People seem to be of two minds about Howard Zinn, and I guess that’s okay. Subtlety was never his greatest strength, so I suppose it is fitting that his work is usually either loved or hated. Those who love it, see it as radical truth telling, speaking truth to power, exposing dark underbellies, naming things that others would prefer not to be named. Those who hate it see it as hamfisted history, caricaturing both the heroes and the villains in an effort to reduce the complexity of American history to a ten-point political program. Me, I’m sort of in the middle. I can see his limitations, and his tendentiousness, but I tend to like his political program. His immensely popular book, A People’s History of the United States, should be a way into American history, and not a stopping point. But if people read only one general history of America in their lives they could do a hell of a lot worse than a People’s History of the United States.
Zinn’s history, to its very title, is redolent of the strengths and weaknesses of a strain in history derived ultimately from the Popular Front of the 1930s, one that sees capitalism and capitalists as perpetually warring against “the people.” Many of Zinn’s critics, such as Michael Kazin, argue that “the people” don’t really exist, and are complicit in what actually happens, and are not a passive force screwed over again and again by the forces of capital. The enemy is us.
Fair enough, but let us consider the current health care debate. Is the fact that the single-payer option, the public option, and almost all of the reforms that progressives wanted died on the committee room floor the fault of the long hands of capital, manipulating the debate and debaters like the expert puppeteers they are, or is it because the people themselves are too implicated and imbricated in the existing system to ever be an effective agent for change, and what “the people” want, above all, is to disaggregated, to fit into their various slots and cohorts, and be left alone?
You can make an argument either way.. With Zinn you have a clearer sense of what and who the real enemies are. With Zinn’s critics, you have a clear sense of the challenges and impediments to transformative change. What do we need? We need a historiography that can explain both why Charlie Brown keeps on trying to kick the football, and a historiography that explains why Lucy keeps on pulling it away. There is a role for both Zinn style history and anti-Zinn history, and they should be combined in ways that do not cancel each other out, but transcend the limitations of both approaches. We need a historiography that can explain why Americans are both so self-satisfied and so unhappy, a historiography that is ironic enough to transcend its own irony, that has a problem telling the difference between triumphs and tragedies. Anyway, this rhetorical effusion aside, let me continue to eulogize. Howard Zinn fought many good fights over a very long career, and he will be missed.