The following piece, “Learning from Our Past” is chapter 10 in the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). My accomplished and insightful partner in dialogue is noted author and scholar, Anthony Arnove, Ph.D. His words are indicated by the initials AA., and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type. Enjoy this look at history, solidarity, and struggle based on Dr. Arnove and his bombshell book (with Howard Zinn).
“The probability that we shall fail in the struggle should not deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
JM: In today’s discussion, we will explore the stories and recollections of persons who have made a minor or major contribution to United States history, fomented progress in one of our many historical struggles, and/or exemplified values and virtues that often belie their marginal social position. These unique “voices” take the form of quotations, essays, narratives, testimonies, and historical records that have been preserved, passed on, or uncovered.
Many of these fascinating historical figures and, often, heroes and heroines, do not get due respect and acknowledgment because of the way history works (by history I mean both the discipline and the bygone era). Many or most of these principled and indefatigable individuals could fairly be considered “unsung heroes” due in part to a lack of recognition of (or outright hostility toward) their group or role.
Two people who have really gone the extra mile to bring these censored or overlooked voices to full pitch are Howard Zinn, Ph.D. and Anthony Arnove, Ph.D. Together they published the compelling and assertive book Voices of a People’s History of the United States, a companion to Howard Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States. I interviewed Howard in April, and today I trust Anthony will also do a wonderful job shedding some light on their thoroughly-researched tome of essays and letters by some of America’s brightest and boldest sons and daughters from times past. In offering a bird’s-eye view of the unadulterated history of the United States, Dr. Arnove will help us to understand better where we as a country came from – and thus, are headed in the future. My angle will be to tease out the relevance of these unsung heroes to the zeitgeist, and to highlight how they herald the values of the wise.
“If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”~ Abigail Adams
As “history is written by the winners” (Alex Haley), it is important to explore the little-known aspects of our past, to “read between the lines.” Amos Bronson Alcott was noted to have said: “The deepest truths are best read between the lines and, for the most part, refused to be written.”
Like archaeologists, historians can find evidence to paint a picture of what a particular era was like— how people treated each other, what the major problems were, what values were exemplified. Anthony Arnove and the inimitable Howard Zinn were able to find a lot of data and clues about what was going on during prior, important (even crucial) decades. They bring the voices of elusive figures to our modern living rooms, libraries, and universities. Those who take the time to get to know these heretofore nearly-forgotten testimonies and snapshots will obviously have a deeper and more nuanced view of history, America, and our true record. I take my hat off to that effort, and am eager to welcome a man who loves Howard Zinn at least as much as I do!
Dr. Anthony Arnove is a scholar of remarkable industry and vigor. He earned a doctorate of modern cultures and media at Brown University. He is the editor of several books, including Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which Arnove co-edited with Zinn, The Essential Chomsky, Howard Zinn Speaks, and Iraq Under Siege, and is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal. Anthony is on the editorial boards of Haymarket Books and the International Socialist Review. It’s my honor to welcome him. Hello, Dr. Arnove.
“The only time an unjust man will scream against injustice is when he is afraid someone will practice it on him.” ~ Plato
AA: It’s a pleasure to be on the show.
JM: Thank you for saying that. Would it be okay if I call you Anthony?
AA: Oh, absolutely, please.
JM: I notice that you got your doctorate in modern culture and media; is that the correct name of what you studied?
AA: Yes, that was a program in the English Department, and was part of an interdisciplinary program. Really, at that time in my life, though I met some great people there, it wasn’t what fueled or inspired me to do Voices. It was actually outside of the classroom that I learned the history and gained an interest in the topics that Howard and I explore in this book. So much of what this book is about is the history that was not taught in schools and isn’t written in standard textbooks. Howard has joked that in graduate school, you learn the same thing you learned in grade school – “but with footnotes.” I think there is a certain truth to that, and my training in history truly came through political activism and reading more than it did from school.
