This guy goes to my Panera:
I was doing so well with my return to blogging only to undo it all by going out of the country.
Posting will resume next, next Tuesday.
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.
Over at the Edge of the American West, Ari has a list of five books that “explain” American history (pre-1876). The list is as good as any – arbitrary but insightful. I’m familiar with all but one of the books on his list and I find his inclusion of Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution to be both interesting and strangely funny. It seems that no matter how hard one might try, there is simply no way to escape that book.
As you may or may not know, I’m in grad school studying history and – honestly – you can’t escape Wood and Radicalism. Most people, even those who love the book, admit that it’s – at best – incomplete. At worst the book could be said to ignore huge swaths of people – women, African-Americans (especially) Native-Americans – of Early America and one can’t help but almost forget that slavery existed after the Revolution. So, even though the book is admittedly deeply flawed – in one way or the other – why do people keep coming back to it? Even people who deeply disagree with it’s premise and/or conclusions?
Is it because Wood’s prose is very readable – at least in Radicalism – and thus easy to assign in both undergrad and graduate level? Probably. Is it deep down that because most Americans – even those most critical of America – want to find something radical about our revolution? Maybe. Is it because Wood’s simple and straightforward thesis – America goes from monarchy to republicanism to democracy in one easy breezy sweep of history – is so easy to “write against” and critique? Quite likely.
I find Wood to be such annoying figure in modern early American historiography – he’s insightful but frustratingly close minded. He managed to write a book – ok, a collection of edited essays – about the Founders that was not hagiography nor boring but instead provocative. Unlike Joesph Ellis, for example. But he also spent a good portion of that book – and his latest – endlessly bashing and degrading cultural history.
His central arguments in about early American history seems to be:
- The last fifty years of early American historiography has been pretty damn good…
- But there is too much of it!
- And there is too much gender/race/class in modern historiography!
There is an elitist element that someone – especially someone who is not going to graduate school at Harvard, Yale, or Wood’s Brown – can’t help but detect in Wood’s sweeping denoucement of the multipicity of voices in the American historical profession. It – almost – seems that if you aren’t a graduate of one of the big name institutions – the Ivies, UVA, William and Mary, Stanford, etc. – you’re using up intellectual air that could be better spent; like by Wood’s graduate students. And his attitude towards gender, race, and class in history (especially gender) is that – man, that shit should have stopped with A Midwife’s Tale and an Unredeemed Capitive. Which is just closeminded and – again – elitist.
So, I think that Wood is at once one of the most interesting and the most frustrating early Americanists today. More often than not, my frustrations with him out weight how interesting I find him. Yet I still keep coming back to his work. Why?
Two things happened today that I didn’t not very excpet to see:
- Mormon stalker soft-core porn (starring Cedric Diggory of all people!) opens big on the box office. Remember, smart vampires wait until marriage.
- My girlfriend downloads and briefly plays World of Warcraft – for a project on virtual worlds. We briefly discuss about how the entire point of WoW is killing things.
Today was a strange day, indeed.
One ring to something something…