28 January 2010

Track of the Day: R.I.P. Howard Zinn

Today's track is dedicated to the late Howard Zinn, and I think it's one he would've been very comfortable with:

Thinking about Zinn's legacy, which has been written about by some other commentators at length in light of his passing, I think two of its most positive elements a) his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement and b) the simple fact that he introduced many Americans to the fact that everything they learned in history class may not have been entirely accurate or presented without bias.

With respect to the actual substance of A People's History and his other works--as a card-carrying member of the center-left and friend of capitalism, I am decidedly less enthusiastic. This essay gets at much of what I disagree with in his work.

One other major problem I found with some of it was his pacifism. As a "national security progressive" and someone who is generally skeptical of most calls for war, I think that pacifists and proponents of complete nonviolence offer a powerful critique of militarism and the jingoistic hawkishness that surrounds much of our national security discourse. I think the fact that Zinn's pacifism came from a WW2 bombardier lends further credibility to his position.

He was, I think, wrong on many issues though. Nonviolence simply isn't a viable solution in some cases and just war theory offers a middle ground between pacifism and unrestrained violence that progressives can embrace. Zinn's condemnations of WW2 and the first Gulf War are then, for example, wrongheaded (although his critique of say, terror bombing in the former are not).

His pacifism also becomes intellectually shallow in some of his work. Specifically, I remember in his discussion of the Clinton Administration in A People's History, he portrays the administration as basically a 1990s version of Genghis Kahn's hordes, terrorizing Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, without providing any real context as to why those wars were fought.

Overall, though, I would say that Zinn's legacy has been more positive than negative, and he is not someone the left should disown. However, a critique of his work should serve to solidify liberals' commitment toward just war as a last resort and regulated capitalism.

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