Thursday, April 19, 2012

Top Ten Amazon Reviews: Howard Zinn.

I imagine there will be two kinds of reaction to the title of today's blog: "Who?" and "How in the world?"

As I explained in the last blog, over the past fourteen years, I've somehow become one of the more popular reviewers of substantive non-fiction on Amazon.  So assuming all my readers to be great lovers of books, I thought I'd share some of the most popular, and also unpopular (and I think in many cases, among the best), of the some 400 reviews I've posted. 

Howard Zinn is a radical left-wing, Marxist, revisionist historian whose Peoples' History of the United States is, well, you'll see in a minute.  I am, frankly, surprised that my critical review of his book, unapologetically Christian, gained more "thumbs up" votes than "thumbs down."  But if you haven't read Zinn's book, yet, you may find this analysis interesting -- and the book, as well.  It may also shed some light on our contemporary talk about the "1%" and the "99%." 
#10: Howard Zinn, People's History of the United States 79/102

(**) "Das Kapital Yields as Little Prophet" 

A friend who is an anarchist and atheist (note: also a frequent visitor to christthetao) has been encouraging me to read this book for a few years, and I'm glad I did. However one-sided and unfair Zinn may be, anyone who has not looked at the "dark side" of American history should come to grips with the factual aspects of this narrative.

The idea of telling the story of America from the perspective of the oppressed -- Native Americans, blacks, women, the poor and marginalized -- is excellent. After reading his account of Columbus, I will never say a nice word about the b* again. (This may not be as rare a view as some reviewers seem to think, though. In the rural, lily-white high and middle school classrooms in which I substitute teach, a poster of Indian leaders, MLK, or Malcolm X seem almost de rigeur, with curriculum to match.)

But the America of Howard Zinn is a strange place. Life there is terrible, especially for immigrants, but for some reason they keep coming. Things always seem to be getting worse, yet are never good to begin with. And then in the end, everyone and their SUV is on a diet. Because Zinn knows a lot, his tale is useful to anyone who wants to develop a balanced understanding of American history. But this is history with an attitude - a litany of actual horrors that ought to be faced, but cannot be mistaken for Truth, or anything like it.

And sometimes even Zinn's facts are doubtful. Twice he calls Vietnam "tiny," though it is the 17th largest country in the world. He says Mao's government in 1949 was "the closest thing to a peoples' government" China had had. As a China scholar, I tend to think it was the most tyrannical since Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming, or even Qin Shihuang, founder of the Qin. He seems to assume that Nagasaki was the original target of the second bomb. (It wasn't.) He implies that military spending remained the same after the breakup of the USSR; in fact it contracted, from almost 11% of GNP during the Vietnam War, to 6% in the 80s, to near 3.5%. He claims violent crime continues to increase despite a big prison population; actually it had already declined by the time of the edition I read (1996), and has gone down further since. I swim in a clean Lake Washington across from Bill Gates' house that was badly polluted when I was a child; but Zinn does not seem to have noticed improvements in the environment, either.

Sometimes, Zinn's sins of ommission edge close to lies. If the US supports a government, it engages in "imprisonment of dissenters, torture and mass murder;" if we oppose it, worse crimes are not fit to mention. South Vietnam imprisoned "thousands" of political prisoners; no one, it seems, suffered such a fate in North Vietnam, nor is genocide in Cambodia worth bringing up. The life expectancy of a black man in Harlem is less than in the Sudan. But surely Zinn knows that the cause of most deaths in Harlem is not simply "poverty"-- men are not dying of starvation -- but AIDS, murder, suicide, drugs caused by social pathologies that adding money to state programs showed little sign of solving. (Here, Booker T. Washington, Bill Cosby, and even Malcolm X seem to think more clearly.)

Zinn does not explicitly say that letting Stalin, Mao and the various mad Kims have their way with the Koreas would have been better than contesting their will: he simply does not face the question, as Truman had to. In complaining about tough choices adults make in complex and difficult world (and they never make the right choice, for Zinn) and offering no real solutions, Zinn writes like an adolescent.

The most troubling problem with Zinn's history is betrayed in its title. I think anyone who has lived in Russian or Chinese communist societies, or studied Marxist history (I have done both, or all three) gets a bit weary of "peoples' communes," "peoples' publishing companies," "Peoples' Roads," and "peoples' parks." Zinn even follows the common communist practice of designating a specific percentage of people who are not "The People" -- just 1%, which I guess puts his own fortune a notch below the cut-off line. (Note: and that, perhaps, is where our present talk about the "99%" came from?)  As one much further down, I wonder -- if not "people," what are the rich, zebras? It is a well-known psychological manuveur, of which Marx and Lenin were pre-eminently guilty, to rob people of their humanity so as to then rob them of their lives. (The percentage tended to go up.) But the moment I first saw a Starbuck's coffee shop in Shanghai's People's Park, I knew the Chinese people had turned the corner, and more java to them.

Zinn is right to try to see life from the perspective of the poor and marginalized. He is wrong only in learning this lesson from Marx, rather than greater prophets. Another unorthodox historian, Rene Girard, has argued that it was the Hebrew prophets who taught the world to see life from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressor. Jesus was in that sense, as in others, the pivot of world history: stooping beside a woman caught in adultery, offering "living water" to an outcaste Samaritan woman, being rebuked for eating with tax collectors and hookers, gathering fishermen and tax collectors to change the world, and dying at the hands of state and church. As a Christian, I think Zinn is right to try to show American history from this perspective. But he needs to learn a deeper honesty, a greater maturity, and more complete compassion, not from Marx but from one who had such virtues to give. For more on the difference between these two sages, see the chapters "Where Did Marx Go Wrong?" and "How Has Jesus Changed the World?" in my Jesus and the Religions of Man.

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