Thursday, November 29, 2012



As Americans ready themselves to see family and friends while overeating and watching football in a few days, it seems to me that we all know that there are questions progressives as well as everyone else need to ask about the “yet to be United States of America’s” peculiar holiday. Bill Bigelow & Bob Petersen have just rereleased their 1991 collection Rethinking Columbus, which interestingly was one of the books banned by the Tucson Public Schools earlier this year.  Their summary of the book speaks to Columbus “discovering” America.

The Columbus myth is a foundation of children's beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child's first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.

The same issues, of course, surround Thanksgiving. Vera Stenhouse wrote on the theme last year at this time in a pre-holiday article in the progressive magazine Rethinking Schools.  Writing on the lessons taught about Thanksgiving cooperation between the Indians and the Pilgrims, Stenhouse asserted that “these happy stories maintain children’s ignorance and reinforce stereotypes.”

She addressed what we teach and what we don’t teach in American schools:

1.     The Pilgrims from Europe came to the New World and celebrated their survival by sharing their bountiful feast with the Indians.

Of course the New World wasn’t new as indigenous people already lived there. In addition, the survival of the Pilgrims’ was made possible through the knowledge of these indigenous people.  And in fact, there is actually no proof that there ever was a first Thanksgiving dinner that children learn about in our schools.

It is also not taught that Colonists initially stole food and other things they valued from the indigenous people and eventually violently stole Indian land.

2.     In schools starting after Halloween the Thanksgiving story is taught through drama, books, and homework.  Children wear Indian garb and sometimes even reenact the multicultural dinner.

But in fact, it wasn’t multicultural at all.  Instead the lessons reinforce racial stereotypes and reemphasize a world of we and them – we as the civil and them as the savage.  Stenhouse explains that Thanksgiving Day is considered a Day of Mourning by many American Indians—a time to acknowledge the ongoing painful legacy of removal from their homelands, enslavement, and deaths from diseases.

After learning of the myths of Thanksgiving, one of her teacher education students in Atlanta Georgia exclaimed:

I’m beginning to question what the bigger message should be. Is the holiday real? Is there really something to celebrate? I mean, sure, I’m glad to be here, and I’m thankful for the blessings in my life, but am I celebrating at the expense of others?

So the bigger question isn’t so much about Thanksgiving, but rather the continuing dangerous nonsense of American, and capitalist creation of We and They.  That is certainly the case in Israel and Gaza and in the austerity movement in Europe and the United States.

Book Review-Martin Duberman on Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left
Martin Duberman
New York: New Press, 2012

Review by Alan Wieder

Howard Zinn was 87 when he died in 2010.  He was an activist, writer, and teacher and these three aspects of his life interacted seamlessly as he fought for social justice in the United States.  Martin Duberman has written a biography of Zinn, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.  Duberman, like Zinn, is an activist, writer, and teacher – he speaks to the two men’s similarities in his introduction:

We held common convictions on a wide range of public issues. Our views coincided about the justice of the black struggle and the injustice of the war in Vietnam. We deplored the entrenched and usually unacknowledged class divisions in this country, the growing monopoly of wealth in the hands of a few, and the arrogance and destruction of US foreign policy.

Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left by Martin Duberman is a chronological portrait of Zinn’s life.  As I read the book I couldn’t shake something I learned in an early historiography class:

Beware of biographical caveats

In the introduction besides writing of the correspondence of his and Howard’s views of the world, Duberman notes that Zinn shredded his personal papers making it difficult to combine the political and personal in his portrayal of Howard Zinn’s life. In a February 2010 reading on this program after Zinn died, Ole Mole Variety Hour’s Tom Becker explained that for Zinn, the political was personal and the personal was political.  Unfortunately, in the biography, that is told but not shown.

Duberman, now 82 years old, has published numerous books, articles, and plays including Paul Robeson: A Biography.  He is most well known for his activism and eight books on LGBT rights.  He has received numerous awards and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Martin Duberman’s accomplishments and the accolades for his work are exceptional.  Yet, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left is a disappointing book.  It is disappointing not because Zinn didn’t leave personal papers, but rather because Martin Duberman used neither Howard’s voice nor those of his family, comrades, colleagues, friends and critics.  We do not get a good sense of the depth or breadth of Howard Zinn.  Duberman acknowledges doing ten interviews – five with family and five with friends.  There were probably more but there are almost no quotes as Duberman tells, rather than shows, Howard Zinn’s life.

