Book Review: A People’s History of the United States — from 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn

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Book Review: A People’s History of the United States — from 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn

There is much in this book that’s infuriating.

I’m not referring to the myriad ways in which the people of the United States (and earlier in the American colonies) have failed to live up to the nation’s founding ideals. It is sad and shameful how majorities have oppressed minorities throughout our history. And how the rich have lorded over the poor. And how racial prejudice, xenophobia, sexism and greed have pushed us apart from each other, isolating groups, blocking the ability for united action.

We could be a much better people. We certainly say we want to be in our founding documents and more than two centuries of official pronouncements.

So Zinn has an important, necessary story to tell in “A People’s History.”

This was especially true in 1980 when his book was first published. Then, it was a tonic to the hyper-propaganda that passed for history in our textbooks and official histories. Yes, history is more than simply a story of the winners, more than simply the account of Important People, more than the narrative of the wealthy and those who seek to be wealthy. That was Zinn’s message, and it was an essential one.

Three decades later, this jaundiced view of American history is more accepted. Many other historians have brought balance to their work, seeing the leaders and the led and recognizing the importance of each. (Indeed, some have gone overboard, arguing that individual events and people play little role in the making of a nation — that they are just blips in a process in which the country is shaped by blind social trends and economic developments.)

America the Flawed is the reality. Not America the Perfect.

Yet, as important as Zinn’s book was and still is, I found it a maddening work to read.

Over the years, I’ve dipped into the book while researching this or that moment in American history, and found it helpful. But reading it from cover to cover for the first time, I realized how utterly lacking in objectivity and political sophistication it is.

Zinn paints a world of black and white. The rich oppress the poor. White oppress blacks. men oppress women. Everything fits into a process in which the powerful CONTROL everyone else.

To which I say: Golly, gee willikers, what a surprise!

Duh.

In his view, the powerful never do anything except to boost their power. Improvements for the common person are permitted only as a way of blunting social revolution. There is no thought of the common good. No possibility for idealism.

Idealism, for Zinn, doesn’t exist.

Greed does. Oh, yes. Indeed, Zinn sees the rich as one big ball of greed. He doesn’t seem to realize that it’s human nature to be selfish.

He doesn’t seem to recognize that, if you take a dozen poor people and give them a lot of money, they’ll start acting like the rich and powerful. They’ll try to keep their money and use their money to make more money.

There is a willful naiveté to his writing. For him, the solution to oppression is to somehow get rid of the powerful and put everyone on the same level.

That would work. For about a minute.

Then all hell would break out as people jockeyed for advantage. It’s ridiculous to pretend that only powerful people are greedy.

The blindness of Zinn’s vision comes through when he details his utopia. Here’s an excerpt:

“The society’s levers of power would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state — the giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators. We would need — by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country — to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most….Work of some kind would be needed by everyone, including people now kept out of the work force — children, old people, ‘handicapped’ people….Everyone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time free for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods.”

That really sums it up.

We, as a nation, really do need to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. We need our government to be more just and more efficient. We need to work together more than at cross purposes.

But, having said that, I have to assert that there is NO way to get close to those goals if, like Zinn, you posit a Marxian Disneyland where everyone is going to be happy and cooperative.

Cooperation is great and essential. But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when the powers of some are balanced by the powers of others. And when ideals trump greed — which happens much more than Zinn would ever credit.

Zinn writes as if aggression and competition were sins that humans commit rather than key elements of the human makeup. No question, aggression and competition can be taken too far, but they are what help make humans human. They are survival characteristics. The push to gain is as important as the push to cooperate.

Zinn did an important thing in writing his book.

Now someone needs to write the same book but with a greater sophistication about the realities of power and human aspirations.

Patrick T. Reardon
12.28.10

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