I am a quarter of the way through A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It’s a thought-provoking book. Here are some thoughts it’s provoked in me recently:
- Surely there is a less intellectually painful way to expose myself to perspectives different to my own.
- Why isn’t the Kindle book progress meter moving? (I believe I have celebrated each and every change in percentage.)
- How could this book have received a second reading, let alone a second edition?
- Can I get through it more quickly if I jot off a quick review now, rather than waiting till I finish it?
Here’s what I like about the book: it uncovers the dirty laundry; it puts a spotlight on communities that weren’t in control of the political process. It is a good reminder that there was no golden age. The battle between good and evil has always raged; there has always been a need for a prophetic voice; men and women have always needed to take sides.
What I don’t like about the book is the hamfisted historical and political analysis. Zinn imputes malevolent motives to historical actors as consistently as if it were a methodological imperative. His narrative becomes ridiculous. One reviewer puts it well, “The ironic effect of such portraits of rulers is to rob ‘the people’ of cultural richness and variety, characteristics that might gain the respect and not just the sympathy of contemporary readers. For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them.” (Michael Kazin; as quoted in the Wikipedia page.) Lack of depth isn’t the least of the book’s problems. He suggests that the Founding Fathers insisted on strong property rights so that they could force the poor to pay their debts. Anyone who’s spent time in a place where rule of law is weak will confirm: the rich and powerful don’t need laws to oppress the poor.
And the tragedy, of course, is that there is actual injustice in American history. There really isn’t a shortage of material. But instead a painstaking and careful examination of the facts, we have these ridiculous conspiratorial assertions, which would make Oliver Stone blush. The net effect—for me, anyway—is to cast doubt on the historical facts. And it’s just agony to read. It’s like being forced to listen to two unintelligent people who share identical views talk about politics.
January 4, 2017: And I’m done!
I read the Kindle version, but I see from Amazon that the print book is 700-odd pages. And I felt every page. I was able to read much faster when I realized that this is not an academic book, or even a decent piece of journalism, where you would attend to the way the argument is presented, looking for logical fallacies, and paying special attention to what sorts of claims are made or not made. No. You just get through it—and, if you’re so politically inclined, be enraged by the Establishment.
I stand by the above statement: “It’s like being forced to listen to two unintelligent people who share identical views talk about politics.”
Zinn is comically biased. Just about every white male in the Establishment is either a frothing racist, or at best a good-natured coward. Union leaders receive a somewhat gentler treatment:
Black workers at this time found the National Labor Union reluctant to organize them.
Naturally, his perspective does not lend itself to subtle analyses:
One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.
If you’re not part of the top 1%, that’s you. (Readers of this blog with undoubtedly be familiar with my antipathy for property-holding, black, foreign-born, uneducated/unskilled people.) But don’t worry, because at the same time, the mass of Americans are good-hearted people who want there to be real change, and are right on the cusp of moving into hippie communes, if there were only someone to organize them.
There’s so much to say. But I’m confine it to this: it’s not even a good moral analysis. The most evil capitalist doesn’t expend any energy loathing the less-fortunate. The sin is one of neglect. Truly, I harbor no antipathy for any group of people on the planet. Good for me! But the question on Judgment Day will be whether I ever noticed their plight, and lifted a finger to help.
I’m not competent to assess many of the historical claims that Zinn makes. One stood out simply because I happen to know something about the timeline of antiballistic missile technology.
[George W. Bush] moved to increase the military budget, and to pursue the “Star Wars” program though the consensus of scientific opinion was that antiballistic missiles in space could not work, and that even if the plan worked, it would only trigger a more furious arms race throughout the world.
In fact, the system had been tested successfully in the late 90s, before Bush took office.
There’s no such thing as unbiased history, because all of history involves creating an narrative arc, which cannot be read directly from a sequence of historical facts. But one can do better or worse, and frank discussions about historical methodology go a long way to keeping things on the level. Zinn approaches none of this, of course. His aim is merely to provide a counterweight, a book biased in the opposite direction from how he perceives other books to be biased.
[Blah blah blah] That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.
It’s not that we’re trying to uncover the correct facts, or (granted a set of assumptions) come to the correct conclusions. It’s not even that previous histories suppressed facts, which we will now get out in the open. We’re just trying to get a book out there that will move the average of all history books slightly to the left. This reminded me of my critique of postmodern decision making from early last year.
Some years back I was forced to listen to some right-wing propaganda, which I described at the time as “intellectual waterboarding.” The term applies to reading this book as well. Reader beware: if you’re going to try to read a book from the other side of the political spectrum, choose carefully!