Who’s afraid of the big, bad Zinn?

December 16, 2009

The right-wingers who attacked Howard Zinn's The People Speak can't dispute that the speeches, letters, petitions and songs performed in the film are real. If they are, then why shouldn't people--including young people--hear them?

WHEN I first read Patrick Courrielche's rant against the film The People Speak, I have to admit I felt a pinch of pride. After all, if you're going to be slandered, what better company to be in than Howard Zinn's?

Courrielche's article for Big Hollywood--a conservative Web site obsessively devoted to decrying the left-wing conspiracy in the entertainment industry--was about The People Speak, a documentary inspired by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove's anthology Voices of a People's History of the United States. Courrielche accused the film of everything from perpetrating a distorted, one-sided "version" of American history to presenting inappropriate material to three-year-olds. Published before The People Speak aired last Sunday night, the article seemed designed to stir up a right-wing campaign against the network that dared to broadcast it--the History Channel.

On a second reading (which I cannot recommend), however, I realized that I am not actually slandered in the article. Everything Courrielche says about me is true. His real purpose is to smear Zinn and The People Speak as deceptive left-wing propaganda--and one tactic is to pronounce Zinn guilty because of his association with my socialist friends and me.

You see, I am, as Courrielche "reveals," a socialist and a teacher. Therefore, my presence on the board of the non-profit organization Voices of a People's History of the United States (a partner in the production of the film), alongside other board members who are not socialists, apparently shows that the whole thing is a step towards institutionalizing the teaching of socialism in American schools.

SENATOR McCARTHY--er, I mean Courrielche--is incensed by the fact that The People Speak played for a national, prime-time audience.

Why? Well, he's really just trying to protect the children:

Children are uniquely malleable beings, readily convinced of magically colorful tales--Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are the first that come to mind. This innocence is beautiful, but it is a quality that can easily fall victim to radically foreign ideas if taught consistently and pervasively at an early age. One need only look at the birth of fascism or socialism to see a recipe for how radical ideas become ubiquitous among a nation's youth.

Never mind that socialism and fascism are polar opposites--the former representing working class democracy, the latter representing the complete obliteration of democratic rights--Courrielche believes that children are dupes who will believe anything.

Courrielche claims that he isn't afraid of students learning real history:

I am not advocating that we spare our kids the harsh truths of American history, but I am suggesting, given Zinn's far-left political affiliation, this project is designed to break down our vulnerable children's views of American principles so that they can be built back up in a socialist vision.

How exactly does one define "our vulnerable children's views of American principles"? Courrielche seems to imply that these undefined views are already established, and are facing a threat from radicals who might subvert them. Perhaps he refers to principles such as those professed in the Declaration of Independence, such as "All men are created equal."

What should students make of the fact that the document mentions men and not women? What should they make of the fact that many of the signers of that document owned other human beings as slaves? If there's a contradiction between the statement of the signers and their actions, which should define their principles: the statement or the action?

As an educator, I don't believe my job is to answer those questions for students. But it is certainly my job to pose such questions.

Further stoking parental fears of radical indoctrination, he warns:

[Zinn's] current curriculum suggestions, like introducing three-year-olds to the lynching of African-Americans, or quizzing seven-year-olds on which Presidents owned slaves, should be a red flag to parents.

I clicked on the links Courrielche provides in the above passage, and found that the pedagogical horrors he describes are grossly inaccurate.

The lesson plan for "introducing three-year-olds to the lynching of African-Americans" is a lesson on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance. Nowhere in the document is a target age group specified. The document discusses the history of the Pledge--why it was written in 1892, how and why the words and the salute changed over time, and what it means. The question of lynching is raised in the context of suggested questions to pose to students, such as:

-- What might be the purpose of a flag pledge?

In 1892, who did and did not have liberty and justice in the United States?

What does it mean to "pledge allegiance" to the flag? What would it mean to not pledge allegiance to the flag?

Why do you imagine there was an insistence on "One Language!" in addition to "One Country!" and "One Flag!"?

In a parenthetical note for the second question, the author mentions that over 100 African-Americans were lynched annually in the 1880s. I'm sure most educators (including socialist educators) would agree that these are not age-appropriate for three-year-olds. But surely most would agree that older students of history should be equipped to answer such questions.

In a later paragraph, Courrielche repeats the claim that this lesson is designed for tots:

The teaching plan suggests introducing our pre-K-ers to the lynching of African-Americans in the 1880s, and introducing the history of violence and discrimination against minority groups.

Courrielche knows instinctively that the idea of raising such issues in a high school seminar, for example, doesn't hold much shock value. Most people want their children to grow up learning critical thinking skills. But transport the same line of questioning to a room of three-year-olds, and the scene can only mean one thing: brainwashing.

The lesson that Courrielche claims is about "quizzing seven-year-olds on which Presidents owned slaves" is actually a story about a fifth-grade lesson. I don't know about Courrielche's neighborhood, but where I teach, there are no seven-year-olds in the fifth grade. Furthermore, the "quizzing" wasn't initiated by the teacher, but by students:

During a lesson about George Washington and the American Revolution, I explained to my 5th graders that Washington owned over 300 people. One student added that Thomas Jefferson also was a slave owner. And then, in part to be funny and in part expressing anger--over vote fraud involving African Americans in the then-recent 2000 election and the U.S. Supreme Court's subsequent delivery of the presidency to George W. Bush--one of my students shouted, "Bush is a slave owner, too!"

"No, Bush doesn't own slaves," I calmly explained. "Slavery was finally ended in this country in 1865." Short exchanges such as this often pass quickly, and we move onto another topic. But this time, one student asked, "Well, which presidents were slave owners?"

