Howard Zinn's show has been "hyped" says Ron Radosh in a highly critical review





In 1997, Matt Damon played the part of a janitor who turned out to be not only a math wizard, but one of the most brilliant men you could find anywhere. Trying to impress an arrogant Harvard student, who thought he knew everything, Damon’s character quotes from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He tells the Harvard kid and a psychiatrist at the hospital he works at that “you’re surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass.”

A few years later, HBO’s “The Sopranos” had a Columbus Day episode. Tony’s kid informs him that they don’t celebrate it at school, because Columbus was a practitioner of genocide against the Indian natives in the new land. When Tony asks him where he got that from, he tells him it was from their school textbook , Zinn’s People’s History.

Zinn’s book has now gone through many editions, and became the single best selling text of history that has ever been published- selling over two million copies—some 128,000 each year since his first edition was published over twenty years ago! Schools around the nation actually use it as a textbook. As Dan Flynn notes, the course statement for a history class at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA states that “This is an advanced class and all students should have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States before the first day of class, to give us a common background to begin the class.”

So if you want to know why the current generation hews to a left-wing world view, look no further than the influence of Zinn. Lenin once famously quipped that “We will sell the capitalists the rope that we will use to hang them.” So true, except now the TV networks and its corporate owners are buying not the rope, but Zinn’s book for an even bigger mass market.

When Zinn’s book was just published, Matt Damon lived next door to him. He and his friend Ben Affleck spent long hours with Zinn. For many years Damon and Affleck tried to fund a major TV mini-series based on Zinn’s book. Originally, it looked like Fox had signed a deal, but it was squashed by Rubert Murdoch. Now, they have managed to partially reach their goal, with this Sunday’s TV special on the History channel, called “The People Speak: Democracy is Not A Spectator Sport.”

The hype for the show has been everywhere. On the TV talk shows you cannot have escaped its stars hyping it. If you read a popular news magazine or a daily paper, you’ve heard about it. Its adherents all make the same argument: for the first time, you get the real American story. The point is not to study and understand the past, but rather, as Damon told The New York Times,to show the past’s resonance for today, when the public is angry about banks and bailouts, and foreign wars. “That’s by design,” Damon said. “What they were up against oftentimes are exactly the same things we’re up against now.” Zinn added people rebelled in the past, and he hopes the series will spread rebellion now, and “lead into a larger movement for economic justice.” Zinn sees history as a tool to be utilized behalf of radical politics- not as a way to understand our country’s growth and development.

As The History Channel people present it, as do many of the actors and stars on the program, it is all so benign— simply a way to show the nation through dramatic readings, songs and Zinn’s narrative, some of the key documents that were at the center of our nation’s past. Viggo Mortensen says that it is history “from the standpoint of ordinary people often overlooked in our textbooks and our culture.” (This of course, is hardly the case. Indeed, for the past two decades, the new social historians have dominated the profession of history, and if anything has been overlooked in our universities and textbooks, it is plain old political history and narrative history.) Mortensen points to the voice of an IWW member, who points out WW I “is a businessman’s war,” and hence the people shouldn’t be shot to “save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy.” Just like today, when our troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, on behalf of the oil interests and Halliburton. Nothing has to be said about the actual causes and reasons for America’s entrance into the war—that would just confuse things.

The point is not to understand the past, according to the actors who participate, but to inspire people to make their voices heard today, not to tell it “from the standpoints of generals and kings and presidents,” which “encourages passivity, a sense of hopelessness.” Change only comes to these people through dissent, struggle, strikes, boycotts and the like. Thus one of the major participants, actor Josh Brolin, says in the trailer for his video performance, that “there is a need to speak out” and the people who did in the past were not heard, and now we can hear “the gold in their words.” As for the present, Brolin adds, people have to “speak out” and that is “the only goal,” so people can be “empowered” to take action which is “fantastic.” Does Brolin, I wonder, apply his view to the tea parties, where citizens who are empowered take action? No one seems to have asked him that question.

Damon also told USA Today that TV “is the perfect format for a history lesson. You’re getting the actual text verbatim, so there’s no spin, performed by these great actors.” If he went back to school today, he says, he’d be a history major. Spare us, please. But Brolin at least is pleased that his daughter’s California high school uses Zinn’s book as a text, so at least she’ll know true history.

