Cross-Examining America

Cross-Examining America

Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 30-31

Declarations of Independence, by Howard Zinn (Harper-Collins, 1990, 341 pages).

The Disunity of America. Reflections on a Multicultural Society, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (W. W. Norton, 1992, [first published by Whittle Books, 1991.], 160 pages).

Within the ranks of contemporary American historians it would be hard to pick two more unlike than are Schlesinger and Zinn. Schlesinger is a principal chief of the current intellectual aristocracy. Zinn is, on the other hand, a much admired voice for a sizeable number who distrust that leadership, and its outlook on our national history and priorities. Both, I would guess, vote Democratic; or, in any case, do not vote Republican.

They also both belong to the long national tradition of self-criticism. Each of these books treats today’s America very harshly. But the books are not parallel; the subject of one is hardly touched in the other. These men have different worries on their minds. In that, they are like their followers, Schlesinger’s from the center, Zinn’s from the left of American liberalism. “Ethnic and racial conflict it seems evident, will now replace the conflict of ideologies as the explosive issue of our times.” Schlesinger. “All of us, therefore, as we approach the next century, face an enormous responsibility: How to achieve justice without massive violence. Whatever in the past has been moral justification for violence—whether defense against attack, or the overthrow of tyranny—must now be accomplished by other means.” Zinn.

Declarations of Independence treads, nearly always angrily, over the record of American political and economic behavior. It likes hardly anything it sees. Even a reader who comes to the book with a large measure of built-in agreement may find it guilty of overkill. It too often lapses into sarcasm, surely the most difficult form of rhetoric to manage successfully. Zinn’s subtitle is, “Cross-Examining American Ideology.” He would have benefitted by having had an editor who cross-examined him at many points; for some of the interpretations in this book simply could not be well defended. The pages on “free speech” and “representative government” for example, are riddled with such, and that is the more regrettable because the themes of those pages are impressive and should not be lost because of faulty elaboration.

But where Zinn is at his best he is very good, and that is when he is not laying about with every stick he can put his hand on but is speaking in his own voice and through his own vision. He does this especially well in the last thirty-five or so pages; to the fine and even lovely words of those I’ll return.

Schlesinger’s book is, after all, a polemic, but if we are to take his words seriously—and one always does—it reveals the heart of his concern. “The explosive issue of our times” is not necessarily “the basic issue” but it is certainly close. A summary of his book would go like this.

America has to be a nation of individuals, not of groups. The growing racial and ethnic heterogeneity of our population “makes the quest for unifying ideals and a common culture all the more urgent.” We have, therefore, to resist the present tendencies toward becoming “a nation of minorities.” We have come “full circle” on integration. “Little is harder to talk honestly about in America these days than race.” “For blacks the American dream has been pretty much of a nightmare.” Tocqueville almost alone among our critics perceived “racist exclusion as deeply ingrained in the national character.” But “white guilt can be pushed too far,” and “ethnic ideologues” have encouraged not only blacks but other ethnic groups (and perhaps we might add, women and homosexuals) to see themselves as “victims” and to live by “alibis” rather than to claim opportunities. We have in our national existence been held together by “a common adherence to ideals of democracy and human rights.” Desertion of that commonality will lead, as already appears, to the “disunity” of America.

The argument has become familiar, probably in part because of Schlesinger’s authoritative advancement of it. Anecdotal evidence piles up to support it. Silly things are indeed being done in the name of multiculturalism. Hucksters of one or another profession—take that word in two meanings—pocket their profits from it. Our schools, from kindergarten to Ph.D. levels, are pressed hard, and clamorously, to teach all manner of novel things, at the expense of what makes a person cultured, in the old and right meaning of being brought into the structure the ages have built and which we know as civilization.

And yet, how lastingly threatening is all this? And has it no good side? And is even its bad side, such as Schlesinger attacks, worse than the monoculturalism it supplants?

