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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

"Ideology and Cant": How Mary Grabar’s Anti-Zinn Screed Misrepresents John Brown

In August of this year, Professor Mary Grabar, who is a resident fellow at The Alexander Hamilton Institute in Clinton, N.Y. (henceforth, AHI), published her attempt at a tour-de-force attack upon the late Howard Zinn’s popular narrative, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present.  According to Grabar’s own website, she was born in Slovenia “when it was still part of the Communist Yugoslavia,” but was reared in Rochester, New York.  Grabar has an earned Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia (2002) and followed an academic career as a college and university professor until 2013.  Her website says during her academic years that Grabar “wrote widely on political, cultural, and educational topics, and founded the Dissident Professor Education Project, a nonprofit reform initiative.”1  In 2014, Grabar relocated to Clinton, New York, where she became a resident fellow of AHI.  Five years afterward, she published her vitriolic conservative rejoinder, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America. 

Prof. Mary Grabar
(from her website)
It is worth noting that Grabar’s book is published by Regnery History, a conservative publishing house based in Washington, D.C.  Regnery History and other subsidiary Regnery labels are owned by Salem Media Group, a conservative Christian organization.  A glance at the Regnery catalogue suggests that it features works that follow a conventionally rightwing and pedestrian fascination with the Civil War, especially its military history, and other military and social themes that please the conservative palate.  Notably, the Regnery label features the works of Samuel Mitcham Jr., author of the dubious treatise, It Wasn’t About Slavery: Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War and Bust Hell Wide Open: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest.2   Perhaps Grabar’s book has found the right niche.

Apparently, so has Grabar.  According to its website, her stomping grounds, AHI, presents capitalism as its first “central concern.”  According to AHI’s website, their goal is to promote the “meaning and implications of capitalism, its genesis and impact; the role of markets, money, and banks in economic growth; the importance of the rule of law and property rights in wealth creation.” To be sure, AHI is also concerned with the role of religion in society, the role of private associations, “realism and idealism in the practice of United States foreign policy, the role of the United States in world affairs,” and civil liberty too.  AHI’s website further declares that it “aspires to create an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant.”3

The late Howard Zinn
So, does Grabar’s work conform to AHI's credo?  Obviously, the point of interest here is quite particular, leading to the simple question: How does Grabar’s anti-Zinn polemic treat of John Brown the abolitionist?  Furthermore, between the two authors, Zinn or Grabar, which one presents John Brown and his context more correctly according to “evidence and argument”?  Conversely, which author actually is more laden with “ideology and cant”?  The short answer is that it is Grabar who is the propagandist, and her reactionary treatment of Brown vis-à-vis at attack on Zinn is poorly rendered and lacking in substance.

First, A Note of Regret

Before going any further, I should probably express a sense of regret for Professor Grabar.  Frankly, she seems to be of that stripe of immigrant whose early life and family history has been deeply colored by the harsh realities of life under totalitarian communism in other parts of the world.  Indeed, it is not surprising to find that the children of refugees from Eastern Europe, Cuba, or Vietnam, for instance, might stand as adamant proponents of conservative and capitalist ideology in the United States of America.  In their own thinking, they know the truth about socialism in contrast to naïve, left-leaning “Americans” who have been brainwashed and seduced by men like Howard Zinn. The most talented of these grateful refugees are sometimes unfortunately taken up as tools, and enabled in their capacity as apologists and attack dogs for the rightwing. 

This may be true of Grabar, who has been eating her heart out for years over the heightening influence of A People’s History of the United States, and thus the reason for her Trumpian quest to “debunk” Zinn as a “fake” historian.  Unfortunately, Professor Grabar’s work is too reactionary and biased to actually present a challenge to Zinn’s popular history.  It is not simply a matter of her diatribe being “too little, too late,” given the expansive influence that Zinn's work has achieved.  But also Grabar’s polemic probably will only convince rightwing, ultra-conservatives who already believe they are correct, confirming for them that anyone who questions their narrative of the United States as "the last, best hope" is a dangerous radical and an enemy of the nation.

Pod-Casting Out the Demons of Communism

Recently, Grabar was the guest on the podcast of First Things, a religious publication with a conservative and rightwing slant.4  In an interview conducted by Mark Bauerlein, Grabar held forth her rationale for attacking Howard Zinn.  Almost from the onset, she affirmed her host’s suggestion that were it not for A People's History, Zinn would probably not even be remembered today. Yet she contradicted herself later when she admitted that Zinn actually was already a popular "radical" at the time of his book's publication.  However, the main thrust of her argument, both in this podcast interview and in her book, is that Zinn was no more or no less than a leftist who wanted to tear down the United States by means of revolution and replace it with socialism or communism.

