Howard Zinn: The Historian as Don Quixote
Howard Zinn has a new book out, which I accidentally stumbled across recently in my local Barnes and Noble. Zinn’s latest book is a cartoon version of history—literally this time. The new book is a graphic adaptation of a chapter from his well-known classic, A People’s History of the United States. The title of the newest effort is A People’s History of American Empire, as that is the aspect of American history of which Zinn most passionately disapproves just now.
Zinn has managed to publish over 30 books, which are, one might say, variations on a theme—the theme of course being the many crimes and failures of the American experiment. His People’s History alone has already gone through six editions and sold over 1.7 million copies—which may well make it one of the best-selling history books in history. A People’s History has even been made into a movie and Zinn has been the subject of a two-hour video documentary narrated by the actor Matt Damon. Damon even manages to quote whole passages of Zinn on the screen in his role in the movie Good Will Hunting. It would be fair to observe that Zinn has enjoyed considerable fame and fortune from his peddling of history’s lemons. Indeed, his work seems available in remarkable abundance for a scholar whose core thesis is that the history profession conspires to suppress historical scholarship like his.
The latest book is—surprise, surprise—more of the same. It starts out with Zinn’s meditation on the events of 9/11. He goes to a fair bit of trouble to make sure we know he has the proper sentiments about this event—it is tragic, deplorable, etc., etc. He then proceeds to not quite say, but to imply, that in some way America had it coming. Indeed, this Preface on 9/11 is oddly out-of-place on any other construal. Because the rest of the book depicts a whole series of American-empire crimes, starting with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and moving on through a laundry-list of America’s treacheries, right up to the war in Iraq. Thus, at the end, Zinn wants us to conclude that the events of 9/11 were the chickens coming home to roost. Zinn does not quite say 9/11 was America’s fault, in the way that Ward Churchill did. Zinn is smart enough not to say something so offensive openly, and Ward Churchill was just dumb enough to do it. But they clearly are selling the same narrative.
Throughout the book, the cartoons picture Zinn as a kind of omniscient narrator, so that he can make certain the reader gets just the right indignant lessons he wants them to get. This pose—and the whole tone and content of the book—portray in stark fashion two of the fundamental flaws that characterize Zinn’s corpus of work: the incessant and imbalanced overemphasis on the negative in American history; and the constant insertion of Zinn’s personal views, attitudes and politics into his historical narratives.
Why bother to pay any attention to Zinn’s latest outburst? Surely we all know all we need to know about Zinn’s scholarship. Many have taken him to task here in the pages of the HNN (see Daniel Flynn’s critique for example). But I think we need to remind ourselves from time to time just what Zinn represents in historical scholarship. The answer, it seems to me, is that his work exhibits one of the major forms of postmodern declension which afflicts the history profession.
In my view, the traditional intellectual values of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship are being steadily eroded by the backwash from the passing through our profession of the “postmodern moment.” I typically identify five forms of this erosion: 1) Skeptical Postmodernism; 2) Multicultural Postmodernism; 3) Political Postmodernism; 4) Subjective Postmodernism; and Textualist Postmodernism. 1 Zinn is a practitioner of Political Postmodernism, which views a central purpose of historical scholarship as being to advance one’s political agendas. All of these forms of postmodern declension have one thing in common: they all seek to undermine the intellectual values of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship. Zinn is just one of the more un-subtle practitioners of this type of postmodernism, and hence he is quite useful as a vivid example of the problems it creates. (I have suggested in these pages that even eminent historians like Sean Wilentz are guilty of this same approach to historical scholarship.)
Howard Zinn, if he were not so successful in the very discipline which he so disdains, could be seen as a rather quixotic figure: perpetually in righteous assault against an illiberal establishment that is involved in an endless and largely successful effort to suppress any awareness of Zinn’s leftist critique of the American experience. For decades now, Zinn has been complaining that the history profession has been suppressing any account of the failings of American society and has been relentlessly celebrating the achievements of the rich and powerful.
