A People’s History of the United States

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

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Most history books tell about great men, presidents and generals; this book attempts to tell the history of the US through focusing on ordinary people, the oppressed, women, slaves, Native Americans, the working class, and popular social movements organized on behalf of these people. Most of the text is lists upon lists and stories upon stories of horrors and atrocities and deceptions. Sometimes it feels like there are very few meaningful transitions between different events and ideas, which creates an effect of being pummeled with information from all sides. This bombardment of facts is presented without much interpretation or explanation, and I found myself wanting Zinn’s implicit argument to be made explicit. I am fully capable of arriving at my own conclusions, but I wanted to know what conclusions Zinn meant to use these facts to argue for, so that I could judge for myself if I thought the facts warranted them. I wanted Zinn to make it crystal clear what he was arguing for and against. Without this information, I was left to guess at his reasons for including various events and the relations they had to each other. Knowing a bit about history and understanding Zinn’s basic point of view, I thought I usually made good guesses, but I couldn’t be sure. A reader with less background knowledge and a shakier understanding of rhetoric and discourse–I always think about my students–would be totally lost. And aren’t people like that the ones who need to know their history the most? Aren’t they the ones most likely to be taken in by the dominant narrative?

In some cases, Zinn doesn’t give any context for the information, rendering it almost meaningless. An example of this is when he told how many slaves of certain ages died during a five year period at one plantation, without telling how many slaves were on that plantation in total, and without giving mortality rates or life expectancy stats for whites to compare (172). This lack of information for comparison was common throughout the book; it was as if Zinn expected the reader to already know the relevant comparable statistics, like how to adjust for inflation.

To be clear, I don’t dispute Zinn’s facts or ideas, just his presentation. His ideas weren’t all that new to me. Doesn’t everyone know that Columbus and Andrew Jackson committed genocide? Of course the Mexican-American War was just a bullshit excuse to steal land. Since it didn’t teach me much I didn’t already know, reading the book felt kind of like an exercise in self-flagellation. The nonstop barrage of facts made me feel helpless and depressed; it made me wish there were something I could do about America’s historical sins, but there’ isn’t anything to do. In fact, Zinn’s indignant tone might alienate precisely the readers who need the book the most–those who are ignorant about history and have blindly bought into America’s patriotic myths.

Sometimes the motives attributed to presidents and other leaders (especially Republicans like Reagan and Nixon) make them seem like straight up evil, moustache-twirling villains. Greed seems to be the only reason they ever do anything, except when they pollute the environment just for fun. In Zinn’s portrayal, they’re so evil it baffles me, like the “motiveless malignancy” of Shakespeare’s Iago, and that just doesn’t feel realistic to me. I wonder what Zinn would say to researchers discovering differences between liberals’ and conservatives’ brains and to the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (a book that’s been on my list for a long time).

When Zinn finally gets around to telling the reader why he wrote the book and what he hopes for the future, it felt anticlimactic when stacked next to the pile of horrors that is the other 600 pages of the book. The utopian zeal of Zinn’s final chapter felt especially naïve when juxtaposed with the flood of stories about the brutal backlash against popular movements and the way they can be absorbed into mainstream forces that merely protect the status quo. He tried to leave his readers with hope, but the vast gulf between Zinn’s desired future society and the America of the recent past that he describes left me more hopeless than ever.

The book was very similar to Lies My Teacher Told Me, telling some of the same information, but that book was more clear about demonstrating the difference between the candy-coated version of history that students are taught, and reality, and why this pretty, patriotic story is the dominant discourse. It did this through analyzing the textbooks that are supposed to teach students American History, which seems entirely appropriate. Zinn told much the same story, relaying many of the same facts, but without an explicit straw man version of history to argue against. He assumed that readers know this saccharine history already and that they can infer that he’s arguing for a different perspective on our past. Maybe I’m showing myself to be slow and ignorant by calling for Zinn to slow down and ‘show his work’, by asking him to write a Cliff’s Notes version of this book. I just feel like he makes too many assumptions about his readers, and that’s dangerous, especially with the kinds of topics he’s dealing with here. For his history to be truly comprehensive and coherent, he should address his biases and his antagonists and his central argument throughout the book, leaving nothing to the reader to infer or guess. Maybe giving this information all along, instead of only in the introduction and conclusion, would give his optimism for years to come more moral weight than his sad, realistic view of the past.

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