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Howard Zinn, A Radical American Vision
by Bob Cheeks
05 January 2004Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn comes across as little more than a fulminator who possesses a vitriolic hatred for the core values of the American people. A review of Davis Joyce's Howard Zinn, A Radical American Vision.

Rhetorician Richard M. Weaver in his essay, Up From Liberalism, explained the spiritual discernment that gave birth to his intellectual epiphany: “Original sin is a parabolical expression of the immemorial tendency of man to do the wrong thing when he knows the right thing.” By acknowledging Original sin, Weaver, abandoned a youthful dalliance with what at that time (the 1930’s) was called liberalism. Unfortunately, historian/activist Howard Zinn had no such epiphany.

As Professor Davis D. Joyce dutifully reports in his new biography, Howard Zinn, A Radical American Vision, Howard Zinn was born in 1922 of poor Russian immigrants in New York City. As far as his religious background is concerned Zinn commented: “Once I was bar mitzvahed, and I had done my religious duty, and my family needn’t be ashamed of me anymore…. that was the end of my religiosity.” Given the lack of faith and the antipathy directed at “smug” politicians and corporate executives -- the managerial elite -- who oppress the proletariat, Zinn’s path was inevitable: he befriended “several young Communists,” participated in, presumably, a Communist rally at Times Square carrying a sign, though “(H) e shares no memory of what it said,” and watched in awe as mounted police charged into the demonstrators “smashing people with their clubs.”

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy,” Zinn declares, “I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong with this country…something rotten at the root.” Well, there you have it. The birth of a “Marxist, socialist, anarchist, radical, liberal, anticapitalist, and democratic socialist.” And, I apply all of these labels only to be fair in quoting Dr. Zinn. Zinn enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier. Ten months after D-Day he participated in an air raid on Royan, France where his squadron dropped napalm for the first time in the war. After the war he took his B.A. at New York University, followed by graduate school at Columbia where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. In August of 1956 Zinn accepted an offer to teach at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. As an activist Zinn began as an “adult advisor” for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) as well as doing a great deal of writing. Though he was tenured and a department head, Spelman’s first black president, Albert Manley, fired him for “insubordination” in 1963. From 1964 until his retirement in 1988 Zinn taught at Boston University.

Dr. Zinn is well known as one of the first white leaders of the Civil Rights movement and he was one of the leading anti-Vietnam war activists as well. Zinn’s political thought is stereotypically Marxist. He complains that; “the resources of the richest nation on earth were still irrationally allocated to the production of war goods and luxury goods; urgent social needs, like housing, health care, schools, were considered secondary in importance,” and in his discussion of prison reform he states that prisons won’t be abolished (yes, he wants to abolish prisons!); “…until our society works differently: until wealth is equally distributed, and people don’t live in slums, and the motivations for crime and punishment become very weak, and the desire to live cooperatively with other people becomes very strong.” However, in preparing the new clerisy he says; “To me, the most important thing you can do in education is try and teach people not to accept authority, and not to think that somebody is going to take care of them,….It’s up to us.”

Dr. Zinn’s magnum opus is, of course, A Peoples History of the United States, published in 1980. It is, in the jargon of the New Left, a “history from the bottom up,” meaning he quotes a great deal from the diaries, journals, and letters of the common folk, which is not a bad way to write history. I have problems with a number of Professor Zinn’s conclusions but for the sake of space I’ll mention two. First, Zinn “utilizes” the 1913 Charles Beard book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States to denigrate the founders. This work was thoroughly discredited by the acclaimed historian, Forrest McDonald, in his brilliant rejoinder, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, destroying Beard’s fallacious conclusions and weakening Zinn’s argument that the Constitution, “illustrates the complexity of the American system: it serves the interests of the wealthy elite, but it also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support.”

Dr. Zinn, the radical, also fumbles with the causes of the War for Southern Independence! Embracing the traditionalist’s perspective, Zinn informs his readers that it was all about freeing the slaves. Never mind that “Father Abraham” was a railroad lawyer, a tool of the eastern, monied interests, and a man who took the Constitution rather lightly. Zinn would have us believe that the “late unpleasantness” was about ending African chattel slavery when in fact the war was about the Eastern financiers and manufacturers maintaining a rather stiff tariff that punished the agrarian South.

Professor Zinn was and is a prolific writer, churning out tract after tract throughout the years. And, Joyce dutifully comments on most of them usually followed by excerpts from reviews of prestigious historical journals. Frankly, it gets tedious; I’d have preferred a more reader friendly style for the book.

In the end Davis Joyce’s book tells us that Howard Zinn’s lifetime of labors were predicated on the supposition that people must evolve through education, that class distinctions are intrinsically unjust and must be obliterated, nations are evil (particularly the United States), and America is ruled by a cabal of capitalists and high ranking military officers.

Frankly, I enjoy my “mugwump reformers,” agrarian progressivists, and contrarians of every sort. Give me a thoughtful essay by Pat Buchanan, a fiery editorial by Tom Fleming, or a well crafted book by Bill Kauffman and I’m set for the evening. But Zinn, who espouses a similar antipathy toward the “American Empire” as these men, eschews their provincialism and their love of country. While these men seek a humane life centered on the family, community, and, most importantly, God, Zinn requires the state sponsored security of the masses at the expense of freedom.

Zinn’s ideals have a misanthropic ring to them. I don’t believe he loves humanity as he claims. I believe he worships the idea of a state that can transform Americans into that antiseptic android, the socialist’s “New Man.” Perhaps he is angry with a God who would allow pain and suffering in this world?

Professor Joyce’s book is mere adulation and may work well with those who share his brand of socialism, but for me Zinn comes across as little more than a fulminator whose vitriolic hatred for the core values of the American people brings into question any historical analysis he might offer. If Howard Zinn had only experienced that epiphany!

Bob Cheeks has written for The American Enterprise, Human Events, Southern Partisan, and The Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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