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.