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How do historians deal with Historical Bias?

How do historians deal with Historical Bias?


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A while ago while watching Crash Course World History, John Green mentioned how Alexander the Great died from the flu despite many people from that time claiming that he died in battle (because this is more heroic and fitting for a king). Also, in an archeology textbook, I read about how the popular representation of Neanderthals (depicted as ape-like hairy beasts) is completely wrong because plenty of archaeologists in the early 20th century thought that all “cave men” were unintelligent and savage.

Given that for most of human history, all that we know from our past comes from spoken word or fragments of written records. How can we discern what actually happened from fabrications? Perhaps is it more important to know more about who's telling the story than the actual story in this case?


The art of history is that of using all the knowledge you have, and making logical conclusions based on primary sources. The only way to accurately determine what happened in the past is to get as many different sources as you can, and put them together like a puzzle. Each piece on its own has some truth in it, so that all the pieces together make the whole truth. When doing this, you have to take into account the bias that a particular source may have.

For example, Emperor Valerian of Rome, is said to have been captured in battle by the Sassanids. The Roman Record says that he had been captured in battle and no one ever paid his ransom. On the other hand, the Persian record states that Valerian was killed in a battle that is not found on the Roman record.

A previous emperor, Decius, also died in battle with the Goths. So you have to think, maybe the Romans were disgraced by losing their second emperor in a very short time, so they used propaganda to cover it up (Mike Duncan, The History of Rome).

When attempting to sift through historical bias, you have to take into account all of the factors that influenced the writers, and then you can get a fairly accurate picture of what happened, maybe with a few puzzle pieces missing. Unfortunately, the only fail proof way to find out the truth would be to go back in time.



'History' that is assessed by historians relates to past events that may have happened a long time ago - too long perhaps to be able to question anyone alive who was present at that time.
If this is the case, historians would have to rely on a variety of primary sources (e.g. original treaty document that ended a war) and secondary sources (e.g. someone not involved in the event describes the event in a book perhaps several decades) that describe that event.
If there are sources that describe both sides / multiple perspectives of the event, then historians can try to piece together an understanding of what really happened.
If sources completely oppose each other then this can be tricky. Case in point - the Egyptian-Hittite peace treaty, the treaty document is written both in the Hittite language and in the Egyptian language.
However, both accounts provide opposing details to the outcome (both sides claim victory in the same battle).
Reference: "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian-Hittite_peace_treaty"

In this case, the bias involved in the sources can be dealt with in the sense that we know that at least one or more source(s) is/are not completely trustworthy. However, we do not know the real outcome of the battle - both factions are not going to tell us what really happened.
So, perhaps, in the sense that we cannot piece together the truth, I referred to historians not being able to deal with historical bias. The sole meaning of the last sentence is intended to reflect the fact that the bias cannot be overcome to find the truth.


Against Presentism

Who isn't, you say? Hardly any "ism" these days has much of a scholarly following. Yet presentism besets us in two different ways: (1) the tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms and (2) the shift of general historical interest toward the contemporary period and away from the more distant past. Although the first propensity was implicit in Western historical writing from its beginnings, it took a more problematic turn when the notion of "the modern" began to take root in the 17th century. Over time, modernity became the standard of judgment against which most of the past, even the Western past, could be found wanting. The second trend, the shift of interest toward the contemporary period, clearly has a connection to the invention of modernity, but it did not follow as much in lockstep as might be expected. As late as the end of the 19th century, and in some places even after that, students in history expected to study mainly ancient history and to find therein exemplars for politics in the present. Ten or fifteen years ago, survey courses routinely stopped at World War II. French historians still refer to history in the 16th&ndash18th centuries as histoire moderne for them "contemporary history" began in 1789, and until recently, it stopped about the time of World War I, the rest of the 20th century being consigned to the province of journalism rather than historical scholarship. I believe that the 20th century should be part of historical scholarship and teaching, of course, but it should not crowd out everything else.

There is a certain irony in the presentism of our current historical understanding: it threatens to put us out of business as historians. If the undergraduates flock to 20th-century courses and even PhD students take degrees mostly in 20th-century topics, then history risks turning into a kind of general social studies subject (as it is in K&ndash12). It becomes the short-term history of various kinds of identity politics defined by present concerns and might therefore be better approached via sociology, political science, or ethnic studies. I'm not arguing that identity politics have no place in historical study women's history, African American history, Latino history, gay and lesbian history, and the like have all made fundamentally important contributions to our understanding of history. It is hard to imagine American history in this country without some element of national identity in it. And present-day concerns have helped revivify topics, such as imperialism, that needed reconsideration. But history should not just be the study of sameness, based on the search for our individual or collective roots of identity. It should also be about difference. World history, for example, should be significant not only because so many Americans have come from places other than European countries but also because as participants in the world we need to understand people who are hardly like us at all.

This curiosity about difference should apply to the past in general. The "Middle Ages" or "Ancient World" (themselves presentist designations when they appeared) are not just stepping stones to the "modern" present we know. As historians of those periods know all too well, we must constantly remind students that the Greeks and Romans did not think of themselves as "ancient" and 12th-century people did not imagine themselves to be living in an in-between period of time (except perhaps in relationship to the Second Coming of Christ in Christian Europe). Some of the interest of these "early" periods&mdashbut only some&mdashcomes from the ways in which people then thought and acted like us now. Much of it comes from the ways in which they differed from us, indeed, lived in ways that are almost unimaginable to us.

Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards. This is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant or that we should endorse an entirely relativist point of view. It is to say that we must question the stance of temporal superiority that is implicit in the Western (and now probably worldwide) historical discipline. In some ways, now that we have become very sensitive about Western interpretations of the non-Western past, this temporal feeling of superiority applies more to the Western past than it does to the non-Western one. We more easily accept the existence and tolerate the moral ambiguities of eunuchs and harems, for example, than of witches. Because they found a place in a non-Western society, eunuchs and harems seem strange to us but they do not reflect badly on our own past. Witches, in contrast, seem to
challenge the very basis of modern historical understanding and have therefore provoked immense controversy as well as many fine historical studies.

Students readily absorb these attitudes of temporal superiority, but they also stand in some ways as our best bulwark against it. When I teach Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of history to students in UCLA's history of history class, they at first seize upon his Eurocentric, indeed racist, comments about Africa's place in world history, but they quite readily see that their condescension toward Hegel derives from Hegel's own worldview. Hegel was the great codifier of Western temporal superiority for Hegel, all truth is revealed through the progression of history, which means that those in the present always have a better shot at grasping truth than do people in the past. Students understand quite quickly that those who follow them will have the same retrospective advantage over them that they enjoy vis à vis Hegel. Moreover, despite the great upsurge of interest in 20th-century and even post&ndashWorld War II topics, students still take courses in ancient and medieval history. Whether motivated by escapism, nostalgia, a wish to study "elite" subjects, or just a desire for something "different," they readily throw themselves into another era. In this, they reflect the interests of the general public, which often resents the scholarly insistence on revealing all the foibles of past men and women. They don't always want history to teach them the inadequacies of people in the past or even to reassure them about their own identities in the present. It's the difference of the past that renders it a proper subject for epic, romance, or tragedy-genres preferred by many readers and students of history. The "ironic" mode of much professional history writing just leaves them cold.

Presentism admits of no ready solution it turns out to be very difficult to exit from modernity or our modern Western historical consciousness. But it is possible to remind ourselves of the virtues of maintaining a fruitful tension between present concerns and respect for the past. Both are essential ingredients in good history. The emergence of new concerns in the present invariably reveals aspects of historical experience that have been occluded or forgotten. Respect for the past, with its concomitant humility, curiosity, and even wonder (as Caroline Bynum reminded us in a memorable presidential address), enables us to see beyond our present-day concerns backward and forward at the same time. We are all caught up in the ripples of time, and we have no idea of where they are headed.


The role of bias in historical writing

Are your students enamored of bias? My students are. Everything that might be complicated about a historical source is traced to “bias”–why is an autobiography a troubling source? Because it’s hard to separate bias from fact. Why is a novel a difficult source? Because it’s hard to separate fact from opinion.

I’m having the students read a challenging tome entitled Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century History. It is challenging because most of the authors depend upon post-modern theory for their suggestions on how to interpret primary sources. I think the students, if they are unsure what the text is saying, depend upon prior understanding and that screams to look for bias!

This is bugging me for two reasons.
One is that I just read “Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths” (see my post about it here) and one of the first myths is “historians use a ‘sourcing heuristic’ to evaluate bias and reliability.” The author, Keith Barton, quotes Sean Lang, that “historians do not ask ‘Is this source biased?’ (which suggests the possibility of unbiased sources), but rather ‘What is this source’s bias, and how does it add to our picture of the past?'” In Reading Primary Sources, the editors, Benjamin Ziemann and Miriam Dobson, argue that the concept of bias “should be scrapped because it is impossible to get round the structural patterns and material elements of texts which every source genre imposes in a different way. Rather than trying to unearth the hidden but distorted meaning the author has invested in a text, historians should aim to focus on the specific mediality and the inherent structure which are provided by every genre of text.”

The second reason it bugs me is because it feels like a parroted response rather than a thought-through one.

I think that this love of “bias” arises from students’ discomfort with relativism and the possibility that we cannot know the full and complete “truth” through historical inquiry. I think it also arises because it is easily grasped–look in a source for bias and if you find it, throw it out.

I was very proud of one of my students on Monday, though. He was part of a group presenting on Benjamin Roth’s The Great Depression: A Diary and one of his classmates asked if Roth was such a biased Republican whether the diary was worthwhile as a source. The student answered that it depended on what question was being asked of the source (yay! that was the point for the day!). His groupmates immediately replied that, in addition, it was a worthwhile source because there was a lot of objective facts in the diary that could be separated from Roth’s bias (sigh).

What do you think is the role of bias in historical writing? How do your students think about it? And is it ok to write about one’s current students in a public blog post?


Historical Bias, Objectivity, and the Truth of Christianity

Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.

“Historians are biased and choose what they report. As such, history can’t be known.” That’s a typical objection to the ability to know history. If such objections prove that we can’t know history, then we can’t know that Christianity is true since it is known through history and historical claims. In his prologue, Luke says,

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4 emphasis added).

The above passage demonstrates that Luke was writing as an historian. Words such as the ones underlined show his desire to write the truth of the events he wanted to convey. So, if history can’t be known, then we can’t know that Christianity is true. Let’s look at a typical objection.

Bias is probably the most popular objection to knowing history. It is claimed by some that historians are biased. It is not always clear what the objection is really getting at, but usually it is something like the historian holds certain views that in some way make his reporting subjective or unfair. For example, an historian may be writing about a religious issue and if he is part of that religion he is likely going to be accused of being biased. The disciples are often said to be biased regarding the events of the life of Jesus, particularly his resurrection. Since they knew him and had a vested interest they must have made up the claims of the resurrection.

