Well, the prolific commentators over at American Creation have managed to distract me from my quiet evening in front of the television watching the Pitt-Villanova game. This morning I wrote a post on this blog criticizing Howard Zinn and questioning his identity as a “historian.” Brad Hart at American Creation wrote a post about my post and it has opened up a real hornet’s nest in the comments section of his blog.
My post on Zinn comes on the heels of another heated debate at American Creation that centers around whether or not Christian nationalist David Barton is or isn’t a “liar.” Barton gadfly Chris Rodda has put together a YouTube lecture series showing, quite convingly I might add, how Barton has a tendency of manipulating primary sources to make his dubious argument that America is a Christian nation. (I showed the first two parts of these lectures to my Religion and American Founding class yesterday. I think they got a kick out of the whole debate).
Some commentators at American Creation are unwilling to accept my comparison between Zinn and Barton. (With the exception of Brad Hart, who seems to be one of the lone defenders of my post. Thanks for taking the heat Brad!). They are arguing that Zinn is different from Barton because Barton deliberately “lies” about what the sources say and Zinn does not. While I am not sure I would go as far as some in calling Barton a “liar,” it does seem that he has distorted the truth of the documents he uses. (Zinn may do the same thing, but I have not had the time or inclination to check it out thoroughly). The argument of some of the American Creation commentators thus goes something like this: Since Barton “lies” about the evidence and Zinn does not, this makes Zinn a legitimate historian and make Barton a fraud.
Fair enough. A historian, of course, must tell the truth. If they consciously or unconsciously misrepresent documents they are bad historians. But this is not the criteria I was using when I said that Zinn was a bad historian. My critique of Zinn was based on his presentist agenda–using the past to prove a political point. I strongly suggest that you read my many posts on historical thinking and you will understand what I mean by this. (Look especially at my posts on books by Sam Wineburg and Gordon Wood).
By cherry picking from the past things to support his activism, Zinn is just as guilty as Barton (even when Barton IS historically accurate on the facts) in failing to provide a complete picture of American history. In other words, both Zinn and Barton are activists who have convinced a lot of people that they are historians.
I should also add that the Michael Kazin article I reference is noteworthy because Kazin himself is a man of the left.