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February 6, 2011

Howard Zinn's "Ballade for Americans"

By Marta Steele

Impressions of a masterful volume, Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States."


Howard Zinn's "Ballade for Americans"

In reading all 600+ pages of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States from 1492 to the Present (which was 2000, including the disastrous election), I find none of the canonical American heroes discussed in much depth. That includes all figures on Mt. Rushmore. Only Bill Clinton's administration is focused on, along with some of FDR's New Deal dealings and some of Lincoln's hypocrisy no one wants to know about. In the case of Clinton, the Monica episode is rightly set in its trivial place, but even this nineties hero's "paying down the national debt" is cast as a should-have-been reallocation, to--we the people, the same people to whom Zinn himself would like to reallocate the billions spent on national defense, amounts always increasing even though the cold war ended twenty years ago.

One good thing Bill did was to raise taxes on the rich and corporations by a few percentage points, Zinn does note.

Zinn's "Ballade for Americans" is an unstoppable lament about the misery of the numerous "underclasses," from the day Columbus set foot on the present-day Guanahani in the Bahamas, to the present, except that unions in the preceding two decades have made some advances, though they now constitute a low percentage of the total labor force--14 percent, the last I read.

Union triumphs in response to the most hideous work circumstances imaginable, are also recorded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but such atrocities would have ignited anyone, especially those at the bottom of the sweatshop or miners' hell, working eighty hours a week or more--the forty-hour week is a recent innovation.

This stratum, the people--whether workers or indigent or indigent working women or Native American or African American, numbering in the millions, sacrificed their lives and civilizations again and again to give birth to the elusive America Langston wonders when his people will have.

How can they ever have it--just because their lashed bodies created and perpetrated an economy of racism to support a culture that still lives in the minds and hearts of many, even as we celebrate the election of the first black (actually mulatto) president in history.

How can America be America when it never was? A country named for an Italian mapmaker?

After reading Howard Zinn's five-hundred-year history, I find it hard to continue loving my country, even though I owe my life to its receptivity to immigrants before the 1920s (my father had to be sponsored by U.S. citizens [relatives, in his case] in the late 1930s). The majority of afflicted Jews were not let in--consider the bounty Hitler offered Roosevelt that might have avoided the Final Solution, for example. Others were kept away by severe quotas imposed by Congress in the 1920s.

Ruthless bloody massacres of Native Americans that dwarf the Boston Massacre, and stealthy wrenching of Africans out of their homelands under the most hideous of circumstance, families ripped asunder again and again--these were the tired, poor, huddled masses who first came to our shores, or begged to coexist peacefully with us here, en masse. So a wrenching of people away from their homelands and a massacre of those who inhabited our "homeland" and received us first so graciously (the Arawaks, some of whom were taken prisoner as guides to "where the gold was")--that is the earth we walk upon so uneasily in the face of the revolutions quelled with more and more difficulty as the years pass.

How can this ship of state not be lurching and pitching with such a foundation? It's a war between those whose mentality gave birth to the land of Amerigo Vespucci and those who weep for each and every body sacrificed for it or still suffering oppression, to this day unsuccessfully swept under the rug that will not contain them. These are the ghosts beneath our feet, beneath our American earth.

You will not find any of "usual" canonical heroes celebrated here. Tom Paine, my favorite, receives two paragraphs at best. George Washington is twice cited not as the father of our country but the wealthiest person in it. Jefferson was soft on slavery, as was Lincoln (!), whose Emancipation Proclamation was said to "have all of the grandeur of a bill of lading." Daniel Webster called the Indians "the enemy"; environmentalist Teddy Roosevelt was big on war and expansionism, imperialism, and child labor while hating socialism, and totally indifferent to racial discrimination . . . and FDR, though he may not have gotten us into World War II for the right reasons (he is said to have know about the Pearl Harbor attack a day before it occurred), did set this country on the path of social welfare reform that is still such a bone of contention more than sixty years later. This is true even though the United States spent more on social welfare than did any other country in the world . . . under the Bush 43 administration.

So much for the four noble heads of Mt. Rushmore and others, whom we grew up adulating as flawless heroes of this beacon of freedom, justice, and democracy.

In other words, as much as we accuse other cultures of misrepresenting their national histories to their citizenry via their "propagandistic" literature, we are no better.

The true story of America, giving equal and honest time to all, has yet to be written. It must be comprehensive and integrated (!). Howard Zinn, with his sweeping embrace of five centuries and more has led the way, helped along by other authors similarly, but more narrowly focused, and the priceless primary sources he cites again and again, has certainly led the way. What tales the people's narratives tell! That Tom Jefferson took the theme of the dignity of humanity from the unsuccessful plea written by the self-educated African American Benjamin Banneker, that he put aside his racial prejudice. You'll find other foreshadowings of immortal oratory in their humble words.

