Saturday, February 24, 2007

Zinn's History of My Office Hours

As in previous semesters, my “office hours” are vacuums of time for me to read any of the literature anthologies on the shelves here. My students feel it unnecessary to come for advice or clarification, except for one student who ambled in, head down and contrite, with some “problem,” a transparent non-problem meant to make me forget that he missed a couple of classes and was late with a paper. I rubbed the stubbles of my Hajj haircut as he let loose a narrative, some vague “issue” of questionable authenticity. I let the matter go without inspection. “Just hand in the paper by the end of the day. I hope ‘things’ get better for you,” I told him. Hajj gift.

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.


Blogger mohammed said...

This post has a tremendous amount of insight, though I'm left unsatisfied and yearning for more. Clearly the historians of the left would deconstruct sacred history as easily as they would secular; when metaphysics is denied one cannot expect a sacred history to emerge. Yet the crticisms that leftist historians bring to the table also cannot be ignored: politics is at work in the writing of history. The question then is, how do we get beyond secular history, which itself is devoid of any internal coherency (how can it be otherwise, when transcendence is denied), to an authentic sacred history?

2/25/2007 7:24 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

I'm not sure what sacred history really means. I understand it as an abstraction, but really what are the differences in histories other than their interpretations? So adding the word "sacred" before history is more about the historian's interpretation than the accounting of facts on the ground. Following the deeds of mortals, as individuals or societies, and then writing them down as a history seems almost doomed to be a history of imperfection and scandals and conflicts with spots of greatness that interrupt the flow. So is sacred history an accounting of the greatness, a history of “spots”? Ibn Khaldun’s history is not really a “sacred” treatment, nor do I think it is possible. So my complaint of Zinn’s history or methodology is more of a complaint about those who champion his effort as a pretext to personal political posturing, as well as the general proclivity of trying to uncover the flaws (or create them) of what people uphold as special and meaningful.

Thank you for your compliments and sorry for your complaint. You consistently leave thoughtful comments.

2/28/2007 11:42 AM  
Blogger jordan robinson said...

We many times we forget context and compare past events with contemporary expectations.

But then again, when human existence is seen as linear and all things are in a forced flux of progress, where tomorrow must be better than today and yesterday better than the day before, we fail to grasp the complexities of temporal humaness and all agendas are served by some stroke of the pen.

3/03/2007 2:07 AM  
Anonymous Maliha said...

I don't know I am uncomfortable with this vein of thought; although I understand what you are saying in terms of changes and contextual analysis being important.

It's just as important to "hear" different sides of the story and if we don't analyze our mistakes, how are we supposed to learn from them?

I don't think context is enough to explain away everything that happened. Some really bad things went down and we just have to deal with it.

And God knows best.

3/03/2007 1:30 PM  
Blogger jordan robinson said...

I didn't mean to say that everything is relative.

All I meant was that there are many dynamics that must be considered when evaluating past events because we are very much affected by contemporary expectations for what is acceptable and not. And with many modern cognitive frames that have become default lenses for many scholars, I worry that we may lose an appreciation for the Prophetic compass, which has been instrumental in linking temporal humaness with the limitless Divine for thousands of years.

This vision for people of faith is lost on many contemporary academics and intellectuals casting Islam and other religious traditions as arachaic and alien because they are said to not have a "modern" sense.

3/04/2007 2:58 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Maliha and Jordan: If I had to distill my point in this entry (avoiding the blog style) it would be this: it is easy, as far as methodology goes, to turn to a period of time and focus in on the inevitable "problems" of humans and then write a narrative as if those "problems" defined the times. And historians (friendly and antagonistic) have points of view that they insert in their methodologies.

3/05/2007 7:38 AM  

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