Brian Hodges's Reviews > A People's History of the United States

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
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's review
May 08, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, bloody-brilliant, life-changing, favorites
Read in September, 2009

Wow, whew, where to even begin. This book was perhaps THE most eye-opening, life-changing book I've ever read. It actually took me three years to read cover to cover because I was literally getting so angry reading about the human face of U.S. history that I frequently had to stop and take long breaks because I could feel my cynicism and bitterness rising to levels that I frankly didn't like.

In this book, Howard Zinn tells the story of the United States, from 1492 through present day (1999 in the version I have), all from the point of view of the common, everyday workingman. As he states in the beginning of the book, most histories are told from the point of view of the leaders, the politicians, the top one percent of people who make the laws, declare the wars and implement the changes that affect the rest of us. History is relayed in terms of wins and losses, land gains and forfeitures, plus a laundry list of names from the elite classes. Zinn, on the other hand, shows how these monumental events and decisions affected the regular people NOT commonly spoken of in history books.

He shows how Columbus from almost his very first instant in the New World, set about finding ways to subvert and manipulate the Indians. He shows how the American Revolution wasn't the grand dream of freedom we always imagine it to be for the people fighting it. In fact, for the average solider/farmer/laborer, there was very little day-to-day difference between when the Crown ruled them and when America became "independent." He shows, in great heartbreaking detail, how we as a nation mocked, abused and spit on the graves of every single Indian tribe we encountered, all in the name of capitalism and "manifest destiny". Zinn goes in depth to show how the ruling classes have taken great pains all throughout this country's history to keep the middle and lower classes fighting amongst themselves over unimportant issues so that they never notice how their government is only in the business of helping the ultra-rich. Even wars and patriotism more often than not were mere fabrications designed to protect the financial interests of one American corporation or another who happened to operate in the war torn area.

Zinn spends a good chunk of the middle of the book talking about labor strikes and the rise of socialism in America and it's here where you really begin to understand his agenda, to understand what this axe is that he's grinding... and honestly, you completely empathize with it. It opened my eyes, especially in light of recent political events, to the fact that this dreaded "socialism" that everyone is freaking out about, was actually a movement that has brought about most of the positive changes in the last century that we now take for granted.

Yet nobody, not even the socialists, escape Zinn's well-researched cynicism. Especially as you read about the last half-century or so, you begin to realize that the debates we have about Democrat vs. Republican, Socialism vs Free Markets, they're all completely bullshit dichotomies since in the end, the leaders of all these parties and philosophies are ultimately beholden to the richest among us. No real change ever came about as a result of an election. In fact, too often, "the vote" has been used as a magic token, bestowed like a gift upon various minorities who were getting too uppity and eager for revolution. It was always a worthwhile concession for the Establishment to make, because they of all people knew that real change wouldn't arise from a vote. Historically speaking change has only come as a result of the people finally getting fed up and mounting their own revolution. But the American system of democratic control is amazingly sophisticated, cultivated over the course of the past 500 years.

What Zinn leaves you with is a picture that isn't terribly optimistic. In fact, you come away from it all feeling rather helpless, knowing that you can shout and scream and throw a TEA party or march on Washington in protest of war and ultimately, the "Establishment" will give you a little nod, throw you some token "right" or "privilege" (one which ultimately benefits them more than you) and then send you on you merry way.

Uplifting, no? And yet this book was absolutely mind-blowing and life-changing. I personally think that anybody who has an interest in history or politics (especially those who constantly run their mouth about it) should read this book. It is eye-opening in ways you never thought possible. It makes you understand what this country is REALLY founded on... and it ain't the bullshit "liberty, freedom and patriotism" that everyone wants you to think it is.

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Kenny (new) - added it

Kenny Bell "This book was perhaps THE most eye-opening, life-changing book I've ever read."
You always say that! Lol

message 2: by Kenny (new) - added it

Kenny Bell "THE book I've ever read." you said for your last 5 reviews Brian. -_-

Brian Hodges So you've said. Twice now. Clearly this affecting YOUR life somehow.

message 4: by Kenny (new) - added it

Kenny Bell Lol. The hell is wrong with me man.

message 5: by James (new)

James Crocket Great review. I've yet to read this book, but it has been on my radar for some time. I think there is a great need (and great lessons to be learned) from a factual and objective look at history. I hope that this book, while looking at events from the common perspective, also allows for seeing historical figures as a product of their times and not holding them to todays enlightened standards.

I get nervous whenever I hear populist revolution suggested as a means to improve the quality of life for the common person. I've yet to find an example in history when storming the castle with pitchforks (so to speak) has ever lead to a better life for common people. There are MANY examples to the contrary. I think of events such as the Arab spring, Prague spring, French revolution, siege of Munster, Russian revolution, English peasant's revolt, English civil war, etc. I think a cultural, civil, and legal dismantling of our establishment political parties may be in order, but a populist teardown of our government and Constitution would not serve us well in the long run. I hope the book keeps it's level and objective head screwed on soundly.

Lastly, does the book refer to "ruling class" in our country? I would hope it provides some clarity into of whom exactly the ruling class is comprised. Statistically, the great majority of millionaires in the U.S. are self made and were raised in economically middle class homes. We do not have a patrician class or aristocratic peerage that defines our legal, political, or economic limitations. Wealth and power in this country is in constant flux unlike anywhere else the world at any time. To suggest otherwise is inherently manipulative and intellectually dishonest. While we have our corruptions, cronyisms, and injustices to be sure, it would be a great uphill battle for this book or any other to get me to see the United States through such a class prism.

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