Getting on the same page when it comes to American history

It’s almost impossible these days for people with different political views to have a meaningful conversation.  Each side is so committed to their point of view it seems there’s no basis for communication. On one news program after another, there is very little dialogue, and expressions range from bewilderment, to contempt and insults…


I had to ask myself why this is so, and after a while I started to have the feeling that the people on the left and right in this country have a very different sense of our history.  This is important because the history we tell ourselves and teach our children informs our identity. It effects how we see where our country is now, and where we need to go. Many of the people supporting the right wing candidates have one narrative in mind about who we are as a country, while people on the left follow a very different narrative. We may never get to complete agreement about who is right or wrong, but when it comes to history, I have faith that a good many of us can find common ground.  A majority of people do still have the capacity for critical thought, and most people do want to live in peace.

It’s been pointed out quite a few times in this election cycle that people on the left and right have a lot in common.  (1234) Both are dissatisfied with the status quo.  The left feel betrayed by neo-liberal, lying corporate democrats, and those on the right feel they have been sold out as well. Both sides feel they are not represented by establishment politicians.  There is more and more recognition that the system is rigged, as Bernie Sanders puts it, and that the 1% are profiting at the expense of everyone else.

Where left and right, independent and libertarian differ is in the story they tell of how we got here and who we are now as a nation.  I was encouraged, actually, to hear the phrase ‘low information voter’ used.  I like the term because it is not insulting.  It’s not calling anyone stupid or incapable of learning.  There’s a warning in the phrase however. We all know that people that have ‘low information’ can be misled.  They can be manipulated.

A few months ago I started looking for something in print on general Western history that I could refer to when I compare the current left and right narratives. I’m sure there are many fine books and articles out there, but most go into more detail about particular countries and time periods than I feel is most needed at this time.  My sense of it is that Americans do not agree on our general history and that this needs to come first.

Then this week, I finally found the kind of summary I was looking for.  A friend posted an interview with a socialist named Brian Becker where in a few minutes he covers

I. Western history prior to the 20th century,

II. the world wars, and

III., our world since then.

Over the years, I have found this general framework useful in understanding politics, and my place in the world. I see now, more than ever how important it is to have a historical perspective. It’s very difficult if not impossible to understand where we are now if we don’t know what came before. So I was grateful to find such a clear and concise history.

Here is a sketch of the history that Brian Becker laid out, with a few details added:

I. The period of Colonialism

From the 14th to the 19th centuries the colonial powers, the Dutch, British, Spanish, Portuguese and French expanded their empires over the entire earth. The phrase, ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’, could be have been equally applied to the other powers.  All of them had global reach and became incredibly wealthy through exploiting the labor and taking the resources of the colonies.

To give one example of the collusion between world powers in the 19th century, at the Berlin Conference in 1854, 13 European powers took out a map and agreed divide the entire African continent into sections they would respectively rule.  In less than 20 years, 90% of Africa was under colonial domination.

This much is generally agreed on.  What is easy to miss in such a dry telling of this history is the extent of the racism was a part of colonialism. It was a given that the rulers were inherently superior, and with that as a starting point, all over the world, taking land and exploiting the people there was justified.  See for example King Leopold’s Ghost, on the Belgians in the Congo; Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’, the Monroe Doctrine, or the so-called ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ that was used to justify taking indigenous peoples’ land.

These days, most of us in the West would not support or invest in products made by sweatshop or slave labor, and we likely would not stand for it being done at all, if we knew about it.  Starting in the last century, there’s been a sea change in our values, but remnants of the old economies and old racist ways of thinking are still with us.  They are hidden from the consumer, but they still function.

II. The World Wars

In the socialist interpretation, after five centuries of colonial expansion, in the 20th century the colonial powers fought each other in two world wars, which were wars for power and influence, and control of resources. To quote Glen Ford, of Black Agenda Report, in his essay on fascism from October 31st, 2018:

‘During the whole colonial period, most of the Left in Europe treated Black, brown and yellow lives as if they didn’t matter, all the while claiming to be the vanguard of humanity’s struggle for dignity. Then the mass murdering monster that had been marauding the darker world for centuries, fattening Europe, turned inward to eat Europe alive. Fascism was perceived as a new and singular evil, rather than the logical outcome of capitalism+white supremacy.’

