Friday, October 09, 2009

Review: Declarations of Independence, by Howard Zinn

Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology might be regarded as something of a modern anarchist manifesto, focusing on the problems with American government and society, and, taking some of his own lessons and views of history, how, optimistically, these might be counteracted. I have a difficult time getting what exactly Zinn means by "ideology." He describes it as the dominant pattern of ideas informing the country's policy, but he goes on to develop discussions of how American policy is a thing apart from its ideology, attacking a set of deducible ideas-beneath-the-ideas or criticizing what happens when those ideas are put in practice in a given power structure. Zinn isn't against free speech, for example, when it actually means free speech, and he convincingly discusses how it doesn't mean that, and for whom it means something else, but I'm not sure that contradicts the idea of free speech. The dominant pattern of ideas to which Zinn takes specific exception comprises what he calls Machiavellian realism, a framing that really annoyed me, as I've already gone into at tedious length. He's rejecting some of Machiavelli's conclusions and goals, but he's sticking to a similar evidence-based reasoning that Nicky Mack followed.

It's a fair project to investigate on what evidence we proclaim the world's ideologies to be successes or failures, however, and if we're in the business of cross-examination, I am more than ready to get Dr. Pangloss up under the hot lights for his statement on America® brand liberty-n-capitalism. Zinn's grilling is pretty good. The book is heavy with ideas, but it reads quickly, in easy language, and Zinn makes the sort of appeals to emotion and decency that illustrate and engage without feeling superficial and cheap. Since his goal is to convince, I'd have been happier if he avoided speaking in the universalist code of the American radical, and especially not so heavily in the introduction. An example: when someone advances health care as a "right" or as "free," or throws around scientific truisms, I want to stop and nitpick, even though I realize what he's getting at. I suspect other readers would stop entirely right there. And while I appreciate his honest subjectivity, I'm hesitant when he goes back to personal anecdote to enforce his point. Zinn is better at supporting with some difficult aphorisms with well-known but less-discussed facts. (Some of his own quips: "Historically, the most terrible things--war, genocide, and slavery--have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience." "[D]ependency on government has never been bad for the rich." "It seems the closer we get to matters of life and death--war and peace--the more undemocratic is our so-called democratic system." "If I can put in one word what has always infuriated me in any person, any group, any movement, or any nation, it is: bullying.") I've read a fair amount of criticism of The System by now, and it should be acknowledged that Howard Zinn is a modern father of it. The nearly 20 years that followed Declarations have not weakened his argument. His ultimate prescription, with the idealism shed away, is that we should evaluate what's worked for the human benefit over the years and what has not. How is that even controversial?

I agree with much of Zinn's criticism, but I don't really share his optimism. He gets positively hopeful when he highlights the few shining moments of historically successful anarchism, in the five minutes it took before it got hijacked by Leaders or before the tanks rolled in. I'm not convinced that if average citizens often prefer basic justice and morality, then their well-documented predilection for the alternative would allow a fair society to flourish. Racism, discrimination, and exclusion by belief have always been popular themes for us, and I don't believe democracy can come close to weeding them out, and if direct action, non-cooperation, and non-violent appeals to dignity have had their admirable and hard-fought successes--and may indeed be the only morally valid means of effecting mass change--there's still no reason they can't be employed by the monsters of our nature too (minus the non-violence, of course). I suppose it's Machiavellian to observe that the species is deeply susceptible to organizing itself in hierarchies.

Amusingly, and since I obviously can't leave it alone, I recently came across a TV Trope called "Machiavelli Was Wrong," which not only points out, in admirably few words, how the appeal to morality is usually played (the villainous prince underestimates human compassion) but also how it's played wrong (no one remembers that it's essential to avoid being hated most of all). Zinn's far smarter than your typical television writer, but searching for an optimistic conclusion, he's getting close to that rhetorical turnaround. And again, I don't think he's that far away from Machiavelli anyway:

And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget. --from The Prince

4 comments:

switters said...

I think I'll skip this particular tome. Not in the mood.

But I would like to ask you (guys) what it says about a citizenry who writhes in supposed agony when its leader wins The Nobel Peace Prize? I don't know whether or not he deserved it. Probably not.

But being more popular in France than you are in your own country, for whatever reason, is pretty pathetic.

Windmills and bunkers. I'll meet you there.

Keifus said...

I've had enough of this for awhile too. My plan is to read some pleasing fiction, and, when I happen to get around to it, also take hipparchia up on her bet to read those banned ones.

Depends who's writhing, I think. We've spent 8 years hearing from some of these yahoos that to disrepsect the office is treason, so their squealing now is bizarre. On the other hand, Peace prize? I agree that O's a convincing diplomat, but he's, like, fighting two wars, and at least one of them is completely voluntary.

Windmills...you thinking building 'em, or tilting at? I could go for either.

switters said...

Tilting and building. Probably a little of both.

I need a new book as well. I don't want to read A Place On Earth again, because I'll get down. I'll find something.

Obviously, obviously, some people are only content when they're red with rage. Rush scares me. I used to listen to him a lot back in the early 90s. But I don't remember him being this angry. Or stoned.

I know what Barry will do with the prize money: Cut us each a check.

Have a great weekend. Supposed to rain down here the whole time.

twif said...

i ranted. then, to purge, i posted new baby pictures.

playoff's for detox. and plenty of brother cadfael.