Monday, February 26, 2007

Howard Zinn and people-powered democracy

It’s always a challenge to find anything meaningful to watch each morning as I do my time on the LifeCycle (purchased used, btw). While I enjoy my morning weather report from WCSH’s Kevin Mannix and even can tolerate the banter between Lee Nelson and Sharon Rose, the infotainment, now masquerading as most of my morning news, makes it harder and harder to watch.

Fortunately for me, this morning, C-Span2’s Book TV was just wrapping up its weekend non-fiction book marathon with a broadcast of Howard Zinn, speaking to an audience, at Brandeis University. Zinn has just released another book, in a long line of titles that this champion of the common man has written (or edited) over the past 50 years, or so.

I would be hard-pressed to name another book that I’ve read over the past 20 years that has had more of an influence on me than Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn, who is now 85, doesn’t seem to have lost a step, or any of his passion for true, people-powered democracy. One of the things that I’ve appreciated the most from Zinn’s writing, is his ability to strip away the mythology that so often accompanies (and muddies) any discussion of history in the U.S. From a review that I read, his latest work, A Power Governments Can’t Suppress, is a series of short essays, in which Zinn talks about some historical figures, like Eugene V. Debs, who inspire him, as well as placing the Iraq War in its proper historical context.

It’s exactly this type of contextualization that seasoned, yet passionate writers/activists like Zinn bring to history that is so obviously lacking in any of the sound bite journalism that makes up for what passes for today’s so-called news coverage. That and the fact that no one dares to buck the corporate owners who pay the salaries. Yet, nothing quiets much of the jingoistic chest-thumping emanating from right-wingers better than a healthy dose of context, whether we’re talking about our not-so-heroic Founding Fathers (who were more concerned with preserving their slave-holding and economic status quo than creating democracy for all members of the new republic), or the history of the U.S. and its policy of selectively supporting democracy when it serves the economic interests of the elite and toppling democratically-elected leaders when it doesn’t. How else does one explain the litany of democratic governments that the U.S. has subverted?

Another benefit of an honest rendering of history—it helps Americans focus on those all-too-brief periods in our own history, when the masses got fed up with being handed sloppy seconds from our leaders, took matters into their own hands and actually created a few initiatives that benefited the majority, not just a handful of the most wealthy and well-connected. Democracy is a lot more than pulling a lever on election day—sometimes its down and dirty and often, people get clubbed, beaten, shot and more times than not, arrested. For all our talk about cyber marches and e-campaigning, real change comes when the people take to the streets, or sit down in the square and gum up the wheels of commerce. Nothing gets the attention of those in power and faster than when something keeps them from making more money!

In his talk, Zinn spoke about the period, during the 1930s, when U.S. workers, committed various acts of civil disobedience, primarily through a wave of sit-down strikes, where workers took over and occupied factories and workplaces across the country. This direct action shook the corridors of power and forced the corporate bosses and their political lackeys to take notice and even give something back. This also resulted in the formation of unions, where workers, for the first time, began to share in some of the spoils that had always gone to the owners, previously. We have social security today because these workers decided to disobey laws that they considered unjust or harmful for them and their families.

Many of these actions led to the unprecedented economic growth experienced by most Americans, from 1947, until 1973. This period saw very few recessions and stability in the business cycle unlike any other time in our nations history.

But, as Zinn also pointed out, while those in power give back a few rights from time to time and the pendulum tips towards democracy, just as soon as they are able, the power elite take back these rights and attempt to enact tighter controls on the hoi polloi.

While many Americans have grown comfortable over the past 30 years or so, we’ve experienced a gradual erosion of many of our rights. Workers have grown fearful, rather than brazen and corporations, embracing the tenets of global capitalism, have placed profits above and beyond any concern for they have for their workers. The Republican Party, particularly during the dark years of Reagan, sought to defang the union movement and defraud American workers. When he fired the PATCO workers, in 1980 and brought in replacement workers, this was an unprecedented action in post-WWII North America. That was a watershed event and established our present “labor as a commodity” mentality that pervades labor culture in the U.S. today.

Zinn also spoke about the civil disobedience and mass protests that characterized the civil rights movement, as well as the actions of student demonstrators and others that led to an eventual end to the war in Vietnam. As Zinn so aptly pointed out in his talk, merely holding an election doesn’t necessarily equal freedom and democracy. Our current administration loves to wax poetic (as poetic someone as ineloquent as Bush, anyways) about democracy, but at every opportunity, either domestically, or abroad, run roughshod over it.

What I came away with from my 45 minutes, or so, listening to Zinn’s talk, is that democracy, in order to remain vibrant, requires a much greater commitment from all of its citizens, including me. Being obedient sheep and grateful beggars for scraps from the wealthiest in charge won’t lead us where we need to go. Only putting our American experience into its proper context and demanding that those in charge hear our demands will get the job done. Unfortunately that might take more than passing on emails and voting Democrat.

Civil disobedience seems to have gone out of favor in the video age and in the land of reality TV. This is where we find the conundrum—do we have the wherewithal to resist those who are willing to turn their wrath upon us, by unleashing their well-armed and tasered storm troopers (financed by our tax dollars), tossing us in jail and subverting all forms of justice that we ignorantly think apply to us?

While I’ve taken part in a number of protest marches over the past few years to protest the war in Iraq, maybe I need to take it to a new level? Just last week, a group of protesters sat down in Tom Allen’s office and were subsequently arrested. Am I willing to get arrested to stop the death machine from rolling on? Many of the people that I work with on a regular basis are seeing necessary benefits and services slashed all because we have an administration that cares more for corporations than it does for common people. These are tough questions and the kind that all of us need to start considering.

And as Mr. Zinn so eloquently stated, it’s the only real way to achieve the type of democracy that benefits the greatest number of folks, not just the elite in charge.


weasel said...

Zinn is a great writer and is excellent and advancing a credible thesis on the role of ordinary people, outsiders, and progressives in the battle for America's soul.

I always remind myself that however much I like his voice, he is still one man speaking his own truth- and therefore lionising him as THE autherntic voice is antihetical of my attempting to reach a true understanding of history.

I'm a fan of reading Zinn (as social historian) in the context of Edmund Morgan (Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America) or anything by Daniel Boorstin. And as for the roots of the first American popular movements (and the revolution itself) Christopher Hill- despite his avowed Marxist slant- was the king of the history of the English radicalism that foreshadowed Paine and Jefferson.

Jim said...

I don't consider him "the" authentic voice--I do think he has a voice worth heading, as do the writers you mention, although I'm not real familiar with Boorstin.

weasel said...

Hey, you might find this guy provocative. I've linked to the passage in Richard Easterlin's The Reluctant Economist in which he suggests that the progress of labor made in the immediate post-WW2 years was undone by the parents of the baby boomers going at it too much (hence, baby boom) and thus diluting one of the major bargaining chips of the workers- scarcity of labor. Couple that with the increased reliance on technology and his theory is that all that oedipal loathing that Boomers seem to have in spades is somewhat justified. The working and middle class sabotaged itself- the unions would have been unbreakable if there was nobody behind them eager and hungry to do non-union work, after all.

Its a provocative- a good- read, and I'm glad to see it has been digitized.

Boorstin would be right up your alley- he wrote about the concept of psuedo-reality as projected by advertising and the visual media and its impact of social mores.