Ironically, there are many assumptions (i.e. biases) about the nature of bias. It is more often than not used in a negative way and is equated with subjectivity and falsity. But why should this be the case? Why should the notion of either bias or subjectivity be equated with something being false? People could be biased because of evidence. If the disciples really did see Jesus alive after he was dead, then the reason they were biased was because of evidence and proof. But this bias would not be based on any subjectivity since their knowledge was based on objective and empirical evidence. Further, someone could have a subjective view of something and still be correct. There is nothing about being biased or subjective that guarantees that the belief is false. Such is an assumption in itself.

Consider this popular argument against objectivity:

1. To be objective one must be free from bias.

2. No one is free from bias.

3. Therefore, no one is objective.

This is a valid argument, meaning that the conclusion follows from the premises. But is it sound (i.e. is the argument valid and the premises and conclusion true)? Well, if no one is free from bias that means the one making this argument is not free from bias. But statements like “No one is . . .” is a universal statement that applies to everyone everywhere. But aren’t universal statements objective? What else would ‘objective’ mean other than something that is universal and not simply limited to the subjective beliefs of an individual? This whole line of argument is self-defeating. In other words, when using the argument’s criteria, the very argument itself fails. The objector in this case is objective in trying to argue that no one is free from bias and that no one is objective. However, the only way to make such universal statements is for the objector to make objective statements. If they were subjective, then they wouldn’t necessarily be universal. If they weren’t universal, then maybe some people aren’t biased. But this contradicts the argument. Assuming the argument holds water, because no one really denies that people are biased, it shows that one can be biased and objective. (Note, it is not guaranteed that one is going to be objective and biased, just that it’s logically possible. The objection is thus deflated.)

This raises another question that is rarely asked and usually assumed: What does it mean for something to be ‘objective’? By now it should be clear that it can’t mean free from bias since we’ve just seen that a person can be both biased and objective. So being free from bias is not necessary to be objective (in fact I would agree that everyone is biased in a general sense). So what does it mean? Most people think that it means being detached from a given circumstance so that one can see it as an objective outsider. In his fascinating work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, drawing on other work on this topic (such as Samuel Byrskog’s Story as History—History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History), Richard Bauckham makes the surprising and unfashionable statement:

“A very important point that . . . for Greek and Roman historians, the ideal eyewitness was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and whose direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen” (page 9).

He further notes that many historians wanted someone who was involved in the events in question because that person would have a vested interest. They wanted someone who was involved and really there.

This counters the usual desire or assumed need for detatchment, but it does not say what objectivity is. Objectivity is arriving at conclusions that are based on evidence and principles that have their foundation in external reality. Everyone can use and measure truth claims based on external (objective) reality. Put negatively, it is the opposite of one making conclusions that arise simply out of one’s subjective mind. Such evidence based on reality and the principles that follow is mind-independent. Since reality is objective, that is, everyone can know it (as long as their faculties are working properly), the conclusions based on reality can also be objective. When one uses universal (objective) principles to ascertain the truth of a conclusion, one can be objective. Such principles are the laws of logic (or being). One such law is the law of non-contradiction. It declares that if two statements are mutually exclusive one must be true and the other must be false. For example, Christianity teaches that Jesus died. Islam counters that Jesus did not die. These statements are mutually exclusive—one must be true and the other false since there is no third option. Thus, they are contradictory. (This is contrasted with statements that can both logically be false, such as “Buddhism is true” and “Atheism is true.” Such statements that can both be false are called ‘contrary’.) Regarding this principle and its application to historical objectivity, Maurice Mandelbaum says,

“Our knowledge is objective if, and only if, it is the case that when two persons make contradictory statements concerning the same subject matter, at least one of them must be mistaken” (The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge, 150).

The law of non-contradiction is based in the nature of reality. It is not just a principle of thought, but of being. A tree cannot exist and not exist at the same time in the same sense. That would be a contradiction. Such first principles of thought and being arise out of the nature of reality since something can’t simultaneously be and not be. It is not simply a made up principle. In fact it is undeniable since to deny it would require using it.

Thus, if one’s conclusions are based on external and objective reality and evidence, and the principles from such reality, those conclusions can be objective. There is, in a sense, an objective apparatus giving us the possibility of being objective. Again, this is contrasted with something arising only from one’s (subjective) mind rather than from external (objective )reality. There is, therefore, nothing about biases that preclude one from making objective historical statements. Biases do not guarantee subjectivity or falsity.

Back to Bauckham’s point regarding bias, it is often the case that people are indeed biased, but biased because of the evidence. They have seen so much evidence, that they are convinced that what they are saying is true. This however, is not subjective bias or assumption, but rather the careful examination of objective reality and the evidence that all can investigate.

When looking at historical questions, such as the resurrection, one should not base his conclusions on notions such as the alleged bias of the ones making claims. Rather, one should examine the evidence for the claims to discover their veracity. We can recognize bias in every area and by all people. However, that alone is not enough to show that a person’s claim is false. To be good and responsible historians and investigators, we must follow the evidence.

(I would like to thank Norman L. Geisler for his direction regarding my MA thesis topic which was on this issue, as well as Thomas A. Howe to whom my thoughts and work are indebted greatly.)


Contents

Presentism has a shorter history in sociological analysis, where it has been used to describe technological determinists who interpret a change in behavior as starting with the introduction of a new technology. For example, scholars such as Frances Cairncross proclaimed that the Internet had led to "the death of distance", but most community ties and many business ties had been transcontinental and even intercontinental for many years. [3]

Presentism is also a factor in the problematic question of history and moral judgments. Among historians, the orthodox view may be that reading modern notions of morality into the past is to commit the error of presentism. To avoid this, historians restrict themselves to describing what happened and attempt to refrain from using language that passes judgment. For example, when writing history about slavery in an era when the practice was widely accepted, letting that fact influence judgment about a group or individual would be presentist and thus should be avoided.

Critics respond that to avoid moral judgments is to practice moral relativism. Some religious historians argue that morality is timeless, having been established by God they say it is not anachronistic to apply timeless standards to the past. (In this view, while mores may change, morality does not.)

Others argue that application of religious standards has varied over time as well. Augustine of Hippo, for example, holds that there exist timeless moral principles, but contends that certain practices (such as polygamy) were acceptable in the past because they were customary but now are neither customary nor acceptable. [4]

Fischer, for his part, writes that while historians might not always manage to avoid the fallacy completely, they should at least try to be aware of their biases and write history in such a way that they do not create a distorted depiction of the past. [2]


More Comments:

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/14/2011

Wow! A student led me to this, a comment made eight years ago! I stand by my correction of the article's erroneous citation of the first line of the Manifesto. A preamble is considered part of a document so I was right there: it does begin with "A spectre is haunting Europe. " I agree in part with Ms McMillin: People's History is opinion and does not profess to be "objective." It has errors as do all works but it is "factual" enough to merit usage. Yet most historical writing emanates from ideas and biases contained within the author. I did write a HNN piece on Professor Zinn recently if you are interested:
The People's Historian and the FBI Zinn Files.

Albrecht Kübler - 3/7/2011

"Since you acknowledge in your response Zinn is a biased writer, do you think it is appropriate to have biased content given to students? Is this not indoctrination?"

It would only be indoctrination, if Zinn claimed that his statements are the only truth and condemn everybody who disagrees. But he does not! And if any teacher uses his book and makes this claim, that would be inappropriate.
I could imagine giving students a "traditional", i.e. solely positive account of the time of the founding fathers to compare to Zinn's account and have them research and discuss both sides.
The truth can probably be found somewhere in the middle.

Theresa McMillin - 2/21/2011

Hey Peter. you're comment:I have used Professor Zinn's, "A People's History" for many years and students find it very provocative and readable. In fact his teachings and writings were formative events in my life and I can assure Mr Flynn that opposing American militarism, racism and imperialism is in keeping with a democracy's need for vital and sustained criticism of public and foreign policy.
Let's get a couple of things straight. Foreign policy should be about protecting our interests, not some PC crap that leftists love to sight at the expense of our own Nation. We're not here to hold hands and sign 'Kumbya' when other countries are using terror and killing our own people. Or entering our country illegally along with illegal drugs and killing innocents. And if you 'use' the book, I hope you also explain that the book is not based on fact, but opinion. Let's not get the two confused.

Theresa McMillin - 2/21/2011

And I guess that Zinn's own admission that the information in the book is his own OPINION and BIASED and not based in fact doesn't leave you scratching your head wondering why any classroom would use this book as historical fact. I'm all for opposing opinions, but let's label the book what it really is and not as the 'ethical' Zinn would describe it as "A People's History of the United States". Let's instead label it "A Marxist's View of History of the United States". DON'T teach my children this nonsense unless it's accurately identified as someone's opinion and fact.

Kylw Treadwell Svendsen - 2/3/2011

Mr. Bourbina,
Since you acknowledge in your response Zinn is a biased writer, do you think it is appropriate to have biased content given to students? Is this not indoctrination?
Also, you say that this is only one book who shows the peoples views and many other history texts show the "oppressors" view. What good does making your own biased opinion public do? Two wrongs do not make a right.

Thanks for the help with my clarification.

Reid Reynolds - 1/31/2010

It's been a long time since the comment was posted, but in case Zinn's protege Mr. Kirstein ventures here again, "A Spectre is Haunting Europe--the spectre of Communism," is actually the first line of the preamble. The first line of the first section, "Bourgeois and Proletarians" is, indeed, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."

Robert Avant - 12/7/2009

I can assure you Mr. Kirstein that whatever Hitler's failings were the Nazis were avowed socialists" in the mode of Mussolini. I am sure your students whisper "tres tres amusant" when you show how close hitler was to Reagan and Thatcher. Yes, the fruit of the Zinn tree falls not far away. Hoisted on your own petard,sir!

Randll Reese Besch - 1/26/2009

The side normally hidden or glossed over so what is the problem? You certainly haven't studied the climate change question or you wouldn't have made the inflammatory statement,"I havent fully “investigated” Mr. Zinn and checked up on all that he represents, but I still think im entitled to my opinion just like global warming wakos that have no clue about the subject and use a movie ( an inconvenient truth). " suggests a reason why you put quotes around "investigated" was a good idea. But it must be understood that some of us have better more informed opinions (of analysis) than others. We must use our intelligence to discern the difference.

Randll Reese Besch - 1/26/2009

Homer where do you get your point of view. Marx had nothing to do with Russia, Germany or China in any way except those who appropriated some of his words to distort for themselves as they talked about 'helping the volk or 'common man' as they helped themselves to absolute power. Read some history some time, maybe Marx and Engles too would help. Marx.com is one such place.

Just look at the results of Capitalism uncontrolled both here and abroad as too the death toll and slavery for that?

Randll Reese Besch - 1/26/2009

Well Homer if you do you need to have the crayon removed from your brain forth with!

