The Death Battle of Howard Zinn and Doris Kearns Goodwin

How Should History Be Told? 

Note: The title of the piece may be a bit much considering that Zinn is dead and Goodwin is not, but hopefully you'll get the point and forgive me. 

Today I finished Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," an incredible book written, in Zinn's words, "…to tell the story of the discovery of America from the point of view of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the NEw York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills…" etc, etc, you get the idea.  "A People's History" came highly recommended by friends, acquaintances, and the internet, and the book is so well-regarded that some progressive high school history teachers use it as an alternative history text. I'm also pretty sure that Zinn's concluding chapter, "The Coming Revolt of the Guards" is responsible for the Occupy epithet, "The 99%." 

For the past month I have also been listening to "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism," on Audible at work. (By the way, Audible, I love you.) "The Bully Pulpit" is the latest book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian best known for "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," the basis for the movie "Lincoln." Goodwin has also written epic biographies on JFK, LBJ, and FDR, among others. In general her presidential portraits are flattering. Lincoln, of course, is a political genius.  Kennedy is flawed but only trying to live up to family expectations. Teddy is a bit too enthusiastic for his own good, especially when it comes to running up hills and building canals, but he's a man of the people who uses his special relationship with the press, his "Bully Pulpit" to mobilize the public against special interests. Taft is fat and ineffective, but he's a good-natured guy and genuine reformer, and he might have been a decent president if his wife Nellie (who Goodwin implies definitely wore the pants in the relationship) hadn't suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak a two months into his first term. She forgot one detail though. 

Original image by Brown University Safewalk

After an hour Doris, I feel pretty good about the world. The bad guys usually get it: Nailed your asses, you oppressive tenement slumlords! Suck it, Standard Oil! The jig is up, you corrupt bastard Ballinger you! Guess what, JP? You just got seeeeeerved!  Of course Goodwin also describes many setbacks and imperfections, but in general it feels like some progress is being made, and that we're on our way to a better world. 

After a chapter of Howard, I feel like crawling into a hole and dying: 

"Total control led to to total cruelty. The Spaniards 'thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens or twenties or of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.' Las Casas tells how 'Two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.'" 
The Gilded Age: 
"The police attacked the crowds. The press reported: 'The sound of clubs falling on skull s was sickening for the first minute, until one grew accustomed to it. A rioter dropped at every whack, it seemed, for the ground was covered with them' …The next day an armed crowd of five thousand fought the police. The police fired again and again, and when it was over the dead were counted, they were, as usual, workingmen and boys, eighteen of them, their skulls smashed by clubs, their vital organs pierced by gunfire." 
"'In another Delta province there is a woman who has both arms burned off by napalm and her eyelids so badly burned that she cannot close them. When it is time for her to sleep her family puts a blanket over her head. The women had two of her children killed in the air strike that maimed her.'" 
Zinn makes his book even more difficult to read by glossing over many events that traditional historical sources paint as victories, like the passage of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments, and discrediting others by framing them as measures grudgingly taken by "the Establishment" to prevent catastrophic social unrest. Take, for example, Martin Luther King. I was pleased to arrive at the Civil Rights Chapter (called "Or Does it Explode" after this excellent Langston Hughes poem) on MLK day, thinking delusionally that it would be an inspiring read. Instead I got: 
"Martin Luther King's speech there thrilled 200,000 black and white Americans--"I have a dream…" It was magnificent oratory, but without the anger that many blacks felt. When John Lewis, a young Alabama-born SNCC leader, much arrested, much beaten tried to introduce a stronger note of outrage a the meeting, he was censored by the leaders of the march, who insisted he omit certain sentences critical of the national government and urging militant action." 
A friend who read Zinn in her progressive high school history class sympathized: 

To underscore the difference further, let's compare Goodwin's opening summary of Roosevelt's presidency with the few paragraphs Zinn gives him in Chapter 13: 

"At the start of Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between rich and poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions. Under Roosevelt’s Square Deal, the country had awakened to the need for government action to allay problems caused by industrialization—an awakening spurred in part by the dramatic exposés of a talented group of investigative journalists he famously labeled 'muckrakers.' 
By the end of Roosevelt’s tenure, much had been accomplished. The moribund 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act had been revived, vast acres of lands had been protected from exploitation, and railroads had been prevented from continuing long-standing abuses. Congress had passed workmen’s compensation, a pure food and drug law, and a meat inspection act. Nevertheless, much remained to be done." 
I mean, he could go either way, really...
"Theodore Roosevelt made a reputation for himself as a 'trust buster' (although his successor, Taft, a 'conservative,' while Roosevelt was a 'Progressive,' launched more anti-trust suits than did Roosevelt). In fact, as Wiebe points out, two of JP Morgans men… 'arranged a general understanding with Roosevelt by which they would cooperate in any investigation by the Bureau of Corporations in return for a guarantee of their companies' legality.' They would do this through private negotiations with the president. 'A gentlemen's agreement between reasonable people,' Wiebe says with a bit of sarcasm.