So while there are some insights, usually from books by Howard that many of us have read, there are pages and pages of what might be generously called context that do not connect directly to Howard’s life – some examples.

Writing on Howard’s early life, there is a great paragraph, the gist of which was written in Zinn’s The Southern Mystique, where Howard confronts racism while in the military.  In the biography, the event, however, is situated within pages of context that do little to portray Howard Zinn.

It is the same for the next 100 pages that cover Howard Zinn’s first academic appointment at Spellman College and the Civil Rights Movement.   The Spellman chapter covers Howard helping to politicize students but it is too often a list of events – some about Howard, some about the college, and some about the south and racism without showing Howard as a human participant.

There are snippets, however.  Amidst the Spellman chapter Howard’s thinking on Malcolm X, black power, and SNCC do come alive as do some sit-in stories in the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement.  Pages and pages are devoted to Howard’s firing, and President Manley of Spellman’s accusations of sexual misconduct will hit the novice reader quite hard.  That of course raises numerous questions about biographical methodology that are beyond the scope of this short review. 

We are teased by mention of Howard’s interactions with James Baldwin & Ella Baker and his work on The Freedom Summer – but I for one found myself asking for more – give it life.

Duberman writes on the Viet Nam war & Howard’s 1967 book Viet Nam: The Logic of Withdrawal.  We learn about Howard’s critique of the war and he is humanized with a strong quote from his daughter Myla.  We learn of his trips to Hanoi and Paris and his comrades David Dellinger, Daniel Berrigan, and Daniel Ellsberg, but again, I was yearning to know more of the relationships between the people as well as their relationships within the context of their collective missions.

There is a chapter called Writing History that speaks to Howard within his academic discipline and includes some of his battles with historians like Eugene Genovese.  Much of the chapter, actually too much, includes Duberman’s analysis of Howard’s scholarship – I kept writing ‘no life’ in the margins.

Also covered is Zinn’s ongoing battle with Boston University’s president, John Silber and the writing of Howard’s most famous book, A Peoples’ History of the United States.  Duberman tells the well-known story about sales of the book surging after Matt Damon mentioned it in his film Good Will Hunting, and then again when it was shown on the HBO series, The Sopranos. 

Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left actually comes more to life in its portrayal of the last three decades of Howard’s life.  One hunch is that Duberman had great conversations with Anthony Arnove who Howard worked with closely late in his life?  Martin Duberman lauds A Peoples’ History as well as earlier books and honors the many progressive projects that Howard Zinn’s work has launched – (for example the Zinn Education Project at  He concludes by saying:

What will most certainly come down to future generations is Howard’s humanity, his exemplary concern for the plight of others, a concern free of condescension or self-importance.  Howard always stayed in character – and that character remained centered on a capacious solidarity with the least fortunate.

While I think that people can learn about Howard Zinn in Martin Duberman’s book, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, A Peoples’ History of the United States & Howard’s memoir like book, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, would be higher on my list.