Hitler was as far away from Marx (who declared he wasn't a 'Marxist') but was a right winger who had no problem mixing church/state and corporation not to far from Reagan and Thatcher. Corporations had free reign in Germany. Marx was for the end of lassaize faire capitalism who he declaimed would "purchase the rope they would hang themselves with" when the people became tired of rampant unregulated businesses destroying everything around them. Much like now. The workers were to unite and take over the businesses and run them by themselves as the owners. No Nazism/Bolshevism there.

Stalin and Hitler controlled the corporations in getting benefits from their labor. Both suppressed labor unions and allowed corporate soveringty from labor but not from the gov't. [They wanted their cut too.]

NH Teacher - 12/21/2008

"Howard Zinn is a master of cheap Marxist propaganda."

I AGREE. And the sad part is our kids may never learn the truth about the founding of this country or why they have been free, up to now.

NH Teacher - 12/21/2008

Not hardly. Zinn scares me.

NH Teacher - 12/21/2008

This is what you get for American History in the International Baccalaureate program, a stealth program to indoctrinate children to the world government, created and controlled by the United Nations from Geneva, Switzerland.

All the good things you hear about this program are self-laudatory and inaccurate -- IBO.org is quite open about their social agenda. TOK is a philosophy course that teaches students that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. etc. and there are many pornographic books used in the literature part.

We will never be a free people if we allow the government to control our educational system. The DOE must be stopped and dissolved.

Heriberto Tovar - 8/4/2008

When I took the second part of History this summer, my professor required the supplemental readings of “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I was perplexed as to why the supplement was necessary, however, after reading the first few chapters I soon realized Zinn’s “biased” views of history. The course consisted of the traditional objective textbook readings along with the corresponding chapter of “A People’s History”. Interestingly, reading both chapters added some depth and better interpretation to the events in history.
My professor is among the growing number of educators across the nation that believe that Zinn’s works should be “required reading for students”. I agree with my professor’s decision to use Zinn as a supplemental reading, however, I do not believe it should be the single source of information for any history class. I am in accord with Daniel J Flynn’s critique that “A People’s History of the United States” provides the “author’s familiar reaction to every major event in American history proving that his is a captive mind long closed by ideology”.
Flynn believes that Zinn and Marx interpret society in much the same manner by incorporation class struggle and greed into every event in history. Flynn critiques Zinn’s work on two case studies The Pequot War and The Founding. In the Pequot War incident, Flynn claims that Zinn summarizes the incident as “a story of native American innocence versus rapacious and evil white settlers”. The facts of the incident are both the Native Americans and the white settlers each experienced horrible atrocities. He argues that not all bloodshed was done by the settlers and they too had to defend themselves from the evils of the Native Americans. Flynn graphically describes atrocities by the Native Americans where they mutilated and even roasted alive and rationalizes the settler’s needs to defend themselves with any violent means necessary.
As stated above, Zinn justifies many of America’s historic events with an ulterior motive greed. Flynn points out in an excerpt for “A People’s History”, that when “certain important people” were founding the English colonies, they found an ingenious way to create a country not for the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of profit. Slavery is another issue where Flynn tries point out irregular stance on an issue. Zinn believes that profit is at the heart of slavery and profit too is at the heart of the emancipation of slaves. Whatever the US did either to tolerate or eradicate slavery, profit was the motive.
Flynn claims that not all information found in Zinn’s chapters are factual. Zinn claims that George Washington was the richest man in America however, Flynn discredits that by the anecdote that George Washington had to borrow money to pay for his travel to New York when elected to the presidency. Again during the Reagan years, Zinn claims that unemployment grew in the Reagan years, however, Flynn points out that unemployment had fallen 2.1 percent at the time he left office.
Flynn argues a very important point that “A People’s History” omits important events in history such as important presidential addresses like the Washington’s farewell address and milestone events like the first walk on the moon and even successes in America like Alexander Hamilton.
Zinn admits that his work is of a “biased account” and justifies his work by “…wanting to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history”. Zinn’s biased views and Marxist tone provide just that. As I mentioned before, I enjoy his work, however, I sometimes feel depressed and disgusted at the actions America has taken to be what we are today.

Chelsea Ann Handy - 8/3/2008

There is a man whom is remembered in his thought on history of the America’s, one I might say is “A People’s History of the United States”, Howard Zinn. My opinion is a negative one for Howard zinn because of his “cruelidity and disillusion” as Daniel J. Flynn once said opinion on all history.
An author named Daniel J.Flynn was an inspiration to me, he showed the negative side on all Howard Zinn’s point of views and things he would mention in history books. He saw Howard zinc a pro-communist, is a man that “plagued with inaccuracies and poor judgment” he does not have the will nor should he be a famous writer whom critics are American history. Much of his opinions amongst history in the United Sates are never well back up. As he mentions the Clinton Year in the 2000 election and the 9/11 had no kind of resemblance to the reality his current readers have lived through. We young readers who are pushed to read and remember to learn about Howard Zinn, have a difficult time to understand him, since much of his things he talks about do not relate to much of the things we in the year 2008 are living through. There is also Zinn’s un- researched opinion on violent crimes, “violent crime continues to increase.” As to the Department of Justice report released in September of 2002, the violent crime rate has actually been cut in half since 1993.
Howard Zinn divided the mankind into oppressors and the oppressed. Describes and utterly distorts the early settlement of North America. The Pequot War serves as his example, as it will ours. . Here are some examples not to be found in Zinn::“[T]hey took two men out of a boat, and murdered them with ingenious barbarity, cutting off first the hands of one of them, then his feet,” writes 19th century historian John Gorham Palfrey about the Pequot’s’ assaults upon settlers. There is a much needed writer who has the courage to actually put out the truth and mention every little aspect of the things we went through in the past times. Daniel J. Flynn said “Forget about all men are created equal, forget about liberty and the pursuit of happiness, America’s founding can be reduced to the pursuit of exploitation and profit. Well maybe for academics with lifetime subsidies and rock stars with drug-fried brains.” It is not just self minded but also very true. It something like this man who should be replaced and very much remembered for are sake to learn the truth about are history.
Zinn was later killed because of his opinions upon the Mumia abu-Jamal’s and his criticism against the Philadelphia police. He was sentenced to death row in 1980.Zinn’s book contains not a single source citation. Howard Zinn is a master of cheap Marxist propaganda. His book is a stab to the back on his “country that has given him more freedom than most of the writers who have ever written and made him a millionaire in the process”. Where is all that American history that mentions the “first in flight, first to fly across the Atlantic, and first to walk on the moon?”
Are necessity to learn are history of the United States is crucial to understand why we have government established and regulations? Howard Zinn is a powerful man “This slanderous tome and its popular and academic success are monuments to human credulity and delusion, and to the disgraceful condition of American letters” think about it, do you want learn not well backed up evidence?

Christina quinter - 8/3/2008

Howard Zinn as a historian who is still selling 128,000 for twenty years. Zinn’s articles are taught in colleges and high schools around the world. Daniel J. Flynn is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia and is also an author for Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation’s Greatness. Daniel Flynn thinks of Howard Zinn as a man who can’t really back his evidence up on what he’s publishing. Daniel thinks that since Zinn discussed politics with Pearl Jam and Rage Against The Machine had Zinn on their reading list that people should be beware of rock bands that issue reading lists. Flynn emphasizes that the New York Times reviewer declared Zinn’s book to be “required reading,” only because Jayson Blair, the New York Times reviewer, is Zinn’s cousin. Flynn believes that Howard Zinn’s book is so crucial and seems to mess up the minds of developing young students. Flynn thinks that Howard Zinn always wants people to believe him and his rhetoric is always opposite of what he says. Howard Zinn had an equivalence towards the 911 terrorist attacks and uses phrases that he dislikes, according to Daniel J. Flynn. Howard Zinn does not seem to have a good impression on Daniel at all because Daniel believes that Zinn only tries to make his stories sound clear and tries to put in evidence that has nothing to do with what Zinn is publishing just to make it sound better. For example, Zinn suggests that “George Washington was the richest man in American,” he really wasn’t the richest man but the idea of it made the story for the Marxist sounds better. Also, Reagan did not have an impact on unemployment according to Zinn, statistics show otherwise. Daniel Flynn points out these small things out because he thinks that it is not fair for Howard Zinn to put these ideas into people’s minds without any true evidence to back it up.
I definitely agree with Daniel J Flynn because I wouldn’t want to read about somebody’s publishing that is not backed up with true evidence. I agree with Flynn because of the fact that he points out that Howard Zinn did not have any single sources of citations. That proves to me that if you can’t put at least a citation then you are obviously make things up. Also, according to Zinn, the Pequot violence had two massacres on both sizes, but in the book he only talks about one side, the Puritans. If I was reading a book and read this information I would want to know about the both sides, not only the side that the author wants to tell me about.

