The academic left’s involvement in politics

In today’s LA Times, the op-ed page was dominated by comments on Howard Zinn (“An experts’ history of Zinn”), who by all accounts was a leftist political activist as well as a professor of political science at Boston University. Zinn, who probably deserved a chapter in The Culture of Critique as an exemplar of a leftist Jewish intellectual activist, was involved in all the leftist causes of the last 60 years. He wore his political beliefs on his sleeve and was proud of his lack of neutrality in his writing, titling his memoir You can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.  As one of the commentators, Sean Wilentz, notes,

He saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.

To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great.

But other historians are much more sympathetic to Zinn. Eric Foner, who is described by one reviewer as the “sainted PC commissar for US history and Reconstruction fabulist” is, like Zinn, an academic radical activist. Foner says about Zinn:

The idea that historians have to be neutral about everything they study is the death of history. Every historian has beliefs and feelings about what they’re studying. Howard made them very explicit. The teachers you remember are the ones with a passion for history who made it clear what they thought. They were not polemicists. They respected the canons of historical scholarship, as Zinn did, but they cared deeply.

Well, I’m not sure how much Zinn respected the canons of scholarship in creating what one commentor called an “eternal struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.” The print version of the Times op-ed provides some quotations from Zinn’s work A People’s History of the United States. The Western culture = evil, native peoples = good theme is obvious. Europe of the Renaissance was “dominated … by the religion of the popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western Civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.” The natives, on the other hand, are all about hospitality and sharing, and they have no concept of war. (Imagine the horror if someone made blanket assertions about Jews as having a frenzy for money.)

As an evolutionist, the idea that Western culture is uniquely evil is ridiculous, but the idea that it is uniquely evil has been common among Jewish intellectual activists, most notably the Boasian anthropologists. As I noted in The Culture of Critique,

one consequence of the triumph of the Boasians was that there was almost no research on warfare and violence among the peoples studied by anthropologists (Keegan 1993, 90–94). Warfare and warriors were ignored, and cultures were conceived as consisting of myth-makers and gift-givers [or, as hospitable, loving, and sharing people, as Zinn would have it]. (Orans [1996, 120] shows that Mead systematically ignored cases of rape, violence, revolution, and competition in her account of Samoa.) Only five articles on the anthropology of war appeared during the 1950s. Revealingly, when Harry Turney-High published his volume Primitive Warfarein 1949 documenting the universality of warfare and its oftentimes awesome savagery, the book was completely ignored by the anthropological profession—another example of the exclusionary tactics used against dissenters among the Boasians and characteristic of the other intellectual movements reviewed in this volume as well. Turney-High’s massive data on non-Western peoples conflicted with the image of them favored by a highly politicized profession whose members simply excluded these data entirely from intellectual discourse. The result was a “pacified past” (Keeley 1996, 163ff) and an “attitude of self-reproach” (p. 179) in which the behavior of primitive peoples was bowdlerized while the behavior of European peoples was not only excoriated as uniquely evil but also as responsible for all extant examples of warfare among primitive peoples. From this perspective, it is only the fundamental inadequacy of European culture that prevents an idyllic world free from between-group conflict. 

The reality, of course, is far different. Warfare was and remains a recurrent phenomenon among prestate societies. Surveys indicate over 90 percent of societies engage in warfare, the great majority engaging in military activities at least once per year (Keeley 1996, 27–32). Moreover, “whenever modern humans appear on the scene, definitive evidence of homicidal violence becomes more common, given a sufficient number of burials (Keeley 1996, 37). Because of its frequency and the seriousness of its consequences, primitive warfare was more deadly than civilized warfare. Most adult males in primitive and prehistoric societies engaged in warfare and “saw combat repeatedly in a lifetime” (Keeley, 1996, 174).

Howard Zinn was obviously in this tradition. But because he plugged into the anti-Western zeitgeist of the academic left, he had a long and happy career at Boston University — untroubled by student activists trying to get him fired.

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