How to pare down a 752-page book into a 2-hour cable television event must have been a challenge for the producers of The People Speak, but those behind The People Speak succeed beautifully in presenting a tableau of Zinn’s revolutionary piece of nonfiction.
Celebrity personalities come together and read lyrics, prose, and literature that, for the most part, is ignored by the American population especially the nation’s leaders.
Each of the readings come from The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a book that has sold over 2 million copies.
The special television event lays out concisely how what freedom and democracy people of this nation enjoy is enjoyed because people in history had the courage and moral fortitude to struggle, to be troublemakers and act out because they believed they should stand for a world that ought to be and not simply a world rife with injustice and inequality.
Harris Yulin reads a Columbus Sun Editorial, “The Class That Suffers,” which holds an extreme amount of poignancy and relevance when you consider the current growing economic injustice in America. [Text to be posted if I can find it on the Internet.]
The reading that Rosario Dawson gives of the “Women’s Declaration of Independence” and the exchange that occurs between Christina Kirk and Josh Brolin who portray a court scene between Susan B. Anthony and Judge Hunt remind us of how far women have come in this nation yet compel us to not forget that women’s reproductive rights regularly become bargaining chips in legislative reform battles in this nation.
[JOSH BROLIN as JUDGE HUNT]: The sentence of the Court is that you pay a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs of the prosecution.??
[CHRISTINA KIRK as SUSAN B. ANTHONY]: May it please your honor, I will never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. All the stock in trade I possess is a debt of $10,000, incurred by publishing my paper "The Revolution" the sole object of which was to educate all women to do precisely as I have done, rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, which tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while denying them the right of representation in the government; and I will work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."
Viggo Mortensen brought an anti-war perspective of an International Workers of the World (IWW) member to life:
[VIGGO MORTENSEN as IWW MEMBER] If you were a bum without a blanket; if you had left your wife and kids when you went west for a job, and had never located them since; if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if you slept in a lousy, sour bunkhouse, and ate food just as rotten as they could give you and get by with it; if deputy sheriffs shot your cooking cans full of holes and spilled your grub on the ground; if your wages were lowered on you when the bosses thought they had you down; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in the hell do you expect a man to be patriotic? This war is a business man’s war and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy.
Each element of The People Speak is a reminder of (or for some Americans, an introduction to) how government has only ever been moved to act by the actions of organized citizens. Pure sentiments or feelings or public opinion has rarely translated into any kind of meaningful change.
Out of all that is read, perhaps, the people’s reading that may hold the most significance in these times is Langston Hughes’ “Ballad of Roosevelt” written in November of 1934. Read the words of this poem or view Danny Glover reading them:
“Ballad of Roosevelt"
Striking and rebellion all over this country is what eventually forced Roosevelt to pass the New Deal, which so many Democrats now celebrate. Plug in Obama for Roosevelt and you will start to wonder how many households are telling their loved ones they are tired of waitin’ on Obama.
You will wonder how much longer people will ask, “What’s the matter?” before they get organized and act to fight injustice, claim dignity, and further emancipate humanity.
Some of the celebrity personalities who supported Obama’s election lent their support to the creation of The People Speak. For example, Bruce Springsteen sang, “This Land is Your Land” during the special, a song that was sung at Obama’s Inaugural Celebration earlier this year by musicians like Pete Seeger.
Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, John Legend, Bob Dylan, and others involved no doubt voiced support for Obama at some point in the last couple of years (which leads one to wonder if any of them asked the president to watch this special event Sunday night).
There’s a level of discord occurring when actors and musicians read the words of heroes in the people’s history of America after they have voted for a president to bring the American people change, something past presidents historically have fought to prevent from happening for the people when president.
Viewing The People Speak, one might realize the arguments and differences we have over who will be a good or bad leader, the different conceptions of what one can and cannot do as a leader in government, and the different ideas on how the people can benefit from and share in the power these leaders may enjoy in government upon being elected to office prevent us from the real organizing that has led to real action and real social movements for better laws, policies and programs in America.
One realizes the people of this country do not need the leader of this nation to be on their side to rule. The president does not need the consent of the governed to defend this nation’s ruling class’ interests at the expense of lower classes.
And, the president will take little note of public opinion as he works to control public unrest in times of economic strife and civic arousal.
The people have no interest in being a part of the decision-making process that leads to more brutalizing and maiming of civilians in Afghanistan, that sends tens of thousands more troops to countries in the Middle East to kill and be killed physically or psychologically, that defends the right of health insurance companies to sell a flawed product to consumers, that will bail out banks before bailing out people facing home foreclosure crises, economic rape from credit card companies, or joblessness on an obscene scale, that fights meaningful action to halt global warming and restore and protect Mother Earth in the face of corporate domination and exploitation, etc.
The People Speak shows the people have an interest in food, shelter, health, education, a job with a decent income, family, community, and all other things are things people have been duped into believing they want or need in the consumer society we live in or the empire we live under.
Hopefully, the wider audience that saw Zinn for the first time takes note and begins to confront themselves and their role in this country. It is us who hold the answers and power to our future. Whatever future we get has always been up to us, and that’s how it always will be.