Remind me again which people are speaking

The History Channel recently aired The People Speak, a documentary based on the work of Howard Zinn.  There are many people who would condemn Zinn’s writing for purely ideological reasons, and for that Zinn has no one to blame but himself, since he has worked diligently to keep his scholarship and his activism closely intertwined. 

I think history should inform social and political activity, since it provides the context necessary to understand the way society operates.  However, if you’ve already diagnosed mankind’s ills and devised a cure, as Zinn seems to have done to his satisfaction, then conducting some historical investigation into the subject seems a little beside the point.  What’s the point of asking the questions if you’ve already decided the answers? 

His supporters argue that he gives a voice to the marginalized people left out of traditional history books.  To that I’d ask where these supporters have been for the past few decades.  By the time Zinn published his popular survey of American history in 1980, many scholars had already been engaged in “bottom-up” studies of the past for some time, and with a good deal more diligence and sophistication than is evident in Zinn’s own work.  If his book presented any substantially new information, I’m not yet aware of it, though if some reader out there could correct me on this I’ll gladly make a public note of it.

The strange thing about this film project is that for a movie devoted to the forgotten and marginalized, there seem to be quite a few historical notables represented.

Matt Damon, one of the actors involved, is quoted in some of the online promotional material: “Change doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the bottom.…Without everyday citizens pushing to make a difference, there would be no America.”  What everyday citizen who struggled to initiate change from the bottom does Matt Damon portray in the film?  Congressman/governor/ambassador/cabinet member/party leader/chief executive/planter Thomas Jefferson.  I don’t believe Mr. Damon appreciates the irony here.

By the way, I know Matt Damon is a big Zinn fan, but is he really the most appropriate choice to read the Declaration of Independence?  (Remember this cinematic gem?)

Of course, every thirty minutes The History Channel spends airing this is thirty minutes they can’t spend on this sort of thing, so let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Remind me again which people are speaking

  1. You are absolutely right. Historians such as Jesse Lemisch and Gary Nash have done a much more thorough job of exploring the lives of those who have been left out from the traditional narrative. You may already know this, but Matt Damon grew up next store to Howard Zinn. Thanks for the post.

  2. Bill Fisk

    I agree in general with the post i have to take exception with the downplaying of the role Zinn has played. the other scholars mentioned have done great work but it is not as accessible as Zinn’s is. If the show can make one person look into the lives of some of the people portrayed then it has done its job. The history of the US is poorly taught and any rise in the knowledge base is a hopeful sign.

  3. Of course, I meant to say, “next door to Howard Zinn.”

  4. Michael Lynch

    Thanks for stopping by, Kevin. I’d read somewhere that Damon and Zinn had been neighbors.

    And thank you for stopping by too, Bill. I totally agree with you that Zinn is a good deal more visible than most historians, and he’s drawn a lot of attention to various historical subjects. I just wish he’d be a more careful historian.

    –ML

  5. I caught a few minutes of this program the other night, and I’m actually interesting in reading “The People’s History of the United States” now. I did find it ironic that the actors reading the words from these every day people were as far from ordinary people as could be. I’m trying not to be cynical and say that they needed big time actors and actresses to draw people, but maybe they did!

  6. Michael Lynch

    Hi Rebecca,

    That’s a good point. It’s a little odd to hear celebrities telling us how important ordinary people are. Another thing that strikes me as ironic is the fact that this program reiterates that change comes from the bottom and isn’t directed or orchestrated from above. If that’s the case, then we shouldn’t need a best-selling historian and a bunch of actors to tell us to go out and change things.

    –ML

  7. Avraham

    I think what bothers me about Zinn is more his seemingly negative attitude rather than the actual content he’s passing along

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