David Greenberg Doesn’t Hate Howard Zinn Because He Was a Bad Scholar, but Because He Was a Radical


Rutgers historian David Greenberg has written a hit piece on Howard Zinn that would be hilarious if it weren’t so cringe-inducing.  Actually, it is hilarious.  Greenberg has taken to the pages of The New Republic to remind the world that the late, great Zinn was a puffed-up piece of nothing, whose work ranks at about the level of a coloring book in scholarly terms.  Why?  Because Greenberg is far more sophisticated than all that.

Dumping on Zinn is, unfortunately, a bit of a cottage industry, and the celebrated Boston University historian and activist makes an easy target.  His books are widely read, yet he has a good deal more street cred than the airport-reader-and-civil-war-buff stuff of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  How could a vain academic resist taking down a target that is both popular and respected?  The allure is just too great.

I will never forget the appalling spectacle of Jill Lepore doing a snarky pirouette on Howard Zinn’s grave in the pages of the New Yorker.  The dirt was still fresh when Lepore penned a wistful commemoration not of Zinn’s work, but of her relish at disabusing fresh-faced young coeds of their jejune Zinnfatuation upon arriving in Cambridge.

The point was all too clear: Zinn was cool for idealistic fourteen year olds and highly advanced toddlers, but once they get to Lepore’s class (at Harvard – did she mention she is at Harvard? Harvard comes up a lot in her most recent book), the scales fall from their eyes and they learn that life and history are far more complicated than the manichean fairy tale of A People’s History of the United States.  I try not to speak ill of the dead—I’ve even kept my mouth shut about Christopher Hitchens to this very day—but Lepore has no such scruples when it comes to patting herself on the back.

Greenberg’s essay, though, outflanks Lepore’s vignette as a tour de force of liberal bad faith.  The author of Presidential Doodles wants us to believe that Zinn was not a serious scholar.  He complains that “as Zinn was throwing himself into the SNCC, many of his peers in the historical profession were throwing themselves into scholarship.”  Zinn was fighting for civil rights.  What a loser!  Maybe his energy would have been put to better use writing a biography of Calvin Coolidge.  That will really uplift the downtrodden.

Incredibly, Greenberg castigates Zinn for the retribution he experienced as a radical and outspoken scholar.  He appears to side with the man, even throwing in a hint of sexual innuendo for good measure:

In 1963, [Spelman president Albert] Manley fired Zinn, ostensibly on scholarly grounds. Zinn mistakenly believed that he had tenure—how such an extraordinary confusion came to pass is not fully explained—and asked the American Association of University Professors for help. In the negotiations, Manley threatened to publicize an old incident in which local police found Zinn and a Spelman student alone in his car at night at the end of a cul-de-sac. Zinn insisted that nothing sexual had occurred, but he still did not want his wife, who was prone to depression, to find out. What really happened?

If this is the serious history Greenberg wants us to do, then God help us.  Does it matter whether Zinn was having a conversation with a student (in the erotic zone known as the “end of a cul-de-sac”), or making out?  Is that really the issue here, or is it the fact that Zinn was fired for his politics and activism?  Maybe the issue really is demeaning and defaming a dead man who can’t defend himself.

It goes on and on.  Greenberg blasts Zinn for his “problematic simplifications,” such as saying that “Eugene Debs was jailed for calling World War I a war of conquest and plunder.”  Wait.  What was oversimplified about that?  Wasn’t Debs exactly jailed for criticizing the war?  Wasn’t this a shameful episode in America’s unfortunate history with free speech during wartime?  What would we like to add to make this more nuanced, subtle, and complex?  I suppose it’s just too terribly gauche to say that American soldiers tortured and sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  Shouldn’t we talk about all those weapons of mass destruction, and that Lynndie England grew up in redneck poverty in West Virginia?  That would be much more subtle.

Ultimately Greenberg faults Zinn for a “callow,” “shallow,” “politicized” understanding of history, because he dared write a book that told American history exclusively through the eyes of the Native Americans, slaves, workers, and other people who got the short end of the stick.  Everyone knows that Columbus was bad and people were oppressed throughout American history, he says; the new social history of the 1970s established that well before A People’s History was published in 1980.

Yet he admits that “in the popular books and public ceremonies of the 1980s, you could still find a whitewashed tale of the nation’s past, as you can today.”  No kidding.  High school students weren’t fed a steady diet of William Appleman Williams and David Montgomery in the 1980s, nor are they today.  I’ve taught college students who had never heard of Japanese internment or even busing.  As another ToM contributor noted, Greenberg sounds like a Brooklyn hipster talking about how everyone knows who Marnie Stern is, and that the latest Grizzly Bear album was too commercial. Still, he insists that Zinn’s work was pointless because professional historians already knew the dark side of American history.

Well, I didn’t.  I was one of those dopey teenagers who read A People’s History and wanted to become a historian as a result.  I was dimly aware of the vast injustice of American history, but Zinn laid it out in crystal clear terms—too crystal clear, of course, for most historians, who make their daily bread by saying things are far more complex and nuanced than you think they are.  (Have you ever read a history book whose thesis wasn’t “it was all very complicated and there were a diverse array of factors involved”?)  Zinn is probably the only historian who is a household name in America, and he brought a bracing, radical critique of American life to a huge number of readers.  (Even more than those who read Presidential Doodles, if you can believe it.)

The bottom line is that Greenberg doesn’t much care for Zinn’s view of the world.  If you are poor and persecuted, the history of America can look like a shit taco.  Or maybe a turd sandwich.  It was a nation built on slavery, which ground up the lives of more than 700,000 men to defend the prerogatives of people who owned people, which unleashed the horrific violence of the Pinkertons and the state on innocent men and women to defend the sanctity of “freedom of contract.”  In spite of untold rivers of blood, sweat, and tears, popular action has only been able to extract limited concessions from the power structure, including the inadequate patchwork of Social Security, Medicare, S-CHIP and the like that keeps the poor out of complete misery.  Even at the highwater marks of progressive achievement, with supermajorities supporting the ideal of social justice in 1936, 1964, 2008, we’ve only been able to achieve so little.

If you’re a true radical, like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, this is all a little depressing.  You don’t see a pluralistic muddle through the messy workings of democracy, but a system where the rich and powerful have almost always had a heavy thumb on the scale, except in rare and extraordinary instances.  Most historians, as educated and privileged offspring of the middle class, are ideologically invested in a liberal ideal of America as a place where various groups (races, parties, labor and business) negotiated their differences through a clash of forces that produced some reasonable outcome, and for many this becomes the only way to tell the story. Even if we don’t like the neoliberal turn of the Reagan Era, we still tend to see history as this balance of forces—we love agency, identity, and negotiation.

What we don’t like to think about is the unrelenting violence of capitalism and racism that has made a lot of people’s lives hell a lot of the time.  This is the radicalism that Zinn represented, and not too many “tenured radicals” like it very much.  They may be radicals in the sense that they support gay marriage or want to give the grad students $15 extra to spend when they take a job candidate out for breakfast, but that’s about it.  No wonder Zinn makes them squeamish, envious, and uneasy.