One problem with Zinn’s point-of-view is that it blinds him to the positive aspects of American history. Zinn cannot concede, for example, any measure of greatness and achievement to an important historical figure like Theodore Roosevelt, because TR did so many things of which Zinn so strongly disapproves. So too with Andrew Jackson, or Woodrow Wilson, or, in fact, just about any president or other prominent figure in American history. When challenged in a radio interview on The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (May 2, 2005) to name a single admirable president in all of American history, he could not do so. So he presents a one-dimensional picture of TR and other prominent historical figures to his students, deceiving himself and them at the same time.
Zinn endlessly complains about the tendency of historians to construct their periodicities around the lives of the presidents. The “Age of Jackson” comes in for special scorn since Jackson was, in Zinn’s view, a terrorist and mass murderer. So rather than Jacksonian democracy as a theme of that era, Zinn would prefer that our histories focus on Jackson’s mistreatment of the Southeastern Indians. Indeed, Zinn continues to claim—in 2005 (on Rehm's show), if you can imagine—that this story of the injustices done to the Indians is missing from most of our history textbooks.
One thinks to ask: has Howard Zinn been paying attention to developments in the history profession for the last thirty years or so, or did he take his snapshot of the world sometime in the 1950s, and waving this fading Polaroid before his own eyes, he is in perpetual rebellion against a past that no longer is present?
Literally grabbing one textbook at random from my bookcase (James Kirby Martin, et. al., America and Its People, 1993) I find it describes the Jacksonian era in the following thematic categories: Expanding the Powers of the Presidency; Clearing the Land of Indians; Sectional Disputes and Nullification; The Bank War; The Jacksonian Court. Of these five categories, the one receiving the most coverage is Clearing the Land of Indians. Next in line on my bookshelf is the Houghton-Mifflin series Major Problems in American History. Its two-volume general series mentions the “Age of Jackson” in one chapter title, but the entire chapter on the period is given over to readings about America’s racism, imperialism, sexism, and mistreatment of the Indians. Next my hand moves to Alan Brinkley’s superb Unfinished Nation, which does commit the sin of titling a chapter “Jacksonian America,” but which divides the period into 16 subsections, none of which is more extensive than the one entitled “The Removal of the Indians.” Next I come to a more popular history textbook, DK publishing’s graphic-laden The Story of America, in which we might expect to find the kind of triumphant celebration of the American experience that Zinn rails against. Instead, we find the era consists of but three topics: Jacksonian Democracy; Nullification; and Jackson’s Indian Policy. And so it goes all along my rows of books. No doubt, my bookcase does not define a stratified random sample, but I defy Zinn to provide an example of a general-interest American history textbook published in the last 20 years or so that fails to emphasize Jackson’s treatment of the Indians as a major theme of this period and his presidency.
Although no longer a boy, Zinn is still perpetually crying wolf. The particular wolf he always sees around every bend is the conservative, censoring, negative-denying, triumphalist history profession that he encountered when doing his graduate work in the 1950s. Professor Zinn seems not to have noticed that he long ago outlived that particular wolf.
Zinn’s antidote to his imagined world of 1950s whiggish history is to deploy deliberately biased historiography that leans everything to the left, so as to somehow counterbalance the tilt to the right that he insists is the still-prevailing mood in the history profession. His bias is not exactly left vs. right in a typical political sense—although Zinn is certainly a leftist. But what Zinn is really peddling is an anti-triumphal account of American history. His complaint is that American history celebrates only the “winners” in the saga of the nation, and so he wants to empower those thought by the establishment to be the “losers” in the story. This empowerment of his preferred clients is the aim and purpose of history as practiced by Howard Zinn and like-minded historians.
Zinn and his collaborators seem to think that giving us a bias in the opposite direction from what they take to be the usual bias somehow counts as being unbiased. Zinn’s A People’s History, and its companion reader Voices of a People’s History, are spectacularly one-sided and outrageously unrepresentative in their presentation of American history. His Voices reader consists only of the voices of “women, workers and non-whites,” as his publisher proudly crows.
Traditionally, historians have assumed an obligation to strive for a fair and balanced account of the past. In a word, we thought we had an obligation to strive for objectivity in our histories. The fact that earlier generations of historians may have failed to honor the ideal of objectivity because they were leaning to the right, does not justify failing still by leaning to the left. The reason Zinn can offer such an audaciously one-sided history is quite simple: like all postmodernists, he assumes objectivity is a meaningless ideal and so the only real question is “whose side are you on?”
