Friday, January 17, 2020

Howard Zinn and History From Below

 Contemporary historian Ron Radosh has an interesting piece about the influential Howard Zinn and his People's History over at the Law and Liberty site.  I liked an early point very much, that while Zinn is identified as one doing History From Below, that is mostly an affectation. As the essay wore on I think Radosh hit some repetitive and trite material, but the essay in general remains solid.

Zinn was not an innovator in historical commentary, he was very much a user of the current emerging fashion in writing history. He was like a young man with an unerring eye for the clothing that would most attract the female gaze and end in seduction.  Such do not care about shirts or ties, but about getting women into bed. If another shirt or tie works better next year, the old will be discarded.  Zinn only cared about a percentage of the human beings “from below” – those who suited his political purpose. One does not study industrial workers by focusing solely on unions, though that is a part; one does not study immigrants by noting only their initial housing conditions in cities, though that is a part; one does not study distributed power and authority by seeing only the abuses of power, though those can be a window of understanding. In all cases, a narrowing of focus allows one to choose only the examples that support one’s Point of view. Most historians attempt to rise above this and consider possible leaks in the buckets they are carrying.  Yet all narrowings increase vulnerability to manipulation.

I am very much a fan of “history from below.” So were a great many of Howard Zinn’s critics.  The link provides good references to this, for those who want to see the critiques in more detail
This is a topic of the moment because of the controversy around the 1619 Project of the NYTimes.  I have not read it, nor do I intend to.  I have some interest in what people I respect have to say about it, good and bad.  At present most of what is said is from two sources: other historians and the conservative press. Neither are complimentary.  However, I assume there are some things worth knowing in even very bad histories, and there may even be sections or approaches that will prove valuable over time.  For now, some pieces have leaked out, likely the worst bits, and I can apply what moderate amount of history I know to those.  I know more colonial history than other American periods, though I have been trying to gradually rectify that.  Most recently I am listening to historian Lindsay Graham’s* podcasts about each presidential election, “Wicked Game” and feel confident in a simple declaration. If the American Revolution were actually, truly, wink-wink about preserving slavery because the founders and elites knew that the British were on the road to outlawing it, then no presidential election from Washington to Polk makes the least bit of coherent sense. (I doubt that clarity is going to suddenly emerge from that hypothesis in the next few weeks about Pierce and Buchanan, either.)

Slavery was the dominant issue in most elections, though tariffs and federal power were also common rallying points. To suggest that the elites (or the middle class and poor) had substantial agreement underneath it all, merely jockeying for the spoils of it is simply absurd. If that were the case then there were acres of compromise where they could have sat and picnicked together.

* No, a different Lindsay Graham


Christopher B said...

pedantic point - the Senator is Lindsey Graham.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. I should have specified that to help avoid confusion.

james said...

I'll have to give some of those a listen. I don't know a lot about the campaigns and arguments--just the big topics (central bank, inflation is good or bad, Mexico, etc).