Thursday, November 3, 2011

Original Zinn by Howard Zinn

Original Zinn is a collection of interviews with Howard Zinn from approximately the years 2002-2005, in which the historian holds forth on his opinions on the United States, the state of the world, and the political Left.

I read it in a couple of hours while in Patara, Turkey. That was about two months ago. I don't think I can remember much that is specific to this book, especially as it's already thoroughly blended together in my mind with other opinion-esque pieces I've read, by Zinn and by other like-minded people.

So, sorry everyone. I'm not going to talk about Howard Zinn in this post.

Instead, I'm going to rant a bit on a related topic. I'm going to create a fictitious commenter, pretend he's left a comment, and then reply to that comment.

Strawman2011 says:
LOL don't you know zinn wasn't a real historian? he was just a hippie lefty activist who twisted history to fit his ideological biases. why don't you read a real historian sometime hahahahaha

Thank you, Strawman2011. In response, let me tell you about an episode of The Daily Show I saw earlier this year.

The guest was Mike Huckabee. My politics differs from Huckabee's quite a bit, but I will admit he was gregarious and charming on Jon Stewart's show.

(This can be attributed to the fact that he was not, at the moment, running for president. A few months ago I watched Tim Pawlenty on The Daily Show. Pawlenty was indeed running for president at the time, and as a result he was stiff and delivered only preprogrammed responses. He was Politico-Bot and at that time I believe he would have failed the Turing Test.)

Stewart brought up the historian David Barton. Barton is a figure whom Huckabee has praised in highly complimentary terms. People who like to think the USA was founded as a Christian nation generally tend to like Barton's work. In contrast, proponents of the separation of church and state have tended to dismiss him as an ideological crank. In all fairness I should mention that I've never read a thing he wrote.

I haven't seen the interview since it first aired -- apologies if I'm about to get some details wrong. Huckabee's defense basically boiled down to, 'Look, Barton's telling the truth -- he's not just making stuff up. Look at the primary sources for yourself if you don't believe me.'

This bothered me, and I was disappointed that Stewart didn't pursue the matter further.

It bothered me because not making stuff up, and convincingly demonstrating that what you claim happened, really happened, is not the mark of a first-class historian.

It's more like the absolute minimum that's expected of you.

The role of the historian is not just to say, 'Here's a bunch of stuff that happened in the past.' True, saying that is indeed part of the job of being a historian. I'm sure there are plenty of incompetent history teachers who do that part, clock out, and go home.

But the truth, as touchy-feely and unscientific as it may sound, is that being a historian is largely about storytelling. It's about constructing a narrative.

When there's a great deal of material, a historian must choose what to focus on. That's especially true when a historian is writing for a popular audience and needs to create a compelling narrative. I read Her Little Majesty, Carolly Erickson's 267-page biography of Queen Victoria, and when I finished I was quite unsure of just how much I had really learned about the old queen. Erickson's a wonderful writer, but in order to fit a readable narrative of a person's life into 267 pages, an author must choose what to emphasize, what to spin into a narrative, and what to leave out. Her Little Majesty is nonfiction, but it could be read as an unusually fact-based novel. I'm not criticizing Erickson -- she couldn't have done any differently, given the format she was working in.

And sometimes there isn't a lot of material. Many prominent people's lives are astonishingly poorly documented. It's amazing how little firsthand information we have on the life of Alexander the Great, for instance; most of our information comes from historians who lived long after his death. Any historian who tackles that period of history is going to have to pull together separate sources and conjecture a lot.

And of course, no historian can truly know what any given person was thinking at any given time. No historian can know what a person's subjective experience was like, no matter how well documented the person was.

That's why I was disappointed with Mike Huckabee's defense of David Barton. It's not enough to say a historian is factually correct. What you really need to defend is his interpretation. The narrative he strings together. His spin, if you will. Huckabee defended Barton by saying he got the basic building blocks right, when he should have defended his interpretation.

Huckabee pretended that the job of a historian is to tell us a bunch of stuff that happened. That's just not true.

Everyone who writes or talks about history creates a narrative. Good historians are honest about it. I'm a big fan of Dan Carlin's history podcast, Hardcore History. In the first installment of his series on the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, he straightforwardly says that this is a period of history that's been written about and analyzed many times before, but now his listeners are going to get the Dan Carlin version of what happened. I respect that.

Let's bring this back around to Howard Zinn. You might respect Zinn's politics and his take on history, or you might not. Fair enough.

But to attack Zinn (or David Barton, for that matter) for delivering his own version of history? Sorry, but that's just what historians do. Unless you want to wait until after the Singularity, when posthuman HistoryBots will presumably create narratives based solely on a probabilistic calculation of how things must have progressed given certain parameters in order to create the world that they exist in.

Granted, there are historians whose biases shape their work to the point that the narrative is more about themselves than objective reality. And that's a problem. But there's a continuum between a historian blinded by his own biases, and HistoryBot 4000. Every person trying to construct honest narratives about the past falls somewhere on that continuum.

If you think your favorite historian tells history 100% objectively, I'd have to say that a) you're not familiar enough with that period of history to know the whole story, b) the historian's personal biases happen to match yours, or most likely c) both.

I'm not offended by historians who wear their politics on their sleeve, as long as they honestly and sincerely try to work within the real world as it is (and was). We should all just remember that the issue isn't whether their interpretations are factually correct, because that's the absolute minimum standard that they should be achieving anyway. The issue is whether their interpretations, their narratives, are actually useful in understanding the past. And the present.

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