By Jeffrey Newholm
Is America the “land of the free, and home of the Brave?” Or is it, rather, “the most ingenious system of control in world history”? That’s the take of radical social critic Howard Zinn in his bestselling classic A People’s History Of The United States, which details America’s history from the time of Columbus up to the Bush II Presidency. Zinn is upfront with his bias, which all historians must have: he prefers to focus on the poor and overlooked masses of America’s history. And it’s a history schools and textbooks have distorted through rose-tinted glasses.
All the supposed heroes of the U.S.’s history weren’t really populists, according to Zinn: they were looking out for the financial interests of the elites, their oratory to the contrary notwithstanding. Zinn argues that Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were not the heroes they are supposed to be, but rather opportunists. The Civil War was fought for the economic gain of the north, with slavery only used as a convenient pretext for Lincoln to drum up support from blacks (who, Zinn reveals, still lived in slave-like conditions after the war). FDR’s New Deal was primarily aimed at maintaining America’s corporate system of control, not in making meaningful reform. And the founding fathers, revered by so many, were wealthy landowners trying to protect the WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). It’s telling that, despite the democratic declarations of the United States’ founding documents, only white, male landowners could vote, and Native Americans had no say whatsoever.
It’s especially fascinating to compare Zinn’s portrayal of 19th century America with the ideal held up in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. While Rand’s heroes John Galt and Hank Rearden single handedly created empires, Zinn observes that only 10% of rich men were true “Horatio Alger” self made successes; most had privileged upbringings. Rand admired the great industrialists of that time, the so called “robber barons” such as Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan. Indeed, they were accomplished men who turned their country into the superpower it is today; they truly moved America. But Zinn’s meticulous research proves that it’s not right to romanticize their methods. Capitalist owners oftentimes used government assistance and bribes to achieve their success, and their workers labored under horrid conditions for 12-16 hours a day, with few or no days off. Zinn paints America’s history as one of primarily oppression, not achievement. Indians, blacks, women, and even most white men historically have shared only a fraction of their country’s wealth, and have been forced to choose between two parties who care only about further enriching a handful of individuals (today a few corporations) at the expense of millions.
Zinn prefers to focus on positive, grassroots movements and strikes that have won many concessions for the working class, but he too often has to be the bearer of bad news. Even recent Presidents like Reagan and Clinton have spent trillions on defense and gutted welfare and social services, with Clinton doing it under the cynical guise of “reform”. With such a history of plutocracy, it’s easy to wonder why Zinn and his fellow critic Noam Chomsky bother to speak out. Zinn explains that he writes because “We readers and writers of books have been, for the most part, among the guards. If we understand that, and act on it, not only will life be more satisfying, but our grandchildren, or out great grandchildren, might possibly see a different and marvelous world”. It’s a noble and hopeful sentiment, and one Americans would do well to replicate. Americans seem indifferent to their country’s march towards oblivion, as evidenced by their current disingenuous presidential nominations (for those who bothered to vote). Zinn insists there has always been a spark for freedom and justice in the United Sates, and it would be a shame to see it extinguished just due to apathy.