Kimberly Cantergiani - 8/3/2008


Howard Zinn, Professor Emeritus at Boston University, and author of the widely read and notoriously challenged volume, A People’s History of the United States, has been hailed, according to Daniel J. Flynn as “the most influential historian in America”. However, according to Mr. Flynn, Zinn is nothing more than an “unreconstructed, anti-American Marxist” whose “captive mind long closed by ideology” is rooted in “conspiracy theory with a vengeance”.
Flynn begins his critique with his disturbance that Zinn’s work has reached such “massive sales figures” which he believes is based on the skewed requirements of liberal-minded college educators and journalists, who all share the “social aim” of indoctrinating America’s youth against capitalist business and foreign profiteering. Flynn postulates if “the million or so copies sold have been done so via coercion” and that “the commercial success of A People’s History…is a case of simple ideas for simple minds.
It is intriguing that a well-read historian of the 21st century such as Flynn would have such vehement opposition to the possibility of revisionist history. Surely, it must be conceded that tremendous substantiation for many historical accounts, both domestic and abroad, are unearthed on an on-going basis, providing a more well rounded and balanced perspective of what truly occurred throughout American history. It is a shallow and narrow-minded view to assume that the traditional view posed by academia is in any way complete and to ignore the possibility that it in fact, it was entirely constructed with the very same intent for which Flynn accuses Zinn - that of slanting and tainting the minds of the youth of America.
Further, Flynn attributes some of the work’s notoriety to that of endorsement and affiliation of Hollywood celebrities and musicians. In his mention of Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine, Flynn advises the reader to “beware of rock bands that issue reading lists” and to remember that they are “rock stars with drug-fried brains”. It is the height of condescension to imply that due to one’s employment, affiliation, or artistic capability they are precluded from forming thoughtful, introspective and intelligent opinions regarding weighty political issues or that they must participate in the use of recreational or mind-altering drugs. To the contrary, for Flynn to resort to such infantile, and humorous, accusations it reduces his credibility as a mature and logical professional. One must speculate on the possibility that Flynn is jealous of Zinn’s accomplishment’s and, barring any original proposition of his own, is condemned to the deprecation of others.
Flynn also resorts to the use of government issued statistics for the purpose of countering Zinn’s contentions. For example, in response to Zinn’s statement that despite the initiation of President Clinton’s crime bill “violent crime continued to increase”, Flynn offers that “according to a Department of Justice report…the violent crime rate has been cut in half since 1993”. This is a weak argument attempting to validate information as provided by the government, which naturally would like the public to believe that its programs are effective. It is preposterous to assume biased figures as facts and also naïve to overlook the likelihood that the manner in which statistics are compiled and reported is inconsistent. What may have been considered a “violent crime” in one year may have been redirected to another data group in another. Additionally, it was not necessary for Zinn to quote specific numbers, as even a casual observer of the news and human events can see that crime and corruption continue to escalate, despite supposed government intervention.
Moving on Flynn utilizes a “case study” of the Pequot War, attempting to discredit Zinn as “brushing aside” the “Pequot atrocities” and focusing solely on that of the Puritans. From the limited review by Mr. Flynn it would appear that Zinn has “simplistically divided mankind into two groups: oppressors and oppressed” when it should be immediately evident from the most superficial reading of Zinn that he is a humanist with compassion, integrity and ethics at his core, which provide the foundation for his passion regarding the obstacles of class in the struggle for equality. With the existing body of traditional history recounting the detail of barbarism among the Pequot’s, the relevance of delineating again is eliminated. Flynn does not seem to consider the actions of both groups within the context of societal and cultural structure either. Natives had long depended upon what might be considered primal tactics today for the mere process of survival as compared to the Puritan’s whose civilized, God-fearing beliefs and values should have easily conveyed into a more sophisticated mechanism for problem solving.
With absolutely no regard, compassion or intelligent thought for the merciless persecution and carnal savagery endured for generations by black America, Flynn states that “the fact that America was half free and the site of an anti-slavery crusade…goes unnoticed” and that “rather than welcoming emancipation, Zinn is depressed by it”. Flynn dismisses slavery and black issues as minor challenges in the history of mankind and eliminates the consideration that race and class issues are as ever present as they once were, but wrapped in a different package. The explanation as offered by Zinn, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other notable historians and political spectators is clear that efforts at national growth and expansion have always come through the oppression of minority groups and divisions along class lines. It has occurred both through the use and exploitation of laborers and through the use of diversionary tactics designed to draw the focus away from genuine issues, which might actually encourage a colossal revolution in America that would overthrow the government and bring true and lasting change.
On the subject of the Communist movements’ collaboration in the case of the young, black Scottsboro boys in Alabama, Flynn charges that although they were “associated with the defense…in reality the Communists merely used the embattled youngsters” to “bring the Communist movement to the people and win them over to Communism”. While this utterance was intended to tarnish Zinn’s account of the matter, in fact, Zinn has already noted that the Communists and blacks had different agenda’s and the blacks were very aware of them, choosing regardless to align themselves for the strength which the party provided.
Flynn’s critique of Howard Zinn is at best a wildly speculative and a far reaching attempt to disparage both his reputation and his account of history. Zinn boldly proclaims that A People’s History is a “biased account” indicating that he has no “trouble with that because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction”. As an intellectual scholar, Mr. Flynn should be capable of considering alternate viewpoints and be able to follow the rational position that Mr. Zinn represents. His claims to prove otherwise are lacking credulity in every sense of the word.

Jose alberto lopez - 12/6/2007


This is my interpretation of the Howard Zinn being biased article. First off… the writer did point out certain key areas that really do put Zinn on the spot, and makes a former ( even if it were the first time) reader of Zinn question and doubt all of his statements. Certainly every writer, reporter, news organization ,teacher ,or professor for that matter, has a certain agenda and/or point of view that changes the teaching or preaching style of that individual. I most certainly agree with Daniel Flynn that a major reason for the huge sales figures is the requirment by the instructors to purchase the book. I havent fully “investigated” Mr. Zinn and checked up on all that he represents, but I still think im entitled to my opinion just like global warming wakos that have no clue about the subject and use a movie ( an inconvenient truth) and celebrities ( sheryl crow for example ,with her proposition to use one square of toilet paper tissue to wipe your ass in an effort to save trees) to back up theyre claims. But back to the subject at hand. After reading the Zinn materials that were assigned to us in class, its obvious that Zinn does have a built in mentality of how America is/was. His vocabulary offends in now way, and the way he illlustrates the topics are done very well to the point where it makes you want to read more , but… It isnt my nature to believe anyone or anything that continuosly shows one side. Zinns sounding to be as regarding as America as nothing but Bad. Another anti american, living in america. Seems a bit contradictory considering how if someone really disagrees with how america is or is disgusted by its history, then why stay here?

Donna nonya - 1/28/2007

I wonder if anyone would consider our forefathers Marxists, or unpatriotic. Thomas Jefferson? James Madison, perhaps? I think not.

Nor do I believe that they were puppets on a string, blowing in the wind to all atrocities those in power commmited.

Govermental powers are not absolute, but are given to them by those they govern.

If you have any doubts, might I remind everyone what they stated in the Declaration of Independence (and also why Madison wrote the Bill of Rights for our rights and protections from those in power):

"WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.


WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security."

Hmm. not only were they not unpatriotic, they stated it IS OUR RIGHT, IT IS OUR DUTY.

Joseph Caramello - 8/3/2005

Zinn did fight in World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After all, the Soviet Union was our ally in that war so why should he have not fought the Nazis. The question is who was he really fighting for us or the Soviets.

John Brent Hiller - 5/18/2005

What are you talking about. You have missed the point in such a dangerously ignorant way that I can't believe you're literate. You compare Zinn's book with traditional history and call one fact, and the other biased fiction? I challenge you to disprove one sentence in Zinn's book. The premise of the book (and you don't have to read beyond the title to know this) is to report history through the eyes of THE PEOPLE. NOT the traditional approach that tells history by stating for example "in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Is this the sort of FACT that you cherish as so valuable. Is this the sort of fact that inspires people. Is this as far as our history teachings should probe into the past. This is a glossed over biased report through the eyes of rich white men, and leaves out anything controversial (and controversial does not mean fiction as you seem to indicate). We have been lied to about these rich white men. They are not the heroes our traditional history teachers have made them out to be. Traditional history books are government approved loads of propaganda written to create narrow minded good little patriots. But, I suppose you're a better citizen than I am. You tell it like it is. You're a real patriot with unblemished love for our heroes. Well, God bless you, because you, unlike most of us, are worthy of God's blessing.

Michael A. Bourbina Jr. - 1/6/2004

This is to Daniel J. Flynn:

I read some of what you wrote about Howard Zinn. Basically what you did was say he didn't tell the whole story. He never claimed to tell the whole story. He even admits that the whole story can never be told. He even offers to tell you that he is only telling you the history of the United States from the voices that don't usually get heard. I think he's done it. And I think all you've done is call him names, progoganda writer and biased. He admits to bias. I read a few of his books. I can't remember thinking that he thought Fidel Castro was a great guy or anything like you quickly joted down there. What I remember about Cuba I mostly learned from a Venezuelan, who admitted to Cuba's faults, but also told of how terrible-- how much worse in fact-- it was before Fidel Castro when the United States' rich buddies and citizens were allowed to rape the country or its natural resources, while the majority of Cubans were terribly poor, great numbers of them dying from poor medication, from diseases that were nothing to our country. Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Fidel Castro at least took it upon themselves to improve the overall state of health there and to help the people there get food and jobs. I agree that it was a terrible thing the way they killed homosexuals and dissenters, but were there more dissenters against them or against Cuba before 1959-- this is the underlying question to what you were talking about, and I think you misrepresent the truth about that country-- and about Howard Zinn in this case.

Really what I have to say has little weight on you, on Howard Zinn, on the world we live in. But I just wanted you to know that I've read Zinn's books. I think he's a wonderful writer. I think I've learned a good deal from him. And I think he makes a good case that the world is in the hands of the rich, the powerful, always has been, and still is, but should not be. You fail to mention Howard Zinn's take on violence, however. While you like to do all but call him a communist-- you fail to mention that he is non-violent, that he was a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, that he was a soldier in WWII before he changed his mind about the way the world was.

Howard Zinn is a great man. He is not God and he doesn't claim to be. He only asks his readers and students to see what power is-- who has it-- how do they use it-- how do they get away with using it to destructive ends? That is what Howard Zinn does. We could all use a little more Zinn in our lives.

. - 1/5/2004

What makes you say that Howard Zinn has a "virulent hatred for this country"? From reading the book, I gained a completely different perspective: That Zinn actually cares about his country, its people, and the directions it's heading in. The reason he is pointing out the misdeeds of the U.S. government is to present an alternative view of the glorified history we have been commonly led to accept. While the book is guided by certain biases and ommission of certain facts while selecting certain others, he is not writing the book simply to express hatred towards America. He obviously cares greatly about America and its people to take such pains to write the book. Just because he attacks the government doesn't mean he's Anti-American. It is evident that he cares about the well-being of the PEOPLE of this country, that is why it is called a PEOPLE's history.

Jerry Ku - 12/8/2003

Zinn fought as a US bomber gunner in World War 2, and did so proudly. Part of his radicalisation even came from a fellow gunner who talked about radical politics, who was a Communist. That Communist gunner was later killed on a mission.

Zinn might not like the concept of patriotism in the same way most do. And that Communist probably didn't like it either. Afterall, Communists oppose the very concept of nation-states. Still, Zinn fought for America at one point. that's gotta be worth somethin.

Davis D. Joyce - 10/31/2003

I'm new to HNN. I'm surprised by the ranting and raving going on here, including by Flynn. All of you interested in this will, I hope, read my book, HOWARD ZINN: A RADICAL AMERICAN VISION, just published by Prometheus Books. Somehow Flynn's characterization of Zinn as "anti-American" bothers me most. See my sub-title. I argue that Zinn's vision is radical in the sense that it calls for fundamental change in the political/economic order (see your dictionary), American in the sense that it is based on the very ideals the country itself was based upon (see the Declaration of Independence), and a vision because it is not yet reality (look around you). Howard Zinn's PEOPLE'S HISTORY obviously continues to resonate with increasing numbers of people almost 25 years after its publication maybe it can contribute to the on-going struggle to live up to our best American ideals. If Flynn is correct that Zinn is "the most influential historian in America," I find that very encouraging indeed!

J.Caramello - 10/21/2003

On the day after the 9/11 attack I read a piece in the San Diego Union that was written by Mr Zinn. As usual he bashed this country for what had happened. To say that his timing was a little insensitive is probably the understatement of all time. Mr Zinn certainly has his right to his opinions but so do the rest of us. The people that died on that day will probably be remembered in a future Zinn "history" as oppressors of the Middle East.

