Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

When I was in America a couple of years ago, I took with me a short book on American  history (A History of the United States by Philip Jenkins]; I figured that actually being there would be a good excuse to break me in to a subject I knew next to nothing about. I was explaining this to an American at a party, when he completely cut me off.

"Whatever book you're reading, throw it out and get a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It's just amazing."

Well, it's taken me two and a half years, but I eventually took his advice. And it was really good advice.

Through a dense 600+ pages, Zinn overturns the conventional narrative of American history, and tells the stories of the people who found themselves on the wrong side of the powers that were, and consequently of the history that they wrote. He opens by challenging Columbus' legacy as a great man, using the explorer's own words;

[The Arawaks] brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things...they willingly traded everything they owned. They would make fine servants....With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
Zinn goes on to spend the rest of the chapter examining the first trans-Atlantic slave trade (as European ships sailed empty to Hispaniola and were packed full of islanders to take back), and the initial callous brutality meted out by these and other early pioneers.

This approach to history, that of giving the often voiceless pride of place rather than relegating them to a footnote1, is carried through the book up to the early 1990s, but it wasn't this which struck me most strongly, or which prompted me to keep it overdue from the library so that I could write this blog post (I've already renewed the book twice). Instead, I kept feeling that the situations Zinn described were remarkably mirrored by those going on today.

As an example, political protest is (inevitably, given the author's chosen perspective) a recurring theme of the book. In 1780, the Founding Fathers denounced a series of protests led by a group known as the Regulators (who argued that the revolution hadn't changed anything for ordinary people) for using tactics which they themselves had used during the Civil War, just as the new Egyptian regime has been undermined by popular protest in Tahrir Square, the birthplace of that country's Arab Spring. After a protest in 1837 turned violent, the media denounced the protesters (now labelled rioters) and everything they stood for, just as elements of the press in Britain cover the slightest disturbance at a modern rally and nothing else about it. Political opposition to a coming war became almost impossible the moment it started in 1846, and citizens on both sides were urged to put aside all other grievances for the national good during the Civil War. There was even a (initially) left-wing politician called Tom Watson, just as there is now.

Social movements don't seem to have changed too much either. In the mid-nineteenth century, women were urged by conservative religious leaders not to wear more practical clothes in order to preserve their feminine mystique;
Woman, robed and folded in her long dress, is beautiful. She walks gracefully....If she attempts to run, the charm is gone....Take off the robes, and put on pants, and show the limbs, and grace and mystery are all gone.
Attempts by the oppressors to help the oppressed were ham-fisted back in the 1830s too, as Zinn reports that southern black leaders "had to struggle constantly with the unconscious racism of white abolitionists". He also of course relates the ever-present problems of those facing intersecting prejudices, as well as disagreements within movements which in some ways were all striving for the same things, and in other ways really weren't. And of course there's apathy, or the perception of it; Alice Rossi's quotation below could come from a 1992 newspaper column, or indeed a 2012 opinion piece from someone who isn't reading the right blogs.
There is no overt anti-feminism in our society...not because sex equality has been achieved, but because there is practically no feminist spark left among American women.
It in fact dates from 1964, three years before a new rash of women's lib groups spread across the States.

What I found most distressing, though, was the appearance of instantly recognisable themes in war and conflict. It turns out that the most eloquent argument of the futility of renewing Trident amidst a massive removal of state support for the most vulnerable was made by Martin Luther King in 1968;
We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development...when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.
At the other end of Zinn's timeline, impoverished white settlers were repeatedly encouraged by the authorities to settle on land occupied by native tribes, leading to friction and conflict. This was used as a pretext to send in the military to "defend" the American citizens, while boundaries were "renegotiated" with the people who had lived there for centuries, and treaties were signed promising the sanctity of the new boundaries in perpetuity. A few years later white settlers were encouraged to farm that land as well, and the cycle started again. Though in fairness to the fledgling USA, I didn't read anything suggesting that they had built a giant wall around tribal areas / through native villages. Later, when the army was supposed to "manage" the forced migration of the remaining native peoples east of the Appalachians into the West, instead they outsourced the job to private contractors, who forgot to provide enough volunteers for the Olympics did everything as cheaply as possible, contributing to a sharp decline in the quality of healthcare provision and huge numbers of deaths2.

It was disheartening to read a long history of battles which are still being fought today, or governments which have not learned from their mistakes (and perhaps do not want to), or the continuity of oppression over a long span of time. Is this the lesson to be learned? Or should I be encouraged, enjoying a new-found solidarity with people throughout history and across a continent, who have fought fights mirrored in today's world and have sometimes triumphed? Still living through the aftershocks of the global banking crisis, a speech beginning, "Wall Street owns the country" and dating from 1890 (yes, 1890) suggests that not much progress has been made (unless you work in finance), but it also points to people who have always rejected the idea that business should be bigger than humans, that "companies are people, my friend" (Mitt Romney), that economics should always be in the driving seat of policy making.

It remains, however, the best book on American history that I have ever read (and I have read slightly more than two). In the last chapter, written in or around 1996, Zinn dares to hope for a popular uprising of the 99% of people who own a less than obscene amount of the country's wealth. In fact, he uses the phrase "the 99%" so repeatedly that I started to look for connections between his work and the Occupy movement (I failed; the man was clearly simply prophetic). Either way, though allegations of bias might be levelled by people who support the great American narrative, it seems that if we do not know Howard Zinn's history, then we are indeed doomed to repeat it.

Also, does anyone know Haringey library's opening hours? I have a fine to pay.

1 Presidents, industrialists, and other establishment figures are also mentioned in this book
2 I of course appreciate that a comparison like this over-states the significance of coalition outsourcing in modern Britain, but it was interesting to see that it is nothing new


  1. Interesting stuff. I'll try and seek out a copy!

  2. Nik! Great post and sounds like a great book. Love the cartoon. I too have a library fine to pay (as always).

  3. Impressive post :) Fascinating stuff