JM: Well, kudos to you sir because I can tell this book took a long time to research and put together; asking for permission and finding the pieces and organizing them and submitting for publication to a press that actually accepts it… I know it’s not easy.
“I decided a long time ago to join the social justice movement. It was salvaging. We all have to die, and I preferred to have just one death. It seems to me that to suffer insult without response is to die many deaths.” ~ Randall Robinson
AA: Well, we had plenty of help – librarians, scholars, historians. Many people have been inspired by Howard’s book, A People’s History of the United States, just as I was when I first read it. I think it helped spark a kind of renaissance in “history from below” – looking at history from the standpoint of ordinary people rather than “history from above,” which is what we are usually taught. I mean: history from the victors, the generals, presidents, and other so-called “great men.” We were able to benefit from all of the great work that has been done in women’s history, Latino history, Asian American history, Labor history, etc.
JM: Indeed, that is more of a movement than I realized; I guess I pictured you as being cloistered for five years and then you asked Howard if he would co-author with you! Even though that story has a lot of honor to it, I think it’s also wonderful to hear that many folks were engaged, tireless, and giving of their time. I think it speaks in a way to the passion that many folks have to discover and disseminate the truth.
AA: Absolutely. There is a whole curriculum that goes along with the book (a teacher’s guide), and a number of public school teachers in California volunteered and worked very hard to make that curriculum available – it’s free on www.SevenStories.com. A number of people freely contributed by organizing readings from it, theater, discussions, etc. It’s been a really inspiring experience.
JM: Very good. It’s gotten some popular press attention, too; I heard Howard speak with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show about it. Boy, was it amazing to see those two together. I appreciate that the producers and Jon cared enough about history, truth, and Howard to have him on about a topic that really isn’t very funny!
AA: Yes, that was great. It’s still in the archive of The Daily Show for listeners who want to go back and see it again. We also received a glowing review from Salon.com, which I wasn’t expecting, but which we were thrilled to see.
“There are two types of justice: retributive justice and distributive justice. Retributive justice requires punishment for wrongdoing in proportion to the magnitude of the crime…. Distributive justice refers to the fair distribution of benefits and burdens in a society.” ~ Judith A. Boss
JM: Sounds wonderful. Since Howard talked about it a lot himself, is there something you would like to mention about it that is kind of “an untold story” – something that you thought was remarkable from a perspective as unique as the one you had for a year or two there? Or maybe, how the story or the process affected you.
AA: I was struck by two things, really. The first is the resilience of the people whom we include in this book. If you think back to someone such as Frederick Douglass or Fannie Lou Hamer, you read about the odds that were stacked against them, the level of opposition they encountered in their struggles for civil rights, voting rights, equality, or against slavery. Certainly, they faced tremendous opposition, hostility, physical violence, persecution, intimidation, and harassment. Yet, they persisted.
Not only did they persist, they had an impact that I believe they never could have imagined as they went from being an isolated minority to influencing millions, and literally changing the course of history. They were confident in their ideas and in the justice of their cause. So I was struck by the resilience and courage and commitment of people in our past; the resources of hope that they managed to find, even in the darkest moments of their particular struggles…
“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” ~ J. R. R. Tolkien
…I was also quite affected time and time again by the eloquence of ordinary people describing their tumult and trials. There is some connection to the passion, to the value, to the real core of what it means to be someone in solidarity with other people. Often, we’re talking about people who weren’t formally educated – who were even persecuted for trying to obtain education – and yet who are far more articulate and passionate than some of the people today who are considered to be eloquent, formally educated, and knowledgeable.
JM: It’s true. When I would read some of the stories I would think: “Wow, this person is an ex-slave and they can write like this?!” It made me feel like a slacker! But, history is really enriching. Rick Warren said: “We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”
AA: Well, I think really it’s a tribute to the education learned in struggle. That’s something that’s so important about Howard’s life and story; he has always been someone who experienced social striving. He was never just an observer, or a distant analyst, or somebody who wrote about an abstract, historical perspective. He has joined and led social movements. He has been to North Vietnam and jail and everywhere in between. If you’ve read his book about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), it’s infused with his experiences organizing with that group. That gave him an appreciation and an understanding about how history really happens. All of this real-world experience has been indispensable to his work, but also to his whole approach to what he does.
