Debunking Howard Zinn

Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I happened upon an article from Michael Huemer while reading this book. Huemer asks: Can Teaching the Truth Be Racist? He proposes a thought experiment:

Suppose you learned that there was a school staffed mainly by right-leaning teachers and administrators. And at this school, an oddly large number of lessons touch upon, or perhaps center on, bad things that have been done by Jews throughout history. None of the lessons are factually false – all the incidents related are things that genuinely happened and all were actually done by Jewish people. For example, murders that Jews committed, times when Jews started wars, times when Jews robbed or exploited people. (I assume that you know that it’s possible to fill up quite a lot of lessons with bad things done by members of whatever ethnic group you pick.) The lessons for some reason omit or downplay good things done by Jews, and omit bad things done by other (non-Jewish) people. What would you think about this school?

I hope you agree with me that this is a story of a blatantly racist and shitty school. It would be fair to describe the school as promoting hatred toward Jewish people, even if none of the lessons explicitly stated that one should hate Jews. I hope you also agree that no parent or voter should tolerate a public school that operated like this.

Now, what if the school’s right-wing defenders explained that there was actually nothing the slightest bit racist or otherwise objectionable about the school, because it was only teaching facts of history? All these things happened. You don’t want to lie or cover up the history, do you?

I hope you agree with me that this would be a pathetic defense.

Author Mary Grabar convinces me that Howard Zinn was up to that sort of thing throughout his career, especially in his famed book A People's History of America: presenting carefully selected "facts" that leave his readers seriously misinformed, some ready to man the barricades with pitchforks and tumbrels.

Except when it comes to the "facts" part. Zinn wasn't above making up his own as well. In addition, Grabar shows, his methods included out-of-context quoting, omitting relevant details if they complicated his narrative, plagiarism, and overall dishonesty in service of his primary thesis, namely the unsurpassed evil of the United States and free-market capitalism. Unsurprising, because Zinn was no traditional historian. Despite his academic positions over his lifetime, he was every inch the hard-left activist, preferring propaganda and advocacy over traditional scholarship.

And (boy) was he ever adored for it. Grabar notes his citation in the movie Good Will Hunting from writer/star Matt Damon where he tells Robin Williams that the People's History was a "real history book" that would "knock you on your ass".

Must be true, because Damon's playing a genius. And then he eventually moved on to plugging cryptocurrency in slick TV ads.

Grabar takes on the People's History chapter by chapter, providing her own counter-narratives to Zinn's on Christopher Columbus, Native Americans, civil rights, the Founding Fathers, World War II, Vietnam, and the "Red Scare". I'm pretty sure if Zinn had said somewhere that the sky was blue, Grabar would respond "Of course, Zinn conveniently forgets to mention the nighttime sky, which is mostly black." But she scores enough points to (at least) convince the fair-minded reader that you get a story from Zinn, but not the whole story. And you should turn your skepticism filter up to eleven.

Unfortunately, at a number of spots, Grabar's rhetoric becomes sarcastic and strident. That's likely to turn off otherwise persuadable readers.

(FYI: I found Huemer's quoted article above via Bryan Caplan's Substack post on the "mainstream media", Worse Than Silence, also worth reading if you're interested in that.)

Chapterhouse: Dune

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Consumer note: I own the original hardcover version of this 464-page book, original retail price $17.95, plucked off a remainder shelf for $4.98. Which I will never get back.

Also not getting back: the time I spent reading it. But this finishes my ill-conceived reading project, Frank Herbert's final entry in the Dune series. Previous reports: here, here, here, here and here. To repeat somewhat from those reports: not much happens until the very end; there are a lot of people talking, pretentiously and portentously, including talking to themselves. Random italics and exclamation points!

I must admit: most of the time I had no clue what was going on. And I didn't care much. I lost interest, not caring what happens to the tediously chattering characters or to their entire freaking universe.

There are bad guys: the Honored Matres have returned from the "Scattering", and they are on a quest to destroy the Bene Gesserit, which involves exterminating billions of people and obliterating their planets. In the last book, the original Dune, Arrakis, was blowed up real good. One subplot involves Sheeana, queen of the sandworms, struggling to desertify the planet Chapterhouse, where the Bene Gesserit survivors are huddled, plotting their counterattack. Will Dune's sandworms find a new home? Oh right: I don't care.

