Friday, January 29, 2010

Dennis Prager Interviews Howard Zinn

This is a very interesting discussion between conservative radio host Dennis Prager and the late socialist author and activist Howard Zinn...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How Should Critics Say Goodbye to Howard Zinn?

Howard Zinn, a longtime Boston University professor, bestselling author, and one of the most passionate voices for the American Left, died Wednesday, January 27, 2010 while traveling in California. The cause of his death was a heart attack. He was 87 years old.

How does one who has long been critical of Zinn's strident bias and incomplete "scholarship" say goodbye to such a man? How should Zinn's critics say goodbye to the man in good taste?

I suppose I should start by expressing my sincere condolences to Zinn's family. I never wish harm on anyone, and even though the 87-year old's family couldn't expect him to live forever, saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy or welcome. Having personally lost loved ones and having (as a pastor) walked with many families through the kind of grief now confronting Zinn's family, I sincerely wish to express my sorrow.

I should also acknowledge that Zinn offered a refreshing dose of passion and activism in an age where many, many people float through life with little direction, meaning, or aspiration. Zinn was not apathetic about his beliefs. He was devoted to his cause and invested his life in advancing it. I wish more people were like that, instead of just letting life pass them by.

All that having been said, I cannot allow Zinn's passing to go by without also noting the great damage, I think, he did to America's sense of identity. In short, Zinn helped make America more cynical. At a time when people need something to believe in (hint: people always NEED that, even if they say they don't), Zinn devoted his life to demolishing heroes, overturning icons, and dragging Americans through the messiest and darkest parts of their collective "Memory Lane."

You might be tempted to ask: "What's wrong with that?" The answer is nothing, if it's done honestly, fairly, and (yes) in moderation. But there was nothing (and I mean NOTHING!) fair or moderate about Howard Zinn!

When I think of Zinn, I think of John Adams' critique of Thomas Paine. When commenting on Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Adams remarked that Paine was great at tearing things down, but not so good at building anything up in its place.

It's true that Zinn called our attention to some things that needed our attention. But he did so in a way that was bitter, often brutish, and usually unfair to all the participants involved.

Zinn admitted that his "scholarship" (I can't help but put that word in quotation marks) was biased. He once said: "Objectivity is impossible, and it is also undesirable… because if you have any kind of a social aim… then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity."

Not only did Zinn thus admit to selective, agenda-oriented, activist historiography, but he also revealed his postmodern "All Truth is Relative" colors.

**Read "Master of Deceit," an article by Dan Flynn that reviews Zinn's work

A half-truth is the most dangerous kind of lie, and Zinn excelled at half truths. By zeroing in on the so-called "dark side" of American history, without showing the brighter side(s) or fairly presenting the context(s) within which many of these darker action(s) took place, all Zinn really did was fuel anger and feed cynicism.

For this writer, truth is not relative. As for Zinn, his own words show that he probably didn't even have a conception of truth or recognize the possibility that it might exist. For him, truth was what you make it, and Zinn made sure to advance his version of the "truth" no matter how much collateral damage he caused in the process.

Bottom line, we should show respect and offer our prayers and support to Zinn's family. And we should do our best to find the good in the man. But let's not fall into the trap of celebrating a legacy that, frankly, doesn't deserve it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Legacy of Andrew Jackon's Victory at the Battle of New Orleans

Any student of the War of 1812 knows that its most dramatic American victory took place at New Orleans, a battle that occurred two weeks after the war officially ended. Despite its tragic timing and apparent irrelevance (at least in terms of its chronology), General Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans left four important marks in American history.

1. The Battle of New Orleans made Andrew Jackson not only a national hero, but a national sensation. This was, of course, before television, radio, and entertainment celebrity infatuation. For Americans of the early 1800s, Andrew Jackson became their iconic, larger-than-life, celebrity figure! This guaranteed Jackson's eventual rise to the presidency, which would forever change not only the presidency, but American politics in general.

2. The victory at New Orleans helped reestablish a semblance of American confidence and pride. While the Treaty of Ghent settled the War of 1812 as more or less a draw, the conflict had been a messy affair for the young United States. The US had enjoyed some successes in the war, but had also endured some devastating and humiliating losses. Indeed, at the time of Ghent and New Orleans, much of the US was in British hands. And the British had also established that they could land troops pretty much anywhere they wanted and, in some cases, march them wherever they wanted with impunity. Jackson's decisive victory at New Orleans ended the war on a proverbial touchdown or Grand Slam.

