Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present made the Boston University professor a rock star among political liberals, Hollywood actors, and long-suffering AP U.S. history students searching for an “alternate view” of American history. It’s not every historian who gets Matt Damon to produce a History Channel special based solely on his book. Rutgers professor David Greenberg is among many critics of Zinn now emerging after his death who are pointing out one nagging fact: Zinn never let the facts get in the way of his historical interpretations. Granted, this news is no news. He may have been a celebrity among zealots with radical causes, but Zinn faced criticism for years from colleagues who shared his political beliefs but abhorred his habit of reducing “historical analysis to political opinion.”
However, in the guise of a book review Greenberg produces one of the most damning portraits of Zinn I have ever read. So much for speaking no ill of the dead, although the essay is hardly just an exercise in kicking the corpse of a famous scholar. I have criticized Zinn’s flagrantly simplistic and ideological interpretations of the American Revolution because of his almost naive desire to avoid examining influential men and women (the “elites”) without conceding they are part of the story no matter what you think of their behavior, as well as his desire to selectively write a narrative that furthers a political cause rather than illuminates the past. History should not be an exercise where scholars “have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Perhaps the tide is turning and Howard Zinn is losing his luster as a folk hero of the institutionalized left — or at least, his status American historian to the stars. Note that the essay is in The New Republic, which is hardly a bastion of right-wing thought.