25 March 2013

Howard Zinn, Ideology, and Faulty Scholarship

It's a day (and night) for grading papers, so I'll put this here: part review of a biography of Howard Zinn, and part critique of Zinn's career, David Greenberg's "Howard Zinn's Influential Mutilations of American History" in The New Republic (hardly a bastion of traditionalism or of conservatism). I appreciate Greenberg's approach to revisionism such as Zinn's: he calls out Zinn's willingness to castigate the USA's actions and ideologies while ignoring or minimizing other nations' cruelties--his silences on the brutalities of Soviet Russia, and so on.

Of Zinn's scholarship in A People's History of the United States, Greenberg says:
Zinn rests satisfied with what strikes him as the scandalous revelation that claims of objectivity often mask ideological predilections. Imagine! And on the basis of this sophomoric insight, he renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses.
Lord, but I have heard this methodology set forth by undergraduates in courses past: "as long as I identify my point of view and find sufficient quotes that seem to lend authority, my work is done." Rather than reasoning and sound evidence that reflects a thorough consideration of the issue, support becomes a quote-hunt, the results of which are often cherry-picked, redefined, and decontextualized.

Don't such arguments (aligned with specific ideologies, supported with cherry-picked evidence)  become non-arguable? Rather than dealing with reason, we deal with emotion and belief--and one can't really (fairly) argue with feeling or faith.

It's tempting to go on and to develop, somewhat, these initial thoughts, but I have yards of paper to read before I sleep.

Aside: Apparently Ralph Ellison didn't think much of Zinn's scholarship. Who knew?

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