As far as Zinn’s popular text, Grabar points out that A People's History lacks footnotes, presenting only a bibliography, although this is not unusual as a textbook format. (I’m not crazy about this format either.  I use Justo Gonzalez’s Story of Christianity for my seminary course on Christian history and believe this notable text would serve students better if it included citations.)  But what really bothers Grabar is the tremendous success that A People's History has enjoyed since it was first published in 1980.  According to Grabar, it was not immediately successful, but gradually became a "publishing phenomenon,” steadily gaining attention and readership on a yearly basis. Grabar says that as of 2018, over 2.6 million copies of A People's History have been sold and that many of these sales have been for textbook usage.  During the podcast, Grabar also lamented the boost that Zinn’s book got from Hollywood icon Matt Damon, who introduced it as a great history text in his popular breakthrough film, “Good Will Hunting.” 

During the interview, Bauerlein pointed out that A People’s History has not been without its critics on both the right and the left, noting that even though the book is allegedly distorted in its presentation, nevertheless it “sticks.” Grabar agreed, stating that Zinn's book often is the only book being used by teachers being trained to teach history.  Consequently, Grabar observed that Zinn’s approach has proven to be "seductive," portraying himself as a "heroic" figure although in reality he is peddling the "awful" picture of the United States that one can only expect from a communist. 

For Christopher Columbus, Against John Brown

Perhaps to no surprise, Grabar seems desperate in the interview to protect the legacy of Christopher Columbus and condemn Zinn, ostensibly for plagiarizing anti-Columbus material from a leftwing novelist's pamphlet.  In an awkward defense of the Italian mercenary explorer, Grabar says Zinn also skews a quote from Columbus' log by leaving out critical information.  The material Zinn omitted, Grabar says, is where Columbus wrote that the indigenous Arawak people could be converted "more by love than by force." This proves, Grabar concludes, that Columbus had "good intentions."  But this is a suspicious claim.  Even using Grabar’s argument, Columbus clearly considered that the use of force was an option to convert the Arawak natives that he had first encountered after “discovering America.”  As another source shows, in his log under date of October 13, 1492, Columbus wrote about his initial encounter with the Arawak: “I kept my eyes open and tried to find out if there was any gold,” and afterward tried to persuade these natives unsuccessfully to led him to a king who they said possessed much gold.  The following day, Columbus wrote further that if it were the crown’s wishes, fifty Spanish soldiers could keep the whole population in subjection “and make them do whatever one wanted.”5  Are these "good intentions," Professor Grabar?

Toward the end of the interview, Bauerlein and Grabar reflected dismally upon the fact that a whole generation had been raised on "American guilt," and that Zinn's book was really designed to demoralize the United States. In portraying the United States as a failed nation, Grabar concluded, this left the way open to revolution, which is what Zinn really wanted to instigate.  Grabar added that it is not clear what plan Zinn actually had for the United States following a revolution, except that he entertained the doubtable vision of capitalism being replaced by a harmonious society that was based upon sharing.  Zinn certainly had profited from the book, Grabar concluded, and "very clearly points to socialism or communism" in order to bring justice to the wrongs of the United States. Indeed, Grabar opined that Zinn "loves it when there's blood flowing in the streets; he celebrates rioting, he celebrates the abolitionist John Brown [laughing], you know. . . ."6

Whose John Brown?

To be frank, I am not concerned with defending Howard Zinn’s political views.  Although I have benefited from the work of scholars on the left and published one of my John Brown books on a leftist press, I am not formally or ideologically bound to it, and certainly I have my own sense of aversion to atheistic Marxism.  Conversely, I am appreciative of how the left generally has both admired and defended John Brown over the years, quite in contrast to conservatives, who have typically slandered and despised him. Still, I have neither the capacity nor the commitment to defend Zinn’s ideological groundings, and I will leave it to others to answer Grabar’s screed in defense of Zinn’s ideological position. 

However, knowing that Grabar thinks Christopher Columbus is a redemptive figure certainly suggests that she lacks historical grounding, and further underscores that she has attempted political propaganda more than historical corrective.  Indeed, when it comes to Grabar’s presentation of John Brown, I would say that she has crossed the line from being pitiable to being inimical.  However, the best way to highlight this is simply by contrasting what Zinn has written about Brown with what Grabar has written in the process of attacking Zinn's book.

Zinn on Brown

In chapter nine, which is entitled, “Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom,” Zinn points out that the support of slavery by the United States was “an overpowering practicality,” and as the enslaved population grew from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth century, a series of slave revolts and rebellions resulted in the development of “a network of controls in the southern states, hacked by the laws, courts, armed forces, and race prejudice of the nation's political leaders.” I find no communist propaganda here.

