The Pseudo-Intellectualism of the Alexander Hamilton Institute's Dr. Mary Grabar
About four years ago, when I was a senior and Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor, I wrote a response to an article published in the Alexander Hamilton Institute’s Enquiry titled “The Fake History of Howard Zinn” by AHI Resident Fellow Professor Mary Grabar (not a Hamilton College professor). I did this because I found the article absurd, and I wanted to correct the misconceptions of anyone who might have thought otherwise. I present below a slightly edited version of that article. In it, I urge the AHI not to promote thinkers like Professor Grabar if it wants to be taken seriously by anyone outside the AHI bubble. Since AHI has recently invited Professor Grabar to speak at a “Moms For Liberty” event on Saturday, October 7th, they clearly ignored my advice. Indivisible Mohawk Valley, a local progressive advocacy group, will be hosting a "Freedom to Live and Learn" event on the Clinton Village Green in response. Since the time I wrote this article, Republican rhetoric surrounding the teaching of American history, particularly as it pertains to slavery and systemic racism, has escalated considerably, although outrage about “free speech on campus” has waned somewhat. Grabar’s most recent book concerns “the 1619 Project,” a 2019 work of journalism that argued that the preservation of slavery was essential to the American Revolution and founding. Like the work of Howard Zinn, the 1619 Project has come under criticism even from mainstream academics, and its thesis is not one to which I feel particularly committed. I suspect that Grabar’s work, as with Howard Zinn, is not so much a reasoned critique of that thesis, as it is an excuse to claim falsely that the founders were immaculate anti-racists, and the lingering effects of slavery on America are minimal. Despite how it may seem, I do not think it is impossible to be a serious conservative thinker today. Very, very difficult. But it is possible. Grabar is not one.
“This person really, really hates Howard Zinn,” was my first thought upon reading the beginning of an article, recently published in the Alexander Hamilton Institute’s Enquiry, titled “The Fake History of Howard Zinn”. Finishing the article, I decided that it was not particularly well written. The author began with an aimless prelude about Good Will Hunting; she blustered through disconnected criticisms of her target, Howard Zinn, without going into detail on any of them or providing evidence for her claims. Bizarrely, she accused Zinn of being a profit-driven opportunist looking to “bring royalties to his estate”, despite giving every impression that she herself was a strong supporter of capitalism.In the same paragraph that she accused Zinn of being a Communist Party sympathizer whom “Soviet propaganda ministers” would have been proud of. “All in all,” I thought, “not one of Enquiry’s better articles”, which, though I often find their conclusions disagreeable, are usually at least coherently argued. However, when I got to the end of the article I found, to my surprise, that it had not been written by a Hamilton College undergraduate, but by a professor named Mary Grabar. “How can the author of this have a PhD?”, I wondered.
I grew curious. Who was Mary Grabar? And what were the bases for her claims? The Alexander Hamilton Institute’s website led me to Grabar’s personal website where she advertises her book Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation Against America, the cover of which includes a picture of a sinister Zinn in black and red. From there I found another of Grabar’s websites: “Dissident Prof: Resisting the Re-education of America”. Things were becoming clearer. Grabar falls among those conservative Professors attempting to fight the predominance of left-leaning viewpoints in the humanities and social sciences, by, in her words, “offering intellectual ammunition for dissidents of the anti-Western, anti-American academic regime”. Now things were beginning to make more sense. Still, I wondered, were her accusations against Zinn true?
I decided to do some research on Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States I have heard praised and condemned by left and right. I should say that I am personally sympathetic to Zinn’s political perspective. Though I like to think that, unlike Professor Grabar, I am not so consumed by anger toward my political opponents that I am unable to evaluate his work fairly with mind to its strengths and weaknesses. I discovered that the consensus among historians is that, while there is plenty of ground on which to criticize Howard Zinn, Grabar’s attempt is not the right way to do so.
