A friend is angry at Steve Haycox’s Feb. 5 column for not liking the best-known books of J. D. Salinger and Howard Zinn. Haycox criticized both for their “pessimistic view of society and power, distorted and corrupt in its assumptions of the right to rule.”
I don’t angry at people who for not agreeing with me, especially someone I respect like Haycox. I can learn from them.
I was not a teenager when I read Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” So I did not identify with the “angst-ridden Holden Caulfield.” I thought he was quite a believable character who reminded me of the teenagers I had run across. Haycox appears to interpret the book as a condemnation of authorities in our society. I interpreted it as an accurate portrait of a snotty teenager. Maybe that’s because when I was a teenager, I rebelled against the tendency to rebel against authority. I decided to rebel against the other teenagers.
I will take Haycox’s word for it that “Most professional historians dismiss ‘A People’s History of the United States’ for its one-dimensionality and its presentism.” That’s because I respect Steve as an authority on history. He knows more about history than I do.
That’s okay with me. I am not qualified to judge whether Zinn’s work meets the academic criteria for a good piece of history. I am qualified to judge what the book does for me. When I read it in the last year of the W administration, Zinn reminded me of our country’s long history of interventions in our countries to protect “our national interest” and the long history of politicians more involved in appeasing special interests than in serving the people. I began to realize even more the problem is not individual presidents as much as it is structural. Since January 20 of last year, the behaviors of this president reinforced my belief partisan politics has little to do with the problem.
Steve may see Zinn as unduly pessimistic. But Zinn gives me some hope at a time when government power increases and the power of individual Americans decreases. We do have the power to throw the crooks out. But first we have to stop identifying with the crooks and see them as the enemies they are. Civil rights for blacks, Natives, women, and disabled people did not originate from politicians but from people who decided they were mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more, as a movie character once said in a more tranquil era than our own.
Steve apparently is more concerned about assigning blame for the past than I am. I try not to judge people, but to judge actions. For example, some have pointed out Lincoln, who freed the slaves and Truman, who integrated the US military, have both used the dreaded “n” word frequently. For me, it’s not as important to label both guys as “racists” as to understand that in some ways we don’t put up with some things our ancestors did.
I went through lots of history courses in school that emphasized presidents, generals, kings, popes, and other big shots. Zinn’s book provided me with stories about regular people that the history books of my youth did not. His “People’s History” may not meet the standards of professional historians. But it brought me a better understanding of my country. His alleged political incorrectness doesn’t diminish that.