JM: Yes, the world would be very different if he never existed, or if his plane was shot down during World War II and he wasn’t able to travel this long path that he’s been on. Isn’t he in his early 80s?
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” ~ Albert Camus
AA: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something people also need to understand – and it comes out in the book Voices of a People’s History of the United States – namely, that people change in struggle. They change as they find other people with whom they can engage in a collaborative project centered on bringing about social transformation, and once they realize that they are not alone in thinking that, the world can be more humanely organized than it is.
There’s one particularly moving reading we have in the book from Yuri Kochiyama. She describes her experiences as one of the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II. As you know, the period was marked by a similar degree of xenophobia and paranoia to the one we’re in right now – in the so-called “war on terror.” I’m talking about the attacks on Muslim immigrants, the detentions, the deportations, the “extraordinary renditions,” the torture, the lack of due process, etc.
She describes how, before the internment – and even during – she was patriotic; she believed in the United States; she couldn’t believe that this was happening to her. But, the experience transformed her completely.
She came to see how this experience was one that had taken place throughout U.S. history; that the Japanese weren’t alone. She came to see that there were parallels between her experience and the experiences of Chinese railroad workers; between her experience and that of the Native Americans who were rounded up and forced into reservations and hounded and, of course, much worse things than that.
“Fear is the State’s psychological weapon of choice to frighten citizens into sacrificing their basic freedoms and rule-of-law protections in exchange for the security promised by their all-powerful government.” ~ Philip Zimbardo
It’s really moving because then she becomes a leader in the civil rights struggle – not just for Asian Americans, but for Latinos and African Americans. She has been a very important figure in the last 30 years of the civil rights movement in this country, but she started out a kind of “sheltered,” patriotic, young person.
It’s important to recognize that process of change because we need to have some optimism that if we can get the information out there – if we can reach and connect with people – that we can find a growing audience for our ideas of social change. People, once they start to work together for a common end, will realize the potential in themselves they never thought they had.
JM: I’d like to go further in the direction of, What can history teach us about the present, and about the future? Because beyond the thrill of reading these wonderful stories, that’s really what the point of the book is, I think.
If you’ve seen the movie Gandhi, with Ben Kingsley, in the end the character says a remarkable thing:
“When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers; and for a time, they have seemed invincible. But in the end, they always fail. Think of it – always!”
Anthony, I met you through www.Chomsky.info a while ago. So, you’re involved with him as well? I’d say you are in quite a position – to have not only the ear, but also the respect, of two contemporary intellectual heavy, heavy hitters: great thinkers and remarkable social activists, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.
AA: I’m really, really lucky to work with both of them. It’s been a real privilege.
JM: Indeed. So, one of the things I like to do is bring in a quotation or two and run them by my guests to see how it strikes them. I would also note that I think the book you’ve compiled is almost like a series of very long quotations that have to do with values from some very remarkable people. It’s evident to me when reading the book that some of the values that those historical figures and great spirits were trying to get at were concepts like truth and justice and liberty and the like. Can I assume then that you resonate with the values that imbue the book with such potency and significance?
“The way Martin Luther King used references to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America was a brilliant move. His charismatic voice, eloquent words, peaceful yet strong demeanor, and strategy of urging the powerful white majority to look within themselves and confront the hypocrisy that results from mixing the aspirations of liberty and justice with the reality of complacency and ignorance, all were ingenious.” ~ Jason Merchey
AA: Absolutely. I would add democracy— not in the sense in which we’ve come to think of democracy in the United States, but in the genuine sense: ordinary people controlling their own lives and participating in the fundamental decisions that shape their lives.
