Monday, 1 February 2010

Should we mourn Howard Zinn?

J.D. Salinger died four days ago. Judging from the stark polarization of receptions his magnum opus (or magnificent octopus as S. Baldrick would put it) 'Catcher in the Rye' produces, I'd venture to say the public reaction to his death ranges from the genuinely remorseful to the indifferent.

That can most certainly be said of another American writer who died on the same day. I'm talking about Howard Zinn, the civil rights activist, anti-war activist and - ostensibly - historian. The contrast is exemplified most acutely by that between the gushing encomiums that made up the second half of Friday's episode of 'Democracy Now', including contributions from Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, and the two-word entry left by a contributor to the 'liberal hawk' blog Harry's Place: "Oh well."

That in itself is not surprising. One cannot, after all, expect bloggers who still uphold the decision to invade Iraq as necessary and just to regret the loss of a man who couldn't even bring himself to fully justify the US role in WWII - a war he himself saw combat in.

But with Zinn there is something starker about the differentiation, than it will be, I predict, on the passing of, for instance, a historian like Eric Hobsbawm. For all the blemishes- truly disfiguring, in some cases - on Hobsbawm's ideological record, such as the vulgar little pamphlet devised by he and Raymond Williams in 1940 to justify the Hitler-Stalin Pact on the ludicrous basis of a British plot to invade the USSR, at least he is a decent historian. People from across the political spectrum have admitted to respecting his work, from the pro-war left like Nick Cohen and the anti-war right like Peter Hitchens.

Conversely, while Zinn has not been so useful to the enemies of democracy (Hobsbawm was useful to the Nazis during the Pact years as is demonstrated by the praise delivered to the Communist front 'the People's Convention', set up purely to divert attention from Nazi/Soviet aggression in favour of the British imperialist variety, in Nazi propaganda) it seems he has also offered little to those who appreciate balanced and honest history.

While Hobsbawm, as mentioned, attracts some, perhaps grudging, admiration from those politically opposed to him, as far as I can deduce there are no similar figures with regard to Zinn's legacy. Likewise, even some on the socialist left have distanced themselves, as this article from Dissent magazine (admittedly a publication which prides itself on its unbiased reviews of all shades of work) does: The article criticises Zinn's notoriously simplistic and ideologically-charged book A People's History of the United States for, among other things, having a similar conception of American elites as "the medieval church's image of the Devil".

Of course, Zinn remains hugely popular among those who would rather believe than think: A People's History has sold 2m copies. In some respects, it is easy to understand: we still live in a largely rotten world and people like Zinn seem to provide vindication, a scholarly stamp of approval for the moral outrage of many. Aspects of his character assist this also; Zinn displayed considerable bravery on civil rights and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, for example, particularly his condemnation - or provocation - of secret police inflitrating a demo in 1971 which resulted in his arrest. Such passion can be bewitching, especially to the young. One might even call it 'an opium'.

But one has to be wary of the downsides of intellectual drug-abuse. Just as an opium addict withers away physically, academic integrity gradually crumbles when lured by the will-o'-the-wispish anti-Americanism of Zinn and his fellow-travellers.

No comments:

Post a Comment