19 December 2007

An examination of American ideology in light of American history, and vice-versa

Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology
Howard Zinn
Perennial, 1991

Revisionist historian Howard Zinn, most well known for his monumental People's History of the United States, here turns his crystal-clear lens of historical criticism to the cherished myths of American politics. After first defining "American ideology" as "a dominant pattern of ideas" in whose company belong such notions as "democracy," "national security," "free press," etc., Zinn proceeds to examine each of these tenets in more detail.

His methods are historical, in that he looks to the past for concrete examples of American political activity that can support or invalidate the self-accolades of the American body politic. His goal is political, however, in that he reveals American political ideology to be at its best, simply hollow rhetoric, and at the worst, pernicious double-speak. He argues persuasively that the democratic republic whose birth certificate (the Declaration of Independence) includes a clause supporting its own execution has been replaced by a national power which does everything (and anything) in order "to maintain the state."

Professor Zinn makes powerful arguments and reveals an abundance of historical data to challenge many cherished American institutions. "Free speech" is examined in the light of various political machinations including the Sedition Act of 1798 and the Espionage Act (under whose provisions Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for opposing WWI). Not even the sacred cow of World War II (the "Good War") is safe from Zinn's cleaver, which reduces it to a very satisfying porterhouse of political power-mongering and governmental greed, as he argues against the very notion of a "just war."

Provocative and compassionate and very, very necessary in today's world of sound-bite media where political analysis is replaced with marketing surveys and the content of discussion has given way to meaningless aphorisms of received wisdom and grunts of derision. The Wizard does not want us to look behind the curtain, and here Howard Zinn stands smiling, with the pull-cord in his hands.

(This review was originally written on July 21, 2006.)

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