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Since Zinn's death in 2010, Arnove - an author and editor - has helped keep Voices of a People's History alive through readings, and now, in an expanded edition with timely additional content.
Truthout recently discussed the book, which serves as a vital, energetic and inspiring companion to Zinn's breakthrough book, A People's History of the United States, with Arnove.
Mark Karlin: Voices of a People's History is so expansive and revelatory, it is only appropriate to begin by discussing a normally undisclosed aspect of the colonial revolt against Britain. The book has a section devoted to documenting the economic and social inequality that existed among the colonial settlers and the revolutionary army. That, I am sure, comes as quite a surprise to many schooled on the myth of a nation founded as egalitarian, don't you think?
Anthony Arnove: Howard was attentive to many aspects of US history that tend to be ignored or deliberately downplayed. But he was especially attuned to class conflict. The common metaphor of the United States as a family conceals sharp divisions that have always existed. And, as you point out, it wasn't just that those conflicts existed between the colonial settlers and the indigenous population, whom they systematically dispossessed and slaughtered, or between the colonial population and the millions of slaves they forcibly brought here to work and die under the most brutal conditions.
There were also different class interests among the colonialists, among those who fought in the revolutionary army. And the founders were acutely aware of the dangers posed by the different interests of the landless majority if they organized. They had to find ways to ensure that those with property and wealth dominated the new nation they were forging.
That's why, in "Voices," we include some of the voices such as Plough Jogger, who took part in Shay's Rebellion, and Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier who enlisted in the Continental Army in 1776 and served in New York and Connecticut during the American Revolution, who express their frustrations at their ill treatment and the desire for a different social order.
Backing up in history, BuzzFlash recently posted a video of Viggo Mortensen reading a letter detailing the brutality that the Conquistadors visited upon Native Americans. Did anything come of BartolomÃ© de Las Casas's appeals to the Spanish royalty?
That's such a powerful reading. The great filmmaker John Sayles actually helped us craft the version we use in live performances. He read in a very early performance in New York and helped us edit the selection that is in the book, taken from his remarkable book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, into something that works so beautifully on stage. Given the scale of destruction wrought by the conquest of the Americas, the sale of reforms Las Casas was able to urge pale in comparison. And we also should remember that, at one point, he urged using African slave labor rather than enslaving the native peoples of the West Indies, a position he later regretted.
Mortensen's reading, which was shown on "Democracy Now," was extremely powerful. What effect do you think the live presentations of the speeches and essays has on audiences?
I am extremely moved myself when taking part in live performances of Voices and struck at how enthusiastically and emotionally people respond. On paper, honestly, it seems rather boring: people watching a group of actors and musicians reading or singing "on book" (with a script in hand), without any costumes or staging or any of the other apparatus of the theater. When we organized our first reading in 2003, we half expected it would be a bust or maybe just a one-time event. But it was electric and galvanizing for people to come together and experience these voices speaking from the past so powerfully to our situation today.
The book has 25 chapters, and their titles and content offer an alternative vision of a nation that was founded upon equality for white male property owners and pretty much inequality for everybody else: people of color, women, the poor, non-heterosexuals. Is it fair to say Voices of a People's History speaks for the majority who were not beneficiaries of US independence?
A "history for the rest of us" is not a bad way of describing it. But it's more than just whose voices are included in Voices; it's how that history is told. One of the major faults of Great White Men history (or, if you are a bit more sensitive, Great White Men and a Few Great Others, Since We Are So Great and Inclusive, Whatever "Mistakes" We Made a Long Time Ago and Let's Move On . . . history) is that it leaves most students and readers utterly alienated from the process. Howard's emphasis on people's history, a bottom-up view of how change happens, was that unknown people, groups of people and not just individuals, oppressed people, dispossessed and abused people, make history. And that is a dangerous idea to those in power.
From how frequently the topic is interspersed in the book, the US certainly appears to be a nation that can't turn down a war. How is this related to the growth of the United States empire?
One of the themes of Voices is that the US empire has a very long history. It doesn't begin with 1898 and the conquest of the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and beyond. You have to talk about the invasion and occupation of Mexico in the 1840s (something that is important to remember as we consider the war on Mexican immigrants and the militarization of the border today). You have to look at the westward expansion of the colonies and settler-colonialism and the exercise of "Manifest Destiny."
But what's truly striking when you look at this history is the consistency of the rhetoric of benevolence, selflessness, "spreading democracy," opposing tyranny, defending human rights. One of Howard's main aspirations as a historian was to teach people about the lies used in past wars so they would be far less likely to believe politicians and military officials when they announce yet again our need to send people to kill and be killed in the name of "democracy."
Needless to say, the struggle for women to reach full equality with men continues today. Voices includes a feisty, wry recollection of a speech that Sojourner Truth gave around 1850 advocating women's rights. A spirited performance of the remarks can be found on You Tube, read by Kerry Washington. Would you comment on the spot-on wit when she orated:
Narrated by Thom Hartmann, and produced and directed by Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey, Heist: Who Stole the American Dream in Broad Daylight? is a comprehensive dissection of the evolution of corporate control over the federal government. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Heist "has the virtue of taking the long view of a crisis that recent films like Inside Job and Too Big to Fail have only sketchily explored. It makes a strong case that government regulation of business is essential for democracy to flourish."
Joan Walsh, the former editor of Salon (and now editor at large), has in recent years become the go-to MSNBC commentator on working class issues. Born into an Irish middle class family in New York, she offers a personal and analytical perspective on why so many white working class families defected from the Democratic Party. Her viewpoint on blue collar politics is insightful at a time that the progressive movement is still wrestling with how to rebuild the New Deal coalition in a contemporary format.