It may be true that every generation has at least one historic task, and if it may be that some generations (unlike others) do in fact accomplish their tasks, then it

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can be said that the single greatest task-and accomplishment-of Schlesinger’s and Zinn’s (and my) generation was the overthrow of Jim Crow. That generation has had also the task—which it did not accomplish well—of moving the country on from the victory, that “overthrowing,” to a “more perfect union.” Wills grew slack, intelligences were blurry, selfishness took over from all sides, and overpowering events intruded (like the continuation in Vietnam of our anti-Communist obsession—and here Zinn is truer to history than Schlesinger has been). There was some directive intelligence behind the victory over Jim Crow, from great leaders, grassroots organizations, lawyers, governmental figures, journalists, organizers of public opinion and behavior such as the Southern Regional Council. Zinn himself was a valiant, constant, and outstanding worker in the movement, and some of this book’s strongest pages are devoted to it. No comparable array of focused leadership has been with us to guide the building of the” new union” which the civil rights movement created.

Instead, “discrete minorities”—to use an old constitutional law term—have each in its own way moved to establish itself and to work out the terms of its co-existence with others. Schlesinger wrote that for blacks “the American dream has been pretty much of a nightmare.” But so too has it been for Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians (who, amazingly, were hardly mentioned in Schlesinger’s famous Age of Jackson despite their virtually genocidal persecution then). And I am sure a nightmare too for many women, and a bitter hurt for nearly all women. Never before in our history have we really thought of the polity as being inclusive of all who live here. Never before has “consent of the governed” actually meant anything more than, at best, consent of white males. What the nation is in the midst of now is not its “disunity” but its first real attempt to find and secure a true union.

Some sentences of Zinn’s summarize his book perhaps as well as another could.

… We should make the most of the fact that we live in a country that although controlled by wealth and power, has openings and possibilities missing in many other places. The controllers are gambling that these openings will pacify us, that we will not really use them to make the bold changes that are needed if we are to create a decent society. We should take that gamble. We are not starting from scratch. There is a long history in this country of rebellion against the establishment, or resistance to orthodoxy.

In successive chapters he elaborates these themes. Wealth dominates this society, and has always. Resistance is possible, though the “establishment” in diverse and devilish ways tries to stifle it. There is a real though insufficiently known and celebrated tradition of American radicals and dissenters, persons who did not accept the ideological orthodoxy which surrounds us from birth. Basic changes in our economy and political values are needed.

As I have earlier implied, I doubt that Zinn’s presentation of these vastly important themes will persuade many. He preaches to the choir; which sometimes is a necessary thing to do, when the choir has become listless and off-key: as may be the present case.

The concluding pages, beginning with a section titled “Communism: A Rational Critique,” go well beyond that. Here he has given over slashing and burning in preference for talking to us of his own deeply thoughtful principles and hopes.

He wants us to know, as we all should know, that the appalling, essentially horrifying, history of the Soviet Union was a betrayal of Karl Marx’s vision (comparable, one might say, to the savagery long practiced by the Christian churches in betrayal of the gospels), and that the deserved collapse of so-called Communist states in the 1980s does not mean that the age-old socialist ideals will not again put down, as they always have, new roots in human aspirations. “A recognition of the terrible things that have happened in the Soviet Union should not lead us … to embrace the anti-communism of the U.S. government to justify its wars, its control over other countries, …at the cost of poverty, sickness, and homelessness for tens of millions of Americans.”

This leads Zinn to invite us all to consider the possibility of a “worldwide movement of nonviolent action for peace and justice, …the entrance of democracy for the first time into world affairs.” He tells us that such, in fact, is “the new realism,” realistic to a degree that the conventional method of war after war after war has not been; and cannot be.

It is usually the long-term irrationalists who call thoughts like these “unrealistic.” Is there any necessity more heavy upon us, than that of learning to think and act not merely for today’s or even tomorrow’s advantage but for the time beyond. For the long-term. Zinn’s anger, perhaps too rashly expressed in his critical chapters, grows from a realism, a wise perception that too much of our contemporary America will not endure, not if justice is to live. I think the unity of this nation can better stand the “multiculturalism” Schlesinger deplores, than the continuation of the warring and exploiting which Zinn abhors.

After this issue of Southern Changes, Leslie Dunbar is stepping back as Book Review Editor. His efforts, garnering reviews from noted and able writers in and around the South, will be missed a great deal. He promises still to write reviews regularly, so you’ll not be missing his rich insights.