Roosevelt supported the regulatory Hepburn Act because he feared something worse. He wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge that the railroad lobbyists who opposed the bill were wrong: 'I think they are very short-sighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads.' His action against the trust was to induce them to accept government regulation, in order to prevent destruction. He prosecuted the Morgan railroad monopoly in the Northern Securities Case, considering it an antitrust victory, but it hardly changed anything, and although the Sherman Act provided for criminal penalties, there was no prosecution of the men who had planned the monopoly- Morgan, Harriman, Hill." 
You see my point? 

I'm extremely fond of Doris. I both love and hate Howard. Both of them are excellent historians. Neither of them lie, nor do they omit important facts, but they take nearly polar opposite approaches to history.  Goodwin writes history like an optimist, Zinn like a pessimist. Goodwin's telling produces the kind story that inspires middle-aged professionals to read biography in their spare time and wins Daniel Day Lewis his third Oscar. Zinn's telling produces the kind of story that inspires disaffected poor and idealistic youth to camp out in tents and talk in circles for six months.

So whose approach is better? In a death battle between Howard Zinn and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who should win? 

This death battle is not about who arrives closer to the truth. I don't believe that there is any such thing as perfectly unbiased history. As Zinn says, "It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, and choose out of the bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map." I think, then, that the battle comes down to whose approach will help us most build a better world. 

At first glance, Zinn seems like the obvious winner. His book is probably the most eloquent call for justice that I have ever read. To get better, we need to learn from our mistakes, and Zinn catalogues our mistakes in brutal, unforgiving detail. When it's a question of right and wrong, you can't be settle for average (and let's face it, for a lot of American history we have been decidedly below average). You have to hold yourself to what is right. It is not OK to bomb Cambodia because you are an OK President in some other areas.  It is not OK to subjugate Asia just because all of the good old boys in Europe are doing it too. It is not OK to oppress women just because that's the way it works in every other patriarchal society. Complacency is the bane of progress; it is not OK to let history become entertainment, fodder for award winning movies that help you sleep at night. 

But is it too brutal? Reading "A People's History" you lose faith in the system in about 2.5 seconds. In the last chapter of his book, Zinn suggests that the People's problems will only be solved by a massive (and peaceful) People's revolution. But a revolution is not a government. There is growing consensus in economics that institutions are essential, preferably fair ones, but probably more importantly, consistent ones. Goodwin's approach, while still people-focused, pays a bit more attention to the institutions. Worse than losing faith in institutions however, is losing faith in people. Zinn gives hundreds of examples of heroism; a solider refusing to board a plane to Iraq during Desert Storm; an eight-year-old girl leading a walk-out in a 19th century textile mill; the activism and oratory of Sojourner Truth. But almost all leaders are cast as oppressors. It makes you wonder, if they traded places, would the heroes would be oppressors too? Goodwin finds her heros among the elite, but in the end she paints a more complex and more inspiring picture of humanity. 

My perfect history would combine Zinn's uncompromising call for justice and belief in the agency of the collective with Goodwin's more optimistic view of institutions and affirmation of the agency of the individual. I'm not sure that this history can exist. It's a cop out and more than a little cheesy, but we need both of them to stay alive.  

To end with John Stuart Mill: 
"In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner."

1 comment :

  1. ***From another angle***

    This is not an issue of optimism vs pessimism, but one of institutions vs individuals. Zinn's criticisms are of systems, while Goodwin evaluates individuals. And that difference makes all the difference.

    People can be heroic, can overcome obstacles, can have internal struggles, and are general the heroes of their own narrative. People can adapt and evolve, often radically, to thrive in their given situation.
    Systems, on the other hand, rarely adapt. They are innately driven to keep those who have power in power. If they do adapt, it either involves significant idealistic compromise on the part of the reformers or revolution (which is more replacing one system with another than a strict adaptation). Either option is pretty depressing.

    In short (as a generalization): a system is pessimistic, a life is inspiring.

    Even when the individual meets the system (and compromise inevitably occurs) it can be put in terms of the individual's conflicting priorities, ethcical dilemmas, etc. Systems don't have that benefit. In fact, even an individual that can be considered a failure can generally be cast in a positive light because, while they failed, they failed trying to change the immutable institution. So the establishment continues to be depressing, while the individual at least gets to be Rudy.

    [Bonus build your own illustration: Barack Obama's political career.]


    In general, I agree with your conclusion that we need both.

    I think that all meaningful institutions need two kinds of people. You need an MLK and an MX. You need militant, uncompromising idealists who can fire up emotions and motivate action in the base. But you also need those with smoother edges who, through some kind of compromise, can win allies outside of the base. (Allies which, in a democracy, are necessary to effect change.)