Like the lost catacombs of Egypt only God knows where we stuck it…

Did you know that Howard Zinn has destroyed the historical profession?

No? You didn’t? Larry DeWitt would certainly like you to think so.

Before I get started on what DeWitt is arguing exactly, I think an important cavet is in order. I would be remiss if I did not note an important intellectual debt I owe Zinn and his People’s History of the United States. I read that book in my senior year of high school and it was a like the intellectual version of a smack in the face. Zinn’s work changed the way I viewed the world & history and – using hindsight – I would not have gone to down the path towards grad school without that experience. Of course, my politics and historical point-of-view have shifted in the years since that formative experience – I am first to note the numerous problems with Zinn’s book(s). Yet I would remiss if I did not mention this important experience at the beginning.

Ok. On to DeWitt.

Thankfully, for our purposes, DeWitt notes his main problems with Zinn in a very straightforward way:

In my view, the traditional intellectual values of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship are being steadily eroded by the backwash from the passing through our profession of the “postmodern moment.” I typically identify five forms of this erosion: 1) Skeptical Postmodernism; 2) Multicultural Postmodernism; 3) Political Postmodernism; 4) Subjective Postmodernism; and Textualist Postmodernism. Zinn is a practitioner of Political Postmodernism, which views a central purpose of historical scholarship as being to advance one’s political agendas. All of these forms of postmodern declension have one thing in common: they all seek to undermine the intellectual values of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship.

Post-Modernism, of course! DeWitt needs to be careful he in that he does not conflate his categories. Zinn is certainly a post-modernist in his skepticism and overt commitment to scholarship as a political act but he is not a “multi-culturalist” in the sense that most people (especially conservatives) think of it. His Marxism prevents it. Zinn’s multiculturalism is the multiculturalism of the proletariat – uniting all workers in their pan-cultural oppression. (This of course, leads to the question of who exactly are “the People” in the A People’s History?)

Anyway, DeWitt argues that Zinn’s post-modernism stands in contrast to how history has been (and should) be practiced:

Traditionally, historians have assumed an obligation to strive for a fair and balanced account of the past. In a word, we thought we had an obligation to strive for objectivity in our histories.

Zinn in contrast “seek[s] to undermine the intellectual values of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship.” To DeWitt it doesn’t matter “that earlier generations of historians may have failed to honor the ideal of objectivity” because he feels that their basic value system still retains its worth. Because without it we are left with an “intellectual sewer” of “biases”.

As he puts it:

In insisting that history ought to be pursued with the aim of recovering objective truth, I am not demanding perfection in historians any more than I am expecting to find it anywhere else in life. I am only expecting that historians strive, to the best of their abilities, to provide a fair and balanced account of history, and that they remain open-minded enough to periodically adjust their point-of-view when they notice their failings in this effort. But if one starts with the aim of pushing a political agenda, then neither fairness or balance, nor open-mindedness, nor willingness to correct one’s errors, are ever likely to be in evidence.

Dewitt’s supposed “checkmate” thought experiment is this:

[I]magine that Newt Gingrich (a former university professor of history, recall) were to give us his reader of American history from the bottom-up. No doubt, it would feature stories of historical actors whose actions somehow rebounded to the greater glory of the Republican Revolution and to such sainted figures as Ronald Reagan. Would Zinn and company find this agreeable? But if this kind of selectivity is fair game for Zinn, it is as well for Gingrich.

The thing is such a book already exists. And it is terrible (I have read it) and actually more intellectual dishonest than Zinn’s. Why is it more intellectually dishonest than Zinn’s A People History? Because the authors of A Patriot’s History are – like DeWitt – trying to be “objective” in their history and provide a “fair and balanced” approached to their subject. The authors of A Patriot’s History share DeWitt’s belief that:

Indeed, what an honest and balanced history looks like is one that includes both [history from the bottom up & “traditional” history] simultaneously, in their proper proportions. Getting things in their proper proportions means, among other things, not misrepresenting a small achievement as a large one or a large one as being of no importance.

The fundamental question is how the hell do we decide what exactly is the “proper proportions” for things to be in? Because such things are absolutely not self-evident. Human beings are not “god”, they are not unable to step outside of themselves and make “objective” – “neutral” – value judgments. Whatever value judgments a human being makes – historians included – are mortally “compromised” by their own value systems and historical time and place.

Historians are constantly – and necessarily – making choices about what to include and what to exclude in their histories. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – it is necessary. But the question is how are those choices made? Those judgments are fundamentally political – perhaps ideological would be a better word. Even historians making such choices “objectively”  are being political. The great contribution of post-modernism to history is the understanding that objectivity is in and of itself an ideology with its own assumptions and biases. (I think there was a famous book written about this)

Because of this it is best for historians to be honest and forth right and show why they make the choices they do and not hide behind the smoke screen of objectivity. Zinn – despite his countless problems as a scholar – is at least honest about where his scholarship is coming from. The man and his books are Marxist through and through. It would be nice if other historians – like Larry DeWitt – where as honest with their ideological assumptions as Zinn. It would lead to a more honest and open debate.


3 Comments on “Like the lost catacombs of Egypt only God knows where we stuck it…”

  1. Larry DeWitt says:

    Interesting rejoinder to my essay. Enjoyed it.

    BTW, I agree with you about A Patriots History. I think it is crap–just exactly like Zinn. I find them both equally blameworthy. But it has nothing to do with their assumptions being hidden or open–that is far too cheap a sense of intellectual honesty, in my view. Rather, both these works are flawed because they tell only one side of the story (the negative in Zinn’s case and the positive in the case of A Patriots History). THAT is what’s wrong with Zinn.

    Also, in my view, we do not need a self-evident or absolute definition of what “proper proportions” means in order for work to be objective. I think this is the phony opposition that postmodernism offers us: a false choice between certainty and unbounded skepticism. I think there is a middle way. That larger argument is the burden of my major work on this topic.

    In any case, nice read.

  2. Thanks for responding, Larry.

    Personally, people being honest about their assumptions is just the beginning of intellectual honesty. There are elements that are important besides that (like the willingness to change your mind). I feel that historians need to start being more aware of these issues and more forthright about them.

    Agree with you that there is a “third way” of sorts between traditional objectivity and extreme post-modern skepticism. Though I’m certain we would disagree about what exactly that is.

    I look forward to your book.

  3. […] Like the lost catacombs of Eygpt, only god knows where we stuck it… […]

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