The Zinning of America: How to Watch "The People Speak" on The History Channel on Sunday Night

Part I

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.”