Armour-Plated Liberalism

Liberalism, Churches and Funny Pictures

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Where Howard Zinn's "A Peoples' History" falls short (Professor Sam Wineburg)

The influence of Howard Zinn on modern left-wing interpretations of America seems, to me, to be exceptionally strong. Yet, as Professor Wineburg eloquently and devastatingly points out, the nature of the history that Zinn offers students today suffers from a lack of complexity and nuance. Further, this lack of complexity is compounded quite often simply by his being flat out wrong, or under-researched, on key turning points in American history.

I’ve whined and lectured and hectored before on the importance of nuance and complexity in politics; the same must be said for history. I have not always lived up the standards I have expected of others, something that will doubtless happen again. But I still think it right to strive for a standard in politics wherein we understand that the other side is not evil, but wrong. Sometimes, this means surrendering our temptation to lurch into a moral outrage at issues close to our heart - wars, rights and so on - and considering closely the thought processes of others we reject as irredeemably evil.

His Grace the Archbishop of Westminster was at the receiving end of an outburst from myself in our kitchen yesterday morning over his comments on equal marriage. Yet he is wrong, not evil, on this issue. His beliefs point him to an interpretation of love different from my own, and denouncing him as a malign force because of that does not create a situation wherein we can build a future for this country that includes both people of faith and a whole variety of sexualities. It is not easy to admit that a man who does not want me to marry, nor sees my love as equal to that of a heterosexual couple, is not evil - but I do not genuinely believe he is so. Wrong, yes. Misguided, yes. But absolutely not evil.

To declare His Grace an evil man is to turn history into a mockery, to reduce the grand sweep of humanities’ common experiences to a political trinket and to demean the victims of the few thousand people in all human history we might say approach the actual status of the truly, irredeemably evil. It is to play to tune of Zinn’s orchestra; history is about the weak being good and right, and the powerful being evil and wrong. It is not - it is about the blind fumbling forwards of a whole species, sometimes into dark alleys, sometimes into the broad sunlit uplands of Churchillian rhetoric. It is not comforting to admit that history is not an endless progression of virtue, nor is it destined to be. It forces us to admit that those in power are as falliable as we; and, on the other side of that coin, that they make as much of circumstances as we ourselves would have done in their shoes. 

I do not believe in a politics of cosy goodness and irredeemable evil, nor a history of the same. I believe in difficult choices, in common ground between all manner of people and in the creation of a climate wherein we can disagree without denouncement. I reject out of hand those who preach that intolerance of those intolerant of them is the cornerstone of politics. It takes a colossal force of will to stick to this path - a force I do not always possess, and a clarity I often fall far short of in many ways. 

Howard Zinn and Archbishop Nichols are wrong, but they are not evil. If we take away nothing else from 2012, let it be this - we must allow good men to be wrong, or we will destroy our politics and our history in the search for a purity that does not, and can never, exist.

Filed under Howard Zinn History politics UK USA people wrong right good evil

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