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History Channel allows people to speak

On Sunday, the History Channel will air a documentary based on Howard Zinn’s 1980 landmark book, ‘A People’s History of the United States.’

Zinn’s book, as well as the History Channel special ‘The People Speak,’ are intended to tell history from the perspective of those who were not at the top, but rather those who worked to forge human events from the bottom. It is from here Zinn says democracy really comes.

Previews indicate the show consists pretty much exclusively of Zinn’s narration and readings by well-known actors and musicians. Morgan Freeman reads Frederick Douglass, Matt Damon – prominently featured throughout – reads from ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and the ‘Declaration of Independence’ and performances by Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal and others highlight protest anthems.

All this is fine; however, it isn’t clear how much context will be given to each of the various speeches, writings, songs and poems. ‘A People’s History’ highlighted all these, but in between them was Zinn’s own commentary on whatever social pressures the works might be in response to.

The nice thing about both the book and the documentary is the giving of a voice to those under society’s boot, rather than those wearing it. So much of history is told solely from the perspective of its winners. Zinn attempts to highlight people whose voices are marginalized at best; more frequently ignored entirely.

In a Columbus Day-themed episode of ‘The Sopranos,’ Tony angrily responds to his son’s telling him Zinn’s book called Columbus a murderer by saying, ‘In this house, Columbus is a hero – end of story!’ Columbus Day protests of 2009, here and elsewhere, indicate the shifting of public opinion, with high schools saying they are starting to teach a more multi-dimensional picture of the explorer. Viggo Mortensen will read from Bartoleme de Las Casas’ important account of Columbus’ arrival in America, ‘The Devastation of the Indies,’ on the History Channel special.

Tony Soprano’s attitude is not uncommon, and is shared by other characters throughout the episode. But he can hardly be blamed for his position – it is the way history has always been taught. Even as recently as my own elementary school days, we sang ‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’ There was adventure and promise in the way we sung the words – not enslavement and murder, the other side of the Columbus story.

Zinn’s book has come under fire by other historians, and all sorts of accusations have been lodged: revisionist, radical and biased not the least among them. But Zinn doesn’t really refute any of these claims. History is in need of radical revision, and Zinn’s bias, though present, is minimal and always afforded to society’s most downtrodden.

Ever since the Greek Thucydides wrote his seminal ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ around 430 B.C. (it was a life’s work written over an unknown number of years) history has been written by and consisted of society’s elite. Thucydides reported the story with a pro-Athenian bias, despite such revolutionary changes to history writing as excluding the gods and giving voice to the opposite side, probably during his exile from Athens.

Like Zinn’s ‘A People’s History,’ Thucydides’ ‘History’ is filled with speeches from the most prominent persons surrounding the events. Thucydides was probably the first historian to stick to what he perceived to be the facts, but he wasn’t opposed to injecting his own wit and wisdom. Book 5 offers a famous quote which is as true today as it was 2500 years ago: ‘… right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power; while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’

It is in the spirit of this quote that Zinn wrote ‘A People’s History.’ He says of the book that his goal was to set about a ‘quiet revolution,’ and something like that seems to be happening.

It will be nice to see History, a station which has earned itself the nickname ‘The Hitler Channel’ for its extensive World War II programming (never portrayed the way Zinn portrays it), finally covering the real people of history – farmers, factory workers, unionists, slaves and ex-slaves, women and suffragists – who have, from the time of Thucydides, been mostly absent in mainstream scholarly history.

Zinn’s ‘quiet revolution’ appears to be happening. Despite reservations, not unwarranted from anyone who has watched much History Channel, that some context might be missing, it still indicates an opening up of society. Without even realizing it, networks like History which have for so long maintained a status quo will finally let ‘The People Speak.’

Respond to Kyle at [email protected]

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