I tried to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I really did. I slogged through every word of the first hundred pages, and then skipped the (abundant and repetitive) quotations through page 250 to focus on text only. All that effort got me to the fateful year 1877 with nearly 400 more pages to go. I just couldn’t face another description of history from the loser’s point of view – the women, blacks, Indians, poor farmers, working stiffs and immigrants who are beaten down, time and again, in Mr. Zinn’s narrative.
I agree with Mr. Zinn’s history in principle. But that doesn’t make his one-note harangue against rich white guys a compelling narrative. His penchant for chronological mash-ups led me to suspect he sought events to support his thesis rather than letting the order of events form a thesis. On one page alone, in the chapter leading up to the Civil War, he references the years 1790, 1860, 1800, 1822, 1831, 1859, and 1808, in that order.
He reports the miserable conditions of the downtrodden in our country with relish, but never once addresses the question that refused to leave my head. Things were terrible here, and still are for the less fortunate in our stratified society, but weren’t things worse elsewhere? He never tries to explain why people came, why they stayed, and why they still come to America. Sure, the streets were never paved with gold, but they still held more opportunity than streets anywhere else on earth.
Two hundred fifty pages of Haward Zinn confirmed, as so many passages of our history do, that Winston Churchill understood us better than we understand ourselves. “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.” Mr. Zinn documents painful, unnecessary paths towards each person’s claim his or her rightful place in this world. But he dismisses the gains, however slowly attained, and omits the global context that made the United States an attractive destination despite its inequities.
We still have far to go. I am amazed, time and again, at the obstacles our political system erects before the average person. Why do the rich and powerful care to deny their fellow citizens a living wage, equal justice, healthcare, educational opportunity and real economic opportunities? They already have everything they need and more. But I can’t accept a history based on the idea that the 99% have always been chattel and will never be other than that. I still believe that the United States, messy and fragmented as it is, will find its way to greater equality. Even if we don’t get there until after we’ve tried everything else.