John - 10/21/2003

First of all, Daniel J. Flynn, misses the point of Zinn's book and this makes his so-called review misleading an not worth the time it took to read it. Zinn himself repeats several times in lectures and in his book that oppressed individuals often become the oppressors and vice versa. This point, although a major point in Zinn's book is ignored by most of the posts on here as well as the so called review.
Furthermore, many people will claim Zinn is exaggerating the truth or just plain lying. However, in almost every argument that claims this they base it on what the dominant culture has recorded as our history. Many of us not only see this as misleading, but realize that the recent history has already been recorded in a misleading way especially concerning 9/11 and the actions of an incompetent president. I have not verified every case in Zinn's book. The ones I have chosen to have shown that there is at the very least evidence that what Zinn says is the truth or a version of one of the many possible truths. To openly accept everything in the book is absurd but to reject it entirely is just plain closeminded.

J. Caramello - 10/17/2003

Yes he may be a "patriot" but in whose country? It's certainly not this one. Incidently I have researched some of the more strident claims he makes in his screed and found for the most part that his versions are gross exaggerations of actual events. All have an obvious slant showing that the United States is the most evil, vicious and contemptible nation on earth. Mr Zinn is a former Communist Party member and is now a Socialist. Mr Zinn should take his books and emigrate to the former workers paradise and try to pull some of his stunts in that environment.

William Goldberg - 10/14/2003

I assigned sections of Zinn to a class on Peace and Justice in America. We are focusing on "what makes a patriot" and if it is possible to be a patriot and disagree with your country.

Zinn may not have all of his facts perfect, and I don't like per chapter bibliographies with no internal citation, but it definitely gives a different history than I learned in high school. It is worth reading just because it sometimes makes you say "that couldn't have really happened" . . . and then you go and research that topic. Perhaps you find that it did happen, perhaps you find that it mostly happened like that.

All in all, I would say that Zinn is needed to counter some of the skewed history we teach our children in high school, all of the niceness of history written by those victorious in a war.

As for patriotism, As for patriot, http://www.m-w.com defines patriot as "one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests". I have taught my students that loving your country so much that you question its policies and how it treats its people and its history make them patriots, even if society currently disagrees. Zinn is a patriot to me.

Joe Caramello - 9/15/2003

I had to read Zinn's Peoples History as part of a history class. After finishing the book, I came to the conclusion that Mr Zinn has a virulent hatred for this country. This was the most biased book purporting to be history that I have ever had the misfortune to read. This man literally despises the United States and everything that it stands for. If it were up to him the country would have never been founded. This person more than most personifies the "Loony Left" at its most extreme.

Steven Malcolm Anderson - 8/17/2003

You are right. I am lucky to have been born in the United States of America. I am proud to be a loyal supporter of my country and her Constitution, including _all_ of the Bill of Rights. I am proud to have as my countrymen those two heroic men John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who stood up for their freedom and mine. I am lucky to have had a man like Justice Anthony Kennedy on my country's Supreme Court. Now we can all enjoy the unalienable right to privacy in our own homes, along with other vital freedoms such as free speech and the right of the people to keep and bear arms.

Barrie Bracken - 8/15/2003

Howard Zinn is idolized by the general population of readers because the facts are boring compared to the fantasy that belittles the good effect the existence of the U. S. has had on the world. Howard Zinn as an historian is equal to the "journalists" who compose the tabloids found at the supermarket check-outs. As a young man I was as left as Zinn, maybe, to my stand, he was on the right, but maturity has left me with a deeper understanding of the workings of history. History is, after all, the interpretation, not just the telling, of the past of humanity. An historian viewing the revolutionary era in this country and the world today must see the time in the eyes of the participants, not in the eyes of some 19th century philosopher alone. Should the ideas of Marx be considered? Certainly. But in their proper context. Zinn would take us back in religion to say the Judeo-Christian philosophy must consider only the admonision to take an eye for an eye.

Is it the job of the historian to point out the errors of our past and warn of the errors being repeated in the future? Yes. Is the job of the historian to present the world as nihilist? No. Whatever worth Zinn has to civilization is minimal, at best.

Joshua Chernin - 6/27/2003

Ok, last time I checked, history occured in a political context. In other words, yes, history is political, and pretending that it is not is doing it injustice, as Zinn so himself put it, becasue the purpose of looking at the past in the first place is to learn from what we have done wrong and to prevent similar mistakes in the future. Of course Zinn focuses on the parts of our history we're ashamed of, that's the point. So we can learn from it. Ignoring it, and just saying our country's great is like randomly waving a flag and saying THAT makes you patriotic when you don't even have a clue what this country is about.

NYGuy - 6/20/2003

I appreciate your comments. Issues have to be in context, be balanced, benchmarked and have a frame of reference.

Please tell all your friends. We may have done somethings wrong, but we are lucky for those who made this the great country it is.

LAGuy - 6/20/2003

That comment about Babe Ruth was excellent. I will tell everyone who tries to defame this great nation that analogy.

Also well put about the Japanese internment camps of World War II. I too think this policy was wrong however, I never thought about it the way you put it.

James Lambert - 6/19/2003

You obviously have no real criticism of Daniel Flynn to offer, nor do you seem to have a good grasp of the English language.

1) The fact that “slander” has a legal definition, which is different from common usage is neither here nor there. Everyone, including you, knew what Mr. Flynn meant.

2) Your closing sentence is simply pathetic:

>>But else beside rank stupidity can anyone expect from a Reed Irvine apparatchik?

But know you bad communicator.

Josh Greenland - 6/18/2003

"This slanderous tome and its popular and academic success are monuments to human credulity and delusion, and to the disgraceful condition of American letters."

How can a tome be slanderous. Isn't slander spoken and libel written?

But else beside rank stupidity can anyone expect from a Reed Irvine apparatchik?

Horatio - 6/17/2003

When are we going to get a smear piece on Paul Johnson? Don't let Daniel Pipes be the only one spewing invective.

NYGuy - 6/16/2003

The problem is not the history, its the predjudices of the history teachers who should have been trained better. Unless of course they were trained to twist the facts to their own political philosophy. But, then, that is what history has become.

After reading about Babe Ruth's strikeouts I have now lost another hero.

Josh Greenland - 6/16/2003

Could you recommend any histories that do the things you describe?

This is a separate question: are there any you could recommend written by authors whose politics you strongly disagree with?

NYGuy - 6/16/2003

No one said the U. S. was perfect. But, what is so "goofy" about the analysis of Babe Ruth? As a trained historian you should be able to give a better answer to this analysis than it is "Goofy” Yet you accept Zinn at face value. What is factually wrong in the Babe Ruth comments? As you say we have to look at the bad with the good. You are not suggesting that your ”Goofy” remark means that you are subjective and believe and teach only what you want others to believe and this is what you teach your students?

You say:
1.” The extermination of Indians.” Indians are still a part of our population and were heroes in defending our country in the Second World War.
2. “The lynchings, averaging two a week, of African Americans starting in the 1890s.” I don’t want to sound callous about this statement but that is 104 deaths a year, which in the total scheme of the U. S. and world History is very small. In Russia alone the Pogroms killed more people. The Jews had no place to turn but to the U. S. and there was a large immigration of East Europeans into this country around the turn of the century. Meanwhile slavery was still a part of the world and vicious crimes were being perpetrated against citizens of just about all countries.
3. “The end of immigration in the 20s on eugenecist grounds.” The U.S. was in a deep depression, veteran’s marched on Washington for jobs, farmers had the dust bowl and college graduates sold apples on the street. Your solution, bring in more mouths to feed and put more American’s out of work.
4. The internment of the Japanese Americans.” I will not defend this policy but we were at war and many civil liberties were curtailed. Do you also teach about the Bataan death march, the rape of Nanking, the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bund meeting in NYC and elsewhere by those who supported Hitler? Do you tell your students that Canada had the same fears as the U. S. during this time of war and had similar policies to the U. S? Do you also tell your students that we were at war? That there were spies in this country trying to help the enemy and supplying them with information that got people killed. Do you know why they used the phase, “A slip of the lip can sink ships.”

Meanwhile the civil liberties of all Americans were suspended during WWII when people could not buy gas, meat and other products at will. They had to cover their windows at night, or shut their lights off so submarines off shore could not use cities as a guide for navigation. Some citizens were prevented from continuing their schooling and put into the Army or Navy with all its restrictions. My grandmother had to register since she was not born in this country. The list goes on. The widows of those KIA for putting their lives on the line probably got a lot less than the settlements received by those interned. And, as far as I know, all those interned remained in the U. S. after many American’s were killed defending these people and saving the world. I understand many Japanese families were separated. Do you tell your students that many more American families were separated during this war and many were killed.

The reason the Babe Ruth story bothers you is because you understand the key defect which is, as Heretous says, this is not a balanced report. It is not benchmarked against anything and has no frame of reference. When we accept such analyses without these considerations we get very biased teaching and propaganda.

Herodotus - 6/15/2003

"I'm serious--what sort of history do you people think it's ok to teach?"

That's easy: balanced history. One free from bias and as objective as possible. One that distances the problems of the present from the analysis of the past. One that is dispassionate, but still engaging.

Hepatitus - 6/14/2003

Look you two--be as proud as you want. There's lots to celebrate. But you two are supposed to be historians. Should historians just ignore things that aren't pleasing?

There are some nasty aspects to American history--the extermination of indians, the lynchings, averaging two a week, of African Americans starting in the 1890s, the end of immigration in the 20s on eugenecist grounds, the internment of the Japanese Americans--there are many nasty aspects to Us history just as there are many nasty aspects to all countries' histories. What are we supposed to do--just ignore these facts? Should i teach course on the 1890s, and pretend that the JimCrow laws were never passed? I'm serious--what sort of history do you people think it's ok to teach?

Les Milton - 6/13/2003

Why do you assume I'm a leftist (let a alone a Marxist)?

Do only leftists criticize U.S. foreign policy?

I'm getting the feeling you're actually some kind of primitive computer program, capable of issuing only rote, meaningless phrases. Addressing a specific question in a rational manner would help convince me that you are, in fact, a human being.

Homer Simpson - 6/13/2003

This guy makes sense. This rarely happens here. I applaud. God bless America.

Somebody tell me why, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, Marxism has infected the supposedly intellectual class of America? What happened to make so many who consider themselves so bright so damned stupid.

God didn't did. Marxism did.

Homer Simpson - 6/13/2003

You see it on this board all the time.

Judging from the tortured responses, you'd never understand that the past 40 years has been a landslide of comment denouncing the U.S. for the crimes of imperialism, racism, etc.

This point of view is hackneyed. It's been said a million times.

The era of every citizen holding his or her own foreign policy is over.

I'm calling the people one this board who think this hate the U.S. rhetoric novel "morons" because they are. The leftists who dominate this board keep insisting that this analysis is fresh and courageous. It's just the same old drivel.

