Howard Zinn’s people speak…through celebrities



The unfortunate passing of Howard Zinn earlier this year was accompanied by a greater number of panegyrics about his work than probing explorations of its legacy. Zinn’s most famous book, “A People’s History of the United States,” is an exposition of American history’s marginalized narratives: poorly-treated low-rank soldiers of the Revolutionary War, indebted farmers, slaves, freedom fighters for civil rights, labor activists and organizers, even Socialists – a list that gives one a sense of the political direction in which the book is often taken to lean.

Zinn worked on “A People’s History” over the 1970s, when it would have been the perfect expression of the Zeitgeist, in which radical critiques of prevailing orthodoxies reigned. But by the time it appeared, in 1980, conservatism was staging a comeback, and Ronald Reagan’s presidency ushered in a patriotic renewal. Instead of being embraced as part of the spirit of the times, Zinn’s book became a partisan lightning rod, a rally point and target in the culture wars.    

That made the reaction to “The People Speak,” a documentary based on Zinn’s work that aired on the History Channel late last year, just before his passing, fairly predictable. The History Channel tends to play it safe ideologically. When it actually runs historical programming (much of its content is now reality TV), it prefers to stick to straightforward accounts of military strategy, leaving politics out of sight and mind. Its moniker, “the Hitler Channel,” is hardly undeserved.

But even the battlefield isn’t completely apolitical: it turns out that many fans of military history either prefer their American story with a side of triumphalism (you don’t see many History Channel programs about Vietnam). So it came as little surprise that the channel’s decision to postpone its regularly scheduled D-Day docudramas for a film based on a controversially revisionist work of American history caused a bit of an uproar. Devoted viewers declared they would abandon a channel they’d watched religiously for years. In the context of a growing chorus in American political discourse that labels any tendency it doesn’t approve of with the conversation-stopping pejorative “socialist”, Zinn’s documentary went so far as to celebrate individuals who wholeheartedly embraced that label.

Indeed, much of Zinn’s work – reflected in “The People Speak” – still seems fresh. Labor history may continue to thrive in the trenches of academia, but it’s hardly scratched the surface of the public discourse, even at a time when it might seem more relevant than ever. Nor does one hear much today about the class resentment that Zinn shows was surprisingly prevalent against the ceaselessly venerated Founding Fathers.  And in the face of the Obama administration’s plodding and hesitant response to the ongoing recession, Zinn’s claim that Franklin D. Roosevelt was cajoled into implementing many New Deal reforms by popular protest and labor action is a frightening reminder of what happens when government remains cautious and inattentive in the midst of crisis.

Other segments deliver a 21st century update on the themes that Zinn piled into the original book, linking the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to previous episodes of American expansionism. Especially necessary, given the rest of the History Channel’s programming, is Zinn’s reminder that the Second World War – which, like other wars in American history, heightened instances of segregation and class conflict, and which inflicted needless deaths on civilians – has been historically sugarcoated, its memory exploited to justify a seemingly ceaseless stream of further conflict.

But, thirty years after the publication of “A People’s History” many of Zinn’s stories have lost their radical edge – if simply because they have been so successfully incorporated into mainstream thought. Few would dispute the historical relevance of Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X. Anarchist Emma Goldman and Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs are staples of any decent U.S. history textbook. The ideas that slavery was acquiesced to by its victims or that it could be thought of as a familial relationship (notions that still had currency in the 1950s) are ridiculed. Many of the faces and voices Zinn first pointed to thirty years ago are now firmly entrenched in curricula – if still not universally acclaimed.

Where does that leave a contemporary reworking like “The People Speak”? Beyond being a nice capstone to Zinn’s career, and illuminating some of his less popularized insights, the documentary itself comes off as a bit counterproductive. Beyond standard historical stock footage and voiceovers by Zinn, the star attractions are celebrities who give theatrical readings of primary source documents, acting out the roles of the marginalized voices in Zinn’s narrative. Some of the performances are strong and arresting, but in other cases, the stars’ wattage distracts from the historical message.

Some of the choices are particularly cringe-worthy. Zinn cites “Dear Mr. President,” an anti-Bush ballad by singer-songwriter Pink, as a contemporary example of activists who decry the ironies arising from a system of ideals compromised by a stark reality – and Pink appears in the film to perform the entire piece. Pink’s message is legitimate, but her presence – and celebrity – diminishes the focus on the suppressed and subaltern. The same is true for many of the other stars’ involvement. It’s a little strange that the producers felt that the travails of the underclass were best expressed by the wealthy, superficially-admired people to whom Americans already wantonly turn over so much of their money and time. If they were meant to grab viewers’ attention, they probably did not wind up doing so for the words they were selected to speak.

That does not necessarily impugn the celebrities’ own motives for appearing in the film; some of them are informed fans of Zinn’s work – particularly Matt Damon, who was inspired by Zinn while growing up near him in Cambridge (he famously championed “A People’s History” in Good Will Hunting, the breakout film he wrote and starred in with Ben Affleck). Damon only plays a bit part on screen in “The People Speak,” but was a major force behind the scenes: He spent nearly a decade trying to bring it to television.

Doubtless part of the opposition to the film – and part of the fury that has frequently been leveled at Zinn – is that his work appears to emphasize only the negatives in American history. A narrative that dwells on events like the debtors’ rebellions of 1786, which motivated the Constitution’s instantiation of a strong central government; the New York Draft Riots, exposing the class conflict simmering beneath the surface of the Civil War; or the oppression continuously endured by Native Americans does not seem to leave many positive examples. But Zinn counters by asserting that there is a silver lining to his narrative: it shows “people below behaving magnificently”. 

In fact, like any other positive account of American history, Zinn celebrates democracy, albeit a version of American democracy that deeply emphasizes extraparliamentary and extraconstitutional movement as the engine of meaningful change. His stance raises questions about the extent to which he would continue to embrace these ideas today. The increasing noise made by the Tea Party movement is a reminder that plenty of “people’s movements” never made it into Zinn’s history – those that didn’t fit his ideological valence. Radical libertarians and religious fundamentalists have also had a significant – if sometimes frighteningly destabilizing – influence on American history. As much justice resulted from the courageous acts of many individuals Zinn celebrates, the rule of law can be bent both ways.

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