You are browsing the archive for howard zinn.

Some Vignettes for Thanksgiving

8:02 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

Photo by Puzzler4879

What many Americans might find perplexing is that I have this affliction that is a result of knowledge. History, politics and government, social science, and more all in some way influence the way that I think about life. Psychologically, I don’t just go through the motions and engage in rituals or traditions just because that’s what other people do. I have opinions (which I believe many people do too). They are damn hard to suppress.

That said, this holiday I’m thankful for all the things that most people are thankful for. But, what I am not thankful for is a society that celebrates this holiday without regard for the history that is this holiday’s foundation. And, since it was this year that the people’s historian Howard Zinn died, I find it fitting to honor him by posting some excerpts from an NPR interview he did on November 27, 2003. In the interview, which was conducted by Tavis Smiley, he discussed major omissions in American history:

SMILEY: Let me talk about the American past and some of those omissions that you’ve talked about and written about specifically. Our time is limited. Lets first talk about the omissions relative to Native Americans. Can you first give us a snapshot of how the indigenous peoples of this part of the world have been portrayed historically?

Prof. ZINN: Well, first of all, the treatment of our history with the Indians, with the indigenous population, is a very, weak, inadequate treatment. I remember going to school and, you know, I would learn about the Indians who came to Thanksgiving dinner gratefully, and I would learn about Custer’s last stand, you know, I would learn about Sitting Bull. There are a few moments in Indian history we learn about.

What we didn’t learn about was the fact that the American colonists who came here from the beginning were invading Indian soil and driving the Indians out of their land and committing massacres in order to persuade the Indians that they had better move. And the history of the United States is a history of hundreds of little wars fought against the Indians, annihilating them, pushing them farther and farther and farther into a smaller and smaller piece of the country, and finally, in the late 19th century, sort of taking the Indians that were left and squeezing them onto reservations and controlling them. I mean, this is the history that is not told in most American textbooks.

The story that’s not told is the deceptions that were played on the Indians, the treaties that were made with them and treaties then broken by the American government. It’s important to know that because if you know that, then you will become aware that the American government can lie, it can deceive people, it can do it not only in relation to Native Americans, it can do it in relation to all of us.

Zinn was a man of conscience who understood the importance of history. He understood that the official story that American children learn in school (especially in relation to Thanksgiving) is quite often subjective, not objective. It celebrates what happened with Native Americans around Thanksgiving. As right wing author Laura Ingraham and other conservatives might say, it allows one to get away with not “blaming America.”

Nobody really wants to “blame America” or make America guilty. Those like Zinn and myself just want people to not whitewash history or fabricate a reality that is divorced from this nation’s real past. In order to do that, though, an American can’t rely on an American education, unfortunately. An American citizen has to independently seek out information in a library or get lost in a Google Search browsing writings about what really happened (hopefully looking at materials with some sources or citations that don’t just come from Human Events or Glenn Beck’s “Arguing with Idiots”).

There’s nothing wrong with Thanksgiving just being a ritual event for getting together with family and watching the Detroit Lions or Dallas Cowboys and getting out the ads for Black Friday to see what one is going to go buy tomorrow morning because they have to get gifts for Christmas (or gifts for themselves). There’s nothing wrong, really, with just looking forward to some Thanksgiving turkey and a holiday weekend away from the office or work (Americans are a hard-working people; the lower and middle classes are largely underpaid). But, well, actually, there is a problem if what you are doing to enjoy yourself is so unconscious that you aren’t even aware of how your celebration with family fits in to the world around you.

For example, remember this video? This is from two years ago. Sarah Palin did a press conference in Wasilla, Alaska, when she was pardoning a turkey. All would have been well except Palin stood in front of the very machine that was slaughtering another turkey while doing a press interview on the pardon. Those who tuned in were treated to a woman oblivious to the fact that what was being piped into American living rooms all over the country was in many respects quite gruesome.

Palin’s obliviousness could be considered a metaphor. Let’s face it America: all too often the majority of us are talking or moonlighting. There’s a focus on me, me, me and a tacit ignorance of what is happening in our surroundings. Proverbial turkeys are being slaughtered and those slaughtered turkeys really infuriate some in our country but mostly people all over the world that wonder why many can’t see what is happening.

