Friday, October 8, 2010

Revisionist Mystery.

History is a sensitive subject. Texas is, once again, in a textbook brouhaha over having decided to rewrite its textbook standards. Because Texas purchases so many textbooks, it has a disproportionate effect on how textbooks are written when it changes its requirements. This time, Texas is emphasizing the role of religion, specifically Christianity, in the American Revolution, capitalism, and Republic political activity (Reagan? You get a chapter. Roosevelt? A sidebar calling you a welfare queen.)

I attended public school is Texas, which I would like to say to parents is roughly as smart as letting your kid play hopscotch on the interstate. Texas doesn't really teach American history. They teach Texas history, which is like Texas toast: unnecessarily big but not very filling and pretty bad for you.

See, in Texas history, they skip over that whole time TEXAS WAS PART OF THIS PLACE CALLED MEXICO EVERYBODY and instead spend an inordinate amount of time of the Battle of the Alamo and Texas joining the Union. Because this is actually a very tiny fraction of Texas' history and they refuse to talk about, you know, Texas when it was still part of Mexico, the teacher would usually run out of steam about halfway through the semester and we'd spend the rest of our time doodling moustaches on the paintings of heroic American soldiers defending Texas' right to rather randomly decide, based on the interests of a whole lot of people who were not Mexican, that it really didn't want to be part of Mexico anymore.

But whatever - my point being, history is an incredibly valuable currency, which is why people have fought and died over the right to talk about something that happened a certain way. Like, right now, there is a whole country of people who believe that they won several incredible naval battles with the US (they didn't), that their Dear Leader guided their soccer team to victory in the World Cup using his mind (he didn't), and since they have only one TV channel showing biopics of said Dear Leader and no access to the actual history of the rest of the world, most of them probably believe it. When you only get one narrative, you don't get to choose your worldview - it's decided for you.

Which brings me to Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I will say up front that Zinn definitely has his own biases, and that's okay - after all, this isn't The Incredibly Objective and Definitely Straightforward History of the United States, and Zinn says it himself in the first chapter: "I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish." But Zinn also writes that his point is not to dredge up a litany of offenses, but instead present a viewpoint of history that is skeptical, that attempts to poke through the easy veneer of the winning and the powerful, and look more closely at dissent, revolution, and those who gummed up the works of a system instead of taking their place as cogs.

Zinn starts by tackling the mythos of America, land of the rugged, proud individual, of unlimited chances for advancement, of personal grit and equality, embodied in both the personalities of its founders and its Constitution. Instead, Zinn points out an alternate history - that America, like England, had a radically unequal society, no middle class to speak of, a huge gap between rich and poor. Because the rich wrote the rules, the rules protected them and their industry at the expense of indentured Europeans, slaves, and Indians.

Zinn pursues this theme through the modern American industrial age and traces the development of a burgeoning American Socialist movement, which most historians ignore and Texas, I'm sure, would hastily excise from its textbooks. The horrendous working conditions and the use of humans as grist for the industrial machine led to acts of astonishing bravery and a socialist movement, that while not powerful enough to exercise significant change, was at least worrisome enough to those who controlled (as Marx would put it) the means of production to take note that the underclass would only tolerate so much.

Zinn takes the reader through the Spanish American War, fought in the Philippines, the Civil War, World Wars 1 and 2, Vietnam, and 9/11. His analysis is more detailed, thorough, and thoughtful in the earlier chapters - everything post-Vietnam feels rushed and less considered. Certainly, those readers wedded to a certain prism through which to examine American history - a prism less open to its flaws and its great injustices - will think Zinn's book biased. But it's also very valuable for its willingness to expose the fault lines and the fissures of American history, rather than presenting it as one unbroken wall. The underside of history is often the most valuable - otherwise, why would anyone try so hard to hide it?

1 comment:

  1. Ohhh! I like the sound of this one. I'm guessing you already returned it... I shall have to actually check out my own book one day instead of pilfering.