Corrupting history

Corrupting history: Howard Zinn and Robert Manne 

The past week has seen the death of the influential radical American historian Howard Zinn, and the call for Robert Manne to stand down pending an independent inquiry into his influential but highly controversial claims about Australian government support in the 1930s for a policy of “breeding out the colour” amongst the ‘Stolen Generations’. These two events hi-light how important it is that influential academics observe at least minimum standards of objectivity in their research and writing, especially when they are dealing with extremely sensitive areas of national history. 

While Zinn shares many characteristics with Manne, there is one essential difference. Zinn believes he is a champion of ‘the American people’, however much he sees them as dupes of a never-ending series of complex conspiracies orchestrated by an omnipotent capitalist ruling class. Not so with Manne, or with the many other Australian historians who follow his lead. They make no attempt to champion the Australian people or recognize their efforts to build a nation. Instead, Australians emerge from their historical writings as unrepentant and non-reflective racists who support ignorant, oppressive, and racist policies, and deserve nothing but the unrelenting contempt of morally superior intellectuals like Manne and his colleagues –a contempt they are happy to provide.   

The case of Manne doesn’t need to be rehearsed in detail here, as it has been well summarized by Keith Windschuttle, who observes that “Manne falsified Australian political history on an issue that he, more than almost any other academic commentator in the country, had the opportunity, the interest and the ability to investigate thoroughly and report honestly”. Windschuttle, alone amongst Australian historians, has taken the trouble in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History Vol.3: The Stolen Generations 1881-2008, to investigate in great depth and with the proper level of objectivity the empirical evidence for the claims made by various historians, Manne, and others, to the Human Rights Commission and various publications, revealing the colossal scale of their deception and the enormous damage done not only to the proper understanding of Australian history, but also to the perceptions held by foreigners and Australians about themselves, their forbears, their country, and their role in the world. 

The case of Howard Zinn may be less familiar to Australians, but he also exemplifies the tremendous damage that can be done by senior academics who are able to pass off as true and reliable what are really tendentious and destructive pseudo-histories. Zinn’s radical (and radically unsound) tome, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, has gone through five editions and multiple printings since it was first published in 1980, selling almost two million copies, and is assigned in thousands of university and college courses in America, making it the best-selling work of history ever written by an American leftist. It also has a high profile in popular culture, being the basis of several documentaries, inspiring pop songs, serving as the basis for a highly successful graphic novel, being referenced in the Academy Award-winning film Good Will Hunting (1997), and even in an episode of The Simpsons, where Marge is shown reading the book at college. Its penetration into American popular consciousness is both unparalleled and insidious. 

This popularity arises from its readily accessible, but incredibly simplistic, Manichean view of history. According to this negative mythology – which has come to dominate academia in America and Australia – the past is merely a never-ending succession of unequal and violent power struggles between opposed forces – between masters and slaves, classes, races, sexes, imperialist powers and colonized peoples, and so on. Zinn consequently begins his book by declaring that no unbiased or objective history can be written under such circumstances and that all historians must be committed politically – to the side of either the oppressed or the oppressors. He then goes on to insist that America was born out of genocide and has been based on nothing more than violence and exploitation ever since (themes that Australian historians have also built their careers around). This includes the Civil War, which he presents as a conflict between rival elites in the North and South over alternative forms of capitalist exploitation and not about the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Similarly, he claims that America engineered various crises (including Pearl Harbor) to ensure its entry into both world wars in order to further its imperialist plans. He condemns all of America’s military campaigns, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he characteristically ignores such major military triumphs as the Normandy campaign, while devoting several pages to the My Lai massacre. He also denounces such notions as patriotism, national interest, and even democracy, as merely means of ideological manipulation by the capitalist ruling elite. On the other hand, he defends the Soviet Union, Communist China, Cuba, all totalitarian states, and the 9/11 terror attacks. 

Zinn’s book had an immediate impact on the neo-Marxist, Foucaultian, and feminist academic clique that came to dominate the study, teaching, publishing, and grant-allocating activities of Australian history in the 1980s, giving rise to the four volume collectivist effort, A People’s History of Australia Since 1788. This was published in 1988 in order to promote the negative mythology of Australian history in time for the Bicentennial and to ensure that the nation had no illusions about the depths of its historical depravity. Just to be sure, these sins were spelt out in the Introduction to every volume: “This history is critical not celebratory. It rejects myths of national progress and unity. It starts from a recognition that Australian settler society was built on invasion and dispossession … Held up against the millennia of Aboriginal experience, the last two hundred years seem but a brief, nasty interlude”. Seeking to emulate Zinn’s attacks on his country, such work debunks, deconstructs, and denounces every aspect of life in which Australians might seek to take pride. This program of national vilification intensified in the 1990s with the campaign over the ‘Stolen Generations’ and continued into the new millennium, with Manne finding a role as its ideological front man. 

Zinn and his Australian acolytes may well have convinced themselves that they are ‘standing up’ for some oppressed group by disdaining the principle of scholarly objectivity and adopting an (invariably left-wing) ideological approach to their academic responsibilities. However, they are often actually serving other agendas – including external interests concerned with portraying Australia as an irredeemably racist country – and ultimately do far more harm than good, especially to the groups who they fancy they are championing. Above all, they are destroying the interest of young Australians in their own history, as anyone who has talked with students will recognize. Left with nothing in which they can take national pride and faced with endless demands that they admit the original sins of racism and genocide their eyes glaze over and the shutters go up at the mere mention of history and the issues these obsessive ideologues insist must be central to every aspect of education from primary to tertiary level. History is experienced as a psychological assault, as young people plead despairingly: “OK, we get it! Just how many times do we have to watch Rabbit-Proof Fence?”  History as crass propaganda – such is the legacy of Zinn and his Australian acolytes.

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