White feeling of superiority


“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” ~ Lyndon B. Johnson

Johnson is sadly describing a tactic used in the US at least since the founding of the country: Divide and conquer a class of people, who have shared economic interests, based on race. Howard Zinn does a good job of unpacking the elite minority’s use of race to manipulate the lower economic class in A People’s History of the United States.

Book review: A People’s History of the United States

Let me state this upfront: Howard Zinn’s book is not an easy read—not because of the complexity of the ideas, not because of the dense, philosophical ideas, but because of the emotional reaction reading it creates.

Zinn sets out to question the canonical history that we have always been told: the founding fathers were god-like, our manifest destiny was a given, and the US has always been right and just in its interactions in the world.

Gore Vidal spoke of the novelist in contrast to the historian. As a writer of historical fiction, Vidal delved into the minds of historical actors. In contrast, historians are immersed in the (supposed) world of objectivity and facts.

Zinn seems to see historians a bit differently than Vidal. Rather than seeing them as engaged in objective fact production, he sees them engaged in ideological interpretation. The historian chooses what to relate, what to distort, what to emphasize, and what to downplay.

History, as we all have heard, is the story of what happened from the winners’ perspective. The disenfranchised, the subjugated do not write history and only appear in history in ways that the winners want to portray them. This led to movements in the sixties and later to study the history of minorities, to focus on women and the disenfranchised, and to cultivate cultural studies.

Sadly, much of this focus on the history of those not in power seemed to be unfathomable to the white majority in the US, or at best was seen as lacking any intrinsic value. But we do well to learn and reflect on the motivations of the historian. Who is writing and why, what are they omitting, what are they depicting as the Other and why?

In the words of Albert Camus, “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners”, i.e., those in power.

Howard Zinn seeks to view history from the other side. But, he warns, we should not blindly take the side of the victim imparting the moral right to them. It is too easy for victims to become victimizers and vice versa. However, we need to see and explore the voices of the victims, the voices of those typically not heard in society and in our history. What do they have to tell us about others and ourselves?

In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn strips away myth, which is reminiscent of Vidal’s quest to strip bare the assumptions that we have been fed since birth. Mainly, Zinn focuses on the myth of nations pretending to have a common interest—the idea that the US was based a coming together of people with common goals.

Along the way, Zinn reveals other myths about events and people important to the American past. Zinn challenges the reader to see things in new ways and to think, whether it is about the labor movement, minority experiences in the US, or the use of incessant wars in US politics.

Happy reading…and thinking!

Middle class as the buffer

I was struck by the use (dare I say manipulation?) of the middle class leading up to the American Revolution. Zinn describes a class of artisans that grew up between the social, political, and economic elites and the poor, who were often the indentured folk in the colonies. The struggle of the elites in colonial times was to retain their power and somehow get others in the colonies to take their side over the British. How to rally the masses from supporting one elite to supporting another? The American elite appealed to the nascent middle class with calls for liberty and property. (Give me liberty or give me death.)

How familiar this sounds even today. The political and financial elites rally the masses with fears of liberties being taken away…speech, arms, search and seizure, etc. Some fears are justified, some not so justified, some manipulated. The non-elites are promised the opportunity for property, for a slice of the pie that the elites hold, but only if they buy into the system and lend their support to the elites.

There is nothing about equality in these discussions—then or now. (In fact, equality is often depicted as somehow un-American.) But equality, or the more equal distribution of wealth, is what allows the middle class to exist and the American dream to be anything more than a cruel illusion. Without equality, wealth concentrates among the elites. The economy and society become more and more unstable.

What protects the elites from the masses? The bones thrown to the masses in the form of a middle class, the promise that you too can acquire some wealth. America, after all, is the land of opportunity, right?

What happens when the middle class is no longer there to be a buffer between the haves-all and the have-nots?

Call for racial unity


In a previous blog post, I mulled over the use of racism during colonial times as a means of keeping “the subordinates divided and subdued” and how this might also be used in current times in the debate (or lack of debate) about immigration.

Racism as a political tool has been ever-present—the divide and conquer mentality. Witness comments by Tom Watson, a Populist leader in the late 1800s pleading for racial unity, at least when it befitted his interests.

“You [blacks and poor whites] are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blind that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, page 291).

Founding fathers through a new lens

One by one I found the heroes of the US founding father myth crumbling under the weight of their own identities. I was reading Howard Zinn’s view on the development of American colonial rebellion against the British.

There went John Locke, Sam Adams, John Adams, Tom Paine. Dare I read on? One by one I learned about their place in the social-political structure, their motivations, and the self-identities that drove them.

The poor were siding with the British, turning to them for help against the elite, moneyed Americans. For the elite in the colonies to gain freedom from Britain, which would allow them to concentrate financial and political power further, they needed the support of the unmoneyed, unpropertied, unemployed masses.

It is a curious feeling to realize that the stories of the founding fathers might have been myths constructed to present the idea that we Americans were all together in opposing oppression by the British, that in fact, oppression might have come from other Americans in a different social-political class. But when you consider their interests and their motivations, suddenly the right of America to rebel does not seem quite so pure or clear-cut.