Granted, slaughtering turkeys is no injustice. But, an American political leader who is incapable of properly creating a piece of Thanksgiving propaganda to boost an approval rating: that’s unjust.

If Americans could just give off the appearance that they were a people who were half a bubble off, things would be a lot better. But, Americans get angry when terror suspects get their day in court and “boo” proceedings that don’t allow evidence obtained by torture to factor into the verdict. Americans fling poop at Barack Obama for supposedly hurting the free market economy with an economic stimulus and auto bailouts that appear to have had little impact on the ability of corporations to make record profits. Americans cry out against “socialism” and entitlement programs but use unemployment benefits, Social Security and Medicare (of course, now that jobless benefits haven’t been extended they get to see what it’s like to really pull one’s self up by his or her own boot straps). A number of Americans seriously think they have a right to not believe in science, like the idea that climate change is seriously threatening the Earth; some of those cite the Bible as reason why they are certain humanity is not under a threat from global warming.

It’s Thanksgiving and I’m sure there are a number of people who are repulsed by the idea that I am so cynical and pessimistic about Americans. Some might even ask why I can’t be positive and thankful for what I got like other Americans and relax on this holiday. Positive thinking — in the face of all the evidence that lies before us as a people, I should just suspend my doubts and eat some turkey and mashed potatoes happily. I know friends and family would like that.

So, allow me to share with you two pieces of art that make me smile this holiday. I’ve always enjoyed them. First, I was driving home listening to my SIRIUS radio when I came into the middle of “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie. But, this version wasn’t the original version. It was a 30th Anniversary version with a special segment of the song touching on Guthrie’s invitation to President Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration.

Here’s the part I really like:

“…the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into/the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”.   And walk out.   You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him.   And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both f*ggots and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization.   And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out.   And friends they may thinks it’s a movement”

The video has embedding turned off, but here’s a full version of the song for your enjoyment. This is Guthrie singing in 2005

And, finally, nothing is more heartwarming than John Hughes’ film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Few films continually capture my heart and make me laugh hysterically. The sentimental scenes where Dell Griffith (John Candy) is pouring his heart out to Neil Page (Steve Martin) make one understand that some people just need a person they can talk to or have listen to them. Sure, you might end up on a train that breaks down or a bus that doesn’t go far enough or in a rental car that eventually catches fire and is deemed unsafe for driving by a police officer that pulls you over but you know that you are likely to make a friend if you just give the person a chance.

Let the Thanksgiving holiday be about friends, family, and singing a bit of “Alice’s Restaurant” with a smile or grin on your face. Pile the food you are able to have, be thankful you have food to eat, think about the foodless families this holiday and perhaps commit to doing more to make this world a better place in December and the New Year.

(Also, if Uncle John tries to talk inflation with Glenn Beck tinfoil hat nonsense, don’t hesitate to shut Uncle John down with some, I don’t know, logic. Religion and politics are supposed to be off-limits at family events. Forget that and have a happy Thanksgiving.)

The New Republic’s Sean Wilentz Greatly Misunderstands Movement Politics

8:39 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

People from various social movements gather for “One Nation Working Together,” a rally held on Oct. 2nd that demonstrated movements in America are convinced they must depend heavily on the Democratic Party for success. | Photo by Kevin Gosztola

Sean Wilentz, writer for The New Republic, thinks he understands why the Obama Administration has floundered: movement politics has undone and unraveled his presidency. To a point, Wilentz would be right, but the conclusion that Wilentz comes to is to utterly disregard movements and engage in “‘status quo’ politics” to save his presidency and ensure re-election in 2012.

A look at recent columns on “movements” and “activism” in the country would likely reveal that there is nothing all that exceptional about Wilentz’s view. It’s conventional wisdom in professional journalism. All the more reason to dissect his viewpoint.

His article titled, “Live By the Movement, Die by the Movement,” characterizes social movement politics as “Obama’s doomed theory.” The outline of history on how a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Marshall Ganz, was “hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training volunteers” may be interesting to some who are unaware with how Obama developed his campaign.

Peter Dreier, a member of Progressives for Obama and a politics professor at Occidental College, also receives some attention as a publicist who posted articles to The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Dissent. Dreier apparently channeled “memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movement, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes,” to help develop a campaign that could “transform the very sum and substance of the political system.”