Of course, its defenders say in advance, “the lunatic right will howl to the heavens after seeing ‘liberal Hollywood’ perform the words of labor radicals, anti-racists, feminists and socialists.” So all who might pay attention to critics, be forewarned by Dave Zirin at HuffPost, you are part of the “lunatic right.” I mean, who else would dare criticize this series? Indeed, to criticize this show is like Nazi “book-burning.” Our country, Zirin writes, “is “dedicated to historical amnesia,” and those in power fear our radical past. “We need to rescue the great battles for social justice from becoming either co-opted or simply erased from the history books. Our children don’t learn about the people who made the Civil Rights Movement.” I wonder what school Zirin went to. It seems at times that is all they learn about, as everyone who has kids in school well know.

And of course, Zirin hints that Obama has already betrayed those who voted for him, by sending troops to Afghanistan, so that Obama “in practice has been like watching George W. Bush with a working cerebellum.” And he thinks the administration is “counting on the American people” to support him and pretend “we never saw this movie before.” That is what the TV series will, he hopes, prevent, so that it will “resurrect our past as a guide to fight for the future.” New generations will now not only hear the words of Socialist Party leader Gene Debs in the 20’s, but will themselves turn to the works of Zinn, who knows that history is not about “understanding the past,” but about “changing the future.” That alone, by the way, should disqualify anyone from ever calling Zinn a “historian.”

Part II

I must confess that I have not seen the actual program. The producers, knowing that the media is more than willing to cooperate with them in the hype, obviously do not want advance criticism from those who they know will have sound criticisms. So what one can write depends only on what is on the show’s website. Although we have some examples and videos of material that is on the program, what they do not give us is the narrative that ties the episodes together, that is written and spoken by Zinn and written with his co-author Anthony Arnove (who also is a co-producer of the program and co-author with Zinn of some of his books).

I tried to get the DVD in advance, but was unsuccessful. Arnove e-mailed an associate to send me one, but it never came. He did let me know he despises my ideology but was glad, he wrote, that at least I wanted to see the show before criticizing it. (He also thanked me for taking him and my son many years ago, when they were in college, to a Bob Dylan concert.)

Zinn, I suspect, would like to paint all his detractors as nutty right-wingers, and he can easily write off criticism coming from people like Daniel Flynn, David Horowitz, or Mark Tapson who has blasted him at BigHollywood.com. Tapson’s article speaks to those who already agree with him, and knocks Zinn for being the far leftist we all know he is already. It’s easy to prove that, and Zinn and company can respond that attacks like these are simply ideological, and not to be taken seriously.

As Zinn sees it, America is a story of dissent. A favorable critic, Mary McNamara, writes in The Los Angeles Times that democracy is a political activity, and that all social change came from the rebels who demanded it often using violence to gain their ends. She writes that the dramatic readings “provides a striking, exhilarating and at times horrifying reminder of not just our indomitable ability to change but also this country’s collective history of oppression.” But even McNamara has her reservations. She writes:

Class division is a drumbeat throughout “The People Speak,” which is a primer of liberal ideology with a decided bent toward socialism; no one’s reading a few rousing passages of Ayn Rand’s, for instance. The letters and journals and speeches selected cover the American timeline, from the abolitionists through AIDS activists, but the theme of personal and political enfranchisement, tolerance, peace and American humility is the consistent theme. Equal rights, protection of workers, protection of children, even rent control are celebrated while concepts such as patriotism — the last refuge of scoundrels, according to pacifist and anarchist Emma Goldman — and national security are portrayed as the whip and cattle prod used by the power elite. Even World War II is cast as a false model for American military domination.


Evidently joining the likes of Pat Buchanan, the Zinn film (which she has evidently actually viewed) puts World War II in the pantheon of unnecessary wars and the result of America’s reaching for global hegemony....

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Jack Baney - 2/5/2010

Sorry if that sounded snotty, but it makes no sense the other way.


Jack Baney - 2/5/2010

I think it was, “The capitalists will sell us the rope...,” Mr. Historian.