Where is the Edward Gibbon, the William Shirer, who will tell the true stories, situating the "canon" where they belong, for all must finally tell the truth, all those hallowed ghosts must come back alive and say, "Along with these immortal words, I also said that . . . and did . . . ."

The canon we let back into our history will shoot it full of holes and, somehow, reach the audiences we need to reach, because we are all, in one way or another, suffering from the sins of those we worship--even the upper one percent we won't let alone, our history won't let alone--for it is their ruthless greed, which gave birth to this land we love, that will also bring it down. Ultimately the world will not spare them either. They'll be the last of us to go, realizing what America might have been, wanting the real America more fervently than did Langston Hughes and all of his fellow oppressed humanity.

The next "America" must come into being on far firmer foundations. Will it ever?


Submitters Website: http://www.wordsunltd.com; http://www.editingunltd.com

Submitters Bio:

A jack of some trades, writing and editing among them, Marta Steele, an admitted and proud holdover from the late sixties, returned to activism ten years ago after first establishing her skills as a college [mostly adjunct] professor in three subjects, then writer ("born" in the South, of course), then mother, then highly successful publishing professional (editor). In the latter context, she began to write or, more accurately, couldn't stop herself from protesting when the entire country came down with media/ Monica obsession and, stripped of judgment, turned to impeach a capable president for doing, perhaps too openly, what few presidents haven't either done themselves or wanted to. Subsequently and probably as a result, Bush was elected and Steele's venom turned against the hideous corruption that had accomplished this. She became an election integrity activist and harsh media critic, incredulous about media indifference to issues of vital importance to democracy. She also became a peace activist, serving on the board of the Delaware Valley Coalition for Peace Action and writing droves of blog entries on this subject. Even as protest against the Iraq invasion burgeoned, the media had other, yellower, red herrings to throw at us. Concerned to inform the future if not the present about the protest movement and the amazing words and events that accompanied it, she attended as many protest events as she could, ink freezing in her pen under the worst weather conditions. These writings reside in hard-copy archives of Words, UnLtd., a paper journal born in 1999, as every blog entry since its cyberspace rebirth in 2005, just when the election integrity movement burgeoned, "fooled again" by Bush's reelection in 2004. She works as a freelance editor (mostly academic) and writer, the proud mom of an ABD. Liza Gwendolyn, working to gain her PhD in public sociology at Princeton University. She still blogs regularly, mainly at Wordsunltd.com and Opednews, but writings are picked up at other sites and sent out into the blogosphere and hard-copy publications as well. At work on an 8-year history of the election integrity movement, she was stricken with Bell's Palsy and had to divert her energies. Time willing, once this monster abates (well on its way, deo gratias), she hopes to resume work on it. She has a large opus she'd like to publish in hard copy as essay anthologies, but so far that hasn't worked--the advice is to make an attracting enough name to succeed in an effort that usually follows upon more single-themed hard-copy and public visibility. Wish me luck. All leads welcome. Stage two: single-themed hard copy accomplished--advance orders welcome for "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols." Blurb follows below: "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: How the People Lost and Won, 2000-2008," by Election Integrity (EI) activist Marta Steele, is a history of the Election Integrity movement from 2000 to 2008, highlighting the corrupt practices of that decade, and how the people rallied to control and ultimately overcome them, at least in Election 2008. What happened thereafter will become another book. The culprits were highly corruptible and low-quality machines and the machinery that allowed them to proliferate, defying the will of the people in favor of conservative values unconcerned with the exigent issues that drew the people to the polls. Voters turned out in record numbers in 2008. Thirty percent of those who usually sit out elections (a total of about 100 million) showed up. For their will not to have prevailed would have represented the biggest travesty in our nation's history; and yet a week before Election Day both John McCain and Karl Rove were predicting a Republican victory. Then Rove changed his mind on the eve of Election Day, predicting that Obama would win. But this occurred after the huge battle, at so many levels, ultimately boiled down to a deposition in Columbus, Ohio, on November 3, 2008, of a Rove IT operative. Once Judge Solomon Oliver found holes in the deposition, the people's will exploded and the people's choice went to Washington. Perhaps the day before Election 2008 did not become the major holiday it should have because the machinery of election corruption is up and running again and the people are still fighting. But in Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols the dramatic victory achieved was a successful revolution and in the long run may be remembered for that. The ultimate success will not be a sigh of relief and a cheer for a brief period of time, but the permanent death of anti-American activities. Our vote is our sacred right, nothing we need to acquire with a government-issued photo i.d. It is the bottom line of democracy. Without it, there is no democracy, which is not an abstract noun but continuous work. All this our founding fathers knew and passed down to us, a tough legacy and challenge but well worth our necessary efforts.