Readers are reminded that President Obama, as president, would be “organizer-in-chief” tapping into movements that elected him to “reform health care, end global warming, and restore economic prosperity.” The movements would provide President Obama with the opening to bring change the people believed in. But, unfortunately, as progressives or liberals know, things didn’t go as planned.

After the midterm election, Ganz, according to Wilentz, charged that President Obama “lost his organizer’s fire and neglected to deliver the wonderful speeches that would frame the political course for the movement.” He “lamely sought reform”inside the system structured to resist change” and ignored, in fact, scorned “liberal and leftist advocacy groups.” Networks on were demobilized and he became “transactional” instead of “transformational.” (President Obama acknowledged this reality in his post-midterm election press conference saying he had hoped to change processes but in the end his Administration had been in such a hurry to get things done that they didn’t change how it was done.)

Wilentz argues that Ganz does not understand is that bringing movement politics into the presidency “may have been a dead end” and that it may have “helped foster an inevitable disillusionment.” Here is where Wilentz starts to misunderstand and craft a false understanding of movements and politics in America.

If Ganz is right that President Obama and his administration ignored and scorned advocacy groups–which they did—Wilentz is proceeding a premise that doesn’t exist. In order to criticize movement politics in the White House as a failure, movement politics would have had to be employed by its members. Say one entertains the idea that movement politics were tried, what about Wilentz’s concepts on movement politics?

Wilentz’s suggests “fundamental to the social movement model is a conception of American political history in which movements, and not presidents, are the true instigators for change. Presidents are merely reactive. They are not the main protagonists.” He says Obama “endorsed” this idea when he proclaimed, “Real change comes from the bottom up.” He adds an example: people who believe this model claim President Abraham Lincoln would “never have been the Great Emancipator had the abolitionists not pushed him to do so.”

Interwoven in this article is the deep-seated contempt Wilentz had and still has for the late Howard Zinn. He was asked by the Los Angeles Times to provide his opinion on Zinn’s work as a historian. Wilentz told the newspaper, “To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great.”

Wilentz also told the newspaper, Zinn “saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.”

If one knows that Wilentz utterly rejects the notion history has been determined by people at the bottom, it becomes obvious that his essay will likely be one designed to disparage the idea that political leaders allow movement politics to influence their governance.

He argues that “Abraham Lincoln did not have to be awoken to the evils of slavery; he hated slavery all his life” so “the idea of change coming from below, of course, is simplistic.” If one ignores the recent history books published (which are featured in this article from US News & World Report), Wilentz is correct. But, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states and territories the freedom to abolish slavery. He thought he had to avoid the issue of slavery as president to preserve the Union. Black abolitionist and “radical” Republicans helped shift the political climate and create the opening that led President Lincoln to propose the idea of emancipation.

After providing his version of history on President Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, Wilentz shoots down Ganz and Dreier’s idea that what had been liberal or Democratic politics had been suffering a “values” problem. There’s reason to criticize Ganz and Dreier, who were likely responding to conventional wisdom promoted by the corporate media in 2004 that “moral values” influenced people’s votes. But, Ganz and Dreier were smart to try and ignite a movement based on “feelings and values.” If the Bush Administration had done anything to citizens, it had made them feel powerless and wary of government. The people desired a leader to campaign and contend they could put this country back on the right course and ensure government returned to upholding the values and principles it should uphold.

Wilentz correctly brings out a paradox: that the movement leader, President Obama, would now push politicians to create change when he was in the White House. Such a paradox compels one to ask, did his position in the White House effectively mean whatever “movement” built up prior to his election was destined to splinter and dissipate completely? Possibly.

What’s missing from this analysis of movement politics is a mentioning of the influence of corporate and special interest money, especially money from Wall Street, which Obama used to fund his campaign. And, what’s missing is an understanding that the people in his “movement” ceased to be “grassroots” when they began to take marching orders and go to “Camp Obamas” run by campaign leaders. This meant the “movement” was now under the control of the Obama campaign and their votes were not up for grabs and they could be counted on to be foot soldiers for the campaign.

