Thursday, January 28, 2010


Damn this email posting. I do have something to say about Zinn. Wish I could update that first post now.
Stop Me Before I Vote Again's Michael J. Smith mentions giving A People's History of the United States to a historically minded but in many respects unaware 16-year-old, which: yes, do that! The two books most formative to my political consciousness were Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and A People's History, read, if I remember correctly, in that order, one after another, cover to cover, when I was in tenth grade or so. I wish I could remember why I read them; I think my mother or father may have suggested Zinn after I was so interested in Orwell, but I don't remember what made me pick up Homage in the first place, particularly since a misguided ninth grader's brain had made me hate 1984 a year earlier (since rectified, multiple times).
From Orwell I learned to distrust what I was being told in school and in the news (well, maybe that's close enough for a memoir, but it's not entirely true; I remember being disgusted by the obvious lies in the American history textbooks at least as early as 8th grade, a benefit of growing up with Indian influence, however minor mine was, and generally of being raised by my parents, as I mentioned recently). From Zinn, I learned why, and I learned (a little of) the truth.
My father and my brother have been bugging me to read Dostoevsky (bear with me) for a while now. About a month ago, I made the mistake of starting with The Gambler. I didn't get much out of it, and my father says it's not one of Fyodor's best. It struck me as not much different from any other comedy of manners, a mildly entertaining but largely pointless narrative of rich people panicking over how best to fritter away their money (I'm well aware that I'm probably missing something there, much as the tween version of me missed everything in 1984, but that's irrelevant to my point). The only way I could see the book being interesting to anyone was in terms of the history of Russia's relationship with western Europe, which I know some people are interested in. A great deal of the book deals with the Russian characters' discomfort in Europe, their conflicting urges to remain proudly Russian and to assimilate, to be ashamed of their insufficiently European culture. I remember learning actually quite a bit about that in middle school (or maybe early high school) history. And even though ever since that first encounter with Zinn I have been aware that the history we learned in school is not the history of anything other than rich people, it had never occurred to me before that this whole identity anxiety was really just a problem of the aristocracy. While I'm sure that much of the Russian peasantry had some elements of patriotism, they weren't spending their time learning French and playing European composers on their harpsichords or whatever, as an effort to Westernize. They were farming and trying to survive.
As obvious as this seems to me now, it wasn't always that obvious, and it isn't obvious to everyone. We learn so early and so intensively that what matters is what matters to the rich that it's very difficult to break out of that habit of thought. That is why Zinn's History is so important, and that is why all of us who know people whose brains are still forming owe it to them and to the world to introduce them to it, as early as possible.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Strange currencies...
My own personal biography tracks with yours, as has the biographies of others I have known. As a youngster I had a vague notion that what I was getting in school was larded with bullshit, though I didn't have the resources/will to figure out exactly why. (I was more interested in my emerging sexuality, athletic pursuits, art, in about that order.)

My parents never guided me to history books like yours, but my father always taught me that the biggest thing I needed to learn was to think critically and question authority.

Years later I came back, happened upon People's History (this was after 4 years of college and only vaguely knowing his name) via I think of all things a name drop by some band in an interview or something. This was right after 9/11 and that old bullshit detector was blaring when our politicians stood up to talk, only then I was interested in being able to knowledgeably disagree with what they said.

Point is, I find it odd how some of us are disposed to a mindset that goes one way, while others are of a mindset to go another. And I have no idea how to account for that. In any event, if only all of us could live to be so young as Zinn.