Zinn is also correct in writing that it “would take either a full-scale slave rebellion or a full-scale war to end such a deeply entrenched system” as chattel slavery.  He is also correct in his contention that by the latter approach, those who made war would have the prerogative to “organize its consequences.” This does appear to be what happened with Abraham Lincoln, who was able to end slavery without disrupting the economic or racial structures that reigned in his day. This also explains why, in only a short amount of time after the ending of the war, that whites in the South were able to recover power over their former slaves.   To be sure, Zinn seems to have believed that Brown’s effort was hopeless from the onset, something with which I do not agree.  Nevertheless, he was correct in concluding that “Brown was hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence several years later--end slavery.” Again, I find no communist propaganda here.

Zinn notes the association of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass with Brown, the latter having argued against his plan “from the standpoint of its chances of success” albeit admiring “the ailing man of sixty, tall, gaunt, white-haired” (actually Brown was fifty-nine years old at the time of his hanging).  After briefly describing Brown’s defeat at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Zinn quotes at length from W.E.B. DuBois’ poignant John Brown (1909), noting the abolitionist’s brave resolve before his Virginia captors, and the inconsistency of the extreme response of Virginia’s leaders toward someone whom they purported had not even won the support of the slaves themselves. 

After quoting John Brown's last written statement before he was hanged ("I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”), Zinn concludes:

[Brown] was executed by the state of Virginia with the approval of the national government. It was the national government which, while weakly enforcing the law ending the slave trade, sternly enforced the laws providing for the return of fugitives to slavery. It was the national government that, in Andrew Jackson's administration, collaborated with the South to keep abolitionist literature out of the mails in the southern states. It was the Supreme Court of the United States that declared in 1857 that the slave Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property. Once more, I find nothing here that is questionable according to the historical record, and certainly nothing that is "fake" history.

Finally, Zinn writes that the federal government would never have accepted an end to slavery by rebellion. 
“It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism. He would keep the abolition of slavery not at the top of his list of priorities, but close enough to the top so it could be pushed there temporarily by abolitionist pressures and by practical political advantage.”7  
To reiterate: there is nothing here that cannot be argued quite successfully from the historical record, and which cannot be supported by anyone with a commitment to telling the truth about the political and social history of the United States. That Zinn’s approach is considered hostile to the United States says much more about Grabar’s rightwing and reactionary mentality than anything else.

Grabar on Brown

It is apparent from her chuckle during the podcast that Grabar must think John Brown a most contemptible figure beyond question ("you know?"), as if by invoking his name she was proving her point. Clearly Grabar is clueless as to Brown’s place in the history of the United States, and this is born out in her book, particularly in the section where she discusses Zinn’s favorable comments about Brown in chapter nine of A People’s History.

In her polemic, Grabar says that “Zinn ignores Douglass’s relationship with Lincoln so that he can portray the president as a cowardly racist politician beholden to powerful money interests.”  Apparently, Grabar has not read the very frank but merciful manner in which Douglass criticizes Lincoln posthumously as having been a racially prejudiced white man who always put white people's interests above black people.  She also has failed to note how critical Douglass was of Lincoln’s half-hearted support of black Union soldiers, and that he considered the Emancipation Proclamation to be a half-loaf measure when it was issued in 1863, as did so many other abolitionists at the time.  Instead, Grabar creates the illusion that Zinn is intentionally misleading in his use of an early Lincoln quote—even though Lincoln’s views on race and slavery were fairly conservative until the very end of his life.  Even then, of course, Lincoln was no racial egalitarian. (I would refer Grabar to Frederick Douglass’ (third) autobiography, and also Lerone Bennett’s, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.) 

Along with her impotent defense of Lincoln, Grabar turns bitterly on John Brown in the fashion of many other conservatives.  “The only kind of abolitionist Zinn approves of is a violent abolitionist like John Brown,” Grabar continues, whose “last written statement, in prison, before he was hanged” for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, declared that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”  Grabar is clearly desperate here.  Any historian worth her salt would know that John Brown’s last statement about the coming blood-purge of the nation was not a call to revolution, but rather a predictive conclusion that slavery would not end without great bloodshed—a forecast that proved more than prescient on Brown’s part.  That Grabar sees John Brown as some kind of bloodthirsty revolutionary fit for the use of communists is the kind of malign stupidity fit for a MAGA head.

To no surprise, she also defaults to the familiar but misleading reiteration of the Pottawatomie killings of 1856. With no evident knowledge of the incident herself, Grabar describes the killings incorrectly, stating that Brown and his men killed five “victims” whose only crime was believing that slavery be promoted in the Kansas territory. Of course, she is wrong.  The five men killed along the Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856 by Brown’s men were abetting terrorism and had targeted the Brown family for attack.  Their killings were a preemptive strike amidst a civil conflict in which antislavery people like the Browns had no actual appeal for protection by either federal or territorial law enforcement.  Incredibly, Grabar concludes that “Brown succeeded only in sowing fear and mistrust in the South, in the opinion of Thomas Woods.”