3. With their loss at New Orleans, the British failed to gain control of or establish a foothold on the crucial Mississippi River. The British had recently sacked the nation's capital. Though they had failed to take Baltimore, which would have effectively gutted the Eastern seaboard of the United States, they were still in a strong position to do some major damage to America's pride and economy at New Orleans. Had they succeeded in their plans, America's economy would've been seriously imperiled. And even with the Treaty of Ghent having been inked, it's difficult to imagine Britain just handing over their gains at New Orleans without some additional concessions or compensation. Thanks to Jackson, though, America didn't have to worry about any of that.

4. The diverse nature of Jackson's forces served as a microcosm of America and an example for future generations. Answering the British army which numbered over 7,000 men, Jackson's forces were somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000. They included US Army troops, militia from several states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana), free blacks, Choctaw warriors, and even pirates! Racially, culturally, and economically diverse, Jackson's army embodied the "Melting Pot" ideals of America and would serve as an inspiration and example of how Americans from different races and backgrounds can work together for the common good.

Though it took place nearly 200 years ago, the legacy of the Battle of New Orleans is still with us today.


For more on the battle itself, check out "Eyewitness to History: The Battle of New Orleans."

Friday, January 01, 2010

Was the American Revolution Fought Over Economics and Greed?

In the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon's character Will tells a group of Ivy League students that if they want the "real" history of the American Revolution, they should read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

Howard Zinn, and a large number of other scholars and more than a few everyday Americans, believe that the United States of America was founded on greed. And that the American Revolution was orchestrated, due to the Founders' economic self interests.

The first time I came across this argument was when I was an 18-year old clerk in the Sears Catalog Department at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Virginia. In the slow times, I would sometimes get into political debates with my fellow associates. In one such debate, a lady I worked with proceeded to tell me that the Founding Fathers were not noble. They were, in her words, greedy swindlers, slave owners, blah, blah, blah who founded the United States for their own selfish economic interests.

In the years since, I've come to learn that there are a rather large number of folks who believe this very thing. They, in fact, believe the very worst about our nation's founding. To them, the Founders were not good guys deserving of our respect and accolades. On the contrary, the Founders were (so say this group of cynical, usually left-wing critics) the villains of the story. Villains that set in motion one of the most repressive and evil nations in the history of mankind.

Time will not permit me to defend the United States overall against this kind of bashing. For this article, I will focus solely on the American Revolution and the charge that it was waged over economic interests.

First, the sheer lunacy of this charge is evident in the fact that the Founding Fathers put far more at risk in waging the American Revolution than they would have, had they remained loyal to the British Crown. For example, George Washington's economic standing was certainly impacted by the Navigation Acts. But as history professor Larry Schweikart points out, that was "nothing compared to the losses he could have suffered by leading the Continental Army." (Schweikart, Larry. 48 Liberal Lies About American History. New York: Sentinel, 2008).

Second, the core of the Declaration of Independence, the document which articulated America's reasons for breaking with Britain, focuses on political and social ideals rather than economic issues. Notwithstanding the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation," the tax issue was nowhere near the top of grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence!

Third, several studies have been done on the period, and most of which have shown that, while British economic policies were certainly inconvenient and challenging, they were not (by and large) repressive. The Americans didn't rise up in rebellion over taxes or economics. They rose up over the issue of self-government! Even the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation" demonstrates this. The issue wasn't taxation per se, but rather over which legislative body had the authority to tax. The war was over ideas, not money.

Fourth, political and social interests dominated the Constitutional Convention. In his landmark work We The People, historian Forrest McDonald demonstrated that, while the political and sectional interests of the states (admittedly with economic ramifications) were represented in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, not all economic interests were represented.

Finally, while it's true that self interest DID play a role in the American Revolution, this has been the case in every war and in every episode of history. And this isn't just with American history, but WORLD history.

General Washington himself acknowledged this, when he wrote: "I do not mean to exclude altogether the idea of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting war can never be supported on this principle alone. It must be aided by a prospect of interest, or some reward."

Human beings, by nature, are self-centered. This is why James Madison wrote: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." The Founders recognized this about people, including themselves.

The genius of the United States is that our nation is founded on a set of noble aspirations -- moral tenets that call us to be better than ourselves - and a "checks and balances" framework that recognizes, channels, and (in some cases) takes advantage of our primal, selfish instincts as human beings!

Highlighting the sins of America's past doesn't prove the United States to be a repressive nation. And pointing out that some profited from the Revolution doesn't prove that the Revolution was fought over greed.

The reason why we should respect and, yes, revere our Founders is that they recognized the reality of human nature, and decided to start a nation that would strive to rise above it! A nation that would call out the best in people - in Lincoln's words, "the better angels of our nature."

For this, we should thank and honor our Founders. Not condemn them.