Diane
    January 29, 2010

    I loved A People’s History of the United States in college. A few years ago, I undertook a year-long study of WWs I and II. I revisted Zinn’s book and was shocked and dismayed at the distortions and omissions, all designed to make the US look bad. It was disappointing to me. History is at it’s best when it is told as the messy set of factors that the human condition is.

  5. #5 Alex
    January 29, 2010

    I agree with Revere, Goodman and Chomsky that Zinn made important contributions to the way we learn history. But what others like Diane say can also not be denied. There are many exaggerations in A People’s History of the US and they were pointed out many times, by other serious historians. A good critique of it, although short, was written by Michael Kammen in the Washington Post in 1980. I just can’t find a link to it on the internet. I’ll get back to this with a link later.

  6. #6 revere
    January 29, 2010

    HP, Diane, Alex: As far as calling Howard a hack, HP, he was called far worse in his time and I doubt your opinion would have wounded him much. Being a hack is in the eye of the beholder and you have made it clear what your perspective is in your comments here in the past. You are entitled to them. As for the comments of you and others about the quality of his scholarship, Howard wrote history from a new point of view. It looks different when seen that way and that is one of his contributions. Historians have always written history from particular viewpoints, usually the powerful, and that kind of history, which was prevalent throughout most of the last century also has its biases. Howard’s contribution to a genuine history of the US won’t be evaluated for years to come when it can be seen in context. His anti-US bias, as you see it, was well earned and while you may not like it and out right reject it, it had a basis in the reality from which he wrote. However when you write popular history, as in the People’s History, you make choices and supply emphases and that’s what he did. It is a particular view, one not heard before by his intended audience. Things were left out or some appear distorted by what isn’t there, but that is true of even the most encyclopedic histories. How seriously you take that says something about your own viewpoint as well as Howard’s.

  7. #7 History Punk
    January 29, 2010

    Revere, the part of People’s History of the United States where Zinn talks about the bombing of Dresden was from David Irving. Irving started that nonsense around 1964. In 1966, Irving announced that his figures were nonsense.

    In 1975, Zinn comes out with the Politics of History. He repeats Irving nonsense. In 1980, He comes out with A People’s History of the United States, where he repeats, this time without citation, Irving admitted nonsense. He reissued multiple editions of those books, charging full price for each, without correct his errors.

    Now, if you think nonsense so stupid that even Nazi sympathizers and apologists shy away from it is appropriate scholarship, fine.

  8. #8 revere
    January 29, 2010

    HP: I am busy writing a grant (I take breathers to look at my email), so if you would be so kind as to just state what it is you object to in the way of facts and cites Howard used it would be a help. I am not challenging you, just asking you to clarify what I can’t do at this moment for practical reasons although I feel you deserve an answer from me.

  9. #9 Alex
    January 29, 2010

    Clearly you haven’t paid attention to what I wrote. My point of view on Zinn is not the same as that of HP, yet you put us on the same boat. HP maintains that Zinn was a “lousy historian” and a “hack”, while I believe that his work, although containing exaggerations, is still excellent. Zinn’s view on history is both revolutionary and interesting. A People’s History of the US deserves to be read.

    That said, his anti-US bias, well-earned or not, does permeate his work and we should not be blinded by it. I believe Diane is correct when she says: “History is at it’s best when it is told as the messy set of factors that the human condition is.” I do not believe that Zinn tells history this way.

    I still can’t find the damn link to the Michael Kammen article in the Washington Post but Wikipedia has a very brief review of A People’s History’s criticism. Here’s Kammen’s main criticism of the book:

    “We do deserve a people’s history; but not a singleminded, simpleminded history, too often of fools, knaves and Robin Hoods. We need a judicious people’s history because the people are entitled to have their history whole; not just those parts that will anger or embarrass them.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_People%27s_History_of_the_United_States#Critical_reception

  10. #10 revere
    January 29, 2010

    Alex: No, I read what you wrote. I tried to differentiate you by addressing HP first, specifically, and then adding a more general comment about the scholarship issue. I apologize if you thought I was putting you in the same boat. I am distracted by my grant proposal (I’m a third of the way through the Administrative Core and it is rotting my brain out), so I combined my response to all three of you on that score but I guess it wasn’t clear that I did distinguish you. Again, apologies.

  11. #11 History Punk
    January 29, 2010

    Revere,

    What I am saying is that Zinn used, to cite a specific instance the Dresden Bombing, long discredited facts, to attack the United States. In 1963-4, David Irving fudged a document to show that the United States killed around 200,000 people in the Dresden attack. By 1966, Irving conceded that he had made it up. A decade later, Zinn repeated Irving’s nonsense in his book the Politics of History and then in A People’s History of the United States and continued to do so until the day he died.

    In A People’s History, Zinn tells that the United States refused to discuss the Kosovo issue. That is a lie. The United States started expressing concern over Kosovo in 1981. Ambassador Warren Zimmerman repeatedly warned Milosevic that the United States would intervene. Bob Dole went there to protest. Tom Lantos went there to protest. My Congresswoman Helen Bentley warned Milosevic over Kosovo. The US tried cutting off aid. It tried Congressional Resolutions. It tried giving aid. The Bush administration warned Milosevic in 1992 that if he invaded Kosovo, we would intervene. We tried to play nice with Milosevic. At one point, we told the Kosovars that if they didn’t agree to peace with Milosevic, we would step aside and let him massacre them with impunity.