Typically in history, movements have run leaders to wage electoral struggles for social justice. The Anti-Slavery Party (which later became the Republican Party) and the Liberty Party were both parties that ran against slavery in the mid-1800s. They made it possible for the issue of slavery to become a mainstream issue and understood they had to have an electoral component as well as a social movement component to their struggle to end slavery.

A better analysis from Wilentz would suggest that because the “movement” didn’t run a leader for president the dynamics of movement politics were different. While Obama appeared to understand bottom-up or grassroots politics, the campaign still expected to exact a level of control over the people who wanted to see him win. The campaign did regulate what issues were important to the campaign and what were not. And, when factions of the campaign took issue with Obama (like when he voted for the FISA Amendments Act and supported the expanded use of wiretapping), those factions were mollified quickly.

In concluding his essay, Wilentz illuminates how Obama’s post-partisan attempts to work with the Republican Party failed and then proceeds to suggest that Obama must engage in “day-to-day political trench warfare” like President Clinton did after 1994 in order to survive politically. Such a conclusion raises the question: Can a historian understand movement history if he or she is not a participant in any movements?

Wilentz’s solution sounds very similar to other commentators’ suggestions that Obama must uphold centrist politics because liberalism or “left-wing politics” lost severely in the midterm election. His prescription for Obama is a liberal intelligentsia answer to solving the current woes the president faces. It does not consider how “day-to-day political trench warfare” would impact citizens and it does not ask why citizens should favor that tactic.

Ultimately, his essay is lazy. He doesn’t address any of the interest groups that have tried to influence Obama since his election. He offers no insight on how groups advocating for healthcare for all or a public option were asked to remain in a proverbial veal pen so the Administration could continue to get away with backroom deals with private insurance and drug companies designed to prevent the companies from killing the health reform legislation. He does not discuss all the organizing unions have engaged in for President Obama and how the Administration has opted to protect Wall Street instead of showing interest in improving the wellbeing of workers in America and what that might mean for movement politics. And, he does not discuss the environmentalist movement or the peace movement and how they have been valiantly trying to organize in a climate where independent activism is becoming more marginalized.

Oddly, the Tea Party doesn’t enter into this analysis at all. He doesn’t address their impact on the public’s conception of movement politics. Are Americans to assume they aren’t really a movement? Or should Americans be informed of how corporations are using fearful Americans to co-opt and revise the history of social movements in this country to fit their capitalist agenda?

The people’s interests aren’t and will never be the same as the interests of political leaders in America. The people are not politicians. They are citizens. They don’t have corporate financiers. They don’t need to worry about getting re-elected or staying on message. They don’t need to craft an identity. Their interests involve fixing communities and upholding values that do not provide cover for the destruction of humanity. Their interests should be survival and, therefore, when the top 1% seek to concentrate all wealth at the top and keep it out of the hands of the lower classes, that should be regarded as an affront to survival.

If, in fact, Obama sought to utilize any “movement” over the past two years, the failure isn’t because he was inept or didn’t know what to do. The reality is history indicates movements have been managed and herded into supporting Democratic presidential candidates for decades. Movement leaders have willingly allowed the Democratic Party to herd their movement and then splinter it in two by proposing reforms that will divide movements (e.g. proposing a public option which splintered those who favored “Medicare for All” lessening the impact of health care activists).

History Channel’s “The People Speak”: A Much-Needed Lesson in Hope and Change for a Nation’s People

9:53 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

How to pare down a 752-page book into a 2-hour cable television event must have been a challenge for the producers of The People Speak, but those behind The People Speak succeed beautifully in presenting a tableau of Zinn’s revolutionary piece of nonfiction.

Celebrity personalities come together and read lyrics, prose, and literature that, for the most part, is ignored by the American population especially the nation’s leaders.

Each of the readings come from The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a book that has sold over 2 million copies.

The special television event lays out concisely how what freedom and democracy people of this nation enjoy is enjoyed because people in history had the courage and moral fortitude to struggle, to be troublemakers and act out because they believed they should stand for a world that ought to be and not simply a world rife with injustice and inequality.

Harris Yulin reads a Columbus Sun Editorial, “The Class That Suffers,” which holds an extreme amount of poignancy and relevance when you consider the current growing economic injustice in America. [Text to be posted if I can find it on the Internet.]

