Howard Zinn and his opposite

In honor of Howard Zinn, whose death is in the news, I’d like to publish a review of a book he could never have written. The book is The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, a conservative ideologue with a charming prose style. I reviewed the book for LibraryThing by contrasting it with Howard Zinn’s best-known work.

Let me contrast Paul Johnson with another popular historian, Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States ). Both are good, entertaining writers, but Zinn is honest about his radical bias, while Johnson assumes a “god’s-eye” view of history that presumes to report “what really happened” without the biases that mere mortals are prone to. Of course, the bias is there anyway. Zinn is radically democratic and suspicious of all elites, whereas Johnson writes of a world well managed by a few superb individuals; the rest of the people are an abstraction he calls the “demos.” Johnson deserves credit for writing well and engagingly about a remarkable range of topics, from politics and war to art and popular culture. But he deserves censure especially for his apologetics for European imperialism. Throughout this thick book, every European or American military adventure in Asia, Africa, or the Americas is reported with modifiers like “had to,” “like it or not,” and “reluctantly.” Thus we read that Britain went to war in China “for altruistic as well as commercial reasons,” as if China was in need of a foreign power to peddle opium to its people and lob shells at its port cities. There is no doubt that most European officers really believed in the “civilizing mission” of imperialism, but it seems ridiculous for a latter-day historian to agree with them in this sly way. I recommend taking this book with a grain of salt — remembering that the slaves who manufactured table salt during this period had a history as well.

Since I wrote that, Johnson has churned out a lot more Tory literature, been humiliated by a sex scandal, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.

Paul Johnson, the sanctimonious rakehell, is not to be confused with Paul E. Johnson, a superb American historian.

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