In the United States, we’re taught that democracy means going out to pull a lever for this or that candidate from the establishment who represents a very narrow range of opinion, individuals who have historically not represented the interests of regular people – working people, poor people, oppressed people. Instead, merely the interests of the land owners, slave owners, corporations, the elites.
We’ve been told that’s democracy, but I would call it plutocracy: the rule of the wealthy and powerful. In a genuine democracy, we would have control over many things that are removed from decision-making via the participation of ordinary Americans. Health care decisions, for example; employment conditions – what’s produced, how it’s produced; how the resources of society are distributed.
Take one basic statistic: at least 70% of the population wants a national healthcare program to provide universal healthcare. We desperately lack it – there are 45 million with no health insurance at all in the world’s richest country. If you ask people if they’ve lost coverage at any time in the last year, or have inadequate health care, that number rises to over 75 million! As well, many people who have insurance can’t get needed treatment because their HMOs deny coverage. It’s considered “politically impossible” because politicians usually don’t represent the interests of working people and ordinary folks; they represent the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, HMOs, CEOs, and so on – individuals and factions who are strongly opposed to basing healthcare not on human need, but profit.
JM: You’re preaching to the choir, but it seems as though some people aren’t quite getting that message. Or do you think that we are in a position now where even if the people were to start to come together on some of these important issues, that the plutocrats will still be insulated, dominant, and undeterred?
“Poverty is the mother of crime.” ~ Marcus Aurelius
AA: Yeah; we have a number of difficult challenges. I take inspiration, as I said earlier, noting the challenges that people have overcome in the past, and also learning that when people work together, they can successfully bring about change. Even when the odds have been enormously stacked against social movements, remarkable people working in unison have been able to overcome them.
It’s a question of realizing the powers that we have, but we don’t always use. For example, working people in this country have the power to strike, but it’s a tool which has been used less and less in our recent history, and which has contributed to the decline of organized labor. Unions have not been able to effectively organize the power of working people to fight for national healthcare, for example. But they could. They absolutely could. It’s a question of political priorities; it’s a question of strategy; it’s a question of laying out a program and fighting to realize it.
If not, pretty soon we’re going to be talking about organized labor really becoming history in the United States. We are now down to roughly 12% of all workers in unions, and less than 10% are in unions in the private sector. It’s abysmal. Over the last 30 years, as we’ve seen membership decline, there have been declines in wages and benefits and social protections for working people. It’s not going to turn around quickly, but the will is there. A recent poll indicated that more people say they would like to join a union than at any point in recent polling history.
JM: Hmm. It’s always interesting to hear people like you and Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky talk about the optimism that you have. It’s helpful to me, even though it’s hard for me to grasp. It seems as though there is one strain of evidence that we are getting more and more screwed up as a country and things are looking worse and worse, and we’re reaching a fever pitch that will spell doom, and then I hear someone such as yourself say “But there’s reason for optimism – this might be the best time to be living because of the tools that are available to us such as the Internet” (my words). I guess that is the nature of a parallax; it seems impossible until I view it differently.
“We wish fervently to believe that America was founded on and has lived by ideals of social justice. In that effort, we expend great amounts of psychological energy trying to ignore a national history of eager exploitation of those on the bottom, no matter who they are.” ~ Derrick Bell
AA: (laughs) Yeah, well it’s easy to understand why people feel despair in this moment. It is contradictory; absolutely, we are in very troubling times. The scale of the crisis we confront is significant. If you think about the threats of war, environmental destruction, global warming, accidental or deliberate nuclear warfare, one can speak very honestly about the human race being closer to its self-destruction than at any point in history.
At the same time, I think two things. One, it only increases the importance of what we do to reverse the disastrous course that the George Bushes and the Tony Blairs of the world are setting us on. But also, to recognize that the vast majority of the world’s population does not believe in the values that the small number of elites do.