Unlike many postmodernists, Zinn and his collaborators make their assumptions explicit. As Zinn has in the past put it: “Objectivity is impossible and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.” The study guide to the Voices anthology put it this way: “By recognizing that all history, including that found in Voices, is selective and emphasizes some stories and some events more than others, we learn that history is really about making people think, ask questions, and demand answers.”
Now we certainly do not want to be opposed to thinking. But asking questions makes sense only in the context of a search for objective truth. What would be the value—to historical scholarship—of asking questions with an aim to crafting answers that are assessed only by how effective they are in empowering our preferred clients? As to demanding answers, surely this is jargon for something that could be said more forthrightly: the telling of history is for the purpose of forcing those in power to change society in ways we as historians desire. That is what Zinn and his collaborators mean by demanding answers from our study of history. This is fundamentally different from the more traditional idea that we study history to find out what happened in the past and why. For Zinn, and like-minded historians, the discipline of history is merely a tool to be used in the pursuit of political cause.
This points to the underlying reason that Zinn still sees dragons in every windmill on every hill: because society has not changed its politics in ways that professor Zinn desires. Since he is, above all else, a political activist, for him the battle can never be won until his politics prevails. Which is well and good: he is perfectly entitled to his opinions about what constitutes desirable political change. The problem comes from his inability to disentangle his role as political activist from his role as historian. It is, indeed, his continual conflation of the two that is the problem here. Because he thinks that his role as historian is one and same with his role as social and political activist, he fails to notice that the history profession has changed, that the historiography he still complains about is long gone. He cannot see this because the politics he complains about is still with us. And it is politics, first last and always, that moves him.
The problem with Zinn’s approach is that it is essentially based on the false premise that the way you combat intellectually biased accounts with which you disagree is by deploying competing biased accounts of your own. As if the idea was that if we just mix oil and vinegar—without any sense of proper proportion—that salad dressing will result. Or perhaps the more apt metaphor is the reminder that a cupful of sewage in a barrel of wine makes everything sewage. Biases are intellectual sewage. We can never achieve balanced or unbiased accounts by peddling alternative cups of sewage.
In insisting that history ought to be pursued with the aim of recovering objective truth, I am not demanding perfection in historians any more than I am expecting to find it anywhere else in life. I am only expecting that historians strive, to the best of their abilities, to provide a fair and balanced account of history, and that they remain open-minded enough to periodically adjust their point-of-view when they notice their failings in this effort. But if one starts with the aim of pushing a political agenda, then neither fairness or balance, nor open-mindedness, nor willingness to correct one’s errors, are ever likely to be in evidence.
There is a huge difference between teaching history “from the bottom up” and teaching it with a political agenda. What is precluded from the kind of scholarship Zinn offers us is the simple possibility of recovering lost histories from the bottom of the story-pile that do not conform to Zinn’s preferred political values. We get in Zinn’s work a highly-selective bottom-up history; a history of those actors whose politics are roughly the same as Zinn’s. This results in problems that may not be immediately apparent to those who share his politics. So to see the trouble, imagine that Newt Gingrich (a former university professor of history, recall) were to give us his reader of American history from the bottom-up. No doubt, it would feature stories of historical actors whose actions somehow rebounded to the greater glory of the Republican Revolution and to such sainted figures as Ronald Reagan. Would Zinn and company find this agreeable? But if this kind of selectivity is fair game for Zinn, it is as well for Gingrich. And then we have is what I say threatens historical scholarship: a political competition among competing narratives the choice of which only involves “whose side are you on?” and the end result of which will inevitably be the triumph of those scholars who have the most votes.
Some middling postmodernists may not really mind this outcome since they tacitly know they presently have more such votes within the academy of professional historians. But votes are fickle things; like intellectual fads, they come and go. Some fine day the middling postmodernists may once again find themselves outnumbered by triumphalist restorationists. Stranger things have happened. In such a world, the clamor of voices—with the outcome determined by who shouts the loudest—suddenly seems less pleasing. This whole idea of historical narratives as competing political viewpoints is deeply corrosive of all that is of value in historical scholarship. Historians, of all people, ought to have enough historical perspective to realize this.