The two most common charges against Zinn that do appear to hold up are cherry-picking and presentism. Zinn was quite open about his own biases, and about the narrative he wanted to present. By telling “a people’s history” he meant to tell a populist history from the point of view of the “common people,” including those from marginalized groups, workers, and those whose perspectives were often omitted in the “traditional nationalist glorification of country.” The result was a work that detailed all the parts of U.S. history that people like Professor Grabar would rather not think about, including the violence committed by the United States against Native Americans, Black people, labor and civil rights organizers, and the victims of the Vietnam War. Just as “traditional history” does in privileging the point of view of the elite, it left out the point of view of the oppressed. Zinn’s history, in purposely privileging the points of view of the oppressed, necessarily could not do justice to the point of view of the elite. Thus, historians have rightly criticized Zinn for cherry-picking his cases in order to construct a narrative of American history of the “oppressive elites” against the “the people.” He is also rightly criticized for engaging in presentism, the tendency to evaluate historical figures by current moral standards within one’s explication of history. Zinn also tended to assume that because a historical event ended up favoring elites, that it must have been intentionally orchestrated that way.
But Professor Grabar’s article is not so much a critique of Zinn’s historiography as it is an outraged rant on the fact that somebody would dare to write this kind of historiography in the first place. According to Professor Grabar, leftists praise Zinn because he “confirms their notions” about America’s racist and imperialist history, while conservatives hate him because of his evident “contempt” for them. This might be true, but it is a strange way of putting it. For one, is Professor Grabar suggesting that America doesn’t have history of racist oppression and imperialism? History, not Howard Zinn in particular, is enough to “confirm my notions” about that. Furthermore, “contempt” seems to be an odd charge to make by an academic whose own hatred for Zinn could not be more obvious.
But these strange remarks could be excused if the substantive claims in Professor Grabar’s article were factual. However, almost all of them are either false or nonsense. She accuses Zinn of “plagiarism”, “misrepresenting sources”, and “pretending to have conducted research that another has done.” However, the article is rather vague about what it is referring to here, and I could find no corroborating allegations online (the only search results for “Howard Zinn plagiarism” turn up links to Grabar’s own website). I had to do some digging to figure out what she was talking about. It turns out, if you read the first chapter of Debunking Howard Zinn titled “Columbus Bad, Indians Good,” it turns out that Grabar’s contention is that Zinn “borrowed heavily” from a book called Columbus: His Enterprise by Hans Koning, and while Zinn does cite the book repeatedly, Grabar contends that Zinn “glosses over how generously he borrowed from his friend’s book”. Granted, over-reliance on a single source can be a problem. But since Grabar goes on to be highly critical of Koning’s work itself, it’s not clear whether her real accusation is that Zinn plagiarized from this source, or that he used the source in the first place. If you read the chapter, you’ll see that the two complaints get muddled. Grabar even acknowledges that Koning “doesn’t seem to have minded” the way in which Zinn used his work, which she attributes to the fact they were both socialists with a shared political agenda. Grabar goes on to claim that Columbus: His Enterprise itself “contains no sources.” In fact, I checked, and it turns out that it does contain sources, one of which is Christopher Columbus’s personal journal. Professor Grabar also refers to Koning as a “novelist and playwright”, but he was a journalist who also authored numerous works of non-fiction.
Professor Grabar’s complaints only get weirder from there. She writes that Zinn “claims that Columbus committed genocide against the Indians” who he supposedly says, “lived lives of peaceful cooperation”. As to the second part of that claim, I believe it is well understood that Native societies were comparatively more egalitarian than were the societies that colonized them. I could find no evidence that Zinn ever claimed that they were inherently peaceful and cooperative people. Even while discussing the communalistic practices of the Iroquois, Zinn acknowledges that some of the descriptions of Iroquois society by European observers were likely romanticized. What is far more troubling in this section of the article is Professor Grabar’s implicit suggestion that Columbus and his forces did not in fact initiate genocide against the Native population. Here at least, Zinn’s scholarship appears to be corroborated by other historians. He documents how the Spaniards enslaved the Natives they encountered, sent them away to work in gold mines, and brutally murdered those who could not be enslaved. Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th century Spanish colonist, wrote that between 1498 and 1508, three million indigenous people had died in war or from the conditions imposed on them by the colonists. Now, Professor Grabar must know this, since she’s supposed to have read A People’s History, which makes it very hard to interpret her work as anything other than intentional and deliberate genocide denial. But if she wishes to learn more about this issue, David Stannard’s American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World is highly recommended.
