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Jul. 6th, 2005 @ 07:23 pm The Other Side of the Story
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You both know my adoration for Mr. Francis, IF High's greatest teacher.  As a result of that admiration, any historian who has Francis' backing is my kind of historian.  I've had my eye on Howard Zinn and A People's History of the United States for quite some time and I'm glad to have finally purchased and read the book.  This is a book worth waiting for.  No, let me amend that - this is a book NOT worth waiting for - you must read it immediately.  Don't dally - run to the bookstore, purchase and read it with fervor, and then join me in demanding that our nation's youth read it.  This book has done much to dispel the romantic myths about our forefathers and the reality of our history.

This is the history of a native genocide, a history of slavery, a history of labor, a history of war, a history of race and gender relations, and a history of social rebellion (and it is the latter that may be the magical key).  Zinn is methodical but pragmatic in tracing our nation's history from 1492 to the present.  Large historical dates we know by heart, like the signing of the constitution or the Battle of Gettysburg, are given the obligatory cursory glance; they are now contextualized through the voice and events of the people. Consequently, this isn't a book that rehashes everything we learned in k-12.  A People's History elaborates upon those history texts and shows us what happened behind the scenes...in those areas that major biographers weren't looking. 

Want to know about the life in the colonies?  Done.  Care to hear about the waves of social rebellion and voice during the 20th century?  Done.  Have an inclination to pry into our foreign affairs, including Panama, Cambodia, Latin America, and the decades-long Cold War?  Done, Done, Done.  This text has it all.       

Perhaps most refreshing about Zinn's work is that he doesn't approach it with a heavy theoretical bias like Marxism or socialism.  Granted, elements of those theories are there and he readily admits his leanings, but it's not the quagmire that most historians fall into.  This balance is interesting and admirable considering the amount of time that Zinn expends evaluating the systems of elaborate oppression that generations of wealth have developed.  No proletariats are squaring off against the burgeoisie in the march towards capitalism; rather, it's ordinary people encountering and grappling with the right for basic needs - sound living standards, livable wage, food, and the freedom to pursue happiness. 

It is in realizing that these systems of oppression have developed (and, dare I say, existed) since our foundation that is most difficult.  I  feel a bit foolhardy for so blindly idealizing our founding fathers and the principles articulated in the founding documents: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  The system uncovered by Zinn is a calculating one that preys on people's fears and their concern for and love of their families.  Wealth battles poverty or low income until, in moments of immense social unrest, one party compromises (usually the commoner's party), assuaged by access to property, to suffrage, or to the political party system.   Meanwhile, false hierarchy is created in society based on ethnicity, income, property, and gender.  Subsets of people are made superior; others inferior.  To quote Steinbeck, "Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution.  Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other" (Grapes of Wrath, p 206).

It's doubtful that Zinn intends to depress his readers with the revelation of widespread oppression.  Zinn devotes an entire chapter to the fight of the common person and the power of organized social movements.  I tend to question his optimism.  The 20th century was filled with seismic shifts that hovered on or created paradigmatic change - the labor movement, the Great Depression, the 60s and the revolt agains the Vietnam War - and these events still failed to stimulate large change in social and political structure.  I'm cynical of whether another event lies within our future, particularly since we've squandered the most recent.

Yet whether you agree with social movements, socialism, or a history of the people, you should read A People's History.  Trust me, you won't regret it. 

"I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance." ~ Howard Zinn, p. 686