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review 2017-12-04 15:19
Review: A People's History of the United States
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

In many ways, this is not my typical five-star review. The People's History of the United States is tedious, repetitive, and an overall slog to get through. Though so much of the information provided is wholly interesting, some of the Zinn's examples are merely empty fodder and these cause the already long book to slow. Zinn was anti-oppression, and this means that sometimes he seems pro-whatever-is-being-oppressed, though I don't think this is always the case. For instance, it's easy to surmise from the many examples that Zinn is pro-socialist, but I'm not entirely sure that's true. Certainly, he backed the socialist stance when it was the voice that was being oppressed. And certainly, of the major forms of government, Zinn likely felt the most affinity with socialism. But in later chapters as well as in the conclusion, it seems that Zinn acknowledges that socialism is also a broken system—a step forward, but not the solution. Additionally, Zinn's anti-oppression position means that he sometimes illustrates a part of history from an angle that obscures some bit of inconvenient truth. This is unfortunate, because it gives the naysayers cause to spit on this book and declare it “communist propaganda” (or whatever the taboo phrase of the day is). These moments are few and far between and majority of this book is quite historically accurate, in my layman's opinion.

The People's History of the United States was also difficult for me to get through because I've long studied this history and I already knew the more major events covered in this book. Perhaps many of those other narratives I've read owe their information to Zinn, but having come to this book later in my journey, I found much of the story to be old news. That's not to say Zinn doesn't provide considerable history I have not come across in my previous studies. In fact, what Zinn most convinced me of was how so many of these events that I thought were motivated by various reasons primarily (perhaps exclusively) came about because of money.

The reason The People's History of the United States deserves a five-star rating is because, though it's not an enjoyable read, it is such a immense labor of love and passion for the subject. Zinn put his heart and mind into every page of this book and it shows. Even so, I was tempted to slap four stars on this book and move on until I came to Zinn's afterword. Prior to this, Zinn had merely provided over six-hundred pages of dry facts without much commentary or call-to-action. Here, in these final pages, Zinn stirred my emotions. He took all the information he'd provided and agitated it within me and said, “now what are you going to do?” It was an effective challenge.

The People's History of the United States is the kind of book that is difficult to read straight through. Did I learn some things? Absolutely. But so much of what I learned has already sifted straight through my brain. This is the sort of book one who is passionate about the subject should own. It is the kind of book one should keep handy in case someone is eager to argue about the perfection of the state. It is the kind of book that should be picked up from time to time and serve as a reminder to the people of their history and the vicious circle that has been built up around them, keeping them caged for over five hundred years.

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review 2017-08-14 18:47
"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

One late night, having been sucked into a dead end conversation with a drunk old man, it came out that I had studied history in college and that I had focused on Irish history. 


"Irish history!?," he shouted. "Why there wouldn't be any Irish history without the English!"


The "great man" theory of history had never been laid so nakedly to me before. The idea that the decisions of British monarchs were not just a major force on Irish history, but the only thing that mattered was so obviously wrong I was flabbergasted. 


Between the time when that old man's education and my own, the rote memorization of kings, presidents, and dates, while not completely out of style, had been supplemented by the stories of the people who lived in those times. Ethnic, social, and other groups that rose up in the 60s and 70s awoke people in and out of academia to an interest in what it was actually like to live at different times and places. They started to look not only at how Andrew Jackson dealt with Native American tribes, but in the tribes themselves, their histories, motives, home lives, and what happened after big events like the Trail of Tears. 


Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was among the first and most well-known books to come out of this new school of history. It's a survey of the entirety of European presence in the United States of America, from the landing of Columbus to — in my edition —  the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11. Zinn tries to do this by collecting the stories of people who lived outside of the government: farmers, factory workers, Native Americans, African-Americans, women, domestic workers, miners, and so on.


Most of us by this time recognize the spark notes: disease and massacres against the Native Americans, slavery and stolen rights for black people, insult and deportation for Latinx, hard labor and exclusion for Chinese immigrants, and women of all ethnicities resigned to domestic servitude. These high level facts are enough to be upsetting but Zinn brings us closer in, using contemporary documents to illustrate how these played out on an individual level. What did it mean to be an enslaved black woman or a Native American family marched from their homes in Georgia to an unknown expanse in Oklahoma. These stories are even more devastating than you remember or could have imagined.


In a book that covers a great breadth of human experiences, going into detail requires that he move through subjects quickly. If you want a comprehensive dive into the civil rights movement or women's suffrage you will have to find more pointed books on those topics. Zinn acknowledges this weakness in the afterword, pointing out that he didn't go far enough into LGBTQ issues and the Latinx labor movements in California, for example, and he recommends some books for further reading on those issues, if you are interested. But by taking the time to explore these stories past the statistics, A People's History carries a punch that numbers and charts alone could not achieve.


