Saturday, January 30, 2016

"The Victors Write the Histories"

Old Panama City

Panama City today
It’s probably safe to say—anthropologically, sociologically and archaeologically—that every age is built upon the rubble of previous ages. Unearthing the artifacts of the past contributes to a clearer understanding of the world we experience today; “visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7)
      I’m currently deep into A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, an American historian and political scientist. The book was published in 1980 and according to a reviewer, it’s sales continued to rise as more and more profs, students and the general public became aware of it. Quoting copious letters, documents and journals of the time, Zinn traces a history that’s enlightening on the subject of a tumultuous USA today. Without going into detail (and there’s lots of it for the history buff), Zinn unearths the underbellies of slavery, of the dispossession and decimation of the Amerindian population, the exploitation of workers in the factories and plantations, the riots, murders, massacres and destruction that accompanied, for instance, the American annexation of Texas.
      Seen from the viewpoint of the exploited and the dispossessed, the rubble left behind by that history make the atrocities—horrible as they are—in Syria and Iraq read a bit like a playground brawl. Russian annexation of the Crimea and her adventures in Eastern Ukraine, Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank could learn plenty from the history of the politics and antics of US expansionism; all are products of racial, religious, political or cultural chauvinism supporting unstated doctrines of manifest destiny. And moneyed privilege is what inevitably orchestrates the whole, turns humans into factory “parts,” clears the deck of inhabitants for profit-making enterprise, suppresses popular dissent violently, mercilessly.
      There are two ways of looking at the enormous gap in wealth and power in the USA today, but any discussion of its precursors has to go back to a history factually recorded. Zinn acknowledges that what we see today is evolutionary as much as it is conspiratorial. It’s not surprising that the dispossessed and the poor, the unemployed or unemployable, the labourers and minions that keep the gears of business and industry humming might come to see their lot as a direct consequence of the “elite’s” machinations in the political and economic arenas. Obviously, manipulation in the industrial, labour, banking, political spheres is only possible for those who have power and means, and we have only to look back at 2008 to see that when the corporate banking/investment world faces disaster, the paeans of the world are forced into rescuing their overlords. And in America today, it’s become futile to attempt access to political influence without wealth sufficient for election campaigns.
      I recently spent a month in Panama where American and Canadian expats with the necessary means have taken up residence in it’s more favourable climate. In conversation, some claimed that their decision to move rested on their disappointment with what the USA has become. I was never sure what the specifics of their concerns were, but sensed a deep distrust of liberalism as regards immigration, security, the constitutional amendments granting the right to bear arms, free speech, etc. etc. Some analysts have labeled the tense divide in American values and fortunes a “culture war,” I see it more as a continuation of the politics, economics, attitudes and opinions developed in a few hundred years of its history.             
     There’s a distinct line between the “ownership” and reluctant emancipation of slaves and the racial turmoil of today; between the annexation of Texas and California and the “wetback”/immigrant/refugee political adversity of today; between the bloody revolutionary and civil wars and American militarism, between the expulsion of the Cherokee from settlement areas to the present-day sorry lot of the indigenous population.
      Many have apparently tried to stem the reading of Zinn’s history with cries that it’s “full of lies.” I’m not in a position to judge that definitively, but the sources on which much of this history is based were archived documents pertaining to the events under discussion.
      Cicero is supposed to have said that history would treat him kindly because he intended to write it, and Churchill is credited with the line, “the victors write the histories.” Based on my own early education, I can verify that the history of Canada I was taught was very much a sanitized version of what really happened, a version that put the explorers, the settlers, the early governments in artificial light so that they would appear as heroes, statesmen and builders while neglecting the injustices done in the name of progress.
      If anyone has an equivalent history of Canada to recommend, I’d be happy to hear it. (  Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry edited by Steve Heinrichs presents a contribution in this direction. Also We are all Treaty People by Roger Epp. (If you’ll pardon a shameless plug for friends and relations.)


  1. You have probably read Lies My Teacher Told Me by ?? Loewen. Will the human race survive if we don't find an alternative culture to the Grab-and-run one in which we all now live?