Zinn's History of My Office Hours
Today I picked up Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States. I’ve read in it before. The narratives are well told, fully iconoclastic, an effective uncovering of the ugly of history that other “nice” books would like to ignore or bleach. As I read more in the book, however, I dislike it for reasons unassociated with the material it presents. I have nothing to dispute Zinn's take on history. It’s not my field. But I wonder how Zinn would handle prophetic history or lesser things, like, say, ah, my biography. I’ve heard so much praise for Zinn’s book, but I glean in the Zinn-parade of accolades a sense of affirmations that pertain to the political obsessions of the praise-givers. It’s a cottage industry to deconstruct history and hope for the manumission of “truth” from beneath the debris of neat historiography or the meaningless procession of paper facts, two-dimensional lists of events disconnected or misappropriated. But here’s the thing I have with the Zinn infatuation: many of those who roll up his pages into joints and light them for their daily high do so for exterior reasons, like their acute disapproval of, say, American foreign policy in the Middle East; its current bumbling of a “war” in Iraq; the unfathomable loss of human life and destruction; the diminution of civil rights here; Gitmo; and the band plays on. So any “dirt” they can get from the ugly mines of history affirms their politics.
It could be that Zinn’s take is spot on. Yet humans are composed of saints and villains, and it’s always been this way. We regularly complain about the modern judgment of the past, cherry-picked criteria by which we measure the deeds of yesteryear, like conquests and even marriage. If one’s historiography is to debunk the ostensible ideals of a given nation or period and suspect and find the basest motives at work, then, again, I’d hate to see this methodology applied elsewhere. It’s not difficult to attribute lowly motives and interpret the decisions of the highest quality as the doings of selfish men and women. If I wanted to write the history of, for example, Monday, just one day last week, I could apply a methodology and narrow in on such things as the dark-soiled piles of snow in a mall parking lot or hanging from the fender of my car—metaphors, of course, of the ugly—i.e., the reality—beneath what normally passes as innocent or good or beneficial. It's a terrible thing to make an axiomatic connection between ugly and reality.