The lessons of history…

First, an apology.

Cover, A People’s History of the United States (courtesy, Wikimedia)

It’s been a month since my last review (and that was a “sub” as I have used a few times when time/circumstance have slowed my reading and prevented me from moving forward with the 2013 reading list). Over the last month I’ve entertained visitors (I live in the NC mountains, so family and friends like to visit when they can – which is usually during the summer), have attended to some family matters, and have generally wallowed in the most interesting, moving, and thought provoking book I have read this year, Howard Zinn’s massive, thought provoking  A People’s History of the United States.

I’ve been finished with the book for nearly a week – and in fact could have finished it two weeks earlier than then. The last part of this text, which, in the interest of brevity, I’ll make the focus of my comments, I lingered over in the same way that one might sit by the bedside of an ailing loved one – hopeful for recovery but alternately fearfully or stoically resigned to a death watch.

Zinn’s description of the period that coincides with my life – from my birth in the last year of Harry Truman’s second term to sometime late in the first term of George W. Bush – is a chronicle of the undoing of much of the social safety net put into place in response to the Great Depression. That, combined with our failure to learn from our military adventures in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan and the continuing manipulation of many of our fellow citizens into believing that our economic and social problems are caused by fellow Americans living in poverty rather than by the social practices of corporations and financial speculators whose only allegiance is to profit have brought us to the pretty pass in which we now find ourselves.

Zinn notes, for example, the following:

* The regressive revision of the tax code beginning in the late 1950’s and accelerating since Reagan’s presidency to make sure that the wealthiest paid a smaller and smaller percentage of taxes on their incomes until, as Warren Buffet has observed, a billionaire such as he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

* The insistence of every President, Republican or Democrat, on increasing defense spending even in light of mountains of information showing that the only benefactors of such spending are corporations engaged in defense contracting.

* The focused, relentless debilitation,  de-certification, and destruction of labor unions in order to increase profits for shareholders.

* Our government’s  persistence on military adventuring and (mostly for economic purposes) empire  building in spite of the lesson of Vietnam taught the country about such behaviors.

* The polarization of the electorate (what little electorate there is) through selective, patently biased presentations of news focusing on the nonsensical and irrelevant.

* The disenfranchisement of voters to manipulate electoral outcomes.

The critical reception for Zinn has been mixed, though in the main even conservative historians have acknowledged that his, for want of a better term, “historical revisionism” approach to the story of our country has great power and asks important philosophical questions.

Thoughtful people, including fellow historians, disagree with Zinn – though some who do act mostly for political reasons. I urge you by all means to read his work for yourself and decide.

Still, when a writer offers provocative insights such as these:

To emphasize the commonality of the 99 percent, to declare deep enmity of interest with the 1 percent, is to do exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elites allied to them – from Founding Fathers to now – have tried their best to prevent. Madison feared a “majority faction” and hoped the new Constitution would control it. He and his colleagues began the Preamble to the Constitution with the words “We the people…,” pretending that the new government stood for everyone, and hoping that this myth, accepted as fact, would ensure “domestic tranquillity [sic].”

he should be read. Agree or disagree with Zinn’s depiction of America, it’s a powerful book and deserves its place as part of the national conversation.

About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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3 Responses to The lessons of history…

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