So, it’s both: the situation is dire, and the situation is hopeful. It’s a question of what you focus on; the media only wants us to see the world in a way where we can’t influence it, change it, or improve it. But that is not true. That’s why it is important to look at those moments, those examples, and those struggles that show we can change the course of history. I hope Voices of a People’s History of the United States makes a small contribution to that.
“As we move toward a global society, becoming ever more aware of the sufferings and struggles of the peoples of the Earth, there is more and more reason to recognize the social responsibility each of us has and respond to it.” ~ Justine & Michael Toms
JM: It has made a small contribution to my life, in no small measure because it’s chock-full of good quotations. I would have been pretty ignorant about most of those perspectives and facts were they not put in front of me, thanks to you and Howard.
Let me ask you about a couple of quotations before I let you get on to something else, if I could. This is by Oscar Wilde: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made; through disobedience, through rebellion.”
AA: Absolutely, and in fact that reminds me of a quote that we used to open the book that really sums up the message. It’s a quote from Frederick Douglass, who appears a few times in the volume. He was writing about the struggle for West Indian independence, and he said:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. The struggle may be a moral one or a physical one – and it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows – or with both.”
JM: I think that really captures the history of the United States. There is no progress without struggle anywhere in our history. He’s a most remarkable man because he was a former slave!
AA: Absolutely – and a leader of the abolitionist movement; also a leader in the women’s rights movement at a time when there was a close connection between those two struggles.
JM: He had a remarkable face, too. To see a picture of him and read what he writes is just so interesting.
AA: Definitely; he’s a remarkable, remarkable figure. People should really read his speech on the Fourth of July, which we included in the book. I think it’s one of the most moving examples of oratory in our entire history.
JM: Yeah! When he says something like: “Are you guys mocking me – asking me to speak to you on the Fourth of July!?” (laughs)
“Struggle is par for the course when our dreams go into action. But unless we have the space to imagine and have a vision of what it means to fully realize our humanity, all the protests and demonstrations in the world won’t bring about our liberation.” ~ Robin D. G. Kelley
AA: Absolutely! And then he ends by saying that the everyday crimes of this system are worse than all of the crimes of the despotisms in Latin America set side-by-side – you know, pointing to the real hypocrisy of the United States, talking about liberty and democracy (as we hear them doing in Iraq), as they were engaged in the brutality of slavery in his day.
JM: Hmm. Let me present you with two quotations; the first is by Noam Chomsky: “We are all so isolated. If we had live, ongoing, popular organizations this wouldn’t be so true. The history of the labor movement in the United States is interesting in this respect, actually: when people were really working together, organizing, that overcame the isolation. In fact, it even overcame things like racism and sexism to a great extent.”
And here is a quote by Neil Peart – the drummer/lyricist from the rock group, Rush: “When they turn the pages of history/ When these days have passed long ago/ Will they read of us with sadness/ For the seeds that we let grow?”
AA: Yeah, you know that reminds me of another song you might want to play on your show sometime. It’s by Boots Riley, it’s called “Heaven Tonight.” He paints the opposite scenario— he imagines a future socialist society in which we’ve brought about a real positive transformation and stemmed the tide of our environmental and human destruction. He describes how, in the future, people will come to appreciate that many, many people who came before them struggled to make the situation possible. So, I’d like to think that we can go down that route rather than the one Neil Peart was imagining, but there are no guarantees in history. It’s a question of what we do.
“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” ~ Helen Keller
JM: Right. There is also a little-known but very interesting song called “In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans. And, the all-time great song about the future of humanity, “2112” again by Rush. I also know that Howard particularly likes the songs of Woody Guthrie. One could put together quite a compilation of these trenchant looks at the past, present, and future.
Well, Anthony, I really appreciate speaking with you. I wish you all the best. I feel like we could talk for four more hours.
AA: Yeah, well, maybe another time. Good luck with the show.
Here is the podcast of this interview. It is called “Voices of a People’s History.”
Here is Anthony’s page.
Here is the page about Noam Chomsky that Anthony worked hard to co-create.