    That’s just a few examples.

  12. #12 Alex
    January 29, 2010

    No worries. Besides, the grant proposal (whatever it is, I don’t know) is more important than blogging. Here’s the part of your post that I agree with entirely:

    “Above all, Howard was a sweet and gentle man of great courage. He radiated a fierce kindness that lit up, not just a room, but a generation. Nobody lives forever and Howard’s 87 years were as well spent as any human being’s I can think of. You can’t do much better than that. But I’m still going to miss him.”

    At least there’s still Noam Chomsky, Mike Gravel and others. But Zinn’s death will be a great loss for the left in the US.

  13. #13 Art
    January 30, 2010

    His view of society, the economy and justice was from the bottom up and both antidote for and abomination to the conventional wisdom. His views, and the fear they might be embraced by the wider citizenry, gave the powers that be conniptions. Strong testimony to the power, correctness, and usefulness of his views.

    I liked his style.

  14. #14 Diane
    January 30, 2010

    I, too, apologize for taking you away from your grant work. It always sounds incredibly demanding, and sometimes I think it is ridiculous how hard it is to get funding for science.

    As for Zinn, I recognize the contribution he made in showing a different point of view. Perhaps his was the book that made stories “from the people” a much more common genre. And of course any history must be told from some point of view, and each author can decided what his or hers will be.

    But a People’s History continues to be required reading for many classes, with all the errors and more that HP points out. Many people (I was one for many years) feel that after reading it, and having years of standard textbook history, that one now has a complete basic understanding of American history. And nothing could be further from the truth.

    From historical books, I ask for as much of the full retelling as possible. One can favor one group over another, but not at the expense of distorting the truth. People are so enormously complicated, and so many decisions of history have been so very stupid, that a historian who can write about factors that influenced this or that decision wins my heart.

    A kids book series called A History of US, by Joy Hakim, does tell a nicely rounded history of the US (in something like 13 volumes, but these are for kids, so with big print and lots of pictures) that tries to explain all sides. And I think she did a good job with it.

  15. #15 revere
    January 30, 2010

    HP: Took a quick break from my work and got down my copy of People’s History, from 1995. You are complaining about a single sentence of 6 words on page 413 (in a 600 plus page book), which says more than 100,00 people died. Irving’s 1966 book is listed as a rreference for the chapter in the notes at the end but Irving is not specifically cited. Many people (including the New York Times) used Irving’s figures in the sixties and later, so this isn’t unusual. It is false that Howard held to a figure of 200,000 based on Irving until he died. In fact in 1995, the same year as the revised edition of People’s History, he used a figure of at least 35,000 and possible 100,000 in something he wrote. So if your complaint is that his numbers weren’t completely up to date, the same might be said of you in reporting what he said (and nowhere could I find a figure of 200,000). But I think that’s a side issue.

    If you read the paragraph in People’s History where the six words you have highlighted appear, you will see, unless you are amazingly obtuse, that it wouldn’t make much difference if he had used 35,000 there instead of 100,000. The point would have been the same. Nothing hinges on 100,000 versus 35,000 except your bizarre and hyperbolic claim that it indicates he is a “hack.” Howard was a bombardier in WWII. He took part in raids on civilian targets, including, if I am not mistaken, day time raids on Dresden. He was haunted by that and I don’t think there was a meaningful difference between 35, 35,000 or 100,000 in his mind.

    As for Kosovo, this is contested territory, but I don’t think Tom Lantos spoke for the US. The United States is not a person. It is a government. But that history is still to be written and perhaps you will turn out to be right and perhaps Howard will turn out to be right. Most likely neither of you and both of you will be able to claim some truth. Does that make you a hack?

  16. #16 History Punk
    January 30, 2010

    “If you read the paragraph in People’s History where the six words you have highlighted appear, you will see, unless you are amazingly obtuse, that it wouldn’t make much difference if he had used 35,000 there instead of 100,000. The point would have been the same. Nothing hinges on 100,000 versus 35,000 except your bizarre and hyperbolic claim that it indicates he is a “hack.” Howard was a bombardier in WWII. He took part in raids on civilian targets, including, if I am not mistaken, day time raids on Dresden. He was haunted by that and I don’t think there was a meaningful difference between 35, 35,000 or 100,000 in his mind.”

    Somehow, I doubt you extend the same consideration of such inaccuracy to your students, your colleagues, or other people with whom you interact. Seriously, if I wrote some of the stuff Zinn wrote, I’d been asked to leave my graduate program.

    Also, he spends 421-2 plagarizing Irving tactic of portraying Allied Bombings against Germany as equal to the behavior of Germany. Richard Evans discusses it in Lying About Hitler. Nothing like the American Left aping the disinformation and tactics of the Neo-Nazi movement.

