Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn, RIP

Like everyone else on the left, I am very sad about Howard Zinn's passing. Two points I want to make.

First, A People's History of the United States is a book I have trouble endorsing in 2010. I think it's great for young people who are being exposed to alternative viewpoints for the first time. It's fine if you are 19 and need an overview of a different side to American history. But it absolutely does not stand up over time as a book of history. It's too anecdotal, kind of embarrassing in certain parts, and is no longer revolutionary in its historiography. Of course, that's fine. It's 30 years old. Most 3 decade old books don't hold up. The only problem here is that people still talk about how Zinn tells the stories others don't. That's absolutely absurd. 95% of history books published today deal with race, class, and gender, not to mention environmental issues, sexuality, and other topics Zinn couldn't have talked about in 1970. We all tell these stories. We know tons about traditionally underrepresented groups. Zinn was part of a wave of many historians telling these stories.

Michael Kazin really nails the problems with A People's History here. He's overly harsh, but it's a useful corrective for those who will tuck no criticism of the book.

My second point is personal. In 1999, I was helping put together a labor teach-in at the University of Tennessee, an event that helped spark a union movement that continues today. Playing a small role in this movement is one of the proudest moments of my life. Anyway, we were brainstorming about people to come speak at our event and of course we thought of Howard Zinn. So I e-mailed, asking him to come. He almost instantly replied, sending me a very nice message saying that he couldn't make it that weekend, but suggesting other people to ask. We acted upon his advice and in fact they did come and helped make the event a major success. I can only imagine how many unsolicited requests Zinn received. Yet, his kindness and courtesy to someone he didn't know is something I'll always remember fondly.

Howard Zinn was a fine historian, even if his readers today overstate his accomplishments. But he was certainly a wonderful man who did more than almost anyone alive for social justice.