Because of all the good that is in this book, my critiques feel minor, but there were aspects that I feel distracted from the good of the book and made it harder to finish and embrace. 


My first issue actually cuts both ways. Zinn doesn't bother to retread the traditional history of many subjects. He assumes you know what is taught in favor of different wars and our westward expansion or maybe he doesn't care to make other people's arguments for them. In a way, this is clarifying. How we act as a nation, or even personally, shouldn't be subject to how others act against us. In more specific terms, if an enemy targets civilians our responsibility, if we are the force for good we insist we are, to not respond in kind. Usually we might try to soften criticism against our actions by listing off the ways others have done wrong, but Zinn offers no such quarter. This does serve as a challenge because there are almost certainly causes in American history you supported and will feel slighted by when Zinn points out the cruel American actions, say in World War II, without bothering with the disclaimer that "the other guys were worse."


I also found that A People's History works best in the parts where the name is treated literally — as a history focused on people — rather than euphemistically — see: the People's Republic of ______. As the book starts covering the rise of populism and socialism in the early 20th century, Zinn allows himself to get pulled from the stories of people living under government decisions and in a harsh, dangerous industrial economy to the political efforts he would side with. In his defense, mass demonstrations, general strikes, and calls for government control of industries have been pushed to the margins in many books, but Zinn presents a certain kind of movement as the most legitimate. As we push into the Nixon and Reagan eras his argument really gets strained. He raises up mass demonstrations as the voice of the people, but then has to get it to jibe with the electoral victories of angry, pro-capital men like Nixon, Reagan and Bush in moments that seem to be defined by activism. He looks at elections with skepticism, noting that over half the electorate stays home. This means even the landslide electoral victories represent the votes of just over a quarter of the electorate — a fair point. He attributes this to disillusionment then says the elected act undemocratically when they take positions that go against what the people believe according to polls. It's at worst a convenient belief, at best an optimistic one.


Some Democrats are now playing with the idea that a true economic populist would swing working-class voters back to their party, but Zinn seems to believe that such a platform would rewire the whole system, break down the cultural and political lines that divide natural allies in the poor, working and middle classes. I think he has to believe this. Addressing many of the systemic problems would require a huge electoral mandate ... or a turning away from democracy as we know it. 



Part of his turn toward demonstrations, he acknowledges, is to offer some hope. This is a devastating book that highlights how the government has done many truly indefensible things that we now have to live with. America's is a devastating and moving history. It's also very long, and in Zinn's hands, sometimes tedious. I had to put it down for a few months — after the election — partly because it was a lot to handle and because I hit a wall.


For those who have been frightened by the openly antagonistic role of the current administration to immigrants, the poor, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and so on, this is great place to start reminding yourself that America has never been good to these groups and how easily it can slip from bad to worse. There are constant efforts to bury the sins of our past, by removing it from our schools, by decrying these facts as unpatriotic, but knowledge is the first step in making real change to address these deep-rooted problems. 

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text 2016-11-02 14:44
Reading progress update: I've read 360 out of 768 pages.
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

After really being drawn in for the first hundred pages or so I've been slogging through this lately. It's a combination of having less reading time recently and perhaps a natural loss of momentum in a book this long, especially nonfiction. The first chapters resemble what the title literally means and match what I knew of "new historicism." Namely it tries to tell the story of people, and peoples. The tribes native to America in their first encounters with Europeans; Africans, how they were brought here and the lives they faced; and the less known of the settlers, the indentured servants, the debtors, the laborers.


I am reminded what someone said about a story they said on twitter, that it wasn't the whole story but the part we don't hear enough about. Seems pretty accurate for this.


I will say, after the Civil War we have moved almost exclusively into class struggles. There is little about the waves of immigrants except as providing member for a certain union, and feminism and civil rights are written mostly in how they intersect with unions and socialism. It's still good history, but it is a different history than we started on and that may be part of what has slowed me down.


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review 2016-03-13 11:32
Howard Zinn and the American State
Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics - Howard Zinn,David Barsamian,Arundhati Roy

This is similar to the Noam Chomskey book that I read which was a transcript of a radio interview. This book is a collection of interviews with Alternate Radio where Zinn discusses American History and where the United States was at that point in time. While the book was released in 2006, it contains a number of interviews post September 11 and the main theme of the book is that really nothing has changed with the American system of government since its inception. He believes that it is a militant government bent on war of the sake of war, and that the many wars that the United States has been involved in drains funds from the public purse to support what Eisenhower termed as the 'Military Industrial Complex'.


