Thursday, August 3, 2017

Book report: A People's History of the United States

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn is probably one of the most cynical takes on American history ever written.  It is blatantly and openly biased, intentionally seeking to tell the stories that the author feels aren't told through the traditional narrative of US history.  Despite being openly antagonistic A People's History is full of citations from first hand and second hand sources as well as quotes from other published history texts.  In other words it takes many of the bleakest points in American History (chattel slavery, native genocide, worker suppression) and does a great job proving that, yes, things really were "as bad as all that."  

On the whole I'm happy to read a starkly different telling of US history, especially in relation to our foreign policy.  Zinn leaves little doubt around the imperialistic ambitions of many of the United States military conflicts (especially the  Mexican American and Vietnam Wars).  He implies that every armed conflict the US has engaged in, including the revolutionary war and WWII had imperialistic motivations.  I find this a bit of a stretch but the arguments are compelling nonetheless.

The one major problem I have however is that A People's History delves to deeply into a mentality of class warfare.  I don't think it too outlandish to say this book is read a bit pro-communist.   Too much of this classist snobbery, "us v. them" mentality has polluted our national dialogue with its false dichotomy.  It’s stink of what Lord Baden-Powell would call cuckooism.  It may be naive, but I can’t help but think pitting the proletariat squarely against the bourgeoisie is a recipe for violence and disaster.  In a happy society mutual respect should flow freely between classes.  This sort of idealistic outlook seems impossible in the US, but I won’t be party to fanning the flames of class warfare.  

This being said, the book tells a heroic tale of the labor movement in the US.  When you read about ladies working with toxic material, working 60+ hour weeks and being paid in company scrip (imagine working at Walmart and being paid in store credit), a system that resembles slavery much more than a free market exchange, the problem is clear.  The unionizing and strikes that took place around the turn of the century were clearly necessary.  You have to be some kind of special plutocratic libertarian to be ok with that level of mistreatment.

Ultimately A People’s History attempts and is successful in portraying the overall story of US history from a different perspective, one with fewer heroic and altruistic characters.  With something as complex as the history of our country it is important for citizens to know every fact available, shaded in every hue.  This book is biased, but its bias is so clear that the message and the history both are not lost.  

As my kids get older and are ready to intellectually and emotionally understand the darker parts of our past (beyond the simple “people did some bad things”) I’d likely use parts of this book as supplemental readying for homeschooling.

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