Ruth First & Joe Slovo

            In recent months there have been events in both South Africa and the United Kingdom commemorating 30 years since the South African apartheid regime assassinated Ruth First.  During the long fight against apartheid in South Africa there were several remarkable couples who devoted their lives to the struggle -- Winnie and Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sissulu, Hilda and Rusty Bernstein, and of course the intrepid Ruth First and Joe Slovo.  Ruth and Joe began their activism the decade before the apartheid regime came into power.  They became members of the Communist Party in the 1940s as they fought racism, class disparity, and oppression in South Africa.  Beginning in 1947 and ending just before she was imprisoned in 1963, Ruth was the editor of the Johannesburg office of The Guardian, a radical, opposition newspaper that exposed the atrocities of the South African state, and featured the voices of black opposition leaders.  Forced into exile in 1964, she continued to speak back to power in South Africa through her activism, writing, and teaching.  In 1982, she paid the ultimate price for her commitment to a democratic South Africa when she was assassinated by the apartheid regime.  A year earlier, South African commandos were elated because they believed that they had killed Joe Slovo whom they referred to as “Enemy Number One.”  The commandos had mistakenly shot the wrong person, a Portuguese engineer.  There were later attempts on Joe’s life.  At the government’s infamous interrogation and torture prison, Daisy Farm, there was a basement cell referred to as the "Slovo Suite."
The South African government demonized both Ruth First and Joe Slovo throughout the struggle years.  With Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki imprisoned for almost three decades beginning in 1963, Joe Slovo was, along with Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani, one of the most important leaders in the struggle against apartheid.  He was the main strategist of the armed struggle, and later a key player in the negotiations with the apartheid regime that led to the country’s first democratic government in 1994. 
Ruth and Joe were complex individuals: their partnership, early years and beyond, was tested by their individuality, irreverence, ideology, infidelity, and intensity. Ruth First could be thoughtful, contentious, generous, academic, intellectual, revolutionary, and more.  Joe Slovo was tough, humorous, soft, harsh, congenial, thoughtful, political, musical, and OF COURSE revolutionary.  Ruth was sometimes compared to Rosa Luxemburg.  Her commitment to the struggle against apartheid was given as testimony after her assassination – it still is today.  Retired Constitutional Court justice, Albie Sachs, said, “I once described her as a product of Lenin and the London School of Economics.”  Headlines from a newspaper interview with Ruth during her London years read, “I am a Revolutionary.”  Finally, her American friend, Danny Schechter, the Media Dissector, said, “She was not playing the revolution, she was making the revolution, or trying to.”
Ruth First and Joe Slovo were both leaders amongst leaders.  They had different styles.  They had different roles in the struggle.  Most importantly, their complex and vital places in the fight for a democratic South Africa need to be portrayed for the people that knew them and more importantly for those that have come after them – both in South Africa and throughout the world.
Their legacies are especially important in South Africa today because both politicians and other leaders, some who were their struggle comrades, are enmeshed in repression and corruption.  Unfortunately, comrade Pallo Jordan’s eulogy of Joe where he said he had no doubt that Joe’s life and work would continue to inspire radicals, and publisher Ronald Segal’s promise after Ruth died that the revolutionary movement would find new purpose because of her death, remain unfulfilled.
But in 2012 huge contradictions remain corresponding to Ruth and Joe’s revolutionary legacies and the current reality in South Africa.  They taught us that capitalism and imperialism have inflicted immense misery on humanity and that we have to voice and act upon our passion for economic justice, our hatred of inequality and our impatience with reformism.  Ruth and Joe’s values and actions need to be kept alive in South Africa and throughout the world.  The spirit of each of their positions in the struggle against apartheid is sorely necessary in the current struggles for social justice.  Recently, University of Montreal political scientist Dan O’Meara commented on Ruth and Joe’s lifelong fight against the rich and powerful.  He spoke to the essence of why their life stories are so important to portray at the present time.
Ruth and Joe died trying to change the world; they died not in the arid despair of the mind, but in hope at the possibility of change, knowing that only 'we' could wring such change from the grasping bloody hands of 'them'.
            Ruth First and Joe Slovo’s actions always confronted the vile ruthlessness of power that initiated, fostered, sanctioned, and protected class disparity and racism.  Ruth’s work as a political activist, journalist, writer, academic, and Director of Research at the Center of African Studies in Mozambique, challenged commonplaces and injustices, class disparity and racism, in South Africa and throughout the Continent.  Joe, first as a radical lawyer, then as the Chief of Staff of the struggle underground, and finally as the leader of the South African Communist Party, combined strategy with action to fight unwaveringly against the apartheid regime.
Both people spent their entire lives daringly fighting for a non-racial, democratic South Africa with the goal of socialism and equality for all people.  Their values and actions help remind generations across the board, old and young, of the possibilities when courageous and brave individuals join together to fight oppression, or to paraphrase the preamble to the South African Constitution:
Believe that the World belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity!


As some friends know I have joined the Old Mole Variety Hour collective at KBOO F.M. radio in Portland.  Thus far I have contributed radio essays on South African revolutionaries, Ruth First & Joe Slovo, the subjects of my forthcoming book with Monthly Review Books in the United States and Jacana Press in South Africa, a review of Martin Duberman's biography of Howard Zinn, as well as a commentary on Thanksgiving.  Next Monday I will talk about Obama's neo-con/deformer Department of Education.  Have decided to begin publishing the radio essays at  Look forward to your thoughts