Monday, August 20, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn is probably the best selling historian of all time. And yet many of his supporters (rarely the professional historians who write in the areas about which Zinn has written) like to pretend that he is a maligned outsider who has been ignored by all but a brave, enlightened cadre willing to speak truth to power. While his books have sold a gazillion copies, I do not find him to be an especially good historian. By wearing his ideology on his sleeve, some might see Zinn as ruthlessly honest, but he lets his politics drive his historical work in a way that warps and twists his interpretations and makes his work tremendously dishonest. Or at least uninteresting for those of us who are not interested in creating a usable past to confirm rather than challenge our own prevailing worldviews. Zinn has served as a fairly good polemicist at times, and his reportage on, say, the Civil Rights Movement helped me to shape some of my own ideas about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee early on, but on the whole, I have little use for him. I can almost always anticipate what he is going to write before I’ve completed reading the first paragraph, and I’m rarely surprised by what follows.


Thus when I came to Zinn’s letter to the editor in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, I could see what was to follow. Let’s just parse the letter paragraph by paragraph. I’ll place Zinn’s words in quotation marks and will precede my own with *** in customary dcat fashion:


“Samantha Power has done extraordinary work in chronicling the genocides of our time, and in exposing how the Western powers were complicit by their inaction.”


*** In approaching his letter this way, Zinn is setting Powers up in order to knock her down. But let’s keep in mind who the respective writers – Zinn and Powers – are and their relative status not in book sales, but on the actual issue of global genocides and the Western responses to them. Oh, and I am curious what action, in light of what follows, Zinn would have advocated Western powers taking in the face of the genocides Powers has chronicled so well.


“However, in her review of four books on terrorism, especially Talal Asad’s “On Suicide Bombing” (July 29), she claims a moral distinction between ‘inadvertent’ killing of civilians in bombings and “deliberate” targeting of civilians in suicide attacks. Her position is not only illogical, but (against her intention, I believe) makes it easier to justify such bombings.”


*** One can only assume that in what follows Zinn will try to claim that intent does not matter, that intending to kill someone is no different from unintentionally killing someone. I really hope I do not have to explain to any sentient person why an unwillingness to distinguish between the two is monumentally stupid.


“She believes that ‘there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective.’ Of course, there’s a difference, but is there a “moral” difference? That is, can you say one action is more reprehensible than the other?”


*** Yes, you can. I’d like to be more snarky about it actually, because the question is so obtuse, reveals such sophistry, that it warrants little more than scorn. But the answer to the question is so patently clear that I’m at a loss for snarkiness except to say that yes, intending to kill someone is worse than inadvertently killing someone in almost any imaginable case. Morally worse. Or, as he’d have it for reasons I cannot quite divine, “morally” worse.


“In countless news briefings, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, responding to reporters’ questions about civilian deaths in bombing, would say those deaths were ‘unintentional’ or ‘inadvertent’ or ‘accidental,’ as if that disposed of the problem. In the Vietnam War, the massive deaths of civilians by bombing were justified in the same way by Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and various generals.”


*** Look, I loathe Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. I think they have been irredeemably terrible public servants, and though I will never know them personally, their public personas are to me disgusting, self-important, arrogant beyond words, and dangerous. I would not trust either of them to shit competently after a bran binge. But simply mentioning their name and halfheartedly using them as the spokesmen for a complicated idea (and for historical analogies that obscure more than they reveal) such as civilian deaths in war is simply shoddy argumentation.


“These words are misleading because they assume an action is either ‘deliberate’ or ‘unintentional.’ There is something in between, for which the word is ‘inevitable.’ If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not ‘intentional.’ Does that difference exonerate you morally?”


*** Leaving “inevitability,” a concept of which good historians are always wary, aside for a moment, that “inevitability” still does not erase the difference between intending and not intending to kill people in war. And it does not elide the fact that targets can be chosen so as to minimize damage. It certainly does not address the issue of whether when countries go to war, they tend to be asking for moral absolution or exoneration. But that sidesteps the actual question, which is whether all deaths are morally the same or whether they are not. Zinn’s assertion is that intentionality does not matter. Ultimately, “exoneration” is not the issue, though invoking it represent a clever sleight of hand to try to obscure things.


“The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.”


*** I am going to say otherwise. I am going to assert that there are morally superior stances to make, morally superior stances that when he has believed the morality to be on his side, Zinn has not ever been afraid to make. Indeed, Zinn’s career is nothing more than a series of moral judgments. (“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” That was the title of one of Zinn’s books.) The terrorist chooses to target innocents. Their death is his goal, and the overarching objective beyond that goal is to instill fear ina population and their leaders so as to accomplish a political objective. I am willing to grant that aerial bombardment is problematic. But so too is manslaughter. The difference is that I’m not about to assert that manslaughter and murder are morally equivalent just because manslaughter is unpleasant and I wish it did not exist. More to the point, perhaps, I wish no one would have to kill another out of self- defense. But I’m not na├»ve or blinkered enough to argue that there is no difference between murder and a killing done in self-defense. Regretting some bad things does not make all bad things equal. Zinn is too smart not to know as much, but too fatuous a thinker to care.

6 comments:

Steve Dunkley said...

Consistency and logic have never been indispensable qualities for opinion column writers. More importantly you win this week’s award for colorful metaphors with “I would not trust either of them to shit competently after a bran binge.” This is the best one I’ve heard since a friend described her new sports car as “quicker than greased weasel shit.”

dcat said...

Steve --
But of course the problem here is that Zinn is not just a columnist -- in certain circles he is a revered historian.

I must admit, I was quite proud of that metaphor, so I'm glad someone noticed.

Cheers --
dcat

GoodLiberal said...

Oliver Kamm details his run-ins with Zinn over the issue of the atomic bomb and the work of Alperovitz. It's worth checking out.

dcat said...

GoodLib --
Thanks for the heads up.

Readers can find the piece on Kamm's blog to which GoodLib refers here and another Zinn-related Kamm blog entry here.

How about some volume on KopLobPobaJob, eh?

dcat

mj said...

MY COMMENT IS THAT I AM JUST NOT CERTAIN ABOUT INEVITABILITY WITH REGARD TO AERIAL BOMBING AND IMMORALITY. THIS IS REALLY A COMPLICATED PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION AND SHOULD BE THOUGHT ABOUT CAREFULLY. HOWEVER, WERE I THE CAPTAIN OF TROOPS THAT WERE ABOUT TO DESTROYED BY ROCKETS IN ANY GIVEN AREA, FOR SURE I WOULD ORDER IN STEALTH BOMBERS TO DROP TONS OF BOMBS ON THE ENEMY, EVEN KNOWING THAT THE ENEMY HAS PLACED HIS ROCKET LAUNCHERS IN THE MIDST OF A CIVILIAN POPULATION. THE FIRST DUTY OF A COMMANDER IS TO THOSE WHO SERVE UNDER YOU.

dcat said...

MJ --
I agree with you both with regard to the dubiousness of "inevitability" and to the fact that commanders (and for that matter presidents) have certain constituencies that have to matter to them above all others and for whom they are responsible to see be safe to the extent possible.

dcat