Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Demonization vs. Persuasion

Every now and then I see someone say what I think better than I can myself.  That is exactly the case with the article “Persuasion as the Cure for Incivility” by John J. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in the opinion section of the January 9, 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal ( ).  Read it and ponder it; it is more persuasive than anything I could conjure up.

I read a lot of political commentary on the Internet and one thing that disturbs me a lot is the abundance of name-calling and demonization and the lack of language that might actually persuade.  In my last post, I asked people of different political ideologies to recommend books, articles, blogs, or other material that they found persuasive that their ideology was correct.  I got an underwhelming response of one comment.  However, it was a comment of high quality from my state representative, James Albis.  He is a liberal Democrat and I am a mixture of conservative and libertarian who is a member of my local Republican Town Committee and have worked in the political campaigns of the opponents of Mr. Albis.  However, I have to say that I have a lot of respect for his civility and integrity even though I disagree with his political philosophy.  I am about a third of the way reading the book he endorsed, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.  It is taking a while because at the same time, I am re-reading A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, a book, by the way that has some critical things to say about Howard Zinn.  I am alternating between chapters of each book to compare what each has to say about approximately the same time period.

What I am finding so far is the Howard Zinn’s book is a valuable supplement to more traditional history books.  I would not recommend it as a substitute for another history book because it is far from complete and is slanted toward a particular ideology.  However in the introductory part of the book, Mr. Zinn makes it clear that the main goal of his book is to tell the parts of the story that most history books leave out, which is the impact of historical events on ordinary people – of all genders and races.  It is not intended to be a complete and thorough history; so one has to forgive his omission of important historic events (as in most of the Civil War) and accomplishments of famous people.  I found Mr. Zinn’s intentional avoidance of detailed footnotes to be annoying.  He mentions things that authors of other books have said, but not where in the book they said it.  On the other hand, I was favorably impressed with his use of primary sources, such as excerpts from letters of people who were involved in history, which make the book more interesting as well as more informative.  I don’t share his view that the history of the United States is primarily one of victimization of oppressed classes by elites, but it is important to remember that such victimization occurred and that some of the people who have traditionally been worshipped as heroes also had a dark side.  Like too many people, Mr. Zinn is very critical of capitalism and does not make the very critical distinction between free-market capitalism and crony capitalism.  Free market capitalism is relatively benign.  Crony capitalism, the collusion between business and government, is what is dangerous.  Although, according to Wikipedia, Howard Zinn was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States, his book is generally skeptical of the wisdom of government in general.  I share his skepticism of government, but I wonder how an admitted socialist and communist would expect either to function without the heavy hand of government.  Since Mr. Zinn died in 2010, it is too late to ask him.

The book by Schweikart and Allen is also an excellent book.  I have less to say about it because it is more traditional.  To the extent that it strays from the usual history book, it places more emphasis on the importance of religion in the development of the United States.  It doesn’t ignore the dark side of American history, but it doesn’t dwell on it as Mr. Zinn’s book does.  The book is more academic in that of Mr. Zinn in that it is full of detailed notes.

Both books are recommended reading.