Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology

Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology

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by Howard Zinn

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The acclaimed author of A People's History of the United States (more than 200,000 copies sold) presents an honest and piercing look at American political ideology.


The acclaimed author of A People's History of the United States (more than 200,000 copies sold) presents an honest and piercing look at American political ideology.

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Los Angeles Times
A shotgun blast of revisionism that aims to shatter all the comfortable myths of American political discourse.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One

American Ideology

The idea, which entered Western consciousness several centuries ago, that black people are less than human, made possible the Atlantic slave trade, during which perhaps 40 million people died. Beliefs about racial inferiority, whether applied to blacks or Jews or Arabs or Orientals, have led to mass murder.

The idea, presented by political leaders and accepted by the American public in 1964, that communism in Vietnam was a threat to our "national security" led to policies that cost a million lives, including those of 55,000 young Americans.

The belief, fostered in the Soviet Union, that "socialism" required a ruthless policy of farm collectivization, as well as the control of dissent, brought about the deaths of countless peasants and large numbers of political prisoners.

Other ideas--leave the poor on their own ("laissez-faire") and help the rich ("economic growth")--have led the U.S. government for most of its history to subsidize corporations while neglecting the poor, thus permitting terrible living and working conditions and incalculable suffering and death. In the years of the Reagan presidency, "laissez-faire" meant budget cutting for family care, which led to high rates of infant mortality in city ghettos.

We can reasonably conclude that how we think is not just mildly interesting, not just a subject for intellectual debate, but a matter of life and death.

If those in charge of our society--politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television--can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling thestreets. We will control ourselves.

Because force is held in reserve and the control is not complete, we can call ourselves a "democracy." True, the openings and the flexibility make such a society a more desirable place to live. But they also create a more effective form of control. We are less likely to object if we can feel that we have a "pluralist" society, with two parties instead of one, three branches of government instead of one-man rule, and various opinions in the press instead of one official line.

A close look at this pluralism shows that it is very limited. We have the kinds of choices that are given in multiple-choice tests, where you can choose a, b, c, or d. But e, f, g, and h are not even listed.

And so we have the Democratic and Republican parties (choose a or b), but no others are really tolerated or encouraged or financed. Indeed, there is a law limiting the nationally televised presidential debates to the two major parties.

We have a "free press," but big money dominates it; you can choose among Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. On television, you can choose among NBC, CBS, and ABC. There is a dissident press, but it does not have the capital of the great media chains and cannot get the rich corporate advertising, and so it must strain to reach small numbers of people. There is public television, which is occasionally daring, but also impoverished and most often cautious.

We have three branches of government, with "checks and balances," as we were taught in junior high school. But one branch of government (the presidency) gets us into wars and the other two (Congress and the Supreme Court) go sheepishly along.

There is the same limited choice in public policy. During the Vietnam War, the argument for a long time was between those who wanted a total bombing of Indochina and those who wanted a limited bombing. The choice of withdrawing from Vietnam altogether was not offered. Daniel Ellsberg, working for Henry Kissinger in 1969, was given the job of drawing a list of alternative policies on Vietnam. As one possibility on his long list he suggested total withdrawal from the war. Kissinger looked at the possibilities and crossed that one off before giving the list to President Richard Nixon.

In debates on the military budget there are heated arguments about whether to spend $300 billion or $290 billion. A proposal to spend $100 billion (thus making $200 billion available for human needs) is like the e or f in a multiple-choice test--it is missing. To propose zero billion makes you a candidate for a mental institution.

On the question of prisons there is debate on how many prisons we should have. But the idea of abolisbing prisons is too outrageous even to be discussed.

We hear argument about how much the elderly should have to pay for health care, but the idea that they should not have to pay anything, indeed, that no one should have to pay for health care, is not up for debate.

Thus we grow up in a society where our choice of ideas is limited and where certain ideas dominate: We hear them from our parents, in the schools, in the churches, in the newspapers, and on radio and television. They have been in the air ever since we learned to walk and talk. They constitute an American ideology--that is, a dominant pattern of ideas. Most people accept them, and if we do, too, we are less likely to get into trouble.

The dominance of these ideas is not the product of a conspiratorial group that has devilishly plotted to implant on society a particular point of view. Nor is it an accident, an innocent result of people thinking freely. There is a process of natural (or, rather unnatural) selection, in which certain orthodox ideas are encouraged, financed, and pushed forward by the most powerful mechanisms of our culture. These ideas are preferred because they are safe; they don't threaten established wealth or power.

For instance:

"Be realistic; this is the way things are; there's no point thinking abouthow things should be. "

"People who teach or write or report the news should be objective; theyshould not try to advance their own opinions."

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