I must admit I approached The History Channel’s presentation of “The People Speak” with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, a ‘documentary’ based upon the views of Marxist, revisionist American historian Howard Zinn isn’t exactly what I’d call a “must-see” event. What I witnessed certainly lived down to my low expectations. One hare-brained actor or musical artist after another offered dramatic interpretations of the writings of agitators and victims of various forms of oppression throughout American history. Evidently for Zinn, this comprises the WHOLE of American history: a continuous, dismal parade of victims suffering at the hands of their oppressors. Oppressors, it must be added, who are always wealthy, white, and privileged. How unoriginal, how boring, how sad, and ultimately how pathetic that such rhetoric finds ready acceptance in the minds of so many Hollywood denizens. You’d think that artists who presumably pride themselves on creativity and originality could do better than proselytize for a political theorist who died 126 years ago, and whose ideology has failed everywhere on earth it has been implemented. The phrase “simple ideas for simple minds” has rarely been so apt.
Evidently, however, the producers of this film are so enamored of Zinn, and by extension of Marx, so full of their own sanctimony and false sense of moral purity, that they feel the need to spread the gospel of Zinn’s warped Marxist view of American history to the masses. Unfortunately The History Channel chose to be a party to this detestable project.
At least we get a bit of honesty from Zinn at the beginning of the film:
“My students kept asking me for a different view, a radical view, a critical view of American history…I’d looked for it myself and couldn’t find it…so I wrote A People’s History of the United States.“
Damon and Brolin (the authors of this project) “illuminate” Zinn’s twisted and misleading narrative of American history with a series of vignettes, or short readings by various actors, of statements by aggrieved Revolutionary War soldiers, slaves, segregated American blacks, native Americans, labor organizers, women, pacifists and gays. America is, you see, a fundamentally racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic nation, immoral and unjust from the start because of its fatally flawed Constitution – according to Zinn. Its fatal flaw? I suppose that might be the fact that it isn’t the Communist Manifesto.
Watching this tired and simplistic formulation unfold over the span of two hours was tedious, to put it mildly. I was edified to hear that the United States, like every civilization that has ever existed, can be understood best by imposing the narrative of class struggle, rich oppressors vs. poor laborers, greed, prejudice, and bigotry on each of its important events and institutions. Again from Zinn:
“The mutinous soldiers, the angry women, the rebellious native Americans, the working people, the agitators, the anti-war protestors, the socialists and anarchists and dissenters of all kinds, the troublemakers – yes – the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”
Yawn. I thought I lived through the 1960s and 70s decades ago. I heard the same tired B.S. spewed by mind-numbed sycophantic high-school contemporaries and college professors at the University of Connecticut during my undergraduate years. Is this not 2009? Please – wake me from this annoying rehash! It’s enough to make one wonder if Zinn and his slavish Hollywood followers (not to mention the oh-so-earnest audiences at these “readings”) might have fried just a few too many brain cells to ever escape from this rigid, dichotomous and delusional way of thinking. Hmmmm…Zinn does share a bit of that aging hippie, hollow-eyed Nancy Pelosi look. Never mind.
Perhaps the most infuriating part of this film for me comes near the end, when Zinn informs us that the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks only served to illustrate America’s bloodlust and irrational desire for vengeance on her attackers:
“Shortly after the attacks of 9-11… an atmosphere of fear kept most people as well as the press silent. Only a few spoke out.”
Really? Gosh – that’s not quite the way I remember it – of course maybe I’m just blinded by jingoism and internalized bigotry – but I could have sworn that any silence which immediately followed the attacks was born of a sense of reverence and respect for the victims, not out of any fear of expressing pacifist views. In the film this statement of Zinn’s is followed immediately by another reading – that of the pacifist pleas of the parents of one of the Twin Tower victims that America not retaliate and thereby “add to the inhumanity of our times.” Again Brolin, Zinn, et. al. selectively quote from cherry-picked sources to support their warped narrative. This time, however, most of us LIVED THROUGH the reality of those attacks in real time, and this version of the story bears scant resemblance to what we remember quite clearly.
“The People Speak” is neither good history nor even good story-telling. It conveniently omits vast amounts of material that would quickly destroy its central thesis. It’s quite simply a ponderous bore of a film which subjects its viewers to insufferable posturing by a seemingly endless parade of sanctimonious celebrities intoxicated with their own imagined virtue. That the nation they attack so mercilessly in the process has provided them with opportunities and in many cases a standard of living unattainable anywhere else in the world seems completely lost on these people.
Which is why I was actually glad to hear Bruce Springsteen’s asthmatic rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” as it brought this train wreck of a film to a merciful end.
- Parcbench: Matt Damon Rewrites History
- American History According to Zinn: A Leftist’s Fairy Tale
- “The People” Speak? Try “Howard Zinn, The Hypocrite Speaks” On Bill Moyers Journal