My point here is almost certain to be misunderstood, so let me say it as clearly as I can: There is nothing wrong with recovering the history of marginalized actors, indeed it is a sanguine undertaking. There is likewise nothing wrong with reconstructing history with a focus on the great men and women who participated in and shaped the great events of our history. Indeed, what an honest and balanced history looks like is one that includes both these types of accounts simultaneously, in their proper proportions. Getting things in their proper proportions means, among other things, not misrepresenting a small achievement as a large one or a large one as being of no importance.
Zinn gives us histories that deliberately exclude the doings of the high and mighty and include only the doings of those who are outside this un-charmed circle. In so doing, Zinn fails in the historian’s obligation to proportionality. He is able to ignore the problem of proportionality by use of a covert argument: he presumes his preferred historical actors were morally right; that truth and justice were on their side. So if their actual role in history was minor, then the course of history is indicted as morally corrupt, and the shortcomings are then not those of his clients but of history itself. Thus Zinn can push aside this morally corrupt standard history to make a place for history’s “rightful” actors. This presumptive core of moral certainty and self-righteousness is the intellectual device Zinn uses to rationalize his highly biased telling of history.
In any case, Don Quixote charges on. We now have a shorthand Zinn-view of history in pictures, for those who may have grown tired of his many words. If you have already read Zinn’s A People’s History, then you don’t need to bother with the new version. On the other hand, if you haven’t read A Peoples History, the cartoon version will do equally well.
1 I develop this thesis at length in my manuscript under preparation, Truth and Objectivity in History: In Defense of Declining Virtues.
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Al M - 8/21/2009
Watch the video "How Modern Liberals Think" at YouTube. It explains Zinn and the Modern Liberal mindset to a "t". Here's the link:
Johannes De Silento - 2/1/2009
It seems that this is a very old debate. In some respects, maybe, this debate is as old as human knowledge. In some respects it dates back to Heraclitus and the Idea that "Man was the measure of all things." In other respects the debate over objectivity and perception is best illustrated by the Story of Samuel Johnson coming out of church. Personally I had thought that the whole debate between subjectivity and objectivity was best solved by Kant and his use of the Categorical Imperative. However it does seem that the debate between bias and objectivity is as old as history.
I agree that Howard Zinn doesn't seem like the type of back-door elitist that characterizes much post-modernist thinking. I feel, after reading some of the literature and the debates surrounding the writings and proper interpretations of post-modernism, that post-modernism isn't as honest as Howard Zinn. In many ways I believe that post-modernist thinking is a reconciliation of Kierkegaard's belief that faith makes for objective truth with Nietzsche's beliefs in power relationships between the ubermensch and the untermensch. As such it fits very well into a climate where people are separated into opposing camps, but it does not help us to build a consensual society with a belief in a common humanity.
Lorraine Paul - 1/29/2009
Very True. The same applies in Australian history. There are those like the discredited Keith Windschuttle, and there are those such as Manning Clark and Ted Wheelwright.
Larry DeWitt - 1/28/2009
I certainly share your concerns about the importance of the archival record. And I think you are right that historians can cause policymakers to want to keep the record partially hidden from view.
Anyway, I do think it is good news that the new president has lifted the Bush Administration executive order re: presidential papers, and that he is promising a more open attitude toward governmental actions/documents. Sometimes things get better!
Larry DeWitt - 1/28/2009
Very interesting. I have found your comments to be quite helpful. Thanks.
Louis Nelson Proyect - 1/28/2009
In insisting that history ought to be pursued with the aim of recovering objective truth, I am not demanding perfection in historians any more than I am expecting to find it anywhere else in life.
This is completely naive. History is the least of all disciplines that can be thought of in terms of "objective truth". Historians have politics, even if they pretend otherwise. Zinn is honest enough to state his politics up front, while the history textbooks most of us read in high school were filled with bias.
Jonathan Rodwell - 1/28/2009
I have to say that I think we agree far more than we disagree on, in general my response to your reply is...yes! But, as ever in History, not an unqualified yes!