Here's the problem the left needs to confront. God didn't die. Marxism did. This has gutted the left.

NYGuy - 6/13/2003

Babe Ruth struck out many times. The actual number which I don't remember is a fact.

I was just reading a book about the "Babe", titled, "Babe Ruth was a loser." The author focuses on his number of strikeouts and concludes that the "Babe" was not really a good player and has no place in the Hall of Fame.

The author points out the many times when the babe had men on base and he struck out. He even struck out with no men on base, one man on base and two men on base. He never struck out with women on base because they were not permitted to play at time. Still the Babe was a chauvanist and never fought for women's rights. He was also a racist who never played against teams that had non-whites on it. Many other examples are given to show the "Babe" was self centered and only played to make money and get rich, for his own pleasure and amusement and really if ever did anything to improve the plight of the poor and downtrodden. He also cheated the management and bosses of the Yankees with all his strikeouts.

The fans in the stands were cheated when this happened, as well as the man in street who worshipped the Babe. These strike outs happened thousands of times and the Babe did nothing about them, but continued on with his sloppy way.

This book reminded me of Zinn's portrayal of America. No wonder we can't be proud, particularly when we can't even have a hero in baseball.

Les Milton - 6/12/2003

Calling critics of the U.S. "morons" implies you have no intellectual response to their criticisms. You wouldn't want people to think that, would you?

How is it against one's self-interest to take responsibility for one's mistakes?

The president is also a representative of our country and to say that there are no circumstances which merit an apology from us, is to admit to such arrogance and absence of honor as to tarnish the moral land intellectual reputation of the U.S..

You have to be pretty defensive to take criticisms of the U.S. as saying how "awful" the country is. Is it impossible to criticize your parents and still love them? Does pointing out a flaw in your spouse mean you think he/she is absolutely worthless? Of course, not. Try to relax.

Les Milton - 6/12/2003

I don't think I ever implied that George Bush Sr. was less credible a historian than Zinn, because he's not. He was our president, our leader, and our representative to the world.

One only has to look objectively at U.S. foreign policy over the last 50 years to see that there are many mistakes made by the U.S. government that cost innocents their lives. Anyone with any honor whatsoever knows that when one makes a mistake that hurts others, one apologizes. And what's worse, Bush Sr.'s comment implies that there are NO circumstances which merit apology. This is a position devoid of honor or courage.

I've never heard Zinn or any other leftist say that the U.S. is the "worst country in the world". Only that it has yet to take responsibility for its mistakes.

And it's rather silly to be proud to be an American, unless you're an immigrant. I feel lucky to be an American, but I had nothing to do with being born here. One might as well be proud to have a certain eye color.

David Salmanson - 6/12/2003

Thanks Caroline. I remember reading several book reviews on recent work on the Pequot war but couldn't locate which titles were the better ones. Although a typical "leftist academic" I do not think of Zinn as a particularly good historian. He is, however, an extremely talented polemicist and that is why his writing teaches so well. Whether they agree with him or not, students are forced to confront their own assumptions and construct coherent responses. This results in better thinking by all students.

Caroline Ward - 6/11/2003

For anyone reading these exchanges interested in the most recent scholarship on the Pequot War (which accords fully with neither Howard Zinn--not an expert on colonial history by any measure--nor Mr. Flynn's tirade [good grief! couldn't he find a better, more accurate, and less biased source on the war than John G. Palfrey, who has all the racist prejudices of other 19th c. authors]), I suggest Alfred Cave's recent eponymous and probably definitive book, The Pequot War. It is far more even handed than either Flynn or Zinn. Yes, the Pequots were aggressors vs. other tribes yes, they initially attacked the settlers (but the first English men to die, it is now believed, were NOT killed by Pequots) but yes, also, the burning of the Mystic fort, with hundreds of women & children (not warriors) inside, was a great atrocity, one so terrible it horrified the Narragansett allies of the English.

Nicholas Freedman - 6/11/2003

Why is HNN printing this kind of rhetorical nonsense? There are many rightist academics who could supply a counterbalance to the arguments of Professor Zinn. While I probably wouldn't agree with many of them, it would further the historical discourse that this site is supposed to be about.
Come on, HNN, you can do better. And you are trying to fundraise?
There is plenty of genuine scholarship from across the politcal and ideological spectrum. Why go to the pseudo-intellectual punditry that passes itself off as scholarship in the popular media?

Homer Simpson - 6/11/2003

No, he's the president and commander-in-chief. His job is to represent the self-interest of our nation to the best of his ability.

You morons can gas about how awful the U.S. is. Evidently some of you get paid to make a nuisance of yourselves in this fashion. And, it's not like this gassing has been in short supply. We've been fed a nauseating diet of it for four decades.

No, Prez Bush is absolutely right. He shouldn't apologize for anything. He should fight for the self-interest of the U.S.

Homer Simpson - 6/11/2003

Why won't leftists worship the real god? The false god of Marxism continues to tempt our moral betters. Even after the 100 million executions.

And, then the morons want to lecture the rest of us. Astonishing!

The Marxists used the social movements you've mentioned in the hope that they could spread chaos, hatred and violence in the U.S. That those movements had value has nothing to do with the Marxist attempt to subvert the U.S. This has always been the Marxist ruse, and here we have another bunch of morons falling for it. Useful idiots of the world, keep belching out the fumes!

Arnold, why don't you get some real religion, instead of the fake Marxist religion? Well, that would entail revealing your motives. Marxism isn't called the politics of envy for nothing.

Marxism is Nazism. Marxists are Nazis. The result is what counts. How does this idiocy continue?

Homer Simpson - 6/11/2003

I'm glad he finally admitted it.

God didn't die, Kirstein. Marx did.

Marxism is Nazism. There is no difference.

Kirstein is a worshipper of the False God. He missed the primary moral lesson of the 20th century.

How's that arm, Peter? The patting yourself on the back has got to be painful.

I knew you were completely ignorant. Wasn't aware that you are without any moral compass as well.

Arnold A. Offner - 6/11/2003

Sorry Mr. Flynn, but the truth is that if Howard Zinn did not exist, it would be necessary--and my pleasure--to invent him. Since the 1940s he has has served as one of this nation's moral consciences in addressing the great issues of our life time: civil rights, the dreadful war in Vietnam, and all the social welfare issues you might care to list. We are all the richer for his contributions to our society. May they continue .

Dan - 6/11/2003

“Objectivity is impossible,” Zinn once remarked, “and it is also undesirable."

In that one sentence, Zinn has proven himself infinitely more capable of holding a reasoned discourse (AND more objective) than ANY of the current wave of hate-America-first right wing pundits pandering to the ignorant masses in our country today. No wonder they fear this guy so much!

NYGuy - 6/11/2003

What is the difference between these two statements?

GW Said: "The promise of our Constitution and our ideals are doomed if we adopt the attitude of George H.W. Bush when he said, "I'll never apologize for the United States. I don't care what the facts are."

I agree with him. Facts have to be weighted to reach a good conclusion. I don't believe the negative facts overwhelm GW's observation. What period in history was the US a less worthy country than others in the world. Every country experienced fighting, violence and many supported slavery, particularly in Africa.

This is what you said about Zinn: "Obviously, his ideology does interfere with his objectivity." What makes him more creditable than GW. And when you weigh his statements about our problems or weaknesses, do you come out with an opinion that the US is the worst country in the world and therefore we have no right to feel proud?

Hepatitus - 6/11/2003

Everyone is--"bias" is the reason we provide footnotes.

The great thing about zinn's book is it has a strong argument and makes a provocative point. I use it in class, and even the most conservative students like its anti elite, egaltarian focus. There are any number of texts which teach history as cheerleading, and students find them tedious, as they have hear dit all before. zinn's book provokes--it provokes conservative students into strengthening their arguments, among other things. I don't agree with everything in it, but then I don't agree with everything in ANY book

This is a dumb piece, but sadly, it's well calculated to ride the wave of cheerleading books by Hannity, Savage et. al. The authors pat themsleves on the back for being bold and contrary, but as is often observed, it takes no particular courage to tell people they are great. People like to here that. Getting them to understand that greatness is mixed with baseness, virtue with venality, success with failure, is harder, but it would be easier if dumb books like this weren't out there.

Herodotus - 6/10/2003

to have phrases like this:
"The New York Times?s reviewer (no doubt a cousin of Jayson Blair) declared that the book should be ?required reading? for students"

if you're trying to encourage accuracy in recounting events. Is the review a cousin of Jayson Blair? Is he not? Is it just a cheap shot (clearly it is) and does it weaken the importance of the sentence (absolutely).

Peter N Kirstein - 6/10/2003

Actually the first line of Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto is, "A Spectre is Haunting Europe--the spectre of Communism," and not “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” Perhaps had Mr Flynn been as fortunate as I was to matriculate in Professor Zinn's Marxism course at Boston University, he would have avoided the error.

I have used Professor Zinn's, "A People's History" for many years and students find it very provocative and readable. In fact his teachings and writings were formative events in my life and I can assure Mr Flynn that opposing American militarism, racism and imperialism is in keeping with a democracy's need for vital and sustained criticism of public and foreign policy.

Paul - 6/10/2003

Mr. Flynn's writing takes a cluster bomb approach to argumentations: spray enough bad stuff around and hope it hits something worth hitting. It is this essay that is a monument to credulity and delusion. What a pathetic diatribe.

Les Milton - 6/10/2003

I don't agree with Howard Zinn on a number of topics. Obviously, his ideology does interfere with his objectivity and I don't think one can argue that his scholarship is flawless, but it's humorous to have this pointed out by someone like Mr. Flynn who has written a book with the hilarious title, "Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation’s Greatness".

Maybe I'm just ignorant, but which Americans on "the Left" hate America? Most of them? Certainly not all, because, though I'm not a Leftist (finding them as frustrating as I do the Right), I have many friends who are and they all LOVE America.

And which lies, exactly, have obscured America's "greatness"? I mean besides Nixon's and Reagan's and Bush's and Clinton's?

Mr. Flynn claims that the Contras' candidate won the first free elections in Nicaragua after the Sandinistas took control. But Daniel Ortega won the first free elections in 1984 which were monitored by representatives of scores of countries and found to be free and fair by all of them, except one, of course (care to guess?). I'm no fan of the Sandinistas, but the facts of the matter are more important than my opinion of the Sandinistas. I wish Mr. Flynn understood this.

I tend to agree with Mr. Flynn regarding Zinn's opinions of Castro, Mumia Abu-Jamal and even some of the sloppy arguments against our war in Afghanistan, but to say that "Readers of A People’s History of the United States learn very little about history" is even more ludicrous than Zinn's most ludicrous assertions. The fact is that readers of Zinn's book have learned and will learn many, many things about American history that they didn't learn in high school. Things that are absolutely necessary in order to grasp the complexity of what the U.S. has been and what it is today.

