Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The world used to really suck

I am reading a book right now called A People's History of the United States.  If you want a real pick me up, something to make you feel good about humanity, do not read this book.  It contains far too much truth about what unbelievable jerks people are to one another when given the choice.  The idea of this book is to tell the story of the history of the United States focusing on the people at the bottom of the social ladder.  Instead of details of battles and leaders it is a story about slaves, women, natives and poor white men who made up the vast majority of the population of the United States but who had tiny fractions of the power.

Reading this book you get to hear about a case right near 1900 where a black man was accused of murder when a white man shot at him and missed and the black man shot back with much greater aim.  The case is interesting because the black man was acquitted (self defence, obviously) and this was the first time in American history that a black person accused of killing a white person was not found guilty and executed.  You also get to hear about strikers who were demanding the end of such practices as forbidding conversation during the 14 hour work day, requiring mandatory church attendance and paying employees in company scrip which could only be spent at the company store.  The normal government response to this was to call in the military and have soldiers open fire on the strikers to get them back to work.  The stories of the unbelievable cruelty and savagery of the government towards the people least able to defend themselves are endless and it is clear that the government was simply a tool of the rich to subjugate the poor.

I have generally had fairly little respect for unions throughout my life but reading through the details of their beginnings and the conditions they were created to fight against has really given me a lot of perspective on the matter.  I also begin to see a very reasonable source for the common American sentiment that the government is evil and is simply out to get you - that was absolutely the unvarnished truth for several centuries though currently the waters are more muddied.  The people of the US could quite reasonably conclude that the government is simply a tool of the rich to keep the poor in line by law when possible, by violence when necessary and that culture is still around today.  The US government today is pretty dysfunctional still of course, you just have to consider their system of measurements, their military spending or their medical system to see that, but certainly it is hugely better than the early days in the 1700s and 1800s.

So if you want to understand the history of the US much better than most history classes would be able to achieve or gain some perspective on how great the world is today then this is a great book.  It sure is a miserable collection of stories of tremendous human suffering at the behest of other humans though.... too bad that is the truth of the matter.

Picture from Wikipedia.


  1. Would love to read this. Hold on to it for me?

  2. The library might be unhappy with that state of affairs. You will have to acquire it yourself I'm afraid.

  3. I actually own a copy, and could bring it up to TO to get passed on sometime in the next month if you like...

  4. It would end up in Thunder Bay, so you probably wouldn't get it back for years.... if ever. I don't mind passing it on if you don't need it though!

  5. I'm glad you have a better understanding of the need for unions. Some of what they do today is way over the top, but to be without them and completely at the mercy of the employer is a worse fate.

  6. Like I said in a previous post

    I think that unions are really a necessary thing when an employer is in a monopolistic situation. When the employee really does have a tremendous selection of choices for employment (and the government has the sorts of basic employee protections we enjoy these days) I don't see unions being especially helpful to society - though obviously they can help the employees some of the time. I will grant that in the past unions got those protections put in place, which is great, and that if unions are responsible for keeping them in place then that function is important.