Friday, November 5, 2010

A People's History of the United States

Howard Zinn's book is not new, but it is new to me. First published in 1980 and most recently in 2005 as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic, it was recommended to me earlier this year by Ramzy Baroud, journalist, editor of The Palestine Chronicle and author of My Father Was a Freedom Fighter. Given our recent history, it is a book that ought to be on everyone's reading list, and taught in every school in the land. (There is also A Young People's History of the United States published by Seven Stories Press in June 2009, which I haven't read.) It is not, however, a book that power brokers and true believers in the American Myth about a pristine national past in which liberty and justice were from the beginning for all.
As Howard Zinn so ably shows, the history we have gone through for the past few years in which economic and political power is controlled by financiers and robber barons is older than the republic and as new as today's headlines. There are, writes journalist Bill Moyers "two Americas: A buoyant Wall Street [and] a doleful Main Street" (speech at Boston University on October 29, 2010, as a part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series). This has always been true in the U.S. From the beginning, liberty and justice were for the wealthy landowners. If you owned nothing you were not only poor, you also could not vote. 

Every bit of liberty and justice average people have in America we have struggled and frequently fought for. It has never been given to us, though that is what we are often led to believe. If anything, what we are told is that we ought to be grateful to our leaders for what we have.

In Chapter 23, he writes these words: "Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes." The reasons are all too obvious: The robber barons of earlier times have resurfaced once again, chipped away at our security and well-being, had their corporations declared "persons" so they can legally buy all the influence, stolen jobs and life savings from millions of hard-working people, and gone back to their gated communities without the slightest flutter of regret. There is no class war, writes novelist James Lee Burke; "The war ... [is] between the have-nots and the have-nots. The people in the house on the hill watch it from afar when they watch it at all" (Swan Peak).

Do yourself and your family a favor: Go out and buy a copy of Howard Zinn's masterpiece. You'll be glad you did. (But don't expect a walk-through-the-park pleasant read, because that's not what it is. It's a bracing wake-up call.


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