07.05.16 | A People's History Of the United States

My own introduction to history in the public schools came in the first grade when we were to commemorate Thanksgiving with our own special drawing. I earned a gold star for my crayon depiction of the Pilgrims and Indians as they shared a feast at the community table.

My drawing somehow missed this English account of 1610 Jamestown: “Soldiers were sent out ‘to take revenge.’ They fell upon the Indian settlement, killed fifteen or sixteen Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the queen of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard ‘and shoteing owt their Braynes in the water.’ The queen was later taken off and stabbed to death.”

The textbook history of our great nation is the tale told by the victors. Our traditional historical accounts somehow come across as refined, sanitized, packaged for consumption — like so much sausage — to be fed to a credulous public. Missing is any sense of how the sausage was made.

Howard Zinn fills in the blanks with his “A People’s History of the United States.” He triangulates on the truth by retelling the historical narrative from the perspective of the actual human dynamics underpinning the signature events.

We thus have a 360-degree view of history, as much from the perspective of the vanquished as that of the victors. The true motivations driving events were often far less noble than what is represented in the conventional retrospect. And, yes, there is much of the brutal and bloody detail, though the description of the violence is is not gratuitous — it provides context to understanding our past (i.e. if we justify the breaking of eggs as necessary to make an omelette we need to at least understand something about egg breakage).

The real value of this reading is not to self-flagellate about the past but to better understand our present. Some years ago the club hosted a lunch discussion on the topic of slavery. The subject matter morphed into a question of whether and, if so, why racism survives to this day. Is it the result of some natural antipathy on the part of whites awards blacks?  Zinn would say no —  it’s the residue of some long-ingrained social system. Our failure to openly and honestly address the subject only drives it underground where it metastasizes.   

Much of history may, in fact, be similarly refracted. We hardly ever discuss Vietnam anymore. Rather, we engage in a similar avoidance mechanism. That brings to mind an interview shortly after that war’s end of the poet Robert Bly by Bill Moyers. Bly was eerily prescient in arguing that Americans have yet to experience a necessary catharsis. 

From the point of view of psychology, he said, we’re refusing to eat our grief, our dark side, and until we do we won’t absorb it. And, invoking Jung, what’s really terrifying is that our failure to absorb such horrible things — like the murder of the Indians or the treatment of the blacks — means we are doomed to repeat them. Said Bly, “As soon as we started to go into Vietnam, it was perfectly clear to me that what was about to happen was that the generals were going to fight the Indian war over again.” 

And the beat goes on (and on). Discussion point: given the real risks posed by the Middle East, how much of our engagement was/is driven by a clear-eyed objective reckoning of the threats posed and how much of it mirrors some deep-seated visceral atavistic impulse (U! S! A! . . U! S! A!)?  Consequences are existential in nature as we face the prospect of imperial overreach. The search for truth and critical thinking is the foundation for a functioning democracy. That’s what elevates the importance of this book beyond mere atrocity-porn.

Its unflinching account spares the reader from the euphemisms of today e.g. collateral damage, enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, black sites. Some of us are old enough to recall how such institutional propaganda —  maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by the ever-encroaching Doodah — that helped pave the way to Indochina with our country’s eventual loss of about fifty thousand lives and a trillion dollars in today’s money.  

For those daunted by this 688-page book, here is a link (XXX) to a fourteen page summary, covering the signature points — Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress; Drawing the Color Line (slavery); Persons of Mean and Vile Condition (influx of poor whites); Tyranny is Tyranny (American Revolution); Kind of Revolution (protection of the landed elite); the Intimately Oppressed (oppression of women); As Long as Grass Grows (dispossession of the Indians); We Take Nothing by Conquest (taking Texas from the Mexicans); Emancipation without Freedom (the Civil War and Reconstruction); the Other Civil War (unionization); Robber Barons and Rebels (rise of the Industrialist); the Empire and the People (advent of foreign adventure); the Socialist Challenge (social reform movements); Self Help in Hard Times (the Depression); Or Does it Explode (Civil Rights Movement); The Impossible Victory: Vietnam (the domino theory); the Seventies (women, American Indian movements, Watergate); Carter-Reagan-Bush (post-“malaise”); the Clinton Presidency; the Coming Revolt of the Guards (the Great Recession, Occupy Movement).

Read the Zinn Summary Here

Steve SmithComment