50 American Revolutions You Are Not Supposed to Know – By Mickey Z
“The seventh inning stretch required fans to stand in honour of the ‘men and women in uniform’ who fight to ‘preserve our way of life.’ Fifty thousand removed their free caps, watched a digitised flag wave on the big screen, and held the [sponsors] patch over their cholesterol-laden hearts while belting out ‘God Bless America,’ collectively choosing to ignore the blood being spilled to keep the world safe for petroleum.” – Mickey Z
Billie holiday singing a song may not be what everyone has in mind when they hear the word revolution but individual acts of conscience and bravery are often at the root of major changes in social order and attitude.[1.]
This book is essentially a compendium of some of the finest moments in anti-establishment US history and some occasions when the establishment actually did something worthwhile (this was only a few of the 50). Some of the seminal moments of Feminism (probably shouldn’t use the word ‘seminal’ in relation to Feminism but if I said ‘ovulatory moments’ it could still end up in a sticky mess!) Comedy, Music, Anarchism and Socialism are included in the book and some other things besides, notably Marlon Brando and Kathleen Hepburn’s underwear. Some of these stories, like Muhammad Ali refusing the draft or the ‘ Battle in Seattle’ are familiar but there are many that most probably won’t know.
However, it is not the American History element that I find most interesting in this book (probably because I am not American). It is the personal acts of resistance and courage of the people in it, sometimes individual and sometimes collective, that is most impressive. It also shows how small acts by individuals can have huge consequences, in the US or anywhere else. Whether by laying down their lives, singing a song or even wearing and then not wearing trousers (don’t get the wrong idea – this part has nothing to do with seminal moments) the people in Mickey Z’s book challenged power and orthodoxy – which is why we are not supposed to know about them.
I like the idea of American teenagers reading this book and going to their history teachers and demanding to know why some of this stuff isn’t being studied in class. Or, in this country, demanding to know why we are brought up to learn what a marvellous hero and orator Winston Churchill was and don’t hear about his enormous military failures at Gallipoli and of him giving his authorisation to a plan to gas bomb villages of civilians or, as it was put, ‘recalcitrant Arabs’ in order to inspire a ‘lively terror.’
The same ‘memory hole’ system applies in both countries. Stories like the 50 included here, although not exactly suppressed or forgotten, are often de-emphasised as we instead learn about out glorious war leaders and statues are erected to mass murderers only for other mass murderers to come and tear them down again.
In addition to the 50 examples there is a timeline running through the book that lists many other important milestones of American resistance. It would be a good beginning for people who want to find out more about US history but can’t face reading all of the Zinn book yet (but they should do that eventually).
The author states that I guess what I’m looking for here is to reach an audience I’ve never reached before…and provoke them to think and rediscover critical analysis. I don’t claim to cover any new ground here…it’s just a refresher course/wake-up call for a heavily conditioned society (and myself, too).
The ‘heroes’ we hear about in schools are typically people who did something brave in the service of the state. This book about people doing something brave to challenge the perceived wisdom or change rather than uphold the existing order provides many interesting examples new and old of what Mickey Z puts at the beginning of his introduction…
“We have two American flags always: one for the rich and one for the poor. When the rich fly, it means that things are under control; when the poor fly, it means danger, revolution, anarchy.” – Henry Miller
There is at least one story that anyone can find inspiring in here (most likely many stories) and if you read this book and feel infused with a little revolutionary spirit but are wondering where to begin then Orwell had a good starting point…
“In times of universal deceit telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.”
As a postscript to this review I would like to talk about patriotism and ‘national interest’ for a moment.
“Naturally the common people don’t want war… But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” – Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Trials
Different sets of people within any nation are bound to have interests and/or ideals that are in some way opposite at some point in time. That is a logical result of taking an area of land – land has no special interests – and saying that all the people in that land have similar interests from now on. Patriotism is a form of loyalty toward an artificial construction and therefore will contain artificiality within it. Like nation states, it can be created, its power transferred and its borders redefined.
The argument usually given to counter this line of questioning is that there is an agreed set of ground rules and patriotism is a form of loyalty to what those rules ‘stand for’. However, those things that there is a majority agreement on will tend to be those things that make national interest irrelevant e.g. don’t kill people. If this is true within artificial human made borders then it has to be true out with those borders also.
We must also ask, in nations that have populations that are diverse in beliefs, interests (economic and cultural) and in geography, who can accurately define what the ‘national interest’ actually is? Generally speaking, the ability to define and to alter what is ‘officially’ patriotic or what is the ‘in the national interest’ will tend to lie with those who have the power to disseminate their beliefs most pervasively.
Looking from afar, patriotism seems to be a (if not the) major theme in US political discourse and is deemed to be one of the highest of virtues. Left and Right both claim that they are the real patriots. Fox News presenters follow the President’s lead and start wearing flags on their lapels. In response to this on many progressive websites and in films of demonstrations in the US you see protestors with signs such as ‘Dissent is patriotic’ or ‘Think: its patriotic’ and so on. There is no mention of the idea that patriotism, as Dr. Johnson said, is ‘the last refuge of scoundrels.’ I t sometimes appears that the argument has been reduced to people arguing about who is more patriotic rather than about who is correct. The idea seems to be that if its right – it must be patriotic and if it’s patriotic it must be right and this is fundamentally flawed at its point of origin.
Its worth remembering that the modern nation state is an invention of the 18th century and that since then there hasn’t been one of them that doesn’t have a lot to answer for (internally and externally). That is not to say that alternatives will be better, just that a nation is an artificial, transient human construction and should be treated as such. The cave, the village and the empire have all been assumed at some point in time to be the ‘natural’ boundaries for human political activities. I don’t know if people will move to self-governing villages or some world government idea will prevail. All that is certain is that natural boundaries as they exist right now, for better or worse, will not be forever. It seems absurd to base arguments about what is right and wrong and contain them within the realms of a falsehood (the myth of a unified and everlasting nation). If we do that, all our solutions will be falsehoods.
It’s lazy to of me to continually quote Chomsky but I heard a lecture in which he raised a point about the idea of something being ‘un-American’. He explains that this is a concept you only see in totalitarian societies. Therefore you would have had terms approximating to ‘un-Soviet’ or ‘un-Nazi’ but go to Sweden and see if they are accusing each other of being ‘un-Swedish’. He suggests that they would find the concept laughable – and I hope he’s right.
Most of the heroes in this book were people who acted from a sense of injustice, mostly from something that had happened to the individual mentioned or something they have seen with their own eyes and not, to use Howard Zinn’s phrase, people acting from “[a] learned sense of moral proportion.” Their actions still have an inspirational message for the majority of people anywhere in the world because they were fighting a battle against oppression (the book mentions that when Muhammad Ali refused the draft there were demonstrations in support in Karachi, Guyana and Cairo). This is not the case for state appointed heroes, as a military hero in one country will invariably be known as a butcher in another.
The mainstream media, the schools, and the universities attempt to instill a loyalty to the state. We learn that there is room for disagreement but only within the agreed boundaries. Individual errors are criticised but the system that allows those errors to occur (and recur) is not up for discussion. I can see that the American left are being forced to argue on grounds of patriotism as they are being attacked in the way that Goering mentions but I wonder if in trying to ‘reclaim patriotism’ they are not reinvigorating one of the forces that holds them back and therefore fighting on someone else’s battleground.
1. See a Democracy Now! Special about it here http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/06/14/1350253&mode=thread&tid=25