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.