Monday, August 30, 2010

Then and Now

A reader took the time to write a thoughtful message – some of it critical, yet kind – and I want to take the time for a thoughtful reply!
by Charlie Leck

A regular reader wrote some thoughtful comments to me about the general tone and tenor of my blogs – not of any one of them in particular, but of my thinking over the span of them. I appreciated the time he took to make some comments, pose some questions and express some differences of opinion. Let me refer to him here as Mo.

Howard Zinn
Mo, upon a recommendation in one of my blogs, took the time to read Howard Zinn’s extraordinary book, A People’s History of the United States. Or, at least, he tried to read it and got part way through it. I don’t think Mo liked it particularly, but that doesn’t come as a surprise. Zinn can rattle us with his abrasive and negative approach.

“According to Howard Zinn,” Mo writes, “what has America ever done right? Can’t find it in the first 291 pages and suspect I will not in the other half of the history account. He is negative to the point of distorting history.”

For just a moment, let’s just get to know the late Howard Zinn here. I had the opportunity to hear Zinn lecture a couple of times and I also had the great joy of sitting one on one with him for over an hour, picking his brain. I can tell you this for certain: Zinn did have a sense of humor and he could laugh about his own foolishness as well as that of others. I never asked him the question directly, but I think he loved his native land – America – but he was also very exasperated by it. He understood that people are basically lazy and they want simple answers and solutions to complex questions; therefore, for example, they’ll accept pabulum when it comes to matters of science, religion and history.

He regarded written histories – not just of the United States, but all of them – with a great deal of skepticism. He was not a nullifidian, however. He simply understood that people wanted their histories to be as simple as possible – they were to provide answers and not raise questions.

Zinn believed that every, single work of history is a “political document.” Zinn, an activist and organizer, clearly labeled his own work, on the history of the United States, “a people’s history.” As you begin reading it, he forewarns you: “With all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance.

"The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission."

I think Mo missed Zinn’s warning. He is a leftist. He is concerned about the immense power on the right. He thinks it is so powerful over there that even history can be corrupted and distorted to suit the needs and goals of the right. That is not a laughing matter and Zinn wanted to correct the distortions.

If, over the years, I’ve become a student of anything it is of historical accounting – or the writing and reporting of histories. I began sensing the need during the Vietnam War era. Accounts of the 20th century history of Vietnam, and the events that led the U.S. to intervene there, differed widely, depending on who was writing them and for whom they were written. In 1967 and 1968, it was important for me to know the truth and to speak the truth. Is there anything more burdensome on the conscience than the decision to condemn one’s own nation? Get it right, I told myself.

In those Vietnam years I discovered that Zinn was correct about works of history and how they mingled with political perspectives and the interests of the State. The government and the leaders of government were feeding us pabulum because they didn’t think we could handle chewing on tough meat. They made their accounts simple. However, the questions surrounding Vietnam were complex. Even statesman and legislators preferred the simple accounts and explanations.

Had we faced up to the hard and chewy questions back then – if Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had faced up to them – we most likely would not have taken the course we did in Vietnam.

Yet, then and now, our government is sorely tempted to support and stand behind corrupt governments if the alternative is anti-democracy governments. Some of you will say: “That okay!” Well, maybe, in some strange cases, it is; however, we should be able to approach that decision with the truth as our guide and not in foolish and blind ways. That is Zinn’s point.

To think that Zinn is not positive and hopeful is to misread him. His account of the Civil War, and the complex questions that led us into that war, is a good example. Zinn paints an outstanding picture of how we got there and of the people who brought us there. His treatment of Abraham Lincoln is brilliant. No leader, in such a situation, could remain unscarred by history. Yet, scarred as he was, Lincoln stood above history in that time and made mostly sound and unselfish decisions.

Zinn’s book never leaves my desk. When I read a work of history of the United States, I counter-balance it by reading Zinn. For instance, read the conventional histories of the Mexican-American War and then turn and read Zinn’s account (well documented and sourced in every way). The conventional histories tell us it was a matter of “Manifest Destiny” to seize half of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from the Mexicans. The war was provoked by Mexico, we are told.

It is the easiest matter to blindly believe that. It keeps things simple and neat. It allows us to sleep better at night. How much does it matter that it is not the truth? The people were duped by the government then, just as they were duped by the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” in our own age! It was our manifest destiny that America should spread from sea to shining sea. To believe that it was so makes everything easier to swallow – no chewing required.

