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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

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

A partial journal of reading this very long book

 

7/7/20 My Facebook Post

I am very late to this classic. The first paragraph landed so hard I have to stop reading and do errands to let this process through my body. Here's what did it—from Columbus's log when he was met with an extraordinary welcome by Arawak people who inhabited the Bahamas:

"They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The legacy of this mindset is nauseating. The misinterpretation of love, altruism, and gifts to honor visitors, from a Western perspective of power and possessions and the arrogant belief that any culture that is different from theirs is necessarily ignorant or stupid rather than perhaps more evolved and connected to oneness? ... I do not know where to begin. I have been reading and editing Native material the last few months, and seeing and feeling the roots of the pain leaves me moaning in my own agony. I will absorb this book as fast I'm capable.

 

 

Later that same day, I post:

Only 2 chapters in and I've learned that in 1619 settlers in Virginia were so desperate for food they resorted to cannibalism. A man killed his wife who was sleeping on his chest and then cut her up and ate her. Whites were enraged at the Indians' superior ability to farm and live off the land, and therefore they vilified them even more. Because they could not enslave Natives, they got people from Africa, ripped them away from family, culture, and language, thereby trying to ensure their helplessness. Black slaves were the solution to white cannibals' inability to farm. So these ignorant white cannibals enslaved people, called everyone else savages to justify what they were doing, and then to keep indentured white servants and black slaves from ganging up on them, they initiated systemic racism, giving white servants privileges to divide and conquer. And so it began.

 

A friend comments:

I wrote a paper in college about the arrogance behind Jamestown. One detail that sticks in my mind: thinking that because Virginia was at a similar latitude to the Mediterranean, they would be able to grow palm trees and pineapples. No research, just the assumption that if they willed it so...

 

And another friend messages me that Zinn was a hero of the left but practiced bad scholarship and made things up. She referenced an article titled "Lies the Debunkers Told Me: How Bad History Books Win Us Over", with the dek: "Politicians quote them. Movie stars revere them. But these authors are so busy spinning good yarns that they don't have time to research the facts." I read the article and notice that it fails to cite any specific historical inaccuracies and debunks nothing. It only says that the book is simplistic and "inspire[s] a degree of passion that verges on the pugnacious." Thereby doing the very thing it is accusing Zinn of—offering facile arguments that make people feel as if they've been hoodwinked and are now in the know.

 

Ridiculous. People do these things all on their own. We hear anything and, according to our beliefs, we go to extremes of rejection or acceptance, in our need to paint things black or white, good or bad, and therefore ourselves virtuous for being on whatever side we deem "good."

 

At the start of People's History, Zinn fully discusses the impossibility of anybody writing a history that is objective. A historian chooses what to dwell on. Most histories dwell on the stories told by whomever is victorious. Zinn is choosing to tell the other side. I read on, making up my own mind.

 

7/8/20 Second Day of Reading

About 60 pages in, I decided to look at some other Goodreads reviews. "Don't read this book!" screams a reviewer with 165 likes. "Eye-opening," say others. Some people idolize Zinn; others declare he is an effete arrogant a-hole and if you like this book, you dislike America.

 

At the beginning of the book, there is a bit about how historians with biases cherry-pick facts, and the way they insert the ones they disagree with into a basket-load of facts they agree with skews history.

 

Review

 

Yes, Zinn does this too. He is a lefty; he believes in the power of the people; he dislikes bullies and murderers and usurpers and a few rich men controlling the masses. All true (and openly acknowledged in chapter 23). But what I value in this book is the story of "the other side." I've heard plenty of the "good pilgrim," noble founders, and broad-stroke tales of how we fought for independence and spent "blood and treasure" (a loathsome euphemism for "murder and land theft") to settle America. What I've never heard is about the in-fighting and factions I see in today's culture, about the strategizing behind suppression and uprising. Can we be so different from the past? No, this book lets us know, it's always been this way.

 

I needed to hear the everyday struggles of regular people who in truth are the engine of any revolution or evolution, and this book takes you into the shoes of people struggling to survive—the conquered and the bullies. It takes you beyond names of battles and dates I was supposed to learn in high school history into the brutality and pure evilness of people like Andrew Jackson and so many others. It gives you the firsthand voices from documents where legions of articulate Indian leaders pled for their treaties to be upheld and you feel their betrayal and the death of First Nations people.

 

Honestly, I don't give a hoot about bias or Zinn lovers and haters. Everyone is biased. I refuse to idealize or condemn. I'm simply grateful for a book that makes history as real as my fingers and toes.

 

A Contemplation

 

I read this book as part of my late-in-life attempt to educate myself, debunking a lot of what I was taught in school and picked up by osmosis in this segregated American culture. I was perfectly primed for Zinn by previously reading several books about race and racism as well as Erik Larson's London Blitz history, The Splendid and the Vile, and Jess Walter's excellent upcoming novel, The Cold Millions, about the beginning of the labor union movement, much of whose history is reprised in some brutal chapters in Zinn's book.