Her next complaint, that Zinn claims that “the American founders were racists who set up a form of government designed to enrich themselves” faces similar difficulties. That is, it’s not entirely clear what the complaint amounts to. Does Professor Grabar not believe that the American founders, who lived in the 18th century and owned slaves, held racist views? Thomas Jefferson for example, whom Professor Grabar seems particularly to admire, wrote of black people “that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior… in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” As to the idea that the American government was “designed to enrich” people like the American founders, again, I would need somebody to explain to me how a government formed to protect the property of white land-owning men was not such a government. Recall my earlier assertion that it seems as though Professor Grabar’s problem with Howard Zinn is not so much that the things he said were wrong, as much as it is that he dared to say those things in the first place. As much as these facts might make Professor Grabar and other conservatives feel uncomfortable, that does not stop them from being true.
As to the claim that Zinn asserted that “Ho Chi Minh embodied democratic ideals of the Declaration of Independence that its author, Thomas Jefferson, did not really believe in”, I could find no passages in A People’s History explicitly comparing Ho Chi Minh to Jefferson. However, Zinn does point out correctly that Ho Chi Minh issued a Declaration of Independence that used language like the language of the American Declaration. As to the claim that Zinn asserted that “President Lincoln was a capitalist tool,” all I could find in Zinn was, again, the seemingly correct claim that Lincoln “could skillfully blend the interests of the very rich and the interests of the Black at a moment in history when these interests met.” But in any case, does Professor Grabar think that one should not dare to say anything that could be construed as critical of Abraham Lincoln? Finding so many inaccuracies was quite sad because my investigation of this topic did leave me with a more critical view of Howard Zinn than I previously held, no thanks to Professor Grabar’s arguments. What I would like people like her to understand is that it is possible to be critical of those with whom we disagree politically without slipping into genocide denial. It is possible to be critical of contemporary scholarship on colonization without needing to assert that Europeans did nothing wrong.
Toward the end of the article, Professor Grabar laments the use of Zinn’s work in high school curriculums, including in AP U.S. History classes and in “ethnic studies” (which is not a subject generally taught in high schools). I consider myself, by this point, familiar with conservative arguments about contemporary academia, but that’s not saying much because their ideas are all homogenous and their books all exactly the same. Consider some other top sellers in the “college is turning students into progressives, and I don’t like it” genre: Ben Shapiro’s Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of American Mind, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, David Horowitz’s Indoctrination U, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, Heather MacDonald’s The Diversity Delusion, and Scott Greer’s spectacularly titled No Campus for White Men. Arguably, the genre of conservative campus grievance begins with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, a 1951 book in which Buckley argues that the largely conservative faculty of Yale should be even more aggressive in pushing the merits of capitalism and Christianity on students. The argument is that a good, objective, politically unbiased education of the youth by conservatives has been replaced by a biased, ideologically motivated re-education, or indoctrination, by progressives. I tend to think that the marginalization of conservatives in academia speaks more to the general inadequacy of their ideas than it does to discrimination or an attempt at indoctrination in a singular political perspective. But unlike some, I do think that a complete lack of right-wing viewpoints in some contexts can create problems. Students should be exposed to the range of viewpoints held by their fellow citizens. But I have no confidence in people like Professor Grabar to meaningfully contribute to the conservation. It seems to me, that, far from wishing to make the study of history more balanced, Professor Grabar would only seek to replace what she perceives as left-wing propaganda with even grosser right-wing propaganda.
Finally, I should say that the lack of even basic self-awareness on the part of conservative activists is astounding. They complain about “the contempt” shown to them by the left, while writing articles such as this one that return that contempt in an equal or sometimes greater degree. They complain about the Left writing “anti-Western screeds” while writing “pro-Western screeds” that don’t even have the merit of being factual. Hearing their talking points, one begins to suspect that there might be reasons why these people don’t want students looking too closely at American history and society from a critical perspective. One begins to suspect that there might be reasons why conservatives don’t want students learning about America’s history of imperialism, racism, and genocide.
I imagine that the Alexander Hamilton Institute would like to be seen as an institution dedicated to serious scholarship and good-faith argumentation. If so, then one thing is for sure: they should not be recruiting, as fellows, researchers of such low intellectual caliber as Professor Grabar whose work does not even rise to the level of rigor expected of Hamilton undergraduates. They should try to do better in the future.