Mexico agreed to the sale of its western territories because an American military force captured Mexico City and forced the Mexican government to agree to the sale.

Oh, how humorless! Yes, I’ll give Mo that. It is pretty tough to chew.

When Zinn wrote his history, he had one thing in mind and that was to correct the errors, to understand the truth, and to get it right. It ain’t comfortable, but it’s interesting. Mo thinks Zinn distorts history. When you view his work of history as a counter-balance, which he carefully told us it was, it is not a distortion, but a correction. At the very least, it allows us to get another point of view – another perspective – of history.

The New York Times gave Zinn’s history book a rave review and declared it ought to be “required reading.” Right winger Daniel Flynn panned it and called it biased and a “cartoon anti-history.” Flynn could not, however, point to specific errors or mistakes. Hundreds of universities and colleges in America require a reading of Zinn’s book in their advanced history classes. The super-patriotic crowd who believes America is always correct will, of course, not like this book. On the other hand, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called Zinn “a polemicist” and not a historian. Schlesinger had his own reputation to worry about for some of the decisions John F. Kennedy’s insiders (including Schlesinger) made during that administration.

William Blum, author of Killing Hope, gets it about right in his comments on Zinn’s history book.

“A People’s History and his other writings can be seen as an attempt to make up for omissions and under-emphases of America’s dark side in American history books and media.”

Frankly, if I’m going to be a good student of American history, I need to know about those omissions.

On God
Mo, also faithfully read
my recent blog about God and Glenn Beck. I must have jumbled up that blog because Mo asks me a question that I don’t think is necessary.

“We went to the space museum and viewed a film on the Hubble space craft,” Mo tells me. “Space is a wondrous place, God is there, but is he not also in us with the Holy Spirit?”

If I wrote anything in that blog to give the impression that I did not think God is in us, I apologize. Let’s just drop the concept of the Holy Spirit because it is too confusing and restrictive (it tends to make things only Christian when I want to be more universal). God is with us and in us! That is where it begins.

The finest theological work I ever read was a work by Joseph Haroutunian called God with Us. Again, it is not popular because it falls into that category of not being pabulum. It requires you to stretch the boundaries of your mind and discard old and simple thoughts for new and complex ones.

God? God? God?

That is how I titled that blog to which you refer, Mo. And, I did it for a reason – because, you see, the reality of God is not easy to understand. People, however, approach this subject as they do their histories. They want it simple, complete and easy.

Where is God? In outer space? I suppose so! Why not? However, where shall I experience and know God and make the determination that God is real? In me! With me!

That is the only way I can experience the reality of God; that is, within me!

Guys like Haroutunian and Paul Tillich are able to put into words what I feel about God. Though the hymns and simple thoughts we share in Church are okay and inspirational, I don’t think they deal in realities. I think Jesus did. I like him. He understood where God is.

A professor of mine saw God in an unconventional Trinitarian way. Draw a triangle. On one point write “God”… on another write “Self”… and on the third jot “Others.” In the center of the triangle put “Love.”

What is it Jesus said about this? If we think we can love God and not our neighbors, we deceive ourselves. Jesus told us that he who loves his neighbor loves God and he loves himself, and God loves him and abides in him. Apply all of that to the triangle you’ve just drawn out.

God is in us and with us when we love others – and not just a few chosen, easy to love people – but when we love all others – even the very difficult to love. Wow! That’s hard!

And that’s what I was trying to say in that blog about Glenn Beck. Boy, does Beck know what he’s getting into when he summons God back into America.

It sounds so simple to say that Jesus really understood God. The question is: Do we understand Jesus?

Outer space I don’t know about? I don’t get it! Inner space I get and that’s where I look for God. It’s where I experience God also.

“I read your blog most every night,” Mo said. “It has become a must do thing for me.”

Mo, I’m glad you read my blogs. I was thinking about retiring from this blog writing deal; but knowing you are out there and that you’re willing to read my “stuff” makes me want to keep writing something with a touch of care and caution.

It’s a wondrous world, Mo. All that stuff you saw when you were looking out into the vastness of space is incredible and beautiful, so God must be there. But, man, when I look inside a beautiful and loving person I see something so wondrous and amazing that I know God exists.

Thanks, Mo. Thanks for everything.


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