Even in death, the peoples’ historian is dangerous
Historian and activist Howard Zinn’s death on January 27th was a huge loss, but some of the ugly reaction to his passing may be our great teacher’s final lesson. The media criticism of Zinn right after he died exposes those who control how we view the world.
We all know that history is written by the victors. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States turned this maxim on its head and made a mighty contribution to countering the lies of America’s past. Zinn’s work is dangerous because it requires us to look at our country’s complicated past with new eyes. His writings have made an impact on millions of people. The pundits and news media won’t let his influence stand. They need to put their spin on his life.
It is certainly fair game to note the controversy that surrounds a famous figure, and Zinn’s books should be open to scrutiny. But when National Public Radio allowed conservative David Horowitz to comment that there is “absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” calling A People’s History a “travesty,” you know that the old man’s work has struck a nerve.
The New York Times also took a swipe, but sought out a more “respectable” critique of Zinn from liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “I don’t take him very seriously,” Schlesinger told the Times, “He’s a pole
micist, not a historian.”
micist, not a historian.”
It’s easy to be outraged at this disrespectful display. I know I was angry. As FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) pointed out, when apartheid apologist William F. Buckley died there was no attempt by NPR to “balance” his obituary with a left-wing critic.
But then I thought: Do I really want Howard to suffer the same fate as other radicals whose lives have been “dumbed down?” Maybe the worst example of the historical taming of progressives is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By the end of his life, King had become a true challenge to the rich and powerful. The Poor Peoples’ Campaign, being organized when he was assassinated, took the issue of racial inequality and gave it a class analysis. King’s work for unions showed he would engage in struggles that linked economic justice with racial justice. His outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War lost him support in the civil rights movement. But today? King Day is a holiday when department stores hold special sales. Politicians flock to official ceremonies and quote snippets of “I Have A Dream.” King’s image is becoming a pale copy of the man who warned us against the triple evils of racism, materialism and militarism.
Dr. King knew what Howard Zinn was trying to do: the civil rights pioneer wrote that “many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten.” Zinn uncovered the ugliness of official America and at the same time introduced us to the “countless small actions of unknown people” whose work actually changes society for the better.
So Howard Zinn will not be canonized by the people who manipulate our news, culture and history. That’s how it should be. As Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day said, “don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”