I have spoken about war elsewhere, and will do so again, however I will try keep my comments brief here. One of the things that I tend to disagree with the pacifists is that there is the idea of a just war, and that there are times when to is necessarily to go to war, obviously to defend the interests of yourself and your allies. However, sometimes it is necessary to go to war to attempt to prevent the aggressive tenancies of another power or idea, sometimes it is necessary to go to war to remove a tyrant. However it is not the question of war that I am raising, but how one goes about it. It is quite clear that while there was probably a very good reason to send troops to Vietnam, however the way the war was carried out was not. The same goes with Iraq, and it is with Iraq that I will now come to.


It is accepted that Sadam was a tyrant, and it is accepted that he murdered many innocent people during his reign. What made Sadam such a threat though was that he has industrialised his nation, and then geared his nation to war. It is true that there is a lot of oil wealth in Iraq, and during the cold war he would play the Russians against the Americans to get the best price for his oil. With the proceeds he then set about industrialising his country and his military, and proceeded to go to war with Iran. The Americans even provided him with weaponry to fight this war. However, it was after the war was over, and that his ally, the Soviet Union, had collapsed, that the United States discovered that he could not be trusted. The US has no problem with propping up brutal dictators, as long as the dictator plays by their rules, which usually involves opening the country up to corporate exploitation. Further, as long as the country does not embark on projects involving poverty relief, then that is fine as well. There have been a number of South American countries who have elected socialist governments in an attempt to address the poverty of the region, only to discover that the US government has not only allied with their political opponents, but armed them as well (the Sandanistas in Nicuragua and Salvadore Allande on Chile both ring a bell).


While it was a noble and just idea to go into Iraq to remove Sadam, this was not the reason that they wanted to do it. There are numerous other dictators (as mentioned) that are just as brutal and dangerous as Sadam, but they are on the US' side. Sadam clearly was not, so he had to be removed. Further, the reason to allow the Iraqis to determine their own destiny but to rather install their own corporate friendly government in the country and open up the population to the free market. It was also intended that the oil wealth of Iraq not go to the Iraqi's, but straight into the coffers of the oil barons. However, things did not turn out the way they expected. They expected that the country would be in such as shock that they could move in, change everything, install a Pizza Hut and McDonalds on every corner, and then move out just as fast. However, it did not turn out like that. Immediately after the government collapsed the people went on a looting soree, and six months after the invasion Iraq was on the brink of civil war.


One of the other important things that Zinn discusses in this book is history and education. This goes in hand with the idea of media manipulation. With the media concentrated in the hands of (I believe) seven megacorporations, and the expense involved in attempting to establish an alternate source, our understanding of the past and the present is presented to us in a sanitised package promoting the ideas that the complex wants us to accept, and to rewrite history in a way that we can never know the truth of what really happened. Take Vietnam for instance: it was an embarrassment for the US government, and they had to get out of there as soon as possible. What was more of an embarrassment was that the media was not controlled. We saw a similar incident in Somalia (which is ironically forgotten, and has been sanitised so that only the heroic actions of a small few are all that is remembered by what turned out to be another embarrassing loss). Now information from the warzone is much more tightly controlled. In Vietnam the journalists wrote about and filmed what we saw, and for the first time, on our television screens, we saw the true horror of war. However, come Iraq, journalists are embedded with American troops, and those that go out on their own are told that their life is in their own hands. There are even allegations that journalists who would not follow the official line and remain where they were told to ended up dead. The same went for human rights activists and other NGOs that went into Iraq. The powers that be do not want us to know the truth, and as such limit what we can find out. They will even resort to murder to keep the truth out of our ears (if we even are able to remember it).


Education is another thing that is under attack. Education is dangerous because it teaches people to think for themselves. With funding being withdrawn from public schools, and these schools becoming little more than daycare centres, the bulk of the population is being denied a right to education. It is only the wealthy that are able to afford a good education, and even then I suspect that what is taught in the prep-schools is a sanitised, official version, that is not questioned. I suspect that people in those schools are not taught to think but rather taught the official line, and are expected to follow it. There are numerous works on this issue of education, but one film that springs to mind is Dead Poet's Society. In brief it is about a maverick teacher that comes to a prep-school and begins to teach students literature. However, this backfires when the parents find out that their prized possessions (their children) have decided to become actors rather than doctors, and as a result one of the students commits suicide, and the teacher is blamed. It is interesting that none of the parents actually acknowledge that maybe they are in the wrong, it is much easier to externalise blame, and to tarnish another's name just to give one a sense of self-justification.


I have probably written enough on this book and on Zinn's ideas for now. There are other books in my collection that also deal with the issues that are raised here, and no doubt I will return to them soon.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/258819467
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text 2016-01-19 15:15
An interesting read/view
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

I am quite intrigued by this read.  Lots of history and accounts of information that you wouldnt hear in your normal classroom and probably tv.  Maybe Oliver Stones DVD doc history of the united states.  But this gives more in depth information and reasoning/thinking for the time periods that we may have a hard grasp to acknowledge.  Im currently reading the beginning of the us (1776).  

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