I should mention that the very end of the book has Frank Herbert's moving tribute to his wife, who died while he was writing the book. (And Frank himself passed away a little later.) Pair this up with son Brian Herbert's equally moving introduction to the book, which is not in my copy, but you can read at the book's page at Amazon. Brian has co-written sequels and other entries in the universe; good for him, but I will pass.

The Right

The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This book has earned some well-deserved praise for its even-handedness. The author, Matthew Continetti, is a contributing editor at National Review; his Wikipedia page will tell you that he was previously at the Weekly Standard. He has a gig at the American Enterprise Institute. Conservatives, he is calling from inside the house.

Continetti tells a pretty standard story of conservatism's rocky road since 1920 and Harding/Coolidge. He takes a look at the ups (e.g., Reagan) and downs (e.g., Taft, Hoover, …) of conservative fortunes in the GOP and in American politics. It's also a 40,000-foot view of American history over the past century, stories that have to be told in order to make sense out of the politics. There are also a lot of thumbnail sketches of (mostly) conservative journalists and political philosophers over the time period. And their associated institutions.

One downside: it's a fast trip, and the coverage is necessarily superficial. But an overriding theme is the stresses and strains between different flavors of conservatism. There's neos, paleos, free-marketers, populists, … And, unfortunately, some folks who could be described as racists, anti-semites, grifters, conspiracy theorists, and even some lunatics. It would have been easy to neglect the various ugly spots in conservatism's history, but Continetti does not.

Fun fact: Continetti was born a few months after Ronald Reagan's first inauguration. So he's telling a lot of these stories second-hand at best. Given his youth, he does a fine job.

Something I didn't know: National Review's publisher, Bill Rusher, was livid when Bill Buckley hired George F. Will to write a column for the magazine; he campaigned to have Will fired. And usual writer Stan Evans quit rather than to work at the same magazine as Will. Will's problem: he saw through Nixon, and wrote the truth.

The Handmaid's Tale

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Back at the end of 2021, I started a reading project based on the New York Times shortlist of the 25 books from which they asked their readers to pick "the best book of the past 125 years". I had read 11 of them, so 14 went on the to-be-read list. I'm making decent progress, I think. After reading this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and now The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I have six to go.

I was prepared to dislike it. It was written in the 1980s, an era of panicked warnings about the Moral Majority Menace, etc,, so I was prepared for a feminist men-are-incipient-fascist-scum screed. Instead, it's a well-written saga of a woman, given the name "Offred", trapped in an intricately-designed dystopia named the "Republic of Gilead". Yes, the dystopia is based on a facile feminism, but Atwood does not beat the reader over the head with that.

Most of the action takes place in a horribly transformed Cambridge, Massachusetts. For example, the regime's transgressors are executed and hung on a wall surrounding Harvard University.

And why not? In an introduction to the edition I read, Atwood notes that Harvard was once a Puritan institution. And it's not difficult to imagine that the strident moralism afflicting us today could easily mutate into a 180° different scenario.

Offred tells her story in a disjointed first-person narrative, with her present plight interspersed with flashbacks to her pre-Gilead life with her husband and small daughter. Environmental catastrophe has apparently caused massive infertility. So after she's caught trying to escape all the oppression, Offred is assigned as a "handmaid" to a "Commander" for breeding purposes. And that breeding is carried out in a ritualistic and creepy fashion. (They assign this in schools? Really?) The regime's "Eyes" are everywhere, looking for the slightest sign of disobedience or insubordination.

No spoilers, but Offred's situation is precarious; her handmaid status is contingent on her possible fertility. If that goes off the table, she's destined for a worse fate. And neither she, nor the folks running the Gilead show aren't immune from urges to deviate from the official puritanism. Things build to a suspenseful climax.

