We the People and the System

January 20, 2014

Howard Zinn speaking in 2009

I’ve been reading a book my daughter lent me, Howard Zinn’s The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, which consists of the latter parts of his well-known A People’s History of the United States with additional chapters extending the story into the 1990s.

Because the People’s History has been on my reading list ever since it first came out—a mere 34 years, so I can be excused for not getting to it yet—I’ve been eager to open this more condensed version, and thus it’s sat on my dresser for half a decade at most. It’s not, in fact, what I expected—not an overall history from a populist point of view but essentially a summary of protest and resistance movements over the ages. That’s interesting enough in itself, but Zinn’s bias annoys me at times. For instance, there’s a running implication that, when piecemeal reforms were implemented, the business and political classes, including liberals and progressives, saw these primarily not as extensions of human rights, justice and compassion but as ways of easing the pressure for more radical change.

Throughout the book, there’s a tendency to refer to “the government” or “the system” as a unified entity that acts in a concerted and deliberate way to preserve class privilege. Here are some passages (with boldface added by me) from Chapter 6, which focuses on what liberals call the civil rights movement and Zinn calls “the black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s”:

[re the shooting of Black Panther leaders by Chicago police] “Was the government turning to murder and terror because concessions—the legislation, the speeches, the intonation of the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome” by President Lyndon Johnson—were not working?” [This use of a question to propose a radical conclusion without quite advocating it is another characteristic of the book.]

The system was working hard, by the late sixties and early seventies, to contain the frightening explosiveness of the black upsurge.”

“The use of busing to integrate schools—sponsored by the government and the courts in response to the black movement—was an ingenious concession to protest. It had the effect of pushing poor whites and poor blacks into competition for the miserable inadequate schools which the system provided for all the poor.”

If “the government” and “the system” were really so cohesive and purposeful, we might have fixed them by now—or at least our protests would be a hell of a lot more focused.

Zinn is highly selective, too, in the facts he chooses to present. Here’s an early passage about expansionist nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century, featuring Teddy Roosevelt:

“Roosevelt was contemptuous of races and nations he considered inferior. When a mob in New Orleans lynched a number of Italian immigrants, Roosevelt thought the United States should offer the Italian government some remuneration, but privately he wrote his sister that he thought the lynching was ‘rather a good thing’ and told her he had said as much at dinner with ‘various dago diplomats … all wrought up by the lynching.’” (Chap. 1)

I wouldn’t defend the bully Roosevelt or his offensive speech, but to understand his reaction, the reader should be told that the New Orleans affair began with the assassination of the city’s police chief in 1890, and the perpetrators were assumed to be members of a well-known Italian criminal gang. This was the era when the word “Mafia” surged into public consciousness, and the jurors who acquitted the accused were popularly thought to have been bribed with Mafia money. None of this background excuses the lynching, of course, or Roosevelt’s ethnic disdain, but when we take the context into account, he becomes less of a caricature. Maybe he believed that all eleven men lynched were hardened criminals; I don’t know, but I wish Zinn had taken the time to fill in some gray shadings on his black-and-white sketch.

In spite of these reservations, I’ve been enjoying the book a lot, and learning from it. We tend to forget how persistently, throughout American history, citizens have resisted the governing elite, even in times we imagine as quiescent. “The memory of oppressed people,” Zinn writes, “is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface” (Chap. 6).

Some of the historical descriptions sound like they could have been written about the past few years:

“There was a deepening economic insecurity for much of the population, along with environmental deterioration, and a growing culture of violence and family disarray. Clearly, such fundamental problems could not be solved without bold changes in the social and economic structure. But no major party candidates proposed such changes. The political tradition’ held fast.” (Chap. 10)

That passage describes the period right after the Vietnam War, 40 years ago now. Here’s another timeless passage, characterizing the “double line of defense of the American Establishment”:

“The first defense is to deny the truth. If exposed, the second defense is to investigate, but not too much; the press will publicize, but they will not get to the heart of the matter.” (Chap. 10)

All too true—though not, I think, uniquely American.

Again and again Zinn makes his essential point that “endless ‘reforms’ [have] changed little” (Chap. 8). And some of his passages hit home with a visceral punch:

“given the nature of modern warfare, the victims, by a ratio of 10:1, have been civilians. To put it another way, war in our time is always a war against children.” (Chapter 12)

Defenders of our clumsy foreign wars might dispute the ratio, but the point is inescapable.

Those are the depressing aspects of the book. The positive? Zinn’s conviction, expressed in the final chapter, that more substantial change may be on the horizon:

“With the Establishment’s inability either to solve severe economic problems at home or to manufacture abroad a safety valve for domestic discontent, Americans might be ready to demand not just more tinkering, more reform laws, another reshuffling of the same deck, another New Deal, but radical change.”

That passage was written in the 1990s, and it rings even truer today. Yet my pessimism argues that we’ll never progress beyond the “might be ready” stage.

It’s difficult, as a contemporary American, to have faith in either “the system” or “the people”—and most of us belong to both. Or as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

2 Responses to “We the People and the System”

  1. Miriam Seidel Says:

    It’s a perspective that’s sorely lacking in mainstream media, and demands to be heard, if we can get the earbuds out long enough. My sister has been using the People’s History as the main textbook for her grandson’s home-schooled Social Studies class.


    • Sam Gridley Says:

      Glad to hear your grandnephew will be a revolutionary! My daughter says that (a) she’d forgotten she lent me the book and (b) it now seems “kind of dated,” “like maybe it was a popular stance a couple decades ago to describe a battle between ‘the system’ and ‘the people,’ but now that seems really simplified.” Remember when all university professors under 50 were Marxists? I never cared for Marxists much when they existed, but now that they’re gone I kind of miss them. Not their rhetoric, though — I hated those grandiose abstractions, and my praxis was always either strained or sprained.


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