20 March 2013

I just read David Greenberg’s review of Martin Duberman’s biography of Howard Zinn on the The New Republic website. Greenberg uses the review as an opportunity to reflect upon Zinn’s career and the influence he has had. I was happy to read Greenberg’s critiques of Zinn. It seems as though the historical profession has adequately acknowledged Zinn’s shortcomings, but he remains popular in mainstream liberal/left thougth.

Greenberg portrays Zinn as primarily an activist, not a historian. While many other radical historians were doing the yeoman’s work of scholarship, Zinn opted to participate in publicized campaigns (Civil Rights, Vietnam, etc.). Greenberg covers the debate amongst radical historians over the role of objectivity and empiricism, and concludes that the most enduring radical historians retained a healthy respect for empiricism.

The problem remains, though, of Zinn’s enduring popularity amongst young people. Whereas Zinn and his cohort were busy at work dismantling the tired old ideologies of their predecessors, the Millenial generation seems perfectly happy to go along with the countercultural project.
As a generation that came into political consciousness during the Iraq War and the Bush Era, we have good reason for mistrusting institutions and authority. If the mistrust we have adopted from Zinn is fair, the cynicism is not. By celebrating the losers of history, Zinn leaves little hope for political reform. There is a very different way of telling the story of American history that highlights the underdog winning occasionally.

Zinn’s politics are nihilist and seek a constant state of activism. If you believe that there is no way to reform the system, then flailing about at least makes one feel better. Flailing about doesn’t make good politics though.



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