And, since I went into the book not knowing much about the details, I was pleasantly surprised by the final section. And since I've been to a couple of those sorts of gatherings myself, I could only think, "The more things change…"

Creatures of Cain

The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Well, one minor gripe: the "Cold War" reference in the book's subtitle is kind of a fakeout. Yes, most of the intellectual action the author, Erika Lorraine Milam, describes here takes place in that era. But the Soviet Union didn't really have much to do with it, much less Red China. The slim connecting reed: one of Milam's narrative threads describes the American panic over Sputnik, which launched a major educational effort to push kids into scientific and technical careers.

I know: I was somewhat shaped by that effort myself. I still recall the brand spanking new textbooks in my high school science courses. And one of the components of my college financial aid package was a "National Defense Student Loan", part of the 1958 National Defense Education Act.

But apart from that major bit of social engineering, that era saw an upsurge in science interest from the general public. Cheap pop-science paperbacks from folks like Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, Isaac Asimov, George Gamow, etc. were given a prominent position on the racks. (I devoured Gamow's One, Two, Three, … Infinity myself; 'twas another life-changer for me.) The Time-Life Science Library! Magazines like Popular Science, National Geographic, … I could go on.

Let's get back to the book: Milam looks at how the thorny topic of "human nature" evolved during this era, a complex tale involving paleontologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, primatologists, sociologists, … The slight relevance to the Cold War: the overshadowing possibility of nuclear armageddon had people wondering if mankind was doomed by its inherent intra-species aggressive tendencies to seek out bigger and better weapons, the better to destroy itself. Popularizers included Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey, Richard Dawkins, and many more. With the discussion and debates carrying on today.

As you might guess, the political and social implications of such research impacted subsequent popularizations and discussions. The issue was not just aggression, but also (oh oh) matters of race and sex. As always, when ideology and science collide, neither one comes out looking well. The bitter controversy over (for example) Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology is covered extensively; To her credit, Milam's coverage is even-handed.

Random observation: although Jane Goodall's work with chimps is extensively covered, there's nothing about bonobos, their relatively peaceful cousins. Maybe that research happened outside Milam's adopted timeframe? I don't know.

Fun fact: on which popular television show was the word "penis" first uttered? The answer may be found on page 113. (Or you can just read this Reason review, which put the book on my get-at-library list.)

Astounding

John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Personal note: I was a science fiction geek, starting (roughly) from when I was eight or nine years old, and got Robert Heinlein's Red Planet from the Oakland, Iowa public library, spurring a (so far) six-decade fandom.

I also got into Isaac Asimov, getting his classic Foundation trilogy as a teen, a mere 10¢, plus shipping and handling, as a come-on for joining the Science Fiction Book Club. And I devoured his robot stories too.

And I started reading Analog magazine (renamed from "Astounding") back in 1964, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. I still remember the issue I picked off the rack, cover here. A few months later, Frank Herbert's "The Prophet of Dune" appeared in the mag, and well…

So even though I was a little too young to experience the "golden age" of science fiction, I was pretty well acquainted with three of the four figures covered by Alec Nevala-Lee's book. (I managed to totally avoid the œuvre of L. Ron Hubbard.) I found it to be a fascinating story, meticulously researched, full of interesting tidbits on the careers, personalities, and interactions of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard.

Although at times they seem to be competing for the "Who's Craziest" title. Asimov, with his phobias of heights, open spaces, and flying? His serial philandering? Reader, he's by far the sanest one. Hubbard's nuttiness is (of course) famous for spawning the Scientology cult, which still exists today with notable celebrity adherents. Campbell was forever getting roped into pseudo-scientific bogosities, like Hubbard's Scientology precursor, Dianetics, Krebiozen, the Dean Drive, ESP, etc. (He also had nice things to say about slavery, and his views on race… well, never mind.)

And Heinlein was an inveterate nudist.

So this book might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're a certain age, and you've had certain reading habits, you'll probably enjoy it as much as I did.

Nine Lives

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I picked this off the library shelf because I really liked a previous book by Peter Swanson, Eight Perfect Murders, although I found it "gimmicky".

Well, guess what, reader? Nine Lives is also super-gimmicky. But Swanson can bring this sort of thing off, because he's a very good writer and knows that you can't get away with mere gimmickry.

