Sitting on stage next to his executive producer Matt Damon, Howard Zinn offered this account of his HBO documentary called The People Speak.
We didn't want to hear the words of people in the White House, we wanted to hear the words of people picketing the White House: agitators, antiwar protestors, the socialists and the anarchists, in other words, the people who gave us whatever liberty and democracy we have in this country.
"[T]he people who gave us whatever liberty and democracy we have in this country"? Wow, what a howler. No serious historian could say such a thing. Eric Foner, for instance, might well agree with some of Zinn's politics. I am guessing he would be horrified by this remark.
It is one thing for Zinn to make an idiot of himself, but quite another to make an idiot of the celebrity sitting beside him. And we must wonder what Matt Damon thought he was doing associating himself with this sort of thing. Unless of course, he actually believes it. In which case, he needs a short course in American history. And not from a documentarian like Zinn.
Berman, Marc and Alan Fruktin. 2009. TCA 2009: Matt Damon 'Speaks" at History's Showcase. July 30. here.
Foner, Eric. 2008. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Second Seagull Edition, Volume 1. Second Seagull Edition. W.W. Norton & Co.
Foner, Eric. 2004. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Volume 2. 1st ed. W. W. Norton.
Oh but isn’t this great myth of activism? Especially west coast style activism? That the only people that have ever mattered are the agitators? That so-called leaders only followed the noise of the people? (At least since the signing of the constitution?) I find his remark rather flippant — it’s that “whatever” — but definitely see the remark within it’s context of the grassroots activist community. Steeped in religious adoration of reformers and tracing it’s lineage to the 19th century.
And heck, there’s that toss away line in what movie I can’t remember, about (paraphrasing here) the American revolution being just a business-class tax revolt. The implication which also runs through activist mythology is that we were a nation built for corporate and money making interests until the reformers came about.
So it maybe simplistic and silly thinking, but it’s not unheard of. And perhaps a common part of the mythology of the democracy itself?
I agree with your point on Zinn’s ridiculous statement, but you are way too optimistic to expect a Hollywood actor, even one as (relatively) aware as Damon, to have the ability to think through these issues.
In GOOD WILL HUNTING Matt Damon goes on and on to Robin Williams about professors/professionals/whatever reading the wrong books. According to the character, Zinn’s book was one of those that they should be reading. Damon and Affleck wrote G.W.H. So I’m guessing he’s been a fan for a while. Damon is not dumb, but he is extremely liberal which may make him forgiving to extreme comments.
The activists who’ve had a profound impact on US society, for good or ill, are not the screaming protester types. Rather, they’re the lawyers, judges, and regulators who built the vast taken-for-granted apparatus of land-use regulation, environmental impact statements, strict liability, mental-health deinstitutionalization, due process in the schools, etc. We live with their victories every time we step around a homeless schizophrenic, hear about a child suspended from school for giving Motrin to a friend with cramps, read warning labels telling us that saws are sharp and could cut us, see land development tied up for years and decades in adversarial proceedings, and so on.