  17. #17 revere
    January 30, 2010

    HP: Is it OK in your graduate program (in what?) to say someone used a figure of 200.000 until the day he died when it is pointed out to you he never used that number and in fact acknowledged a number of 35,000 15 years before he died?

    Your last para. indicates this is no longer a serious conversation. I’l let you have the last word, out of courtesy. Good luck as a graduate student.

  18. #18 Jubal
    January 30, 2010

    Zinn was not a historian, he was an author and an activist. Historians cite their sources and provide ample evidence to back up their controversial ideas. Historians try to put history in perspective by including the details necessary to form a good opinion. Historians try to minimize their personal bias and cut as close to the Truth as they can. Zinn was a self described radical who wore his bias on his sleeve.

  19. #19 revere
    January 30, 2010

    Jubal: He was also a historian who cited his sources. But he also wrote popular history. And unlike some historians, he didn’t hide his bias.

  20. #20 Jubal
    January 30, 2010

    You are using a double standard. You gladly turn your head for this “Historian” but pull out the knives for the other crack pots that come here and pimp their snake oil.

    Zinn’s work is so full gross errors, overt bias and omissions, why would anyone want to waste their time when there are hundreds of better and more accurate books. This same argument applies to Rush Limbaugh as well.

    Just to be clear, I don’t mean to slam your friend on a personal level, I’m sure he was very interesting. His work as a historian, however, is devoid of almost any value.

  21. #21 John Carter
    February 1, 2010

    Historians deal only in documented facts.

    ie. Those facts that the powerful have deemed “fit” to survive.

    If you read the South African Truth and Reconcilation Commission report you realize that any historian that relies only on documented historical fact is willfully AND willingly blinding himself and his readers.

    Most of the documents have been burnt, many of the witnesses murdered, the rest are complicit in their silence.

    A historian in search of truth must read between the lines, and speak to the victims and friends of victims where they still live and are free to speak. Even then the whole truth will only be glimpsed.

  22. #22 Alex
    February 1, 2010

    Although I didn’t agree with every argument made by Zinn in A People’s History of the US, I agreed with most of them. Now to deal with some of the unfounded criticisms aimed at Zinn:

    @History Punk: I would have dealt with your arguments just like I dealt with those of Leo on the other post about Zinn, but Revere already did that superbly.

    @Jubal:

    “Zinn was not a historian, he was an author and an activist.”
    >>Of course not. A People’s History of the US is widely assigned as reading in university history classes about the US. Other famous historians, such as J.C. Agnew and J. Merriman from Yale U., consider the book “highly influential”. But of course, these are just coincidences and should not be considered.

    “Historians cite their sources and provide ample evidence to back up their controversial ideas.”
    >>At the end of A People’s History of the US, there’s — surprise! — a section called “Bibliography”. Most of my disagreement with Zinn — and again, I have little — comes from how valid a few of his sources are, not about whether or not he cited sources.

    “Historians try to put history in perspective by including the details necessary to form a good opinion.”
    >>Which was done many times in the works of Zinn. Anyone who had really read A People’s History of the US wouldn’t even bring this up.

    “Historians try to minimize their personal bias and cut as close to the Truth as they can. Zinn was a self described radical who wore his bias on his sleeve.”
    >>I have a certain problem with his bias but he never hid it — and that’s very important. Yes, he was radical in both History and Political Science — so were Lavoisier in Chemistry, Einstein in Physics and Godel in Mathematics. What is the problem?

    “You are using a double standard. You gladly turn your head for this “Historian” but pull out the knives for the other crack pots that come here and pimp their snake oil.”
    >>There is no double standard. Again, Zinn is recognized by many other historians as widely influential and important. And I doubt that even his opponents in academia would see him as a crack pot, pimping snake oil. However, the same can’t be said of Revere’s other targets: Wodarg, the anti-vaccers, insurance companies, etc. In the latter case, snake oil pimping indeed.

    “Zinn’s work is so full gross errors, overt bias and omissions, why would anyone want to waste their time when there are hundreds of better and more accurate books. This same argument applies to Rush Limbaugh as well.”
    >>References, please. Always a lack of references. And examples of those hundreds of more accurate books. And a reason why Zinn is considered on the same level as Limbaugh. One was a distinguished Professor at a top university, the other is a lame radio host who, according to his own mother, “flunked everything”.

    “Just to be clear, I don’t mean to slam your friend on a personal level, I’m sure he was very interesting. His work as a historian, however, is devoid of almost any value.”
    >>Mickey Mouse was “very interesting”. Zinn wasn’t just “very interesting”. Clearly, you don’t know about the importance of his activism. And again, his work has much value.

    @Carter:

    “Historians deal only in documented facts.

    ie. Those facts that the powerful have deemed “fit” to survive.”
    >>False. There are many counter-examples. Ex: the use of 9/11 as a pretext for the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The use of pretexts by the US government to wage illegal wars is very well-documented, even if the powerful did all they could to bury the facts.

    However, I agree with the other things you said. This is, as I said earlier, part of my criticism of some of Zinn’s sources. But overall, Zinn did very well when it came to sources.