As an aside, I'm pretty sure most historians believe that the Americas were unpopulated by humans when Asians crossed the Bering strait.

I think that Mr. Flynn has missed the point of this book, which (horror of horrors) is not to celebrate America. It's not meant to repeat the stories of greatness we've been told time and again (lest we forget how great we are), but rather to point out the weaknesses we've experienced. Arrogance and deceit mark as much of our history as ingenuity and strength. But our strength will never increase until we, as a nation, have the courage to look back and take responsibility for the lives (at home and abroad) we've destroyed. It's easy to look at the accomplishments and puff up our chests, but it takes something more to look at our faults honestly and admit them. I mean, I don't know of any winning football teams that only review the plays that went right on the Sunday before. That's because improvement doesn't arise from focusing only on what went right.

There are many who despise those who point these things out. They bristle at the notion that America might not be the greatest nation in the history of civilization. And while I think it's possible that our Constitution might be the greatest governing document ever created, to suggest that our government or our citizens have been somehow superior to all other governments and all other citizens is to engage in the same kind of ideological myth-making of which Howard Zinn is regularly accused.


You are never too old, in years, to start a Doctoral program or to otherwise extend your education. However, you need to do a couple of things while you “wait”. Most important is that you don’t lose your edge. If you are working in the field of study you should probably be fine and your experience may help.

  1. Karl Witte – 13. Born in 1800, Karl Witte was the son of an educational author who is said to have put his hypotheses to work on his son.
  2. Kim Ung-Yong – 15.
  3. Balamurali Ambati – 17.
  4. Ruth Lawrence – 17.
  5. Norbert Wiener – 17.
  6. Sho Yano – 18.
  7. Juliet Beni – 19.
  8. Charles Homer Haskins – 19.

Can Historians Be Traumatized by History?

Illustrations by Matt Huynh

In 1997, the historian Iris Chang published her important, incendiary book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. It was a vital work of salvage, resurrecting for a new generation the half-forgotten savagery unleashed on Chinese citizens by the Japanese Imperial Army during its march across Republican China in 1937. An unmatched researcher and unyielding advocate, always elegantly besuited, Chang was embraced by many Chinese and Chinese-Americans who hadn’t known much more about the slaughter at Nanking than what they heard as family lore. For them, Chang’s devotion to unearthing buried memory was redemptive, and they elevated her into a kind of oracle.

Perhaps surprisingly, Chang’s efforts resonated far beyond the people whose lives had been directly touched by the soldiers’ crimes The Rape of Nanking became a bestseller in the United States. Filled with exhaustive depictions of the most depraved forms of cruelty ever enacted, it seemed an unlikely hit. Consider the following account of the Imperial Army’s sexual violence, representative but hardly the most shocking:

Perhaps one of the most brutal forms of Japanese entertainment was the impalement of vaginas. In the streets of Nanking, corpses of women lay with their legs splayed open, their orifices pierced by wooden rods, twigs, and weeds.… [One] Japanese soldier who raped a young woman thrust a beer bottle into her and shot her. Another rape victim was found with a golf stick rammed into her.… Little girls were raped so brutally that some could not walk for weeks afterwards. Many required surgery others died.… In some cases, the Japanese sliced open the vaginas of preteen girls in order to ravish them more effectively.

To write the book, Chang had suspended herself for years in the ruins of 1930s Manchuria, a far cry from mild Sunnyvale, California, where she lived. Her approach was rigorous to the point of obsession. She considered every artifact, no matter how mundane or horrible, necessary evidence: the statement of the trembling witness, the matter-of-fact diplomatic cable, confessions, diaries, reels of film, photographs all the grimmer for having no color, scholarly accounts, the deadening data of death tolls. Most important were the interviews Chang (who trained as a journalist) conducted with living survivors, some of whom still bore scars or limps. “I spent several hours with each one, getting the details of their experiences on videotape,” Chang explained of her method. “Some became overwrought with emotion during the interviews and broke down into tears.”

Everything Chang documented she had to review ponder return to throughout the stages of writing, editing, and proofing and finally talk about, in the hundreds of lectures she gave across the world. It became, Chang admitted, “almost impossible to separate myself from the tragedy.… The stress of writing this book and living with this horror on a daily basis caused my weight to plummet. I had to write it, if it was the last thing I ever did in my life.” That she had previously struggled with depression did not make it easier. Her mother, Ying-Ying Chang, observed her daughter’s despair: “Iris told us that the most difficult thing was to read one case after another of the atrocities…. She read hundreds of such cases. She felt numb after a while. She told me she sometimes had to get up and away from the documents to take a deep breath. She felt suffocated and in pain.”

Seven years after The Rape of Nanking appeared, Chang was recording the stories of Filipinos and Americans who had endured another Japanese war crime, the 1942 Bataan Death March. Several months into the research, on a November morning in 2004, she left her sleeping husband and child at home, drove west into the oaky hills of Santa Clara County, and, on a lonely gravel road, shot herself. She was 36 years old.

The phenomenon of the historian traumatized by history remains unstudied and is not widely known. Yet anyone who has documented depravity knows the symptoms. After writing a book on the Armenian Genocide, a process that took me five years, I found it impossible to slip comfortably into sleep. All kinds of catastrophes visited me—still visit me—in that space before dreams: ugly visions, jarring scenes from my research. And I am not alone. In several extensive interviews I conducted with historians working across different subjects, and in the responses to a questionnaire I distributed to a dozen scholars (most of whom were reluctant to speak publicly about these most personal experiences), I discovered a reservoir of pain that reveals itself through symptoms familiar to anyone diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder: insomnia, rapid weight gain or loss, abuse of booze or pills, unexplainable anger or fear, paralyzing anxieties. Some reactions are more subtle: the sudden unwillingness to watch a particular film or read graphic news reports claustrophobia in a crowd.

Traditionally, we’ve supposed that these kinds of reactions would afflict only firsthand witnesses to violence: the victims, the bystanders, maybe the journalists. And we are blessed with a rich literature of witness every mass traumatic event has its own set of survivors elevated by personal experience into authorities. Historians, by contrast, have neither seen nor heard the catastrophes they study—they’ve reached them through imagination and immersion.

Can you be traumatized by something experienced only secondhand? According to a psychoanalytic framework, trauma is a shock so overwhelming that it cannot be mentally processed. It shreds our psychic defenses, compromising our customs, ideologies, religious beliefs, moral systems, rituals, close relationships, even the body itself. When stripped of its organizational protection, the mind struggles to assimilate things that would otherwise seem normal, futilely trying to make sense of that which it finds incomprehensible. All kinds of destructive and alienating behaviors result.

As first responders to and theorizers of trauma, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals are dangerously close to the sources of the pain they treat. The first hint that therapists might become traumatized by close interaction with their patients was raised by Chaim Shatan, a clinician-activist who worked closely with veterans ravaged by the Vietnam War. “We should be forewarned,” he wrote in an influential 1973 article. “We, too, may have nightmares we, too, may be unable to sleep, unable to talk normally to other people for days or weeks. Once we professionals admit the knowledge of the veterans into our awareness, we are changed in fundamental ways.” In 1995, the clinical psychologists Karen Saakvitne and Laurie Anne Pearlman gave a name to the disorder Shatan identified: “vicarious trauma.”

Only in recent decades have psychotherapists sketched the borders between vicarious trauma and the more well-known problems of “burnout” and “compassion fatigue,” which constitute a sympathetic identification with a traumatized person. Such reactions can be repaired by sleep, exercise, a holiday, the company of loved ones. Vicarious traumas, by contrast, cut much deeper than emotional exhaustion, and are not so easily healed. The therapists are not subject to that moment of terror, but they feel it as though they had been. They become infected, as it were, as horrors are psychologically transmitted from one person to another.

Crucial to the process of vicarious traumatization is imagination, the engine of empathy and “the best guide,” in the words of the psychoanalyst Ghislaine Boulanger, “to entering experience that is beyond recognition.” For historians, documenting the past without imagination is impossible. It is the key to re-creating the ambience of other lives and the method by which scholars probe alternative futures. In his posthumous 1946 work, The Idea of History, R.G. Collingwood insisted imagination was the historian’s chief tool. Hannah Arendt called it an “inner compass,” a way to “catch a glimpse of the always frightening light of truth.”

The more fervent, precise, or visionary their reconstructions of the past, the more harshly they may be wounded by what they study.

The importance of imagination creates a double bind for the historian: The more fervent, precise, or visionary their reconstructions of the past, and the more completely they immerse themselves, the more harshly they may be wounded by what they study. But they also encounter a troubling paradox. When they venture into periods when a society has totally collapsed or a moral world been turned upside down, it is more difficult to understand what has happened. Scholars of genocide, for example, have long struggled with the problem of how an elite or a majority can be enlisted to annihilate an entire people. The nature of evil, whether radical or banal, still perplexes us. As Alan Bullock, the author of the masterful biography Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, told The New Yorker: “The more I learn about Adolf Hitler, the harder I find it to explain.” These failures to comprehend not only heighten historians’ trauma, they also fly in the face of the very idea of history as a discipline, which is predicated on the conviction that everything is knowable, or at least traceable, reconstructable. Doubt or confusion feels perverse, a betrayal of the victim.

Historians are distinct from survivors in another way: They return to the source of their trauma by choice. The descendants of genocide survivors, the children of torture victims, the spouses of social workers or firefighters—or, lately, those doctors and nurses in the vanguard of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic—have no say in their condition. Whereas every day, sometimes for decades, historians open themselves, if not willingly then by a sense of obligation, to the pain of the past. Often, the present intrudes, exacerbating the trauma. After 9/11, Kristen Alexander, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, developed an acute fear of flying that worsened during her later work on a book about Australian airmen in the Second World War. She became depressed as her project intensified her fears. “I had nightmares and cried every time I read or edited the sections relating to the [airmen’s] deaths,” she told me. In her mind, “flight equaled death.” Many historians working on the Armenian Genocide, including me, remain deeply troubled by the 2007 assassination of the courageous Turkish-Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink in Istanbul. Historians examining slavery’s legacy are forcibly reminded of their subject when cops kill Black people with smug impunity.

It is bad advice to say that politics, sex, and religion ought to be kept out of polite conversation, but nobody wants you to bring up a genocide at a dinner party. “The extent to which my research is ‘dark’ and therefore not polite dinner conversation means I’m repeatedly isolated in piecing through the material,” Elena Gallina, a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford and researcher of sexual violence in wartime, told me. The burden of the work, of “sitting with the facts and figures,” as Gallina put it, “is made heavier by societal distaste for these things.” Where is the historian to go with her condition? It’s difficult to raise the problem over coffee, at faculty meetings, with students or publishers. Other disciplines have found ways, however insufficient, of containing and treating vicarious trauma. Psychotherapists are obliged to undergo supervision, where they discuss their clients they may choose to see their own therapist. Social or medical workers can have their mental needs tended by their institutions.

