Howard Zinnís Message of Hope
picked for my early summer reading that book I was supposed to read upon entry
to Left Wing Academy: Howard Zinnís Peopleís History of the United States.
I took six years to pick it up because Iíve detested its $16.95 paperback
price at bookstores, and the only copy Iíve seen at my local used bookstore
is beaten up badly and has all its pages stuck together ó itís sat on the
shelf for years now. I made up a story that that the copy came from some grimy
grey-beard lefty who would pull it out from under his bed at night and stroke
himself to Zinnís account of successful democratic and peace-loving movements
throughout our nationís history.
That was before I read the book. Now I think differently. That cum-covered
copy certainly belonged to some creep from the power class, some stockholder
of a company with a long history of brutal corporate thievery like Bechtel
or Chiquita Brands International. Thatís because the peopleís history of the
United States as Zinn tells it is a series of scorched-earth, 100% victories
for the axis of mega-wealth and government-sponsored violence.
Zinnís book has only one big gaping flaw in his approach to explaining things.
Beyond that, itís one great read that delivers answers on all kinds of questions
about the prospect of positive developments in American society.
So letís get the hopelessly naive analysis out of the way: Zinn has this premise
that the occasional Indian, slave or worker rebellion that crops up between
massacres and years of brutal suppression by the power class is a sign of
a democratic tendency by ďthe people.Ē For example, thereís a part in his
history of the Great Southern Slave era where he cites a few dozen reported
slave uprisings over a seven-year period in the 1830s-1840s as evidence of
popular resistance to the plantation system.
Reading that passage I thought, OK Zinn, but if you consider that there were
millions and millions of slaves in the South, and that 7 years is a fairly
large window of time, a few dozen uprisings divided by (millions+millions
of slaves x 7 years) = .000000002 slave uprisings per slave capita over a
7-year period. Hardly worth pointing out as a sign of rebelliousness. Better
to use that evidence as even greater proof that any sensibility of resistance
was utterly steamrolled across thousands of square miles of American slave
I canít fault Zinn too much for his optimism, because finding these sad attempts
at resistance may well have been his driving motive to write this useful book
in the first place ó and at least with this author, the bias is out there
way in the open, and is very easy to steer around.
Now for the good stuff. As I said, I think Zinnís book is a fantastic Ouija
board for questions that really get to the heart of things about hope for
the people America. I had read various bits of American history piecemeal
before, but the cumulative conclusions one can draw from Zinnís book really
do justice to the value of history as they tried to tell me at college: itís
an excellent predictor of what will happen in the future.
Such as: Have you ever wondered what would happen if a bunch of people
really did get together to stand up to the American political and economic
system in a way that might meaningfully change it to work in their favor or
prevent it from getting what it wants?
ďTheyíll fucking kill you,Ē is the answer that screams from Zinnís book. They
will send troops and propaganda in your direction and kill you and your children
(or if youíre lucky coopt your agenda and make it tame and decadent within
a few decades). If the state or federal government doesnít have money at the
time to pay for National Guard troops to come and kill you, donít worry, J.P.
Morgan or some other financier will inevitably loan it to them to get the
job done. The fact that there isnít much people-stomping going on these days
is a testament to the total absence of popular resistance to things as they
are. The political and economic system worked out the kinks ó the Cherokees,
the populists, the Wobblies, the labor movement, black power ó a long time
ago, and is running very smoothly.
Another question: Is every single military volunteer in the history of
the United States a poor sucker who fell for big, brilliantly constructed,
stirring lies about honor and service to country?
Yes ó 100% of them, and every single one of them will be.
Followup: Does every time of war in America feature a cuddly bunch of senators
who give stirring speeches and votes against it but then cave in to allow
funding ďfor the troopsí sakeĒ when itís under way?
Yes ó 100% of them, and there will always be a Robert C. Byrd or Russ Feingold
to cheer for.
When itís the 4th quarter in the latest episode of the people vs. the powerful
and the New York Times is on deadline to write its editorial on the topic,
does it come out in favor of the powerful using the most evil rhetoric imaginable?
Yes ó 100% of the time, and it always will.
Zinnís book delivers answers to questions like these hand over fist, always
promising a 1,000 megaton dark fate that would leave Oedipus feeling like
his lot wasnít so bad after all.
On the bright side, Zinn dances around two different directions of possible
hope for ďthe American people,Ē but the implications of them are clearly too
troubling for Zinn to say out loud, as one would have to accept violence as
a tool, and mass death of innocents as a medium, while the other would have
to embrace the reality that this is still a slave nation and that thereís
absolutely nothing innate in the human condition to desire self-government.
Hope through action: Action, as in collective democratic action against
the political and economic system, in the form of the creation and practice
of alternative culture, social beliefs and economic habits by a critical mass
is possible, but in order to get there, vast numbers of participants will
be lost in the meat-grinder. Thereís no way around it. Labor workers and Wobblies
were really making some strides, achieving some great degree of class consciousness
ó AKA regularly losing in violent battles ó in the early 20th century, but
thereís nothing like that now. It will only be when you see daily reports
of dozens or hundreds of Americans killed by police and military that thereís
any sign that democratic sensibilities among the populace are on the rise.
Looking around these days, thereís no almost no fight to be had at the cultural
level either; as long as people in Iowa and Nebraska proudly wear NYPD baseball
hats or those t-shirts with FBI blazoned on them ó and they do ó you can forget
about that too.
Hope through inaction: Iím a lot more optimistic about this approach.
Itís one fitting of our legacy of slavery and our contemporary slave society.
American Slaves, Zinn unwittingly points out, and slave societies in general
are typically crap at rebellions, but pretty decent at passive resistance.
He quotes slave owner after slave owner bemoaning the lack of enthusiasm that
their slaves have for their daily duties.
Itís that sullen instinct by the slave to resist Ďplaying ballí that I think
could do the trick. What was the first piece of advice George Bush gave Americans
after 9/11? ďGo Shopping.Ē And they did. But if Americans choose not to go
shopping for a while, they might get themselves a welfare state. It wouldnít
be freedom or self-government, but at least they might get some cheap health
care out of it.