studs terkel, edward rothstein and howard zinn

After the death of Studs Terkel, the great journalist and chronicler of oral history, Edward Rothstein wrote an "appraisal" in the New York Times.

Rothstein makes two main points.

One, he denigrates Terkel's work because, supposedly, Terkel gave the impression that all he did was share other people's words, but really, he shaped those words with his own perspective.
But after hearing that Studs Terkel had died on Friday, I thought about his WFMT radio shows, which I had heard during my years in graduate school in Chicago. He seemed to be without pretense and compassionate but not terribly revealing or comforting. He had some terrific guests, but he rarely stood aside.

"He rarely stood aside." Rothstein goes on to show us how "if you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end".

Now, every historian, every journalist, every interviewer shapes her material. No one transcribes "the truth" from some omniscient but neutral perspective. There's no such thing as neutral history - that's why we need multiple perspectives to get a fuller picture. I'm willing to bet that Edward Rothstein knows that.

But once again we see how the mainstream perspective is considered neutral, while bringing a more progressive view to the table is seen as biased. The "support our troops" decal is neutral; the peace sign is political. The military jet flyover at a civilian sporting event is neutral; parents who oppose military recruiting in their children's school are politicizing the school system. The textbook history is neutral; the "revisionist" history is dangerous. No matter that in 30 years, the revisionist history will be the textbook. Don't bother me with those details.
"...if you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end".

"To what end" is Rothstein's second point. Not only did Terkel have a perspective, but it's a perspective of which we should be "wary". Rothstein fears that the public sees Terkel as a benign liberal. But, Rothstein shows, Terkel wasn't a liberal, he was a. . . a. . . radical!!

Yes, a radical! Be afraid! Run away! The man wanted more than scraps of incremental change - he had a vision of a new world! Stop up your ears, lock up the children!

Rothstein claims that Terkel's "vision of work...is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor". There it is. Rothstein lets the evil M-word out of the bag. And Terkel's not just a Marxist, he's a Marxist by stealth: "This is not something often recognized about these books."

I'm pretty sure Terkel's progressive perspective was widely recognized, but if it wasn't, perhaps that was because, for most people, it didn't need to be. Terkel's readers and listeners identified with the stories he presented. The stories resonated for them, made them reflect on their own lives, and helped them enter the lives of others with compassion and empathy. Most people who flocked to Terkel's work didn't care about any underlying theoretical framework. They didn't need to.

At the same time, mainstream media and history always de-claw popular figures to make them more palatable to a wider audience. That's why Martin Luther King, Jr., a radical if ever there was one, is re-imagined as a man who said little more than "why can't we all just get along". Eleanor Roosevelt, another radical, is thought of as a kind of friendly visiting nurse to social ills. If the mainstream thinks of Studs Terkel as an avuncular transcriber of people's thoughts, that's not because Terkel was hiding his true motives.

Rothstein is so alarmed by Terkel's radicalism that he even throws in a completely gratuitous reference to terrorism.
Part of Mr. Terkel's wide appeal was that he seemed to be a scrappy liberal in his choice of causes and concerns, but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism. Though Mr. Terkel was not a theorist, nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.

Mr. Terkel also provided a blurb for the memoirs of William Ayers, the Weatherman bomber whose connection with Barack Obama has been a point of controversy. "A deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world," Mr. Terkel wrote. "Ayers provides a tribute to those better angels of ourselves."

Mr. Terkel presented himself as an avuncular angel with close contact with the salt of the earth, a populist with a humane vision of the world. There are times such gifts are evident, but there are also times when such dreamers should make us wary.

Does it occur to Rothstein that one can be a radical, a Marxist, yet have "a humane vision of the world"? What, do liberals own the rights to that?

I was so disgusted by this piece that I couldn't even dash off a letter to the editor, and I knew by the time I cooled off, it would be too late. So lucky for me - lucky for all of us - that Howard Zinn responded.
Howard Zinn Defends Studs Terkel from Red-Baiting in the Times
By Howard Zinn, November 6, 2008

Reading Edward Rothstein's sour commentary on Studs Terkel in the New York Times on November 2 I was surprised that Rothstein, presumably a sophisticated thinker, seems to believe one can separate one’s political views from a historical narrative, even from oral history.

"It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel's political vision from the contours of his oral history," he wrote.

It turns out that Rothstein is not complaining about Studs's intrusion of his "political vision" into his oral histories. I doubt, knowing Studs pretty well, that he would deny that. Indeed, I suspect he would embrace it.

Would he be proud of attempting (yes, attempting, because it cannot really be done) to be a neutral conduit of his interviewees' thoughts?

No, what Rothstein resents is the specific character of this intrusion — that is, Studs's political beliefs.

On Studs's oral history: "You grow cautious as you keep reading," Rothstein wrote. I'm inclined to think that Rothstein did not "grow" cautious, but that he started out being cautious, on the alert for radical ideas, or worse, anything that might suggest Marxism.

Rothstein is disappointed in Studs, because "he seemed to be a scrappy liberal...but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism."

Rothstein is evidently a proud liberal, possibly scrappy. I suspect Terkel, were he still alive, would have approved what Norman Mailer wrote once to Playboy magazine: "I don't care if people call me a radical, a rebel, a red, a revolutionary, an outsider, an outlaw, a Bolshevik, an anarchist, a nihilist, or even a left conservative, but please don't ever call me a liberal."

Rothstein gives examples of Studs's "radicalism." These are positions, which are so reasonable that they would give a good name to "radicalism," just as McCain's worry that Obama is "socialist" because he wants to redistribute wealth divests socialism of its worst connotations and makes it quite attractive.

For instance, Rothstein objects to Terkel comparing FDR's reaction to the Depression to Reagan's reaction to economic distress, wherein Terkel says that FDR "recognized a need and lent a hand" while Reagan "lends a smile".

Rothstein doesn't like the quote marks around Studs's "The Good War" because "the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II's shadows and injustices."

But would any reasonable — yes, "balanced" — assessment of that war not emphasize (precisely because that has been missing in the general romanticization of the "good war") the "shadows and injustices": Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, the segregation in the armed forces?

Rothstein finds that "nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory."

Should we be alarmed?

I can understand why J. Edgar Hoover would be alarmed. But someone as well educated as Edward Rothstein?

Looking at the state of the world, observing capitalism self-destruct to the point where even the Wall Street Journal questions its viability, it would seem that it may be time to take a second look at "models shaped by Marxist theory."

"The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories," Rothstein writes.

Is Rothstein one of those readers? Does he believe, does anyone believe, who has given some thought to the myth of "objective" history, that one can present history "without perspective"?

Indeed, would that be desirable? Do we want from history, even oral history, to be "just" a series of statements that suggest no perspective?

Rothstein worries that with Studs's oral histories "one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen." Surely, he must understand Рunless he possesses a naivet̩ we would never suspect in a New York Times writer Рthat one is never sure what is being omitted, and therefore we must always look beyond the words set before us.

And no phenomenon is "fully seen" so we try to see as much as we can, and add to the universe of knowledge, as Studs Terkel did so brilliantly, our little piece of truth.

I love that quote from Norman Mailer. I think of Phil Ochs's definition of a liberal: "Ten degrees to the left of center in good times. Ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally." I can just hear Edward Rothstein singing, "...love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal..."

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