But there is little recourse for the historian—beyond whatever mental health care they are eligible for at their institutions—in part because their trauma is so specific and so little understood, and their bosses and administrators are unlikely to offer comforting shoulders. Awareness of vicarious trauma, however, is growing in other related fields. A 2003 study revealed, for instance, that lawyers who work with criminal defendants or victims of domestic violence suffer secondary trauma and burnout at significantly higher rates than those who provide other “frontline” services. And in a world first, a state court in Australia awarded 180,000 Australian dollars in damages to a journalist who broke down after she spent 10 years reporting on court cases dealing with violent crime. Her employers, the court found, had breached their “duty of care to staff” by not providing her with any psychiatric support.

Faced with terrible wrongs, observing others’ pain, how do you feel enough without feeling too much?

At worst, historians’ confessions of mental anguish are met with dismissal: Edward Gibbon wasn’t vicariously traumatized by writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—so what are you, weak? In countries with privatized health care systems, scholars openly discussing their traumas might risk not receiving care, not being granted insurance, or compromising the professional networks they belong to, which depend on mutually enforced silence. “This spells the end of our professional pseudo-neutrality,” the clinician Chaim Shatan warned when first identifying the syndrome that would later be called vicarious trauma, “a departure from our long-cherished tradition of emotional imperturbability.”

Many historians, especially those working in academia, are taught that neutrality in all things is a first principle never to be violated. Some historians criticized Iris Chang, for example, for getting too close to her subject, for being too emotionally open to the material. But the cool, analytical distance the discipline recommends can very easily slip into dissociation, to too much distance—a way to ward off the possibility of vicarious trauma. Dissociation, as the psychoanalyst Richard Gartner writes, is usually “maladaptive, developing into an individual’s go-to defense against feelings of anxiety.” It leaves people “with only a partial understanding” of whatever they’re trying to make sense of. The balance between objective detachment and empathetic understanding—both essential for the practice of history—can be very difficult to attain.

If the historian—the very person supposed to process the past on behalf of everyone else—struggles with trauma, then it is little surprise that societies as a whole struggle to face the violence of how they were formed and how they prevailed, and find themselves riven with absence and silence. Every nation and political culture, after all, is built on the instinct to divorce itself from anything uncomfortable. Dissociation becomes an automatic political and cultural reflex, a way to avoid the proper consideration of earlier horrors and therefore evade responsibility for them. “Care must be taken,” Sigmund Freud wrote dryly at the beginning of the last bloody century, “to eliminate from the memory such a motive as would be painful to the national feeling.” To engineer a usable history, in other words, we stifle anything disquieting to the conscience.

There are other ways societies defend against even the threat of trauma. As with some popular literature and films on the Holocaust (from The Tattooist of Auschwitz to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to the 1997 movie Life Is Beautiful), we use kitsch and sentiment to guard ourselves, to lessen the blow. Perhaps more disturbingly, a proper reckoning with mass violence can be perceived by a country’s ruling power as a challenge. Due consideration of victims can be portrayed as a threat to the entire social order. In this way, an untenable status quo is defended, and the historian is faced not only with the trauma of the original violence but also with the official denial of that violence. Turks still think of Armenians as an existential menace, as do Indonesians of “communists.” Indigenous peoples everywhere face such a double demonization. Their pain is considered not only necessary or unavoidable, but dangerous, too.

The form of that pain also matters because the worst abuses are often the most intimate. For us to dwell on specific instances of children torn from their parents or women forcibly castrated at the Mexican border breaches our most tightly held taboos. The more invasive the violence, the easier it is to avoid discussing it publicly.

And yet in spite of these evasions, or perhaps because of them, historians persist. In every conversation I had with the scholars I interviewed, I asked: Why do you continue? A few speculated that they are simply better constitutionally equipped than other people to endure stories of cruelty—hardier or less emotionally susceptible by nature, maybe. Many said they feel a duty to give voice to the voiceless, as Iris Chang did. To see the children and grandchildren of catastrophe mended by their efforts reassures them that the work is worth something.

Others told me that their efforts to construct a narrative, to make some sense out of the incomprehensible, was therapeutic in itself. The precedent handed down to us by survivors and observers is critical, too. Their ability to make order out of catastrophe, to bring shape to that which is unfathomable, serves as both motivation and solace. In cases of enormous injustice, they provide the fuel for righteous and redemptive anger. Primo Levi’s and Elie Wiesel’s accounts of the Shoah, along with László Nemes’s film Son of Saul Solzhenitsyn’s infamous gulag memoir One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence or John Hersey’s Hiroshima: Whether verbatim testimony or fictionalized re-creation, such accounts act as a guide and orator for the imagination, illuminating a path so that the reader might enter a darker world without too much risk. These are but a sampling, but each of these texts serves this essential role.

It may be a comfort to know that for historians healing is possible. The “cardinal indicator of emotional maturity,” Shatan wrote in 1973, is “the capacity to be openly affected by another’s emotions.” He might have added, “without being broken by them.” Faced with terrible wrongs, observing others’ pain, how do you feel enough without feeling too much? The problem afflicts historians because they are human. Repair and restoration can take decades. It may never be completed. And the first step is the most daunting of all: to stare the original trauma in the face, to accept its unremitting gaze.


Historians debate America's history of racism and Confederate monuments

Protesters have dismounted several statues around the world.

The debate over controversial statues and monuments

Statues have long been a way to honor leaders, benefactors, heroes and the war dead, giving them permanence and a three-dimensional presence.

Over the years, they have come to mean many things to different people, including a way to remember, a work of art or simply a place for pigeons to roost.

But increasingly some of those statues, particularly those honoring Confederate leaders or victories and those connected with slavery have become a flash point for many -- removed or destroyed because of the pain, suffering or oppression they represent.

This push, which has ebbed and flowed over the years, recently gained renewed momentum after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, with statues either removed by protesters, the government or private organizations.

Not all agree that these historical representations should be taken down. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have denounced "rioters" for pulling down the statues.

Trump even signed an executive order to protect monuments, memorials and statues, and has tweeted about jailing protesters for up to 10 years.

"I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison," the president tweeted on June 23.

But as some fight to preserve the monuments, even a descendant of Lee, Rev. Robert Lee IV believes they should be taken down now.

"Why are we protecting statues that symbolize oppression instead of protecting the people that were oppressed?" Lee said to ABC News in a July 3 interview.

In some cases, looters and vandals used the guise of peaceful protests to destroy property including statues dedicated to slave owners, Confederate leaders or other white men with controversial reputations. Many of those historical figures were prominent slaveholders and slave traders who acquired their fortunes through unpaid labor.

But experts interviewed by ABC News say erasing the past isn't the answer to calls for justice, police reform and an end to structural racism. What to do with the statues, which are expensive to maintain, is a more complicated question, whether it be removal, which is also expensive, adding context, which may be insufficient, putting them in museums or destroying them altogether.

'Statues have always been about power'

Historians have debated the issue for decades, with some saying cities and other locales should keep the sculptures intact and accept the historical figures for who they were -- warts and all -- while others see them as symbols of racism, oppression and African American pain.

"These individuals who are being celebrated . their sole purpose was to destroy the country. And the second thing is that they lost . a war to dissolve the country, and they were traitors," Lionel Kimble, vice president for programs at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, told ABC News. "And I don't know of any other society, globally, where we hold up traitors and people who wanted to destroy the very fabric of . society."

Erin Thompson, an art crime professor at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said statues generally weren't created to foster goodwill, but as an intimidation tactic.

"Statutes have always been about power," said Thompson, who has a doctorate in art history and a law degree. "From the beginning of human art-making, we see statues of rulers of powerful people and they're meant to send messages . to keep reminding people that they're in charge."

"And because statues are about power . when someone in power fell, their statues were attacked . a way of sort of humiliating someone whose actual body you can't touch," Thompson added.

Kimble agreed, explaining that many Confederate statues were meant to elicit fear in opponents, and said they were also used as tools to terrorize Black citizens, including those who fought on the side of the Confederacy in the South.

"I think there are really two conversations going on. On one hand you have the Confederate monuments, which have a very checkered history as many of them were created as instruments of racial terror, instruments to support Jim Crow to oppress Black people in the south," Kimble said. "And a lot of these statues came, not as a direct result of the Civil War, but really in response to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. So a lot of these things were designed to terrorize black people."

Conversely, the statues of the country's founding fathers, who were also predominately slave holders with histories of racism, are generally regarded in a different light, despite their pasts.

"The argument around these individuals as slaveholders is really a historical fact. These guys were some of the original American capitalists . they made their money through the buying and selling of human beings," Kimble said. "In the larger American imagination, the Confederate statues occupy a very different space than statues of the Founding Fathers, which were erected to commemorate their work," he added.

During the recent protest, statues of historic figures like Robert E. Lee, Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, Edward Colston and Jefferson Davis were torn down in the United States and overseas.

But Kimble said this is the wrong direction to take.

"We essentially want to cancel these Civil War generals and monuments, which I think is a mistake. Tearing these things down should not be the goal in," he said. "But there is a place for these statues and the place is in some sort of museum and not in the public space, which is meant to be shared by all people."

Shifting opinion

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that there are significantly more people who support removing Confederate statues from public spaces around the United States than from a couple years ago.

"Historic figures in granite and iron that seemed protected just a few years ago now face the wrecking ball of public opinion," said Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy.

According to the poll, in August 2017, 39% supported the removal of Confederate statues compared to 52% who wanted to get rid of them in June. Of those who support the idea in the latest poll, 84% are Black, 58% are Hispanic and 44% are white. Those that opposed their removal are 52% from Southern states and 64% from rural areas.

In Bristol, England, where a statue of Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, was tossed into the river, the monument was unofficially replaced with a statue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid.

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees referred to the Colston statue as one of the city's "dirty" secrets, but did not condone the statue's unauthorized removal.

The statue of Reid is in honor of her "life's work," which is the ongoing movement against racism and police brutality there and abroad. Twenty-four hours after Reid's statue was erected, the city council ordered it taken down and placed into a museum along with Colston's statue.

What to do about controversial statues?

Thompson said there have been several ideas floated to avoid removing statues, which costs just as much in some cases as it does to take care of them.

She suggested re-contextualizing statues with plaques that give context. "But seeing somebody up on a pedestal is so powerful that it's hard to believe that putting up a little bit of additional text, or putting up another statue nearby is really going to overcome that effective," she added.

Friends of the Public Gardens, a Boston-based community restoration organization said that "the cost for cleaning a piece of sculpture is approximately $700, while the cost for full restoration can be $20,000-$25,000."

The Smithsonian Magazine found in 2018 that during a 10-year period, nearly $40 million of taxpayer funds were spent on cleaning and preserving Confederate monuments, including statues.


Watch the video: How do Historians do History? (January 2023).

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