Saturday, May 2, 2009

A People's History of the United States

A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present
© 2003 Howard Zinn
729 pages

I attracted a fair number of dirty looks and endured numerous assaults on my non-existent patriotism for reading this book, making it especially fun to read in public. Zinn begins the book with the story of Columbus discovering the United States, and from a more cynical viewpoint than one is apt to hear anyone else. After writing on the horrors that Columbus and his compatriots visited upon natives, Zinn talks to the reader directly on historical narratives. He accepts the idea that any historical account is loaded with bias: his aim is to tell the story of the United States from the perspective of the "losers" of history: the natives, the poor, women, blacks, homosexuals, immigrants, labor, Cuban rebels, South American revolutionaries, and more. The book is written "to be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest".

He then takes the reader through the downtrodden's history of the United States, eviscerating even the sacred cow of the American Revolution. I worked through it a little by little, day by date, taking breaks to read from other books to give myself a break from the sad story that American history apparently is. I can't really criticize Zinn's approach: history is a narrative. People who take it seriously, like myself, can try as best we can to be objective, but the facts we choose to use and the manner in which we connect them is still subject to bias. This book is not the story of inevitable progress, of people working together to create civilization out of wilderness and fight evil -- it is a story often repeated, one of the powerful subduing the weak -- but one also of the weak standing up for themselves and forcing changes. At book's end, Zinn writes that he wants to end narratives that depend on the Great Men of history stepping in to guide the people -- Abraham Lincoln through the Civil war, FDR through the Depression, Carter through the post-Watergate era. Few if any of America's political leaders escape Zinn's criticism.

The book was interesting for me, because much of the great America narrative had already fallen apart for me before reading in. During my freshmen year of college, my western civilization professor would often comment on how the authors of our textbook treated various subjects. "I think they do a fair job on this subject," he might say, or "They passed this over". During my first semester with him, I was very uncomfortable: what was he doing criticizing the authors of the textbook? The idea impressed upon me in the three semesters I took classes with him -- accidentally, I might add -- was that authors bear responsibility for what they write, that indeed history is written by people. Textbooks are no more objective than popular history books, and getting used to that took some doing. As I read more and grew in both knowledge and age, I realized there were problems with the History of the United States as I knew it. My skepticism began with the Mexican and American Civil War, but soon touched almost every aspect of US history except for World War 2. When I began looking at the Revolutionary War differently, I realized something in me had changed. That certainly has something to do with my coming a student of philosophy and thinking about the way and why people believe what they do.

This book will appeal to some and appall others, and so all I can say this is (tongue-in-cheekly): he who hath an ear, let him hear.

3 comments:

  1. I got some *very* funny looks some years ago whilst reading a book on Anti-terrorism on the train into work. It was called: 'Shoot the Women First' - so you can imagine more than a few raised eye-brows....

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  2. With a title like that, I'm curious about its contents myself. Is it about military operations or about the societal causes of terrorists?

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  3. It was about the training and operation of anti-terrorist units. One of their philosophies was always to shoot the women terrorist first as they tended to be the more hardcore than the guys.

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