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Essay/Term paper: The zen of zinn

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Society

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Dr. Howard Zinn"s A People"s History of the United States might be
better titled A Proletarian"s History of the United States. In the first
three chapters Zinn looks at not only the history of the conquerors,
rulers, and leaders; but also the history of the enslaved, the
oppressed, and the led. Like any American History book covering the time
period of 1492 until the early 1760"s, A People"s History tells the
story of the "discovery" of America, early colonization by European
powers, the governing of these colonies, and the rising discontent of
the colonists towards their leaders. Zinn, however, stresses the role of
a number of groups and ideas that most books neglect or skim over: the
plight of the Native Americans that had their numbers reduced by up to
90% by European invasion, the equality of these peoples in many regards
to their European counterparts, the importation of slaves into America
and their unspeakable travel conditions and treatment, the callous
buildup of the agricultural economy around these slaves, the
discontented colonists whose plight was ignored by the ruling
bourgeoisie, and most importantly, the rising class and racial struggles
in America that Zinn correctly credits as being the root of many of the
problems that we as a nation have today. It is refreshing to see a book
that spends space based proportionately around the people that lived
this history. When Columbus arrived on the Island of Haiti, there were
39 men on board his ships compared to the 250,000 Indians on Haiti. If
the white race accounts for less than two hundredths of one percent of
the island"s population, it is only fair that the natives get more than
the two or three sentences that they get in most history books. Zinn
cites population figures, first person accounts, and his own
interpretation of their effects to create an accurate and fair depiction
of the first two and a half centuries of European life on the continent
of North America.
The core part of any history book is obviously history. In the first
three chapters of the book, Zinn presents the major historical facts of
the first 250 years of American history starting from when Christopher
Columbus"s Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria landed in the Bahamas on October
12, 1492. It was there that Europeans and Native Americans first came
into contact; the Arawak natives came out to greet the whites, and the
whites were only interested in finding the gold. From the Bahamas,
Columbus sailed to Cuba and Hispañola, the present-day home of Haiti and
the Dominican Republic. One-hundred fifteen years later and 1,500 miles
to the north, the colony of Jamestown was founded by a group of English
settlers led by John Smith; shortly after that the Massachusetts Bay
Colony was founded by a group of Puritans known to us today as the
Pilgrims. Because of uneasy and hostile relations with the nearby Pequot
Indians, the Pequot War soon started between the colonists and the
natives. Needless to say, the colonists won, but it was at the expense
of several dozen of their own and thousands of Pequots. But despite
Indian conflict, exposure, starvation, famine, disease, and other
hardships, the English kept coming to America. In 1619 they were settled
enough that they started bringing African slaves into the middle
colonies. Before resorting to Africans, the colonists had tried to
subdue the Indians, but that idea failed before it was created. Zinn
writes:
"They couldn"t force the Indians to work for them, as Columbus had
done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they
could massacre the Indians, they would face massacre in return. They
could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough,
resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted
Englishmen were not.
"White servants had not yet been brought over in sufficient
quantity.... As for free white settlers, many of them were skilled
craftsmen, or even men of leisure back in England, who were so little
inclined to work the land that John Smith... had to declare a kind of
martial law, organize them into work gangs, and force them into the
fields for survival.....
"Black slaves were the answer. And it was natural to consider imported
blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavers would not be
regularized and legalized for several decades" (25).
Black slavery became an American institution that the southern and
middle colonies began to depend on for their economic success. The first
stirrings of resentment began to come not from the slaves but from the
proletariat in the form of the frontier whites. Nathaniel Bacon led a
revolution against Virginia governor William Berkeley and his
conciliatory Indian policies. Bacon and others who lived on the western
frontier wanted more protection from the government against Indian
attacks. Berkeley and his cronies were so concerned with their own
financial and political gain that they ignored Bacon"s Rebellion and
continued their policies. In the end, Bacon died a natural death (he
caught a nasty virus) and his friends were hanged, but for the first
time ever, the government was forced to listen to the grievances of the
underclass that had been for the most part largely ignorable up to that
point. Meanwhile, class distinctions became sharper and the poor grew in
number. Citizens were put into work houses for debt and occasionally
rioted against the wealthy. More and more though, the anger turned from
being just a class war to being a war of nationalities. Impressment and
other British policies distracted the colonists from being mad at the
bourgeoisie to being mad at their mother country. At the end of chapter
three, tension is mounting, pitting the Americans against the English
and the workers against the rich. The atmosphere was ripe for
revolution.
The reason that this book might be better titled A Proletarian"s
History of the United States is that Zinn"s main focus on the book
besides the actual history is the effect of the history on the common
people and the workers, or proletarians as Marx and Engels referred to
them. While most history books focus on the dominating Europeans, Zinn
focuses on the dominated Native Americans, who Zinn holds to be at least
as advanced as their European masters. He writes that
"Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness,
but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe
itself, where the culture was complex, where human relations were more
egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women,
children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any
place in the world.
"They were a people without a written language, but with their own
laws, their poetry, their history kept in memory and passed on, in an
oral vocabulary more complex than Europe"s, accompanied by song, dance,
and ceremonial drama. They paid careful attention to the development of
personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion
and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature"
(21-22).

