Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Control in modern times requires more than force, more than law. It requires that a population dangerously concentrated in cities and factories, whose lives are filled with cause for rebellion, be taught that all is right as it is. And so, the schools, the churches, the popular literature taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure, and that only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck.

So I finally got my hands on A People's History... after years of hearing about it and going "oh yeah, that seems worth checking out." Going into it, I was a little worried that it'd read too much like a textbook and not be enjoyable enough to hold my interest long enough for me to actually take anything from it. Luckily, that was not the case.

A People's History of the United States is pretty much exactly what it claims to be. Zinn starts out describing the reality of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas and interactions with the natives, dispelling all the elementary school myths of peaceful trading and equilateral interaction. Zinn quotes primary sources where Columbus comes across as a blatant racist and describes how easy it should be for Europe to subjugate the docile natives. This is more or less the theme of the work: If you learned something in history class that didn't make the American government and its founders look like total assholes... then you were lied to. This applies to everything from Vietnam to the War of 1812 to our involvement in WW2.

One of the things I most enjoyed about A People's History... is its view of the United States not as a unified, homogenous body but a loose confederation of people rich, poor, black, and white. It's easy to think of the Civil War as the people of the North fighting for abolition vs. the people of the South fighting to protect state's rights. Really, it was the poor of the North fighting the poor of the South because the rich landowners of the South felt that the rich politicians in the North were imposing on their business interests. So often in our history books, especially in dealing with foreign policy, we lump all of the United States into one big group and assume that everyone agreed with whatever policy was being enacted. It's interesting to read about the struggles and protests of certain groups whose ideas never made it into the 9th grade curriculum.

I had a few problems with the book, though. First, Zinn seems to have no qualms about bending the truth in order to make his point. He tries very hard (and often with great success) to make it seem like the government only follows its own rules when it is convenient to do so. One example off the top of my head is when Zinn criticized Carter for violating the War Powers Act by carrying out military action in Central America without Congress' approval. But the truth is, the War Powers Act allows the President to carry out a war for 60 days without Congressional approval (which Zinn actually mentioned a few chapters earlier.) I also hated the chapter on the 2000 election. In it, Zinn discusses the 9/11 attacks and botches the entire thing. You're claiming to right a history of the people of the United States, claiming to bring forth the working man's plight in American history... And you don't even address the heroism and selflessness of the blue-collar NYPD and FDNY? Or the resulting sentiment of national unity? Instead Zinn spends the entire section railing against American interference in the Middle East and the subsequent Xenophobia directed towards Americans of Middle Eastern descent. I get his point, I just don't see how you can write about a book about the class struggles of the United States and not discuss a time when, perhaps more than ever before in our nation's history, there was a genuine feeling of community stretching from one coast to the other.

That said, I really enjoy the book and I highly recommend it to anyone who's interested in history or just wants to learn a different view on events you've already learned about. I don't think A People's History of the United States should be looked at as gospel, it has its own biases, but it's certainly an important work in that it provides a counterpoint to some of the propaganda we've been forcefed since elementary school.

Highlights: Chapters on the Cold War, WW2, Vietnam, Civil Rights movement
Lowlights: Chapter on the 2000 election, perhaps an overdependance on excerpts from other works, also it didn't really knock me on my ass as I'd heard it would.

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