I think your concern about an excessive skepticism is absolutely valid, but I guess it depends on the kind of skepticism. Coming at a topic, especially an historical topic, from the stance of seeking to question accepted wisdom seems perfectly sensible to me. But at the same time I would agree that there are poor examples of postmodernism that so completely accept the rejection of ‘truths’ and ‘objectivity’ that they end up descending into an inherent contradiction, and have no ability to say anything (because, of course, nothing is objectively true within this model). For an example of this I would point to David Campbell’s postmodern work on U.S. Foreign Policy ’Writing Security’. On the other hand as you reply there are extreme examples of empiricism and structural analysis that cannot accept change outside of the structure (something a lot of ‘Realism’ produces). I would say there are approaches on both sides of the spectrum that are dogmatic and of little use.
At the same time I also agree with you entirely that the dichotomy between positivism and post positivism is a false one. I think there is room for skepticism about positivism, but I don’t think anyone is entirely ‘post’ positivist as I’m not yet sure that a genuine post positivst position actually makes sense. But, I also despair of a world in which empiricism is all (and in the past rump empiricism has had nasty social consequences).
On the other hand whilst I would agree that the difficulties in questioning objectivity have been overstated, I wouldn’t agree that it is therefore impossible to judge competing theories. Actually, I’m not sure we should want to ‘judge’ theories other than judging them against each other based on their own epistemological and ontological rules. theories on;t have to be mutually incompatible. This is one of my problems with the profession of History in my opinion; I think the desire to seek a ‘best’ method, some kind of easy way of judging the validity of an argument, is very useful in helping us understand debates and topics, but is pointless if History thinks it will actually find an ultimate consensual approach. I feel the point of History is to debate issues and try to form consensus, but not expect to achieve perfect conclusions. If this were possible I can’t help but wonder why we still have discussions about Historical events? As far as I can tell even the clearest consensus within Historical arguments tend to be ‘slightly more of this, but still a bit of that’. I think we judge competing theories when we reach consensus (for whatever reason) about what best fits a specific question. I think History handles this quite well once the smoke clears.
In your attempt to seek a middle way you should be greatly encouraged to try to develop one and I’m not for a moment questioning your attempt itself; it is a very necessary exercise. History has suffered because not enough people have taken up such a project. I also acknowledge it’s incredibly difficult.
I suppose what I am saying (and I’m not really confident I have properly thought through the consequences of this!) is whether the great achievement of the postmodernist trend was to provide History with its middle ground. The consensus approach not being postmodernism itself, but through the debates it unleashes (if people drop the dogmas).
Oh, another thing, I have endless sympathy with any difficulty with definitions! I have found the single hardest thing with such theoretical / historiographical discussions is that half the time people just complain about definitions.
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2009
Jonathan, you're one of the few history bloggers of your generation who seems to understand HNN's potential for outreach. Your exchange with Mr. DeWitt, and his response, reflects a payoff that occurs all too rarely here on HNN for my taste. For what it's worth, well done.
Posted from home
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2009
I understand that you are looking for a middle way, one that has some balance. That's clear throughout your piece. Something else you should consider (but which I do not expect any historian posting here to address) is the impact of a Zinn-type approach to history on records management and archives. There is a danger in the more extreme forms of scholarship becoming blurred, especially in the minds of those who do not closely study the different schools and approaches to writing history.
Carried to an extreme, the bottom-up approach can reduce Presidents and power players to cartoon-like figures, even to stock villains. That may seem silly to those who know what governance is like at the higher levels. But rarely do academics call out those who do it, much less consider the ripple effect in can have on other disciplines. I've seen reductionist approaches here on HNN (the essay on Charlie Wilson's War by political scientist Chalmers Johnson to which I linked in my earlier posting is a great example of that.)
I knew what was going on with the Johnson piece because I'm an historian. Not everyone else who works in federal government would. Still, I have to admit, when I read the Johnson piece, I had to stop and think, real or parody? Some of the rhetoric seemed extreme to me.
If a President or high executive branch official assumes historians will not treat him fairly, it diminishes incentives to allow release of his records -- or to preserve or create them in the first place. (Not an inconsequential matter in the age of the delete key.) Remember that even with President Obama overturning E.O. 13233, former Presidents retain the right to claim privilege over material the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration proposes to open. Having been employed at NARA in a job that required screening WH records to see what could be opened, I know exactly how challenging disclosure to historians can be. Archivists need historians who will be a help in explaining why records matter, not a hindrance in their release.
