Thursday, August 7, 2008

Book Review: Passionate Declarations by Howard Zinn

Copied near-verbatim from the work I'll be handing in today.

Within the first ten pages of Passionate Declarations, the author begins his first in a series of departures from academic orthodoxy; he makes it abundantly clear to readers that, although he will attempt to portray ideas contrary to his own accurately, he “ ... never listened to the advice of people who said that a teacher should be objective, neutral and professional.”(7)  Howard Zinn justifies his disregard for objectivity by claiming that it's an impossible goal for any historian, and that “neutrality means accepting the way things are now”(7); that all people, due to their socioeconomic backgrounds, have an inherent bias, and Zinn does little to mask his.  Siding almost exclusively with the everyman of the working class, he makes it difficult  to accept the conventional wisdom that was, at least to my experience with history, universally accepted.

Zinn's most passionate declaration is the essay titled “Just and Unjust War”.  He examines the claim that there are certain situations that can make a war a just war, and repeatedly comes to the conclusion that war is never just.  A friend, attempting to convince me to read this book, fed me the bit about there never being such thing as a just war; my first question to him was, “What about World War II?”  Throughout high school and years of watching programs on the History Channel, I had always felt that WWII was not only just, but necessary.  It had seemed (and been taught) that the United States was forced to go to war in defense of (white) European allies and to halt the Fascist-Kraut threat from engulfing the whole of Europe, all while avenging the evil at Pearl Harbor.  Although Zinn failed to convince me that military intervention in specific situations, such as Germany invading Poland, is never justified, he did manage to place additional light on the conflict.  He questions if we went to war on humanitarian grounds, or because the threat of the Axis Powers threatened the position of the United States in the world, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that our reasons for going to war were purely economic, and the implicit argument is that this is a terrible reason to go to war.  This is largely due, according to Zinn, because of the U.S.' failing to intervene against fascism and mass-murder in not only the Spanish Civil War, but also in the bombing of Bosnia by Italy, long before the German's Blitzkrieg began.

Passionate Declarations also explores what was, for me,  a novel concept about Pearl Harbor: that it was a reaction to an embargo placed on Japan for both scrap iron and oil in the summer of 1941 and thus not the unprovoked assault I'd been told that it was, but rather a predictable – and, to some, a desirable -  reaction.  The embargo was placed by the Unites States out of their fear that Japan would soon begin taking over various U.S. markets, specifically those of tin, rubber and oil.  Zinn argues that we went to war “only when our possession Hawaii was attacked and when our navy disabled with bombs.”(82)  Zinn's use of the adjective “possession”  in this instance telling, and similar use of language throughout the work makes his opinion and interpretation of events clear; that ultimately, everything in the world comes down (for the group in power) to money and power.

One of the central themes of the first few essays is that of the Machiavellian statesman.  In the first essay after the introduction, Machiavellian Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy, Zinn works to define the term through both historical and modern context.  He explains that not only are any means justified for the correct ends, but that even above the end results, the Prince, or the State, must be served.  “The end of Machiavelli's Prince ... is not the welfare of its citizenry, but national power, conquest, and control.  All is done in order “to maintain the state.”” (12) Zinn thus paints various lieutenants of history, ranging from men responsible for the butchering of thousands of Jews before and during World War II and even including his own experience in World War II as a bombardier.  They, and he, committed their actions not because they felt it was the right thing to do, but because it what was what the Prince – the State – had ordered them to do, and it was seen that the terrible violence of the war was a justified method – means - to extract a peace - the end - out of the Axis powers.  Passionate Declarations invokes Machiavellian statesmanship throughout the collection of essays, and attributes “for the Prince” justifications to both those directly responsible for actions and those in command that gave their implicit acknowledgment that they would be carried out.  Amongst other examples, he uses Watergate and the Bay of Pigs incident to illustrate the claim of “the means justifying the ends”.

Howard Zinn is clearly a socialist, and would likely define himself as such if presented with the opportunity, and his ideology is made clear throughout the essay Economic Justice: The American Class System.  “Truth is it shouldn't mater how the rich got that way,” he remarks after presenting Carl Sanburg's poem “The People, Yes.”  “If people have fundamental needs that are matters of life and death, why should we not, by taxation, take from people who will not suffer as a result of the taking, to meet those needs?”(164)  He immediately follows this by asking the question of how the people with all of the money got to be that way; hard work?  Contribution to society?  Level of intelligence?  Zinn uses a variety of details to demonstrate that none of these – common measures of how one can become successful in a capitalist economy – are actually responsible for why they got so much money.  On the surface, it would seem that money is not distributed in our country (or world) according to any rational or just principle, with some of the hardest working and most devoted citizens, such as teachers and firemen, making among the smallest incomes in the country.

Zinn uses multiple sources of data by which he compiles his opinionated essays; first-hand witness accounts, newspaper articles spanning almost three hundred years, the Federalist Papers, and even for a brief moment the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.  It is difficult to find even a single paragraph in the entire series of essays (eleven in all) that doesn't contain at least one or two footnotes, indicated a cited material, and the depth of his evidence is compelling, which signifies one of my chief complaints with the work; it's hard to find things to disagree with.  Although surely historians more advanced than I can point out the potential misquoting and misinterpreting of events that Zinn has potentially done, I had a great deal of difficulty finding holes in his logic.  As stated earlier, the only point that he failed to convince me on entirely was that was is never just; although I have come to accept this view point in the majority of situations, I have difficulty understanding how specific situations ought to be dealt with, such as the invasion of Poland or even the more recent genocide occurring in Darfur, without a sort of armed intervention.

The essay that I found to be the most striking, and the one that contributed the most to my understanding of history, was titled simply Free Speech.  Using examples from every spectrum of public life in the United States over the last two hundred years, Zinn systematically dismantles the concept that all Americans have an equal and guaranteed right to free speech.  It was always my assumption that this right, which to me is more important than the majority of others, was sacrosanct and undeniable, although Zinn shows that this right is barely even that, and that it can be destroyed with the flimsiest of justifications.  One of Zinn's strongest points is that “Money is power,” and that the only people or groups that have a genuine right to free speech are those that can afford to pay for it, whether it be through newspapers, television media, or any other type of information distribution.  Although this is hardly surprising in a national arena, it surprised me to find that throughout the course of American history, the right of free speech on the behalf of an individual has been compromised many times, beginning two decades after the founding of our country with the Alien and Sedition Acts, which provided punishment for those that chose to criticize the government of John Adams.

I came into reading the collection of essays with a pre-determined biased; based on what my friend had initially told me, I was reasonably sure that I would not only enjoy but agree with the majority of things that Howard Zinn had to say, and after finishing the book and re-reading multiple passages, I find that this opinion has not changed.  He presents his arguments in a clear and concise manner, and his style, while sounding at times jaded, provided an excellent platform by which to make his arguments.  This collection of essays is one that could be picked up and understood (and enjoyed!) by anyone interested in history, and although a lack of exposure to themes included in the essays may initially be off-putting to younger readers, Zinn writes in such a fashion that will quickly bring them up to speed so that they can understand the arguments presented. 

Although the essays found in Passionate Declarations tend to focus on the interest of those in power keeping those without power from attaining it, the broad scope of his arguments keeps what would otherwise quickly become a stale theme interesting and engaging.  Through the exploration of the Civil Rights Movement, the breaking of labor unions/movements in the early 20th century, the communism/anti-communism situation of the cold war, and the critical factor of highly concentrated wealth in a minority of the population, Zinn provides for an everyman that is systematically disabled, crippled and maimed, and paints a grim picture of what life as a modern feudal peasant is like in America.