The gimmick here is a list of nine names. The opening chapters show the named people receiving their copy of the list, including Frank Hopkins, the elderly owner of the Windward Resort in "Kennewick", Maine. He picks his copy of the list off a beachside rock, and…

Everyone else gets their copy of the list in the mail. We get a brief intro to each of them and they are a diverse bunch, men and women scattered throughout the nation, with no obvious link between them. Slight spoiler: it becomes clear that they are targets for murder most foul.

It's a page-turner, no doubt. Will law enforcement figure out what's going on and thwart the killer before it's too late for everyone on the list? I liked the ending, but I can understand people who might not.

Room to Swing

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

For some reason, in April 2022, I became aware the Kindle edition of this book was on sale at Amazon for 99¢. (It's $2.99 as I type.) It won the Edgar Award for best novel back in 1958. The garish cover said "The Noir Classic"! The Amazon page said "The Pulp Noir Classic"! A totally garish cover! All that made it an irresistible buy.

Unfortunately, it was one of those "wish I'd liked it better" reads for me. Two stars ("it was ok") at Goodreads.

It is claimed to be the first appearance of a black private eye in fiction, Toussaint Moore. As the book opens Toussaint has driven his old Jaguar to the small town of Bingston, Ohio. It's the mid-1950s, and the townspeople, as he reports it, "stared at me like I'd stepped out of a flying saucer." He immediately gets hassled by a local cop.

He's on a mission, it turns out, to try to clear himself of a murder rap back in his New York City home. He'd been hired by a reality TV show ("You - Detective!") to keep tabs on a rape suspect who's going to be one of the show's featured criminals. But the suspect gets killed, Toussaint gets framed, slugs a white cop… and call him mint jelly, because he's on the lam.

That's not Toussaint's only problem; his girlfriend Sybil despises his detective gig, and wants him to grab a stable job at the Post Office. His job requires him to navigate around pervasive racism and the shallowness and sexual proclivities of showbiz types.

"Ed Lacy" is a pseudonym for Leonard Zinberg, a white Jewish Communist married to a black woman. He was relatively prolific back in the mid-20th century, and is nowadays relatively obscure. (This novel's copyright wasn't renewed, which is why you can find multiple editions over at Amazon and elsewhere.) The prose here is Spillane-like, for better or worse.

Number One Is Walking

My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I picked this up at Portsmouth Public Library on a whim; I've been a Steve Martin fan for (cough) quite a while. And I loved many of the movies he's starred in and written (especially Roxanne and L. A. Story). So…

Well, there's not a lot of text here. It's more like a very wordy comic book about Mr. Martin's movie career. The graphic content is provided by cartoonist Harry Bliss. The combination works fine.

The title refers to what an assistant director says over his walkie-talkie to notify people on the set that the star of the movie is on his way there.

Mr. Martin's reminiscences are nearly entirely golden and pleasant. He's got nice things to say and interesting stories about nearly everyone. (Only exception: actor Dean Jones, who drove Carl Reiner a little nuts by demanding a shooting schedule that worked around his religious duties.)

He even likes the famously irascible David Mamet.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Bliss have a book of cartoons, A Wealth of Pigeons. Next time I go to PPL…

Beyond This Horizon

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I own the 50¢ Signet paperback edition of this novel, pictured. I was pretty sure I'd already read all of Heinlein's novels, but as I tackled this one, I was unsure I had ever read this one. I sure didn't remember anything about it. The Wikipedia page is full of praise: good reviews from P. Schuyler Miller, Anthony Boucher, and J. Francis McComas; in 2018, it nabbed a "Retro-Hugo" award for Best Novel.

And (yet) I disliked it intensely. A book I'm currently reading claims it was (essentially) co-written with Heinlein's then-wife, Leslyn. That would explain (what I perceived as) the book's narrative style as like nothing Heinlein wrote before, or since.

The book pictures a society where genetic engineering is common. Also duelling. Prosperity is widespread, thanks to wise central planners. There's an attempted revolution somewhere in the middle, capped off with a ray-gun shootout. Other topics include telepathy, and immortality of the soul via reincarnation.

But basically, there's just a lot of talking.

Fun fact: the aphorism "An armed society is a polite society" comes from this book. I'm a Second Amendment fan, and yet I'm skeptical of that claim. Maybe if we were all aremed with ray guns, like here, we'd be more polite.