She had me stumped. "That's a good question," I said. "I don't know." Thus began a combined social studies, math and language arts project, in which I learned along with my students, and that culminated in a fascinating exchange between my students and the publishers of their U.S. history textbook. After I admitted that I had no clue exactly which presidents owned slaves, I threw the challenge back to the students. "How can we find out?" I asked.

Far from the image of the wild-eyed, bomb-throwing radical teacher, hell-bent on "quizzing" pre-K students about which presidents owned slaves, this 5th-grade teacher actually followed the curiosity of his students and proceeded to lead them in a search for the answers to their own questions about history.

BUT SUCH facts are inconvenient to the hysteria Courrielche wants to whip up about the Zinn-inspired curriculum materials. This is what should be a real "red flag to parents" (and anyone else who cares about education, for that matter): right-wing blowhards trying to make their names by ignoring (or, as they see fit, exaggerating) facts and turning molehills into mountains.

Didn't Courrielche think his readers would click on the links to see for themselves whether or not his claims were true? Or does he view them as "uniquely malleable beings, readily convinced of magically colorful tales"?

Courrielche has had some practice spinning tales. He first gained notoriety by "exposing" a National Endowment for the Arts conference call as an effort to march artists in lockstep with the Obama administration's agenda.

Since that time, the transcript of the conference call has been published, more or less exposing Courrielche as a fraud (but not before the NEA spinelessly backed down and demoted communications director Yosi Sergant). Ben Davis, associate editor of Artnet magazine (and a socialist) takes apart Courrielche's deception (and his claims about himself) in two articles for that magazine.

Yes, socialists were involved--along with non-socialists--in the attempt to have Howard Zinn's work made into a film. Yes, Howard Zinn is sympathetic to the ideas of socialism. But Courrielche implies that this has somehow discredited or marginalized Zinn's work. "Perhaps due to their one-sided perspective of America's past," he muses, "Zinn's history books have largely been limited to colleges and universities, until now."

Limited to colleges and universities? Surely if Zinn's books were filled with spurious, unsupported claims and shoddy research, they would have been tossed out of colleges and universities long ago!

But it's not true at all that "colleges and universities" are Zinn's only audience. His most popular book, A People's History of the United States, has sold over 2 million copies. Somehow, this "one-sided" book (a book about history, let's remember) sells more copies every year than it did in the previous one--truly unique in the world of publishing.

Unlike Fox News ("the no-spin zone"), Zinn has never been one to pretend to speak and write without a bias. In fact, Zinn always states his point of view up front. Courrielche would have you believe that Zinn and his collaborators are on a secret mission for socialism. But none of the radicals he's trying to catch red-handed are hiding their political views.

In the introduction to A People's History, Zinn writes:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interests (sometimes exploding, sometimes repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners...

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.

If anything, being straightforward about one's viewpoint actually prepares the reader/audience/student to critically examine what is being presented.

THE FILM that Courrielche wants us to find so offensive is not just a recital of Howard Zinn's commentary. It is primarily a presentation of original speeches, letters, petitions and songs that people actually gave, wrote and sang in American history.

This isn't Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. This is the historical record. Surely Courrielche doesn't dispute that these primary sources are real. And if they are real, then why shouldn't people (including young people) hear them?

Does it "break down" a young person's view of "American principles" to hear an ex-slave criticize the exaltation of the Fourth of July? In many respects, I received an excellent education, but I never heard Frederick Douglass' devastating address to the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society until I was nearly in graduate school. Can a student really understand the history of this country without hearing what slaves and ex-slaves had to say?

The first time I heard that Susan B. Anthony got arrested for "knowingly voting without having a lawful right to vote" was when I heard her trial testimony at a Voices-organized event. Shouldn't students learn that she was arrested for trying to vote?

Granted, I knew the names of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. But I never even heard the name of Eugene Debs until I became an activist. Debs was sent to jail for giving a speech protesting the First World War. I was shocked to learn that Debs, from his jail cell, ran for President and got nearly a million votes. Shouldn't students learn that this happened?

In high school, I studied Latin and even ancient Greek (which I do recommend), but I didn't hear Martin Luther King's speech against the war in Vietnam until I was in my mid-20's. I was shocked to learn that President Johnson blew up in the Oval Office when he heard about the speech, exclaiming: "What is that goddamn nigger preacher doing to me?"

Christians can tune into sermons or Bible study around the clock on cable television. Conservative tea-partiers have Fox News to provide 24-hour news analysis from their perspective. Liberals have a few shows on MSNBC and Comedy Central. Socialists (or left-wing radicals of any stripe, for that matter) to my knowledge, do not host or write a single show on television, let alone dominate an entire network.

I'm guessing that I'm not the only one who grew into young adulthood without learning about any of the material presented in The People Speak.

On Sunday night, for only two hours, a national audience got to hear words long lost to the collective national memory. Words mostly omitted from history texts. And yes, some of those words were from socialists, who have played an important part in American history. Shouldn't people be allowed to hear their voices?

No, says Courrielche:

It is not surprising to me that there are groups sympathetic to Marx's ideas throughout our country. What is surprising is that the most powerful persuasion machine in the world (Hollywood) and the History Channel would provide Zinn such a prominent soapbox to stealthily build a case for a destructive ideology to our children, and as a result, mainstream his ideas with the magic of cool music, graphics, and celebrity.

Groups that push Marx's philosophy are like a virtual organism that will not die off, even when stung by the undeniable historical evidence showing human behavior makes such a system unsustainable. If we let this virtual organism into our grade schools, it will take decades for our kids to unlearn the ideology.

Hmm..."a virtual organism that will not die off even when stung by the undeniable historical evidence showing human behavior makes such a system unsustainable"?

Sounds more like the gang over at Goldman Sachs.

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