Thursday, March 03, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 1

On Wednesday I finally started reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." As I've done with past books, I'd like to (at least start) go(ing) through it chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 starts by talking about Christopher Columbus's "discovering" America from a different perspective. He quotes Columbus's own journals, including exerpts like:

"With fifty men we could subjugate them all [the Arawak people, Haitian natives, now extinct] and make them do whatever we want."

Yay slaves, yay manifest destiny. And then,

"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves [to Spain] that can be wold."

Yay genocide, cruelty, power and corruption!

Zinn certainly points these things out, but this is not a story about Columbus, per se. Instead, in his own words,

"My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims."

The point I took most clearly is about "the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress." Is progress really worth that much? Sure, all our ancestors have done it. We all continue to be complicit in it. Some would argue that, to a certain extent, anyway, it's part of human nature. To some extent, as well, animals do it. But I don't think animals exploit others and gleefully butcher others the way humans do when we have the power and the feeling of God on our side to do so. Killing others so we can steal their resources to build bigger and better (and more derivative) structures doesn't seem right to me.

But it's not just the strong oppressing the weak, although we do plenty of that, and Zinn is the first to recognize that. The Aztecs massacred by later Spaniards, after all, performed ritual sacrifices to kill their own. Zinn has a thing or five thousand to teach me: "Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don't want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: 'The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what justice is.'"

I think there's a difference, though. The very system of capitalism, which requires growth to function, relies fundamentally on finding new sources of capital - land or water or minerals - acquiring them by force or funds, and exploiting the hell out of them.

At the end of Zinn's first chapter, he describes the histories and cultural attributes of many American Indian tribes and nations. Life wasn't perfect, but scholar John Collier and others think it just might have been sustainable:

"John Collier, an American scholar who lived among Indians in the 1920s and 1930s in the American Southwest, said of their spirit: 'Could we make it our own, there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace.'"

Zinn ends the chapter thusly:
"Perhaps there is some romantic mythology in that. But the evidence from European travelers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, put together recently by an American specialist on Indian life, William Brandon, is overwhelmingly supportive of much of that 'myth.' Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.

This is going to be a good book.


John L. Clark said...

"Is progress really worth that much?" No. No, it is not.

I'm glad to see you work through the book, and to see what strikes you as you do so.

Emily said...

You know I am inclined to agree, John, but isn't it easier to say that we have too much when we're at the top? Was any progress worth the (unwilling) sacrifice to any of the people who live "worse" than we do but better than [the people we're killing through exploitation]? I guess the better question is - what is an acceptable price for progress? What is the value of progress?

John L. Clark said...

Prepare for full-on snark mode. Ready?

"[I]sn't it easier to say that we have too much when we're at the top?"

Yes, it's so easy that everyone's doing it. It's so easy that whenever I try to discuss justice with my friends and family, we nearly explode with enthusiastic agreement. It's so easy that clearly, society is right on the cusp of living justly.

So... I don't really know what you mean when you say "easier". Easier than what?

Ok, I think I can shut off snark mode, now.

No progress is worth any amount of injustice. Thus, an acceptable price for progress is any price that does not bring one to injustice.

As to the value of progress? Well, that's a very provocative question. By all means, feel free to start us off, if you'd like.

Emily said...

Then there are the people who completely dissociate progress with oppression, and I think that's the deeper question - making people see the connection. When they do, though, they often say, "Well, that's human nature" or "That's the way it's always been." It's somewhat defeating, although I still fight it a little.