As an historian, I support public access to the disclosable portions of historical records. But when I read historical narratives that reduce U.S. Presidents to caricatures -- and I've seen more than one on HNN -- I can't say I blame 'em for saying, better not to leave a paper trail, there's no one out there who will give me a fair shake. (Remember what Nixon said about historians? What GWB gave as his reason for not using email as President?)
Much of what I call the fear factor in White House record keeping comes from simplistic black and white, good guy, bad guy framing one finds in political hit pieces and in the worst of the overly partisan history narratives. (Ironically, such framing shows the same lack of nuance and inability to acknowledge gray areas that some political bloggers laughed at in assessing public appearances by officials during the past administration) And, of course, it gives great ammunition to culture warriors.
All in all, given my past experiences with former Presidents and my belief that the public would benefit form better explanations of the challenges of governance, there's much to be said for the more mature, nuanced, moderate approach you advocate, not just for its impact on history, but archival issues and records management, as well.
Maarja (historian and former NARA Nixon tapes archivist)
Lorraine Paul - 1/28/2009
I am surprised that you found Howard dogmatic and rude. My brief dealings with him encompassed kindness and consideration.
Are you sure that his 'hostility' was towards you personally, or towards your worldview?
As for objectivity in the study of History (with a capital aitch). As in all disciplines there is no such animal.
Larry DeWitt - 1/27/2009
Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
Although it is hard to touch all the possible bases in a short essay, I am aware of most everything you point out. I am indeed trying to bend the standard categories, because I think that all five forms of what I am calling "postmodernism" have one crucial element in common: an over-skeptical take on the ideals of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship.
I also do not accept the standard analysis that pits postmodernism against positivism. I fully appreciate this is how it happened historically, but philosophically, I think this has little to do with positivism--which I view as being truly a strawman in this debate.
Also, I don't agree that the problem with Zinn is only that his particular model/theory is not the right one, because I have some other model/theory that I prefer. My claim is broader: I contend that too many scholars have debased the ideals of truth and objectivity in scholarship (and overstated the difficulties involved) such that it becomes impossible to adjudicate between rival models/theories. This is the problem I am taking on.
Also, perhaps I need to mention that I am as critical of politically-motivated history from the right as from the left. It is just that Zinn is a particularly unsubtle example of the problems with politicized history, and so he is a useful example.
I do not contend that one can do history, or anything else, without some model or theory. I am not advocating naive empiricism, or neo-positivism, or anything remotely like either. My master argument is that there is a more reasonable, middle-way, alternative.
This is the case I try to make in my long manuscript (the essay on Zinn is in part an excerpt from the manuscript).
Finally, I do concede that my use of "postivism" here is problematic, in the ways you and others have noted. It is just that I haven't yet been able to figure out a simple but better taxonomy.
Larry DeWitt - 1/27/2009
Thanks for the suggestions.
Jonathan Rodwell - 1/27/2009
I have to agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Dresner here (as an academic who also deals with these kinds of issues).
Firstly DeWitt falls into many of the mistakes that Zinn himself commits - a false dichotomy between arguments and the setting up of plenty of straw men. Zinn is simplistic, and does cry wolf sometimes, but he's far from a postmodernist. To add (or to repeat!) what Jonathan pointed out Howard Zinn is in some ways a fairly structural Marxist historian, insofar as he argues (to the point of becoming boring!) that higher social and political structures (usually economic) direct the process of American history. In my opinion I'm not sure Zinn has that much theoretical rigor to really be consistently Marxist, but whilst of the left he is very structurally so (full disclosure: if I had to pick an approach for myself it would be Marxist).
Anyway, I would argue that broadening the definition of postmodernism is unnecessary as the term postmodernist or poststructuralist couldn't be any broader than it currently is. As as been pointed out by others postmodernism is essentially an epistemological and ontological rejection of positivism and meta-narratives. You can't get a broader definition than that (and this has been the definition for as long as academics have written about it).
What we should be trying to do (this is my aim with what I am writing) is to try and better understand the specific arguments that the positivist vs. postpositivst theoretical discussions produce. To wonder how elements of causation and our understanding of 'events' is effected by competing theoretical models is the point of studying terms such as 'postmodernism' or 'realism'. Trying to see which 'labels' best fit people and creating straw men in which one approach is deemed fashionable and therefore wrong, is confusing the woods for the trees.
