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Reading Howard Zinn

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When friends' children graduate from High School, my gift is a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Every time I read it a different facet of U.S. political nuance strikes me with special significance. This time it was in chapter 20, where Zinn focuses on Nixon's fall from grace and power following the Watergate scandal. How officialdom carefully managed the fallout through a program of designed disclosure. Media revealed Nixon's failings as sins of the individual, carefully disguising how systemic they were.

No respectable American newspaper said what was said by Claude Julien, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in 1974. 'The elimination of Mr. Richard Nixon leaves intact all the mechanisms and all the false values which permitted the Watergate scandal.' ... "... In the charges brought by the House Committee on Impeachment against Nixon, it seemed clear that the committee did not want to emphasize those elements in his behavior which were found in other Presidents and which might be repeated in the future.... It concentrated on things peculiar to Nixon, not on fundamental policies continuous among American Presidents, at home and abroad. The word was out: get rid of Nixon, but keep the system... "The investigation of the FBI disclosed many years of illegal actions to disrupt and destroy radical groups and left-wing groups of all kinds ... ...Valuable information came out of the investigations, but it was just enough , and in just the right way ... to give the impression of an honest society correcting itself...

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The first thought that struck me is how right Noam Chomsky was in Manufacturing Consent. In the United Statew it is essential to Power that media retain public credibility. When journalists are too sycophantic, it spoils the game. Journalists must operate honestly most of the time, so that when lies are told the lies will be believed. But this subterfuge becomes harder and harder to pull off.

Zinn is peerless at revealing the historical dialectic between ruling class manipulations of citizens and their drive to achieve autonomy. As people get better at organizing, the ruling class becomes more adept at lying and co-opting to achieve its ends. Designed disclosure of Governmental sins and infidelities, presented in the media as full disclosure, is a clever and effective innovation.

If Zinn (and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent) are right, a strong assumption I've been acting on is probably wrong. Like most of my friends I've felt confident that disclosure after disclosure of this Administration's anti-democratic and apparently irrational behavior, both at home and abroad, must be fast devouring its credibility. Disclosures of officially sanctioned torture, of assaults on the Bill of Rights, of intransigence on environmental issues to the extent of a President's literally thumbing his nose at public opinion, of disdain for citizens' struggle to make a living or obtain basic health care (even for children), of Alleged governmental collusion in the outright theft of public funds, of an intransigent radical foreign policy in the face of massive local and worldwide opposition, and on and on – must finally take their toll. Collapse
must be imminent.



Reading Zinn, this conclusion doesn't really compute. It would mean that decades old systems of dis-information management had suddenly collapsed. What seems more likely is that what appear to be failures are not failures at all. How can this be? Again, Zinn's historical exegesis offers insight. Prior to Nixon's retirement, officialdom strove to placate a public grown both more critical of power and more capable of translating its discontent into effective action. Following Nixon, the emphasis of policy shapers shifted from placation to control.
"In the year 1976, with a presidential election approaching, there was worry in the Establishment about the public's faith in the system. ... ... ... "As the United States prepared in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, a group of intellectuals and political leaders from Japan, the United States and Western Europe, organized into 'The Trilateral Commission,' issued a report. It was entitled 'The Government of Democracies.' Samuel Huntington, a political science professor at Harvard University and long-time consultant to the White House on the war in Vietnam, wrote the part of the report that dealt with the United States. He called it 'The Democratic Distemper' ,,, Huntington pointed to the signs of decreasing government authority...[and] was troubled by what he saw. ... Critical in all this was the decline in the authority of the President."
The change in attitude signaled by Huntington, according to Zinn and an array of other notable U.S. Historians, was not unexpected. From the beginning, America's wealthiest citizens expressed deep concern that Democracy should not get out of hand. It was intended for the propertied classes, not for the peasantry.
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Reading Zinn, it becomes clear how the elite's craving for social control always competed with its greed for profits. Media, never truly independent, always fashioned the proper climate for the pursuit of both. The abuses attendant upon business growth and expansion were always under-reported. So were the growing number of triumphs of organized opposition to these abuses. Government successes at managing and containing dissent, however, were always over-reported. Until recently, these reports were also distorted to portray the government-in-service-of-business as stern, like a good parent, but never ruthless.

But something has changed. Today, official ruthlessness receives full revelation through a system of steady "leaks." The President and Commander-in-Chief delights to be perceived not as the leader of a great and principled nation committed to global health and justice, but of an aggressive vigilante force committed to ethnocentric ass-kicking. Protecting U.S. "turf" in a jungle-world of nation-gangs is his self-proclaimed duty and heaven ordained function. His ultimate goal? To become King of the Hill. Upon his coronation the U.S. shall gain forgiveness of its massive foreign debts. Worthy (white, god-fearing, passive) residents on his "turf" will prosper (others may be jailed and tortured.) The nation, in fact the entire Western world... indeed the entire planet ... should be grateful for his leadership. He shall have saved the world from chaos.

As the public watches its President and his cohort engage nakedly in outrageous, anti-constitutional behaviors with no real opposition, the Government's credibility as a well entrenched, blatantly anti-democratic imperium soars. What if this appearance is precisely the goal of U.S. ruling class architects today? What if the President's signifying is merely pose (his personal history indicates that he excels at acting and obeying, not imagining and leading)? What if those Zinn reveals always to have pulled strings from behind the scenes, those powerful figures whom William Greider tells us in Secrets of the Temple do nothing except own money and control the affairs of all major corporations, are still in full control? In this case, then what I have perceived to be the failure of designed disclosure may be precisely the opposite. It may be the most cleverly designed in our history.

Zinn closes A People's History (1995 edition) with an expression of faith in people's ability to see through official subterfuge and assert their healthy presence. I hope he's right.
The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history... "...How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!... How wise to turn the fear and anger of the majority toward a class of criminals bred – by economic inequity – faster than they can be put away, deflecting attention from the huge thefts of national resources carried out within the law by men in executive offices. But with all the controls of power and punishment, enticements and concessions, diversions and decoys, operating throughout the history of the country, the Establishment has been unable to keep itself secure from revolt.... To recall this is to remind people of what the Establishment would like them to forget – the enormous capacity of apparently helpless people to resist, of apparently contented people to demand change....

David Weiner teaches sociology courses at a Community College in Austin, Texas and works with groups in the community concerned with improving the quality of education for inner-city students.
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David Weiner has been a sociology professor, high school teacher, community organizer, and anti-racism activist for more than half a century. Nowadays he teaches sociology and social psychology at a community college.

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