Friday, March 02, 2012

Zinn, Chapter 24

This is one of a multi-part blog series in Howard Zinn's groundbreaking and controversial book, "A People's History of the United States."

Chapter 24, The Coming Revolt of the Guards, seems to be the most reflective and self-aware chapter of Zinn's book so far. It may be the first one I recommend new readers consider, especially people who I know will balk immediately and viscerally at this 'clearly biased' great book.

"[A] "people's history" promises more than any one person can fulfill, and it is the most difficult kind of history to recapture. I call it [this book] that anyway because, with all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance.

"That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission."

These 'jaded' words, too, are things I believe in: "Madison feared a "majority faction" and hoped the new Constitution would control it. He and his colleagues began the Preamble to the Constitution with the words "We the people ...," pretending that the new government stood for everyone, and hoping that this myth, accepted as fact, would ensure "domestic tranquility.""

Pitting the majority or at least the strong majority (white, rich, not blacks, not women, not Native Americans... until they rose up in acts of defiance) has always been the American way. The oligarchy seems to be winning. "How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation! How adroit to bus poor black youngsters into poor white neighborhoods, in a violent exchange of impoverished schools, while the schools of the rich remain untouched and the wealth of the nation, doled out carefully where children need free milk, is drained for billion-dollar aircraft carriers. How ingenious to meet the demands of blacks and women for equality by giving them small special benefits, and setting them in competition with everyone else for jobs made scarce by an irrational, wasteful system. How wise to turn the fear and anger of the majority toward a class of criminals bred-by economic inequity-faster than they can be put away, deflecting attention from the huge thefts of national resources carried out within the law by men in executive offices."

Zinn argues that people continue to revolt. And that sometimes those revolts do things. The histories that we usually read talk about concensus, about statesmanship, about the Establishment, the system, working. Other voices, like Zinn's, are important because they show a different and true perspective. They talk about real movements of real people acting of their own volition. "History which keeps alive the memory of people's resistance suggests new definitions of power. By traditional definitions, whoever possesses military strength, wealth, command of official ideology, cultural control, has power. Measured by these standards, popular rebellion never looks strong enough to survive."

"However, the unexpected victories-even temporary ones-of insurgents show the vulnerability of the supposedly powerful. In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going." I see things like iPods and tax breaks getting to people. The employed, like "soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbage men and firemen ... the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls." Zinn takes time in the book to talk about resistance movements - labor strikes in Washington, for example, that shut down an entire town and worried the people in power much more than violence ever could have. Violence can be counteracted by greater, more expensive, and better weaponed violence. (This is why we produce and sell/export so many arms.)

Zinn calls pretty plainly for revolution. "That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica—expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us."

"Certain new facts may, in our time, emerge so clearly as to lead to general withdrawal of loyalty from the system." He mentions a few, and I see things like failed mortgages (what's left to lose?), limited access to health care, environmental pollution, lack of access to clean water, as making it "less and less possible for the guards of the system-the intellectuals, the home owners, the taxpayers, the skilled workers, the professionals, the servants of government-to remain immune from the violence (physical and psychic) inflicted on the black, the poor, the criminal, the enemy overseas. The internationalization of the economy, the movement of refugees and illegal immigrants across borders, both make it more difficult for the people of the industrial countries to be oblivious to hunger and disease in the poor countries of the world." How can we sympathize with something when we are at the top away from it all? Without knowledge of the way our very lifestyles directly abuse the people whose lives and lands we rape, why would we want to change things?

Zinn's book was first published in 1995, but it talks about the growing malaise and distrust that U.S. people have in the system, in the government, and in the corporate monster. He basically predicts the rise of the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was well before the economic collapse and the housing bubble that Zinn wrote: "Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes."

"The threat of unemployment, always inside the homes of the poor, has spread to white-collar workers, professionals. A college education is no longer a guarantee against joblessness', and a system that cannot offer a future to the young coming out of school is in deep trouble. If it happens only to the children of the poor, the problem is manageable; there are the jails. If it happens to the children of the middle class, things may get out of hand. The poor are accustomed to being squeezed and always short of money, but in recent years the middle classes, too, have begun to feel the press of high prices, high taxes."

I hate to be cynical, but this happened too with Iraq and Afghanistan, and we still haven't learned: "Let us imagine the prospect-for the first time in the nation's history-of a population united for fundamental change. Would the elite turn as so often before, to its ultimate weapon-foreign intervention- to unite the people with the Establishment, in war? It tried to do that in 1991, with the war against Iraq. But, as June Jordan said, it was "a hit the same way that crack is, and it doesn't last long.""

Zinn then describes what a new society would look like. It would be local, grassroots. Everybody would be involved. Everybody would have to work. Differences among people would be celebrated. People would have to work against the system as we know it, but more than that they would have to be working FOR the better way of life. Don't fight human nature. Sure, respect its limits, its imperfections. But Embrace what is good in us.

This chapter of Zinn is a summary of the history he's laid out in specific terms in previous chapters. Then he synthesizes what he's learned and calls us to action. He doesn't recommend very specific things. Like Jensen would, Zinn leaves it to individuals in their communities. It's gonna be hard, and there will be setbacks, but there is hope, if only we believe that there is a better way and that we can achieve it.

Zinn's final chapter, which I will blog next and probably last on Zinn, is about the 2000 U.S. Presidential election and the "War on Terrorism" (which Zinn puts in quotation marks).

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