This is an abbreviated telling of events, to be sure, but the point here is that these wars did not happen in a vacuum, divorced from the past, and the re-structuring of the world after the war, economically and politically, brings us right to the present day.

III. The Post World War II world

Following the world wars, the former colonial powers joined together to struggle against workers movements and anti colonial revolutions.  The Russian revolution of 1918 was followed by civil war in China in 1945, and by armed struggles for self determination in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.  Power and influence in the world since the second world war has been divided between the old colonial powers on the one hand, and those who fight for fundamental human rights on the other.

Here in the United States, we characterize the post WWII conflict as being between democracy (read: capitalism) and communism, or socialism.  Framing history in that way, I’m thinking now,  has been used as propaganda.  Socialist revolutionaries, such as Castro, and Che Guevara did advocate anti-imperialist revolutions everywhere they were needed, but, from what I can tell, neither the Soviet Union or China sought an unhindered global empire, as capitalist forces do to this day. The megalomaniacs that ruled in those countries in the 20th century turned tragically far from their ideals, but the principles behind the founding of those political systems remained.

In his essay, Eugene Debs and the Idea of Socialism, Howard Zinn wrote:

“To see the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a sign of the failure of socialism is to mistake the monstrous tyranny created by Stalin for the vision of an egalitarian and democratic society that has inspired enormous numbers of people all over the world.”

After the Second World War, the US and Great Britain overthrew democratically elected governments and installed or supported dictators in Iran in 1953Guatemala in 1954Chile in 1973, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Africa and elsewhere . These dictators have acted as surrogates for imperialist power.  They become extremely rich themselves (for example Suharto in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines, and the Duvalier family in Haiti, to name just a few) but they are still part of a larger power structure.

I learned last year of the work of a professor in Santa Barbara, named William Robinson, which I think highlights they way the world is functioning today.  He speaks of a transnational capitalism, that has no allegiance to any one country (despite what politicians might say about trade), and that has no respect for people or the environment anywhere.  Their only motive is profit.  They are essentially at war with people everywhere and with the entire planet.

It’s quite common to hear on the news, rich vs. poor analysis of events being dismissed as calling for ‘class warfare’.  What this shallow, knee-jerk criticism would have us overlook is that there is already a class war going on, and that with each passing year, rapacious capitalism is causing great harm to people and to this earth. For more and more of us, it’s becoming more clear all the time that it’s the rich, the 1%, with all their political and public relations power, verses everyone else.

A humanist, socialist reading of history gives us a framework to understanding past events, the wars, past and present, and the motivations of politicians right up to this day.  With this in mind, you can sometimes know the lies a politician is going to tell even before they say them.  It so obvious if you have an idea of who they represent.

Now, I can imagine a split screen – on one side a person who knows at least this much, and on the other, a person with a different narrative in their mind, one of believing this to be essentially a righteous country, with all its actions past and present noble and just. Both people may be relatively low information, as the phrase goes, but the second can be deceived and turned against their own interests, against humanity everywhere, and the planet.

I know that once a person becomes invested in their point of view, it’s very hard to change their opinion about anything.  Once it becomes part of their identity to be a republican or someone who is pro military, or pro business, free trade, or any other deceptive euphemism, it’s almost impossible to encourage critical thinking.  Still, I have hope because we all do have the capacity for reason, and we all do share the common wish to live in security and in peace.  In those rare moments when we are not stirred up emotionally, either with fear or anger, some light can get through. The majority of us do want a just and peaceful world for ourselves and our children. Now, how will we make our way there?

Left, right, center, independent and libertarian, all these groups can disagree on many things and still find common ground. A basic education in our shared history, though, is essential.  Without it, though we may have common aims, we are fighting each other, instead of the forces that oppress and threaten us all.  People vote, or write, or go to war based on their beliefs in the righteousness of their cause.  They invest in or tolerate corporations, or denounce them, participate in or fight against the destruction of our environment; profit from other’s exploitation, or work for social justice.  All this turns on our sense of history and therefore how we see ourselves.

It’s not good enough now to argue or debate just because we have a point of view we identify with and take pride in.  We have to do better. History is being written and there is too much is at stake these days for all of us. We each have an obligation to become educated, and then to share what we have learned with each other, and to teach the next generation.