Finally I actually think Zinn's concerns about objectivity have a point, and I do worry about Historian's who claim some innate goal for objectivity yet still think they can produce arguments and narratives about 'what happened'. This was the direct problem that prompted postmoderism. The likes of Foucault and Derrida did not claim that not that there couldn't be an 'objective' truth, just that anyone who proposes 'objectivity' could well be masking a very specific position and closing down debate by claiming the 'objective' truth of their position. It is not objectivity that postmodernism rejects, it's untested assumptions of objectivity and truth.
But, surely the questioning of accepted truths (and indeed norms) is the fundamental idea of an academic exercise? Any useful History (the kind that prevents us from repeating the mistakes of the past) contains an inherent normative value, otherwise what's the point? To just forage for facts and trinkets?
Put another way, as my supervisor said to me, we better understand theory because we all use one.
So, bringing this back to Howard Zinn. To point out he has has a consistent argument and one that is flawed is one thing (and to be fair Larry DeWitt does engage with Zinn's argument) but to therefore automatically dismiss what he writes as invalid becasue of a clear perspective is strange. To have a perspective is not the problem, it's the validity of the perspective that needs to be debated (depending on what the specific issue or topic is). I don't think Howard Zinn is a good historian - it's all too simplistic - but his perspective should be engaged with, not just dismissed just because it is one.
Finally, I have to agree again with others in that philosophers have tried to engage with these kinds of questions throughout human history; there is far more to all this than a turf war about how critical we can be about American history.
As to add some helpful reading, I'd have a look at Bruce Cumming's article that was rightfully critical of the failures of John Lewis Gaddis scholarship "Revising Postrevisionism," or, The Poverty of Theory in Diplomatic History'.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/27/2009
Why abuse the term, when you could use a more appropriate general one, like 'relativism' or 'partisanship', or a neologism like "post-objectivity" or "subjectivism" or "? By using postmodernism in this way, all you're really going to get are a lot of dismissive reviews saying "DeWitt has misconstrued postmodernism." Also, if you do get a wider readership, you're going to miseducate a lot of people on the nature of the intellectual issues.
I think you might want to do a little more reading in epistemology: the philosophers have been dealing with these issues for a while, and have a pretty sophisticated terminology which almost certainly has a word for the categories you're trying to conflate.
Otherwise, it seems to me that you're going to spend a lot of time in a defensive posture making the argument work at all, when you could be making a positive case for something like pragmatic realism.
Larry DeWitt - 1/27/2009
Thanks for your always thoughtful and detailed comments.
Larry DeWitt - 1/27/2009
Yep, writing a whole book trying to (over)broaden the definition of postmodernism.
I also second your idea that the Tosh reader is excellent choice.
Larry DeWitt - 1/27/2009
Yes, you are correct. My use of "postmodernism" to describe Zinn is non-standard.
Larry DeWitt - 1/27/2009
Your points are well-taken.
I am indeed peddling a non-standard definition of postmodernism. I am trying to argue (in a book under preparation) that any intellectual posture which has the effect of undermining our commitment to truth and objectivity, is a postmodern viewpoint.
As I say, this is a non-standard view, and it will take a lot of arguing to make it seem sensible (hence the book I am working on).
Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2009
It's nice to see you writing here again, Mr. DeWitt, another well-thought and well-written presentation. I enjoyed the essay you posted here last year on "The Follies of Instant History."
I don't know what you plan to cover in your current work. One area which I believe scholars will study is how the Internet has affected the way members of the public view historical evidence and fact based presentations in general. We all know about the existence of echo chamber websites (political and otherwise), which provide places for like-minded people to bond. And many of us have read about "The Big Sort."
Still, there are places where Internet forums have the potential to create virtual community squares where people of various political persuasions and from differing academic disciplines can gather. HNN is one of them. But how often do you see historians -- especially the resident bloggers here -- reach out to the public to discuss what constitutes good scholarship, proper reliance on evidence, and effective historical narraties? Hardly ever. They don't seem to see it as their role. This may be generational and probably will change with time as some of the younger historians (such as Jeremy Young) recognize that the Internet is more than a place to post a lecture and then walk away, satisfied that one has had one's say and uninterested in whether and how it came across.
