Monday, December 14, 2009

The People Spoke

I watched “People Speak” on The History Channel last night. I loved it. Some won’t agree. Howard Zinn, is, to say the least, a controversial figure, even an instigator. Many call him Marxist, socialist, anarchist, even liar. As one blogger put it today:

“Zinn has spent a lifetime teaching college students about the evils of capitalism, the promise of Marxism, and his version of American history – a history that has, in his view, been kept from students. His controversial 1980-book The People’s History of the United States paints traditional American history as a façade – one that has grotesquely immortalized flawed leaders and is based on principles that victimize the common man. In 2004, Zinn wrote a companion book entitled Voices Of A People’s History Of The United States, which includes speeches and writings from many of the people featured in The People’s History.

How could you put this forward as HISTORY? It's political commentary without attribution.”

History is written by the victors. I’m not sure who wrote that but it’s true and in America’s case, ‘victors’ include those in political and financial control, those who fund, publish, market the books we study in grade school.

With that in mind, I found Zinn’s program interesting, entertaining, even inspiring. I’ve read Zinn’s “The People’s History,” and yes, as the blogger writes, Zinn suggests that the history told in school, in books, is not the whole truth, but I think what Zinn is actually asking us to do is to view all accepted history with skepticism. There is no one history and for each group, perhaps for each person, it will be different. America’s history is certainly not always heroic. For many peoples, it was filled with tragedy and horror. But part of America’s greatness, I think, is that we are able to still hear voices telling those histories and recognize them. Zinn’s is one of the voices, and he puts forward the case for an alternate history, or at least versions of alternate histories, which I believe are no less true than those I read in my sixth grade history book.

In People Speak, various actors and celebrities recite the words of historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Langston Hughes, Cesar Chavez. Yes, Zinn sometimes seems a little heavy handed in his dismissal of the ‘accepted’ history but the words, poems, songs, speeches he evinces should be heard. Here is one I particularly loved, a speech given by the African American abolitionist and woman's rights activist Sojourner Truth in 1851 at The Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It’s not the version on Zinn’s program, but equally spellbinding:

As a citizen of Israel, I’ll add that Israel is similarly experiencing the painful recognition of alternate histories. There is valid Palestinian anger to the Israel Palestinian conflict—towns were razed, people killed, intent sometimes verged on evil. Israel is beginning the painful recognition that their truth is not the Palestinians. Revisionist historians who write about Israeli transgressions such as Benny Morris have gained widespread recognition, films such as Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir, which present the moral ambiguity of Israel’s history, were wildly popular and won many awards. Anyway, in both cases, that of the US and Israel, history moves, as it must.

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