books book reviews

books that debunk things

reviewed by T. Nelson


Debunking Howard Zinn

by Mary Grabar
Regnery History, 2019, 327 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

W hy do young people believe Howard Zinn's phony American history? Pretend you're a kid. Adult A tells you your principal is a fine, upstanding citizen who drives a Buick. Adult B other tells you, in hushed tones, he's a child molester who ate his family dog and howls at the moon. Which are you going to believe? Adult B, of course. B is the cool cynical guy who knows all the dirt.

My exposure to A People's History of the United States was when a grad student loaned me her copy and recommended it. In the margin where Zinn makes up his story about Columbus murdering Indians, she had written “How crude we are!” This was a highly educated person, yet the book consisted of page after page of errors and she had swallowed them in their entirety.

Kids want to believe theirs is the best of all possible times. But like the flying saucer believers, they also want to be in on all the hidden conspir­acies and all the dirt. So they're convinced that Columbus chopped off the hands of the Arawak Indians and committed genocide. Never mind that doing that would make no sense. We all want to believe what the teacher told us was a lie.

Zinn saw the world in simple terms: everything that happened was caused by class oppression of the poor and powerless. Young people bought it because they too feel poor and powerless. They think they're getting a corrective, but since Zinn's side is all they actually get, they grow up believing it to be the truth. Nobody says, as one member of the History News Network did, that it's “the historians' equivalent of medical malpractice.” Zinn died filthy rich from it.

Despite what Wikipedia says, Howard Zinn was not a real historian. He produced no worthwhile scholarly work after grad school. He was a radical activist whose goal was to destroy Americans' belief in their country in the hope of creating a communist state. No less a figure than Arthur Schlesinger called him “a polemicist, not a historian.” Even The Guardian, an ultra-left-wing newspaper, agreed, calling Zinn's book “highly polemical.” Zinn had a knack for calumny, innuendo, and conspir­acy theories. But much of the blame goes to the conventional textbook writers who were so dull that teachers turned to Zinn, not only from ideological comradeship, but just to keep the students awake.

Those who seek the truth must be familiar with Zinn's book and know the evidence for and against his claims. This makes Grabar's book an excellent and much-needed corrective to Zinn's ‘corrective.’ One might expect it to be a hate-filled political polemic, but it's actually an attempt to sort out what Zinn said that was true and what was not.

The legacy of Zinn and his comrades is not just the falsehoods they spread. It was that they solidified the conviction that history is political, and therefore it is impos­sible ever to get an honest account of what really happened or why. There are few things more destructive.

oct 26, 2019


A Manual for Creating Atheists

by Peter Boghossian
Pitchstone, 2013, 278 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

A clean-cut man wearing a white starched shirt and tie, carrying a small black book, knocks on the door of a house.
MAN: Good afternoon ma'am, with all the terrible events happening in the world today, I wonder if you've ever given thought about the fact that God doesn't exist.
HOUSEWIFE: Sorry, I'm not interested.
MAN: I wonder if I might leave you with a copy of our . . . Ow! Ow! Ow!
DOG: Bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark!
HOUSEWIFE: Bad, bad doggie. . . .

Atheists turning into Jehovah's Witnesses? Maybe not. But that's how Peter Boghossian sounds in this book. He views religion as a problem in epistemology, defining faith as ‘belief without evidence’ and ‘pretending to know things you don't know.’ It's surprising that a philosophy professor, even one in Oregon, would have such an un-nuanced view of religion.

Boghossian isn't being malicious: he's sincerely trying to get people to think critically. He describes the time an irate parent came in complaining about undermining his son's faith. By the end Boghossian almost converts the parent, who by now is frantically calling his pastor for help in explaining how koala bears got from Noah's ark to Australia.

It's very amusing, but it also shows he's fallen for the classic fallacy that says finding logical contradic­tions and falsehoods in religious texts is evidence that the premise that God exists cannot be true. It's not—the premise must be examined on its own merits. Of course, that's not so easy.

Maybe this sounds crazy, but I think people participate in traditional rituals and beliefs, not because they think they're true, but because it makes them feel that their world is alive with meaning. It gets them out among their friends on Sunday morning and fills them with awe and sanctity on Christmas Eve. You can't get that from studying things like relativistic kinematics. Wouldn't it be cruel to deprive them of that without providing a substitute?

If atheists kill Christianity off, it won't just leave an empty hole around Christmas and Easter. We'll lose an important piece of cultural heritage that will inevitably be replaced by something else. If we're lucky, we'll get commercialism, Netherlands-style drugs & sex, environmentalist fanatics, politics, and Islam. I don't want to think what we'll get if we're not lucky.

If you're looking for a better presentation of the atheistic spirit, try Christopher Hitchens instead. Boghossian says to read Plantinga, but Plantinga's logic is mushy and his writing style is insufferable. I recommend Paul Tillich for some intelligent, tough-minded theological thinking. For what it's worth, here's my take on this God stuff.

Lest you think Boghossian's critique of religion comes from ‘secular liberalism’, he's even more critical of contemporary leftism and cultural relativism. He calls academic leftism a “cascading social, moral, and epistemological catastrophe” and says it damages people's ability to reason. He makes other good points, especially about how Google puts people into ideology bubbles and how to discuss religion without getting socked in the mouth.

But despite that he still comes off as a bit smug, and he definitely has an annoying PC writing style.

dec 10 2019. edited dec 11 2019