Many historians let opportunities for outreach pass by. (Take a look at the piece from last year about Charlie Wilson's War at
Other than Mark Safranski and I, no historians spoke up there to criticize the approach used by Chalmers Johnson. A third historian did chime in in support of Johnson.) In the public mind, it's all too easy for issues surrounding historical narratives to blur. How many casual readers distinguish between (1) what a journalist such as Bob Woodward presents as history, (2)the commentaries by political scientists such as Chalmers Johnson and (3) the work of trained historians?
As a former archivist as well as a historian, I laughed when Woodward's publishers claimed that his latest book represented a declassification of the Bush presidency. Authors such as Zinn only add to the muddle regarding factual presentations. Whether it is because they are too busy too do so, or they rarely look at issues strategically, or they are reluctant to criticize fellow academics (except those who compete with them in writing books on given topics), historians rarely speak up on what happens when personal, partisan views color historical presentations. That you did so is the exception here on HNN. Gotta run now!
Edmond Dantes - 1/27/2009
Jonathan Dresner - 1/26/2009
There have been plenty of books and articles on this topic already. What I usually assign to students is the Postmodernism section of John Tosh's collection Historians on History, which includes both pro- and anti-postmodern pieces.
I get the impression from DeWitt's piece that he's planning on writing a whole book on the subject, though the categories he's making up seem less than helpful.
Clare Lois Spark - 1/26/2009
The comments suggesting that Zinn is not a postmodernism are appropriate. What would be welcome on HNN would be an article treating the effect of postmodernism on the writing of history. Such an article would be an exercise in intellectual history, and would start with the question of what was modernism (in the eyes of its critics), when did it commence, and what was supposed to be wrong with it.
I believe that we would find ourselves in the unending debates regarding the Enlightenment, science and empiricism/positivism, mass death in the twentieth century, radical protestants and Jews, and other juicy subjects.
Craig Michael Loftin - 1/26/2009
I strongly agree with some of the other comments that Zinn should not be called a postmodernist, regardless of what one thinks about Zinn or postmodernism. Postmodernists in general have an uneasy relationship with the more traditional left-wing 60s activist academic style of Zinn. Zinn lacks the elitist (in my opinion) jargon of postmodernism, which is one of the reasons his books sell so well.
Lewis Bernstein - 1/26/2009
Apparently Howard's mode of presentation has finally caught up with the quality of his scholarship. I,too, don not think he is a post-modernist, just another cookie cutter example of the true believer. In my own mercifully brief personal interactions with him I have found him to be like most true believers--dogmatic and rude. In short a man with no manners or grace. Trivial perhaps, but a reflection of the man, his scholarship, and world view.
Lorraine Paul - 1/26/2009
Howard Zinn is one of the few American historians who is prepared to tell the truth!
No wonder many of the historians who will only repeat the 'official story' do not admire him!!
Jonathan Dresner - 1/26/2009
Zinn's rejection of objectivity doesn't really make him much of a postmodernist. Partisans assume the reality of certain base propositions which postmodernism would certainly reject, and a degree of purpose which is, while common, bad postmodernism.
I'm not defending Zinn, except perhaps from the charge of being a postmodernist: his perspective is quite orthodox leftist modernism; his rejection of "truth" is really a rhetorical device to unsettle his opponents on the right (and in the center).
I also have some question about the degree to which Zinn is crying Wolf. The continuing campaigns by Elizabeth Dole, Larry Schweikart, etc., to create a mirror image of Zinn's scholarship and claim the center suggest that there is still some reality in the fear of a return to a partisan rightist history.
Peter Kovachev - 1/26/2009
Alas, Mr DeWitt, it's unfortunately you and a handfull of others like you who are faced with the quixotian (or perhaps sisyphusean) task of arresting historiography's slide towards partisan propaganda.
A wonderful, sharp and timely article, not to mention one that's such a pleasure to read. Good luck and hoping to see more from you!
Amanda Jean Tuzzolino - 1/25/2009
Excellently written article. You presented, elucidated and executed your thesis with clean-cut lucidity.
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