If Howard Zinn hadn’t existed, the conservative commentariat might have had to invent him. The late Boston University professor, activist, and textbook author was and is a one-man, target-rich environment for right-wing ideologues.
Fellow traveler; honorary laureate of the University of Havana; author of the Hollywood-approved, best-selling “People’s History of the United States.” If you’re pitching from the right side of the mound, what’s not to hate?
The Associated Press revealed last month that Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, a former George W. Bush White House bigwig, was eager to purge Zinn’s work from university curriculums. Daniels called Zinn’s “History” “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”
In an e-mail he probably assumed was private — dangerous to assume! — Daniels gave thanks that “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”
Not to be outdone, David Bobb of Hillsdale College took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to remind us that Zinn, “the patron saint of Occupy Wall Street . . . left behind a legacy of prepackaged answers for every problem.” Naturally Bobb mentioned the Havana degree and Zinn’s avid boldface groupies, e.g. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson.
Bobb notes that on “the last day before his retirement in 1988, [Zinn] led his students into the street to participate in a campus protest.” Heavens! No protesting allowed at Hillsdale? I’d say we are the poorer for it.
I used to share Mr. Bobb’s prejudices, assuming that Ben and Matt’s favorite historian must be a poltroon. Dangerous to assume! I bought the “People’s History” a few years ago, fully intending to make sport of it. But a funny thing happened. I dipped in to the book. I liked it. I didn’t like all of it, but I liked enough of it.
If you have ever heard of Charles Beard and his classic “Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” you understand where Zinn is coming from. For instance, Zinn never caught Founding Fathers-philia, the mysterious disease that has led so many talented writers and historians to publish best-selling hagiographies of the all-too-human white men who created our republic.
I’m glad Zinn mentions that brewmaster-firebrand-nominal-friend-of-freedom Sam Adams supported the suspension of habeas corpus when it came to putting down the Massachusetts farmers in Shays’ Rebellion. I doubt many other histories do.
Maybe I have peculiar tastes in history. A couple of years ago, I needed to bone up on Andy Jackson, and I wasn’t in the mood for Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (“The Age of Jackson”) or for Sean Wilentz’s 2005 biography. Instead I chose to read Jon Meacham’s titanic bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”
Ugh-fugh, as my late mother used to say.
Every word of Meacham’s questionable assertion that Jackson “created the modern American presidency” rang false to me. The book purports to reveal the intimate side of this particularly barbaric president, based in part on archival materials from a young couple that shared the White House with Jackson. We see a great deal of the “other,” private Andrew Jackson, who loves little children and plays “the role of national pastor” to the beleaguered United States.
If Andrew Jackson was America’s national pastor then I’m the Boston Red Sox middle-relief man.
Meacham is a smooth writer and I can’t fault him for seeking the shortest possible path to the bank, penning triumphalist, jingoistic hogwash. Here’s where Howard Zinn can be helpful. He devotes 25 pages of his “People’s History” to Indian Removal, the genocidal policy championed by America’s clergyman, “Andrew Jackson . . . land speculator, merchant, slave trader, and the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history.”
Let’s face it; Jackson was the first mass murderer to darken the door of the White House.
I’ll cede the points in advance; Meacham’s book is not as awful as I paint it, and Zinn’s work isn’t above criticism, not by a long shot. But I would argue that Meacham trafficks in treacly legends, while Zinn is merchandising unpleasant truths.
Fewer legends + more painful truths = better history, I’d say.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.