The reading that Rosario Dawson gives of the “Women’s Declaration of Independence” and the exchange that occurs between Christina Kirk and Josh Brolin who portray a court scene between Susan B. Anthony and Judge Hunt remind us of how far women have come in this nation yet compel us to not forget that women’s reproductive rights regularly become bargaining chips in legislative reform battles in this nation.

[JOSH BROLIN as JUDGE HUNT]: The sentence of the Court is that you pay a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs of the prosecution.

[CHRISTINA KIRK as SUSAN B. ANTHONY]: May it please your honor, I will never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. All the stock in trade I possess is a debt of $10,000, incurred by publishing my paper "The Revolution" the sole object of which was to educate all women to do precisely as I have done, rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, which tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while denying them the right of representation in the government; and I will work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."

Viggo Mortensen brought an anti-war perspective of an International Workers of the World (IWW) member to life:

[VIGGO MORTENSEN as IWW MEMBER] If you were a bum without a blanket; if you had left your wife and kids when you went west for a job, and had never located them since; if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if you slept in a lousy, sour bunkhouse, and ate food just as rotten as they could give you and get by with it; if deputy sheriffs shot your cooking cans full of holes and spilled your grub on the ground; if your wages were lowered on you when the bosses thought they had you down; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in the hell do you expect a man to be patriotic? This war is a business man’s war and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy.

Each element of The People Speak is a reminder of (or for some Americans, an introduction to) how government has only ever been moved to act by the actions of organized citizens. Pure sentiments or feelings or public opinion has rarely translated into any kind of meaningful change.

Out of all that is read, perhaps, the people’s reading that may hold the most significance in these times is Langston Hughes’ “Ballad of Roosevelt” written in November of 1934. Read the words of this poem or view Danny Glover reading them:

“Ballad of Roosevelt"

Striking and rebellion all over this country is what eventually forced Roosevelt to pass the New Deal, which so many Democrats now celebrate. Plug in Obama for Roosevelt and you will start to wonder how many households are telling their loved ones they are tired of waitin’ on Obama.

You will wonder how much longer people will ask, “What’s the matter?” before they get organized and act to fight injustice, claim dignity, and further emancipate humanity.

Some of the celebrity personalities who supported Obama’s election lent their support to the creation of The People Speak. For example, Bruce Springsteen sang, “This Land is Your Land” during the special, a song that was sung at Obama’s Inaugural Celebration earlier this year by musicians like Pete Seeger.

Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, John Legend, Bob Dylan, and others involved no doubt voiced support for Obama at some point in the last couple of years (which leads one to wonder if any of them asked the president to watch this special event Sunday night).

There’s a level of discord occurring when actors and musicians read the words of heroes in the people’s history of America after they have voted for a president to bring the American people change, something past presidents historically have fought to prevent from happening for the people when president.

Viewing The People Speak, one might realize the arguments and differences we have over who will be a good or bad leader, the different conceptions of what one can and cannot do as a leader in government, and the different ideas on how the people can benefit from and share in the power these leaders may enjoy in government upon being elected to office prevent us from the real organizing that has led to real action and real social movements for better laws, policies and programs in America.

One realizes the people of this country do not need the leader of this nation to be on their side to rule. The president does not need the consent of the governed to defend this nation’s ruling class’ interests at the expense of lower classes.

And, the president will take little note of public opinion as he works to control public unrest in times of economic strife and civic arousal.

The people have no interest in being a part of the decision-making process that leads to more brutalizing and maiming of civilians in Afghanistan, that sends tens of thousands more troops to countries in the Middle East to kill and be killed physically or psychologically, that defends the right of health insurance companies to sell a flawed product to consumers, that will bail out banks before bailing out people facing home foreclosure crises, economic rape from credit card companies, or joblessness on an obscene scale, that fights meaningful action to halt global warming and restore and protect Mother Earth in the face of corporate domination and exploitation, etc.

The People Speak shows the people have an interest in food, shelter, health, education, a job with a decent income, family, community, and all other things are things people have been duped into believing they want or need in the consumer society we live in or the empire we live under.

Hopefully, the wider audience that saw Zinn for the first time takes note and begins to confront themselves and their role in this country. It is us who hold the answers and power to our future. Whatever future we get has always been up to us, and that’s how it always will be.

See video of Zinn’s appearance on Bill Moyers (w/ transcript)