 

But the more I read about the overblown entitlement (which belief really derives from one in Manifest Destiny*) of everyone from the original European invaders to today's pocketful of billionaire capitalists, the more two other novels came to mind: The Dinner by Herman Koch and Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger. Both novels deal with how people respond to crises. Koch's book determines that our culture is directed by a group of elite people, who run the legal system and are devoid of ethics and empathy, who believe they can and must do whatever it takes to prevail individually, with no sense of value in any lives but their own and their kin's. Koch likens this mindset to a disease that is inherited by offspring who perpetuate it. Ironmonger's novel shows us as a species infused with a deep inborn altruism. In response to a worldwide pandemic, we/they survive by helping one another.

 

Although many people choose to put their heads in the sand and stick with whatever beliefs they've always had, there is the opportunity right now to change—to see all the usually hidden motivations just under the surface of most large human movements. Both human drives (individual power grabbing versus actions for the wellbeing of all of us) are currently fully exposed. A People's History shows the roots of a sense of entitlement that has grown like an inherited cancer in our American culture and is now threatening to take over and kill the body.

 

Lying did not begin with the current administration of the United States. We are merely seeing ourselves in such an exaggerated fun-house mirror that if we look, we cannot avoid knowing who we are. We Americans are a population who has been brought up on lies: "We are the good guys," is one of the biggest (although partially true; chapter 16 "A People's War?" is an outstanding deconstruction of a truth that's been exaggerated into an idealized myth. And please do not condemn as "biased" anybody who asks questions that expose hypocrisy; this is the very knee-jerk exaggeration that births the historical lies this book debunks!).

 

Our written history presented "genocide" as hard-won settlements through true grit and expenditure of "blood and treasure." When we could only survive via free labor, we invented racism and kidnapped countless people, yet the Confederacy erected statues of traitors as if they were heroes and many people still claim that loving them has nothing to do with supporting racism. Three hundred seventy treaties made with Native peoples are regularly broken with impunity and bogus rationales. (The history is so distorted that in a recent incident, a woman who was headed to a Trump rally that was illegally taking place on lands the Supreme Court ruled belonged to the Sioux Nation, yelled to Native American protestors: "Go back to where you came from.") Historically we have invaded other countries when it benefitted us economically, although the popular reasons given may have been twisted to sound benign (there's a whole excrutiating chapter on the Vietnam war). Now is not the first time science has been distorted to support a political agenda: Shortly after Bush took office in 1990, a government scientist prepared a report for a Congressional committee on the dangerous global warming results of fossil fuels, and "the White House changed the testimony, over the scientist's objections, to minimize the danger (Boston Globe, October 29, 1990)." (576) Debilitating tax breaks for the rich began with Democrats—"the Kennedy-Johnson administrations—who, under the guise of 'tax reform,' first lowered the World War II-era rate of 91 percent on incomes over $400,000 a year to 70 percent. During the Carter Administration (though over his objections) Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined to give even more tax breaks to the rich." (580, citing America: Who Really Pays the Taxes? by Donald Barlett and James Steele) A People's History documents it all.

 

However, we humans are simultaneously inherently altruistic. (Can we expand our psyches enough to contain this nuanced paradox?) We are herd animals who will stop to care for the hurt, help our neighbors, practice radical acts of compassion, and applaud self-sacrificing heroes.

 

I am not married, but I've listened to many couples fight, and my least favorite mode is when people deflect responsibility by counter-blaming in response to a true naming of a mistake; both statements may or may not be true, but it's irrelevant because they have nothing to do with each other and succeed in creating two strains of speech that never connect. I see this going on constantly:

Liberals: The separation of immigrant children from their parents is unconscionable.

Conservatives: Yeah, but Obama built the jails.

 

Liberals: People who have lived in systemic racism, along with their allies, should demonstrate and we should finally rectify the errors.

Conservatives: Yeah, but violence to property and law enforcement is bad.

 

Liberals: White people need to recognize their bias and become anti-racists.

Conservatives: There's a world history of white slavery also.

 

Liberal: That news article you just posted is bogus. Just check Snopes.

Liberal: It's got a lot of comments. (Hence, it is not removed.)

 

Conservatives: Liberals are thought police who insist that everybody agree with them.

Liberals: Conservatives are stupid idiots.

Conservatives: Liberals are arrogant a-holes.

 

Liberals, Conservatives, and 80% of the population that will not vote or think about politics: All politicians are crooks, so why even bother to . . . [fill in the blank]

Can we please stop this?

 

It has been well documented since the 2016 election that up to 80 percent of eligible Americans did not vote. That 80 percent also is well represented in the current fun-house mirror image of who we are: people who will not do the work to be informed and make the best decisions we are capable of for the good of all of us.

 

Right this moment, we are all hurting, we have all made mistakes, and we're all in need of help, compassion, and self-sacrifice. So I pray that we will follow our better instincts and use the very tiny window of time that remains to consciously choose a return to empathy. November 3, 2020, is not merely an election; it is a referendum on our moral nature.

 

__________

*Manifest Destiny is the belief or, more likely, the bogus rationale to convince others that some people are directly descended from God (kings, etc.) and therefore more entitled to power, riches, and national expansionism.

 

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