In the middle of the first chapter, Zinn uses the historical treatment
of Columbus to explain his own view on teaching history.
"Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European
invasion of Indian settlements in America. That beginning, when you read
[Bartolomé de] Las Casas... is conquest, slavery, death. When we read
history books given to the children in the United States, it all starts
with heroic adventure -- there is no bloodshed -- and Columbus Day is a
celebration" (7).

He goes on to vituperate historian Samuel Eliot Morison for his brief
and buried mention of Columbus"s genocide of the natives. This is one of
the most heinous crimes a historian can commit, Zinn says, because
"Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which,
when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state
the facts, however, and then bury them in a mass of other information is
to say to the reader: yes, mass murder took place, but it"s not that
important... it should effect very little what we do in the world" (8).
Zinn says that "selection, simplification, [and] emphasis" (8) are
necessary to the historian, but he chooses to take a different stance in
his writings.
"...I prefer 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... of the First World War as seen by
socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as
seen by the blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by
peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one
person, however he or she strains, can "see" history from the standpoint
of others" (10).

Zinn continues his identification with the oppressed as he discusses
black-white relations. He says that blacks and whites are not naturally
prejudiced against each other as some would have us believe; he points
to the fact that laws actually had to be passed to keep blacks and
whites from fraternizing. Servants and slaves of different races saw
each other as oppressed workers first and as members of a specific race
second. On the topic of slavery, Zinn berates the American system,
calling it "lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties,
without hope of any future" (27). Some argue that African tribes had
slavery of their own so it was a part of their culture to begin with,
but Zinn says that "the "slaves" of Africa were more like the serfs of
Europe -- in other words, like most of the population of Europe" (27).
Zinn commiserates with the plight of the oppressed frontier whites,
making Nathaniel Bacon out to be a hero. Over the course of the next 80
years, Zinn cites routine injustices against the working and under
classes, saying that it "seems quite clear that the class lines hardened
through the colonial period; the distinction between rich and poor
became sharper" (47).
It is refreshing and commendable to see a history text that takes a
stance on the side of the peoples that seldom get represented.
Columbus"s treatment of the Native Americans was atrocious, abominable,
and abhorrent, yet most history texts treat him as one the greatest men
to have ever lived. If your value as a human being is measured by the
number of lives you ruin, people you kill, and civilizations you
destroy, then Columbus is on par with Josef Stalin. This example may
seem extreme, but both men were directly responsible for the deaths of
millions on innocent civilians and caused sheer terror and panic among
millions of other people. The difference is that Columbus did it in the
name of exploration and human progress, which Zinn correctly calls a bit
of a misnomer, while Stalin did it to achieve his political ambitions,
which Columbus was certainly not without himself. Columbus committed
horrible atrocities, and Zinn accurately portrays them from a unique
standpoint, which gives long overdue respect and recognition to the
millions of Indians who died in the name of progress. Equally accurate
is Zinn"s portrayal of colonial relations. Both African slaves and
proletarian whites were pushed around, tormented, and used as pawns in
the political game of chess for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. Zinn
asserts that there were clear contentions between the races that
ultimately led to the revolution when the anger of the masses that was
originally directed primarily at the bourgeoisie was redirected against
England in the form of rhetoric, concessions, and propaganda calling for
loyalty to America"s upper classes and rebellion, first quiet and then
loud, against England. "[The bind of loyalty] was the language of
liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a
Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality"
(58). Zinn is absolutely correct in seeing the ulterior motives of our
founding fathers; they realized that splitting from England would be
good for them financially, socially, and politically. What they did was
harness the people"s anger against them and used it, quite ironically,
for their own advancement.
Ultimately, for the first 250 years of America"s history, there was
oppression and class warfare on varying scales that are traditionally
ignored or unemphasized by traditional history texts, but Zinn
masterfully shows the reader are major and influencial parts of American
history. To ignore the plight of the conquored and oppressed is to
ignore a part of history that cannot be ignored. 

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