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21 April 2010

Book Review: A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present

A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present
by Howard Zinn 


This is a history book intended to tell the stories that don't get told. It isn't centered around typical heroes or presidents or nationalistic jingoism. It tries to tell the "people's history"

Yeah, it's biased. Zinn admits as much.

Yeah, it's negative. Zinn admits as much.

And, yeah, if it's the only history you read, you come away with one viewpoint and, perhaps, a bit of bile in your mouth. But it shouldn't be the only history you read. It should be the history that helps balance the prevalent "Go America!" tellings that dominate our schools and our bookshelves.

I don't agree with everything Zinn stands for but I am so glad to have his history; one that focuses on the lost stories, the stories that reveal our leaders as human, fallible and, in the end, unable to change the world for the better. The stories that we didn't hear the first time around and probably wouldn't have heard if it weren't for Zinn's history. The class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality and national arrogance that shaped our nation right alongside the victories, the ideals and the lofty accomplishments of our heroes. The stories that question Roosevelt, a hero of the social left, as stringently as they question Reagan, a hero of the conservative right.

It shouldn't be shocking to me that most of the stories highlight how greed runs rampant; economic inequality is the hidden menace that manifests shielded by more obvious issues of color and gender. If you look for a reason why the downtrodden were trodded down, you usually find greed. Business, wealth and profits.

To me, that's the bottom line; greed. Human greed spoils any idealistic social structure, whether it be communism, socialism, capitalism, democracy or even anarchy. Eventually someone gets greedy and starts to take advantage and then it all snowballs. The Greed Domino Effect, as it were. When I read Zinn's history, I read stories about how the people who were crushed by greed tried to fight back. And I remember that, in my own life, I should try to ignore the dictates of monetary success and greed and, instead, try to live a life that, at the very least, does no harm.

And while I realize that any teller of history has an agenda and, ergo, a grain of salt should always be handy, Zinn's history is one of the few that has daily reminded me to try to be a better person. And if I aim higher, maybe I can be a better person who helps other people learn to be better persons. And beyond that, maybe if enough of us try to be better people, we can help in largely significant ways; we can work together to help "America be America again - The land that never has been yet - And yet must be - the land where every man is free." (Langston Hughes)

And if that is this book's only redeeming quality, it's well worth the read.