Saturday, June 29, 2019

Book Review: 'Truth Has a Power of Its Own: Conversations About A People’s History' by Howard Zinn and Ray Suarez

Truth Has A Power Of Its Own is a funny kind of derivative book. Ray Suarez interviewed Howard Zinn about his book A People’s History of the United States. Instead of issues, Suarez seems to have asked questions in the chronological order of Zinn’s book, from the founding to the present. They are all soft questions that Zinn could answer without having to pause, basically putting points from his book in other words. Suarez did not challenge Zinn, point out a weakness or a contradiction or ask for proof or even context. Everyone’s on the same side here. It’s an easy, pleasant read of an uncomfortable topic: the truth about America.

Zinn, of course, was a marvel of clear thinking in simple language. His answers, though seemingly prepared, are microtargeted and precise. He couldn’t have asked for easier questions. They let him make all the points he wanted to.

In following the history of the US, the major theme is naturally racism, Zinn’s focus. He says in 1885, Senator Henry Dawes visited an Indian reservation and was appalled to see the Indians sharing everything. “There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.” His law, The Dawes Act, sent the army in to take away communal property and break reservations into small private lots, destroying the natives’ way of life forever. These are the kinds of little-known facts that Howard Zinn awakened Americans with for decades.

Zinn’s emphasis is on resistance and organization. He says truth has a way of spreading and changing history if we push it. The US is not on autopilot to glory or success because of its sterling constitution and system of elections. “I think it is a mistake to give young people going to school and learning history the idea that we have a wonderful mechanism here that’s self-correcting when things go wrong,” he says. This is in direct contradiction to what George Will says in his new book on conservatism. Will says all you need do is to look backwards to the founders’ guarantees of natural rights, and everything will be fine.

Zinn continually comes back to the wealth of the USA and how it being misused by the rich and powerful. Instead of lifting everyone to a higher plane, wealth remains with the few, and government wastes most of the rest on weapons and wars. Bullets instead of healthcare. And while we’re at it, wars using those bullets have becoming civilian killing machines. Where World War I saw about 90% of the deaths in the military, today 90% of the deaths are civilian.

Most importantly, he says there has been far more resistance and turmoil in America’s rocky road to the present: “If you leave out the history of resistance, then what you get out of American history is a kind of toothless history. You get a history in which everything seems okay. You get the kind of history that leads Americans to say to one another, ‘This is the greatest country in the world. We have always done good things in the world.’ Then they’re surprised when the United States is criticized by people in other countries.”

In his long life of not only observation but active participation in those resistance movements, has Zinn seen light at the end of the tunnel? “I would be naïve if I said that I’m confident this country has a glorious future, based on the past.”

And what would he possibly say about a Trump administration?

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

Order it on Amazon today.
Two kings. Two princes. One queen. The true story of five aristocrats separated by time, culture, and circumstance -- all of them bound to the United States by accidents of history and left to hope for a tomorrow better than today. Prepare for a vision of the American Dream as few others have ever seen it.