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Howard Zinn's "Ballade for Americans"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . . ."

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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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