With all the attention around CNN for finally admitting publicly what has been plainly obvious for years, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the roots of the intelligentsia’s preference for narrative over facts.
For the top brass in corporate media, the seeming preference for narrative over facts has little to do with any particular concern for either. As the admissions of CNN Producer John Bonifield in the recent Project Veritas report laid bare: “It’s a business… All the nice cutesy little ethics that used to get talked about in journalism school you’re just like, that’s adorable. That’s adorable. This is a business.”
But, among much of the intelligentsia in this country the narrative does matter, more so than the meager salaries they take home, and much more so than objective reality.
“Fake but accurate.” It is a refrain that has grown louder on the left in recent years. As Andrew Klaven reminded us in a recent video for Prager U., the phrase “fake but accurate” gained notoriety after New York Times ran it in the headline of its defense of CBS News’ use of fraudulent documents to smear Bush 43’s National Guard record in the run up to the 2004 elections.
Since then, we’ve seen innumerable iterations of the “fake but accurate” mantra. When Newsweek had to apologize for its coverage of the Duke Lacrosse rape case after it turned out to be completely made-up, the magazine’s editor famously said “The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.”
Even academic, technical, and scientific concerns have been affected by this need on the left to push the narrative, the facts be damned. For example, money continues to poor into prenatal care programs on the completely baseless premise that such programs lower adverse health outcomes such as low-birth weight and premature births. That is despite more than three decades of data suggesting no correlation whatsoever between these programs and health outcomes.
While the catchy homage to ideology over truth – “fake but accurate” – is of a more recent vintage, the doctrine that underpins it has much deeper roots, in the New Left historians who rose to prominence in the 1960’s and ‘70s.
The G.I. Bill swelled the ranks of American universities after World War II. There, history students began combining the New History theories of historical “revisionism” developed in the opening decades of the 20th century with the relativism of the Cultural Marxists who had sought refuge in America between the World Wars and largely settled into university teaching positions in this country.
The New Left was less concerned with the pursuit of objective truth than in the development of alternative truth, usually with the aim of furthering a specific leftist social or political agenda. In the words of William Appleman Williams, generally considered the founder of the New Left school of history, “[t]he revisionist is one who sees basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships.”
By the time the Baby Boomers were entering college in the 1960s and ‘70s, these “revisionist” historians had taken up tenured teaching positions around the country and begun publishing their own textbooks. Theirs had become the dominant history pedagogy nationwide.
If Williams was the founder of the New Left, Howard Zinn would become its most prominent peddler. Zinn, like Williams, entered university in the late 1940s under the G.I. Bill. He did his graduate work at Columbia University, not only the birthplace of the Progressive Era’s New History, but also, at the time, the center of Cultural Marxist theory in America.
“Objectivity is impossible,” Zinn once remarked, “and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”
In 1980, Zinn published his seminal work, A People’s History of the United States. A prominent leftist history professor reviewing the book shortly after its release wrote of “the deranged quality of [Zinn’s] fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no matter how intractable the evidence of American history.”
Consider, for example, Zinn’s treatment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for treason in 1953 for their role in an espionage ring which transferred nuclear secrets of the Manhattan Project to the Soviets. In the original 1980 edition of A People’s History, Zinn works for two and a half pages to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Rosenbergs’ convictions as well as that of their accomplice, Morton Sobell.
Of the Rosenbergs’ trial and conviction, Zinn writes, “there were troubling aspects to all this.” Using leading questions where he is too gutless to state his position outright, Zinn suggests the evidence against the Rosenbergs was largely hearsay, that the prosecutors forced witnesses to change testimony, and that the only evidence of a link between the Rosenbergs and the Soviet Union came from a single, unreliable witness.
Leaving aside the flimsy case made by Zinn in that first edition of the book, the decades after the A People’s History’s initial publication would see the release of substantial new information removing virtually any doubt about the Rosenbergs’ espionage activities.
In his posthumously released memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev revealed that the Rosenbergs “had provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb.”
In the mid-1990s, with the Cold War over, the U.S. federal government released thousands of pages of documents from the Venona project, a once highly classified program to decrypt Soviet cables. The Venona cables revealed Julius Rosenberg as the principal of a spy ring with reach and influence far beyond the atomic espionage for which he was convicted.
In 2008, Morton Sobell, who had served 19 years in prison for espionage, publically admitted for the first time that he had indeed been a Russian spy and a member of Julius Rosenberg’s spy ring. Three days later, in the wake of Sobell’s admission, the Rosenbergs’ two sons also concluded with regret that their father had been a spy.
But, as Stanford history professor Sam Wineburg explained, “When the same New York Times reporter contacted Zinn for a reaction, he was only ‘mildly surprised,’ adding, ‘To me it didn’t matter whether they were guilty or not. The most important thing was they did not get a fair trial in the atmosphere of cold war hysteria.'”
For Zinn, it did not matter that the Rosenbergs were guilty, or that they had been afforded all the due process afforded to other Americans. What mattered for Zinn was the narrative.
Even if we give Zinn the benefit of the doubt after the book’s original 1980 release, there is little explanation, other than his aversion to facts unbecoming the narrative, for Zinn’s failure to update his coverage of the Rosenbergs in any of his four subsequent editions.
In the words of Rutgers history professor David Greenberg, Zinn “renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses.”
What is damaging is not just that Zinn and the other New Left historians play fast and loose with the facts, it’s that they do so nakedly and proudly. This is quite different from the American mythologizing which has remained a consistent feature of public school social studies curricula for decades.
Not only is Zinn’s truth wrong, he comes from a leftist tradition which proudly declares there to be no absolute truth.
Despite all this, A People’s History and other New Left textbooks surged in popularity. By the end of the 1980’s, these books saw “widespread adoption and use on American college and university campuses,” as the Mises Institute’s Jeff Riggenbach put it.
“[A People’s History] is so popular,” in the words of Michael J. Flynn, executive director of Accuracy in Academia, “that it can be found on the class syllabus in such fields as economics, political science, literature, and women’s studies, in addition to its more understandable inclusion in history.”
The book is also “a perennial favorite in courses for future teachers, and in some, it is the only history book on the syllabus,” according to Stanford historian Sam Wineburg.
As the first generation of college students brought up on a hearty diet of Howard Zinn came of age and began making education policy decisions, A People’s History crept into the nation’s high schools. Today, A People’s History is a principal text in Advanced Placement U.S. History courses.
A People’s History has also been released in a teacher’s edition and a youth edition, not to mention that a nonprofit called the Zinn Education Project publishes free lesson plans for primary and secondary teachers.
The factual relativism of the New Left has become the dominant approach to historical and contemporary reality among the intelligentsia in this country.
Our nation’s youth are taught that objectivity is impossible, and therefore, even a pretense of conformity to the actual facts of the matter is less important than the furtherance of the leftist agenda. America’s youth are taught that history is a weapon.
If the news is the first run of history, then for the intelligentsia, the news is likewise a weapon.