Twisted, Sister

It is important to point out that Grabar’s reading of Brown is twisted—the roots of her claim actually go down into the muck of some of the worst writing about Brown in our era.
As a reference, for example, Grabar cites “the opinion” of Thomas E. Woods Jr., the author of a quaintly bigoted handbook entitled, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History—which to no surprise is published by Regnery, Grabar’s own rightwing publishing house.  It is interesting, too, that while Grabar scores Zinn for not having footnotes, in this case she has leaned completely a book by Woods Jr.—and one also without footnotes! Her source is Woods Jr.'s chapter, “Lunatic on the loose: Murderer John Brown returns to the scene.”  To no surprise, however, Woods’s Politically Incorrect is also historically untrustworthy, the inferior antithesis of the great work of James Loewen, who has also had a positive impact by teaching this generation about the lies we have all been taught in school about "American" history.

But the twisted roots of Grabar’s claims go down even deeper than this untrustworthy piece of rightwing propaganda, since Woods himself bases his malignant view of John Brown on the dreadfully bigoted work of the late Otto Scott.  I have recently republished my extensive critique of this racist tool (see "The Fool as Biographer,"on this blog, Sept. 18, 2019), and so I need not revisit how Scott bequeathed his expertly perverse Secret Six to rightwing haters of Brown, especially the hapless lovers of the Confederacy.  

In other words, Grabar’s treatment of John Brown is derived from a propaganda work published by a conservative press, that is in turn entirely dependent upon a journalistic effort by a rightwing writer who served the interests of ultra-right demagogues and neo-Confederates.  This is the basis of Grabar’s treatment of John Brown.

Propaganda, Not History

While I have not concerned myself with the greater part of Grabar’s work, it is clear that her book was not born out of the necessities of real historical labor, nor out of a desire to do justice to the historical record.  Rather, Professor Grabar’s work is essentially a vehicle for rightwing propaganda intended to supplant Zinn’s considerable influence, and to incriminate him and his narrative as having been a sordid revolutionary plotting to destroy the United States.  “A People’s History of the United States is intended to inspire anger of such magnitude that its readers want to overthrow the American Republic,” Grabar writes in chapter nine of her book.  “That’s why John Brown and H. Rap Brown were Zinn’s heroes.” 

Apparently, Grabar is deceived, although she may be traumatized to the point where she cannot distinguish the sound work of a scholar on the left from “anti-American” and communist subversion.  By her own admission, Grabar finds it amazing to think that Zinn’s book has become a respected and revered source for “the teaching of American history in our schools, even a kind of sacred cow.”  Yet her own book seems more than an attempt to play the “commie” card and destroy Zinn’s reputation.  It also indicates that conservatives are afraid—fearful that their self-serving narrative of “American history” has rapidly lost its authority, even as the United States is changing in demographic and cultural outlook.  Fearful for the wellbeing of their beloved capitalism and white privilege, the rightwing needs writers like Mary Grabar, who serve as valuable tools for their publishing houses and conservative think-tanks.

As for John Brown, Howard Zinn was far closer to the truth of history.  Despite her intentions, it is Grabar’s work that has proven to be easily debunked, and it is her treatment of Brown that is more clearly “fake.”  Grabar may appeal to historical truth, but by slandering John Brown, she has only proven, at least to me, that her work is anything but truthful, and certainly it is unreliable as to history.--LD


            1 See Mary Grabar’s website at Marygrabar.com.
            2 See Regnery Publishing website at https://www.regnery.com.
            3 See the charter of The Alexander Hamilton Institute at http://bit.ly/2rFFRar.
            4 “Who Was Howard Zinn? Conversations with Mark Bauerlein, with Mary Grabar."Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/firstthings/who-was-howard-zinn-conversations-with-mark-bauerlein-12619
            5 “Arawak Tribe of the Bahamas (The first tribe encountered by Christopher Columbus in the Americas,” Nov. 15, 2012.  Retrieved from Originalpeople.org.
            6 “Who Was Howard Zinn? Conversations with Mark Bauerlein.”
            7 Zinn, A People’s History, Chapter 9.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Holiday Greetings from Our Man in the Field & Some Lecompton Pics

I am happy to share this communication from H. Scott Wolfe, our "man in the field" contributor:

Greetings...Was perusing Mr. Smyth’s account of Samuel Jones’ burial site [see Rich Smyth's "Where Are They Now" column, Nov. 22] and thought I would provide you with some images taken last May in Lecompton, Kansas. Spent some time there, in the “nest” of the proslavers. The first image shows Jones’ original tombstone, once to be found in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It is displayed adjacent to “Constitution Hall,” a structure built by Jones, and once home to the Kansas proslavery legislature.
Have a happy holiday!
The Man in the Field