Books: March 2012

by macksemil


What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor–inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing–permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own. I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children.”- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

Howard Zinn was an active anti-war voice following his disillusionment with warfare after flying bombers during the US bombings of Berlin, Czechloslovakia, Hungary and France in World War II. Using his GI benefits from his service he went to school for history and political science at NYU, Cornell and completed a post doctorate fellowship from Harvard. He taught Boston University where he retired after 24 years. Zinn passed away just over two years ago in January of 2010, aged 87 years.

Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States to incite a “quiet revolution” of people taking back power from the corporate-steered authoritarian system not by force but by reclaiming control over their every day lives peacefully. A People’s History covers the broad spectrum of abuses reigned on the country and its people by the prevailing institutions that came to power throughout the history of the United States. The book begins with the arrival of the pilgrims in the New World and extends through the Clinton presidency.  It’s true that a major portion of US History is left out of traditional educational curricula. Zinn’s work is a good source for a view of what happened and why. The message is clear and direct, the theme overriding and we can be assured that Zinn did not suffer from want of examples of corporate and state suppression of peoples movements throughout history. Though the scope of the book is very broad but the book flows well. I actually found it hard to put down which is a formidable feat for a history book to accomplish.

The message of the book I agree with. The historical information is fascinating. The methods that Zinn used to get his point across left me feeling as if he were trying to appeal more to my emotions than my reason to convince me of his argument. My biggest problem with the book was with the way Zinn presented information to back up an argument. Sentences such as “In that year, 300 babies died in Philadelphia” appeared without any context. Relevant information such as how many babies died in the previous and following years and how the issue at hand could have affected this phenomenon are absent. In this way Zinn is guilty of using the same shock-based underhanded methods as the corporate media to deliver his message. This is furthered by reporting data from questionable surveys, such as reader-response polls which are inherently skewed. Zinn’s work is in some ways a synthesis as Zinn employs a considerable amount of lengthy quotes from other historians. Sometimes these quotes were enlightening, adding unique flavor to the story. To me, the quotes from politicians and activists of the time periods were the most effective in this pursuit. A number of quotes that were from other historians were of somewhat questionable integrity to me because the context in which the quoted author was writing is almost never examined. In these sections it felt like Zinn was name-dropping in hopes to convince. Even so, for a work of this magnitude the bibliography seemed sparsely populated.

We have to keep in mind that the average American doesn’t care to wade through a mountain of historical data in order to understand the basic theme that Zinn presents. Hell, a whole fifth of us don’t know what country we won our independence from in the first place. For that matter, a fifth of us still believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. If you’re writing for the general public this level of ineptitude has to be taken into account and certain concessions have to be made. For this reason Professor Z deserves a bit of a break. A People’s History was a good read, but at the end I came out with a collection of slight glimpses into interesting time periods and movements and an amplification of the already present angst toward the corporations and politicians that created and sustained the inhuman systems of control we enjoy today. All in all A People’s History of the United States is a good overview and gets the point across but has some significant shortcomings.