Nations are not communities

A Peoples History of the United States

A People's History of the United States

I’m finally taking the time for a book I’ve been wanting (needing, really) to read for a long time. So rarely do I light on the cutting-edge of the latest books (witness Arthur C. Clarke…), but when the time is right for me, boy do I dive in.

In A People’s History of the United States, the venerable Howard Zinn sets up his groundbreaking approach — the reason the book’s title starts with “people” — right from the outset, in his retelling of the Columbus-Arawak genocide from the standpoint of the Arawak Indians. His fundamental viewpoint:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

And as always, when I see the word “community” I ponder how we have digitally co-opted the concept, and whether successfully or not. Perhaps with Internet communities we go beyond just the two sides – conquerors and conquered. It strikes me that “thinking people” are provided via the Internet with all opportunity to not just choose one side or the other, but to populate all of the lands between the two poles. Indeed, it seems the whole purpose of the oft-contentious “comments thread” is to voice a counter-opinion to the “memory of the state.”

It almost makes it sound like — on the Internet at least — there is no nation at all. Or am I being too idealistic? Do nations and corporations, in the end, still control the telling of the “history of a family”?

It does make me wonder how the conquest of the “Americas” would go down in history if the Internet were around as it happened.

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