Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Glass of Zinn

On July 4th, I finally finished reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It took me a long time, because even as a dedicated lefty I found this book hard to read, and kept putting it aside in favor of other things. Zinn's writing is frequently engaging, and his use of extensive quotations from primary sources—the people who make up the people's history—is widely acknowledged as a strength. What he says is just so depressing.

Everybody you learned to look up to in school history and in popular legend comes out looking bad in this book. Christopher Columbus brought brutal conquest and genocide. George Washington was an elitist oligarch who distrusted the people. Theodore Roosevelt claimed the mantle of progressivism while constantly betraying the ideals it represented. The list goes on and on.

So do the accounts of common people, not mentioned in standard history books and scarcely remembered, who tried to work against the injustices perpetrated by the "Establishment" and lost. Often they lost their lives. Most of the time they lost their struggle, faded into anonymity and were forgotten. Howard Zinn was determined to tell their story.

Zinn's writing has often been called biased, and he did not deny that charge. He sought, in this book, to tell the other side, trusting (with much justification) that the standard narrative is not lacking in tellers or in apologists.

What perhaps does need to be underscored is that Zinn, throughout this book, is on the side of the people and against government, which he sees as the embodiment of the Establishment. In his chapter on the Clinton presidency, which was added to later editions of a book that the author tried to keep as up-to-date as possible, the following practically jumps off the page:

"Clinton and the Republicans, in joining against 'big government,' were aiming only at social services. The other manifestations of big government—huge contracts to military contractors and generous subsidies to corporations—continued at exorbitant levels.

"'Big government' had, in fact, begun with the Founding Fathers, who deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the bondholders, the slave owners, the land speculators, the manufacturers. For the next two hundred years, the American government continued to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.

"It was only in the twentieth century, especially in the thirties and sixties, when the government, besieged by protests and fearful of the stability of the system, passed social legislation for the poor, that political leaders and business executives complained about 'big government.'"

What Zinn has to say in these few paragraphs is so important that everybody involved in our current debased political conversation should read them, absorb them, and live with them intimately for as long as necessary for their import to be thoroughly understood. The United States has always had big government, and it has always been on the side of the rich and powerful and against the common people. The entire history of American liberalism can be written, as Zinn consistently and brilliantly demonstrates, as the history of opposition to big government and its destructive effects on the vast majority of Americans.

Those who now insist on identifying liberalism with big government are simply wrong, and don't know their history. Those who believe that liberalism seeks to coerce justice are simply wrong. Coercion, with all the evil it represents, has always belonged to the rich and powerful. The history of liberalism, which is frequently written in blood, is the history of determined and often futile opposition to that coercion.

This is so poorly understood that I would venture to suggest that every American needs to take a glass of Zinn and savor it carefully, even when it is bitter and disappointing. As Howard Zinn knew all too well, there's never any shortage of the good-tasting stuff. That's why we need to think twice before we buy it.


  1. "Those who believe that liberalism seeks to coerce justice are simply wrong."

    OK, then color me conservative.

    I'm glad that the legitimately constituted federal government coerced the South to stay in the union and coerced the white citizens of the South to abandon slavery.

    I'm proud that lunch counter owners in the South were coerced into serving black Americans.

    I'm proud that the federal government coerced Southern states (at gunpoint!) to integrate schools.

    I'm glad that governments coerce parents to vaccinate their children, to send their kids to school or prove they have a suitable home-school substitute.

    I think pharmacy employees should be coerced, in peril of their livelihood, to fill legitimate prescriptions for birth control pills or morning-after pills, even if their personal religious beliefs dictate that they must prevent others from doing the things they personally eschew.

  2. And don't you think that those actions of the federal government were conservative, in the sense that they affirmed an authoritative view of social order against individuals who insisted on maintaining an opposing, minority view? If the South had broken off from the rest of the country, continuity would not have been conserved. If people were not coerced to vaccinate their children, public health would not be effectively conserved.

    Conservatism isn't always wrong. What is wrong is the prevailing view that conservatives stand for individual liberty and liberals stand for government power. Historically, the opposite has always been the case.

  3. "What is wrong is the prevailing view that conservatives stand for individual liberty and liberals stand for government power. Historically, the opposite has always been the case."

    Historically, the views of liberals and conservatives regarding government power are mixed.

    Government power would have seen me drafted to fight in Vietnam. Government power spends my taxes on the US military invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as on government-sanctioned torture.

    Government power forced a reluctant citizenry to accept integration, gay rights, a woman's right to control her reproductive choice.

    Which of these is "conservative" and which of these is "liberal?"

  4. As a historian, I have to point out (as I imagine you are trying to do as well), that history often defies easy labels. That doesn't mean that the categories of liberal and conservative are meaningless; it just means that their application is problematic.

    Of the cases you mention, I would say that opposition to the draft is a liberal position. Opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a liberal position (and as a liberal I was opposed to both from day 1 - literally from 9/11/01 on). Opposition to government sanctioned torture is a liberal position.

    The issues of integration, gay rights and reproductive rights are more complicated. All of these represent triumphs for individual liberty and against societal constraint, and hence those who favor them can be considered liberal on these issues, and those who oppose them conservative. The picture is complicated by the fact that, in all these cases, the government forced people's hands in order to protect individual rights. I still maintain that, for all the publicity that these government actions have received, they are rare exceptions. The vast majority of the time, government acts on behalf of the rich and powerful against individual liberty. That's why the exceptions get so much attention, and get so many people angry.

  5. Ah, Robin,

    I think you're starting to see the light.

    The notion that government coercion is the sole province of any political ideology is ahistorical and easily falsified.

  6. I won't disagree with you there, Joel. (Zinn's writing has often been called biased, and he did not deny that charge.)