The Howard Zinn Fabrication Show
By Bernard Chapin
Few leftist icons are looked upon more favorably than professor and activist Howard Zinn. Like many radical ideologues, he is the darling of students, the professorate, and the glitterati. Indeed, Hollywood star Matt Damon provided the narration for a hagiographic documentary about his life entitled, Howard Zinn -You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
"You can't be neutral" is a reference to Zinn's belief that all history is skewed by the mind that conveys it, and that the best historians must be "engaged" in political and societal matters. Therefore, it is non-remarkable when their discussion of events always manages to be harmonious with their worldview. Such a post-modernist outlook is quite popular today, but prevalence is not always an indication of value. Zinn informs viewers that no work is ever completely objective, which then allows him (and other activists) to avoid using research and citations which do not substantiate their pre-determined suppositions.
That no historical account is ever 100 percent objective cannot be doubted, but an automaton's level of clinical impartiality is neither possible nor expected. One commits a black-or-white fallacy by pretending that it is as nothing can ever be 100 percent objective or subjective. Good history doggedly attempts to be unbiased. When it abandons its detachment, any amount of distortion becomes acceptable; history gets alchemized into propaganda. Zinn minimizes his own lack of scholarship in The Peoples' History of the United States by claiming that it was not written with an academic audience in mind.
As a man, Zinn appears to be more celebrity than egghead. He isn't one to quibble over the nature of secondary or primary source materials, he'd rather illustrate his points by quoting lyrics from a Woody Guthrie song. No doubt that the directors of this film ascribe to their subject's view of fairness as not one of the individuals interviewed uttered a single negative syllable about Zinn. Uniformly leftist luminaries like Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman, Daniel Ellsberg, and Tom Hayden spent their segments exalting the importance of his impact upon society.
Their depiction of Zinn's personality was most revealing and in keeping with the tendencies of leftists in general. According to his friends and associates, he possesses a "steely anger," and "an endless capacity for moral outrage" which is representative of the whole. Dr. John Ray's key psychological components of the leftist are discernible in Zinn as his need for fame, praise, power, and attention are quite pronounced.
An Alice in Wonderland moment comes when he is filmed giving a talk about his old boss, John Silber, once President of Boston University. Considerable ire is vented upon him and he is described as a right-wing fanatic. This should alert viewers to just how radical Zinn actually is because Silber happens to be a member of the Democratic Party. Most viewers won't have the background to know this, and also might not realize that our protagonist's main intellectual influence is Karl Marx. Nowadays, pointing something like that out invites being labeled a McCarthyist, but devotion to disproved dialectical imperatives tells us much about the intellectual box into which true believers place themselves. While the documentary itself never directly addresses communism, Zinn is shown at an event accepting an award from the Eugenes Debs Foundation. Even should one not be familiar with the name of (perhaps) America's most famous socialist, they should not fail to be startled by the organization's president introducing our activist as "Comrade Zinn." He has also written a play called Marx in Soho, and a snippet from it is shown. The man whose ideas resulted in 100 million deaths comes alive and gives a speech about how, after examining the modern world, his ideas remain surprisingly topical. When he states, "Remember, to be radical is simply to grasp the root of a problem, and the problem is us," he tells the audience much more about Zinn than about his manifesto.
The pernicious assumption that "the problem is us" is emblematic of those who make a living out of criticizing the United States. They can continue to do this by judging the United States within a vacuum. By ignoring the macabre incidents of brutality in other parts of the world and focusing on the democratic flaws of their own nation, fellows like Zinn can endlessly shower his own side with friendly fire. As long as human beings remain fallible, the utopian is always able to look down on the rest of us. It even has become fashionable for them to rationalize their compulsive venom as not being reflective of hate, but as a natural byproduct of their alternative "patriotism."
Of course, America is not a perfect land; it never has been and never will be, but here freedom of religion and expression are birthrights that the state must go to great lengths to terminate. That certainly cannot be said about most of the other places in the world. That we are not a repressive country is self-evident from this film itself. No anti-democratic regime in history ever loaned out its police for the purposes of protecting protesters so they can safely, and aggressively, ridicule the government. Zinn may have been appalled, in his youth, by the behaviors of police at a communist rally, but their peers in a Marxist state would have arrested the agitators and shot them in the basement of the Lubyanka or liquidated them in the countryside around Phenom Penh.
Zinn's Marxist beliefs are discordant with his supposed devotion to "non-violent action." It simply is not possible for a central apparatus -- ostensibly as a means to noble redistribution -- to non-coercively abscond with the earnings of its citizens. Pointing a barrel of a gun is the only way in which our species, as opposed to ants, will ever part with their possessions, homes, and personal choices.
At one point, Zinn's perceptions appear utterly astonishing. As a Jew in the Air Force who was sent to fight the Nazis during World War II, he found himself in a position of, what should have been, absolute moral clarity. If ever a person was placed into a position where war was morally just, this was it. However, his reminiscences are confined to indignation over his unit's bombing an enclave of German soldiers. He lamented the action as the men in the French village, "weren't doing anything to anybody" -- except defending the boundaries of a genocidal state.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Howard Zinn is through words he applied to Uncle Sam: "limited, opinionated and with special interests."
Bernard Chapin expects to be named to Hillary Clinton's shadow cabinet at some point in the coming months. His email is email@example.com.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!