Zinnophobia: (def) 1. A dislike for Howard Zinn because Zinn writes about average citizens who existed (and exist) outside the standard perception of historically significant—in other words, courageous, not-always-perfect average citizens who fought (and still fight), risking all, against the injustices of state and corporate Power, racism and prejudice.
2. A dislike for Howard Zinn because his book A People’s History of the United States is insufficiently footnoted.
Personally, I applaud and thank Howard big-time for def 1): having informed me of so many incredible yet unknown moments of citizen history—or original angles and perceptions on famous historical moments—and not just being a historian-dupe for the state. As for def 2, I would have preferred better footnotes. That said, anything I search farther, I have easily uncovered.
But this blog, at first inspired by insults I read regarding Howard Zinn, is actually about Freedom of Speech. And so we begin with the perfect person to quote, legendary novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie:
Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.
Salman Rushdie should know, having lived through a warrant for his death put out by imbecilic, dangerous fanatics who remain far from rare.
SO WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND?
Perhaps the greatest, most righteous and remarkable aspect of many of the so-called democracies, of the country of my citizenship, Canada, and also Great Britain,* where I was born, and of course the inimitable United States of America, and elsewhere, is Freedom of Speech (with many important and threatening caveats**).
At times tenuous even here (or even in Copenhagen), yet often stunningly omnipresent, Freedom of Speech has been fought for and realized to astonishing degrees—in relative historical terms—by the relentless courage of tens of thousands of individuals and groups bonded in solidarity, often across incompatible ideologies.
WHEN JW’S COMING KNOCKING, SAY THANKS
From Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religions demanding freedom to worship, to not have to pledge allegiance to the state, to the abolitionists of Britain and America, to the Civil Rights marchers to the Free Speech rallies in Canada and the US of early 20th century labour unions, demanding the right to organize, and so many others, Freedom of Speech has become the hallmark, the target, the undeniable pride and alluring promise to so many who cannot speak freely within the borders of their birth nation.
Ultimately called for in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, free speech has not been bestowed upon the masses from above, but rather—as it always will be—fought and died for from below, nearly always by the disenfranchised, the less wealthy, the oppressed. Yet so often more successful when supported by those who already possess said freedom.
TRUTH TO POWER
Freedom of Speech has its strongest, cleanest teeth when backed by justice not always favoured to the wealthy and powerful, by justice not excessively geared against minorities, when checked by true yet presently limited trial-by-jury and the still tenuous ability to justly defend one’s self—one’s rights, one’s voice—against monoliths like, say, Monsanto and McDonald’s, or the state itself, when non-violent protest is demanded instead of burdened by threat of arrest and intimidation, when the exchange of goods are not manipulated by the state or by corporate monopoly, when the difference between a vice and a crime is understood, when government and business are not interchangeable, when church and state are divided.
Okay, maybe I’m confusing a few other noble fights of expression with Freedom of Speech (maybe not), but you get my passion: the accepted and legal right, the freedom, to express one’s self in any manner without causing harm to others (against their desires). This is to be endlessly fought for, and celebrated. And Freedom of Speech must always be pushed for, refined, defended.
And free speech is not simply the right to say what one wants, but the willingness to defend the right of individuals or groups to speak with impunity views you find repugnant. To quote Voltaire:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Or Noam Chomsky:
If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.
Defending one’s right to free speech is, of course, and essentially, in no way defending their views. Believe it or not, people sometimes connect the two.
I bring up Freedom of Speech because, one, it’s the greatest principle and, two, I just watched a few clips from Howard Zinn’s The People Speak, and felt moved to tears and hope. Historians and laypeople alike have attacked Zinn, and threatened to unsubscribe from the History Channel if the Zinn inspired The People Speak is aired. But how could any American be against the clips being read? Direct excerpts from some of the noblest, bravest speeches, protests and pleas ever spoken on American soil, or anywhere else? God people are brave. That I may even have a smidgeon of such soul and courage!
Even if you have issues with Howard Zinn, the pieces I saw are not his opinion, but the transcribed words of great and courageous women and men whom Howard felt had the right to be represented in the story of America. Amen to that. The choices are obviously leaned towards Howard’s preference—it’s his book—but the reading to the letter of transcribed materials from the past is, by definition, not revisionism.
I can think of dozens of great reasons to unsubscribe from cable or throw out one’s television altogether. This program certainly isn’t one of them. On the contrary. These events and speeches elevated ‘America’ in the areas to which it has touched greatness.
Now once we get that great, honest, expansive speech out of the financial sector, the military industrial complex, a great climate scientist, the Drug Czar or even the next outed adulterer (in a world where pornography, by all accounts, runs rampant), things will really be looking up.
Check out the clips for yourself, I think six clips are here. Be proud. Find your voice. Grow solidarity. Fight for justice. Listen more. Love more.
PS: For the record, two of the worst offenders of censorship remain China—or to quote Dambisa Moyo: “I love the Chinese!”—and Cuba. Cuba’s health care system notwithstanding—and what they do with very little money is quite remarkable (not to mention survival despite decades of an economically crippling embargo by the US and many US assassination attempts), Cuba, to me, remains glorified by glib fools either ridiculously hypnotized by Che Guevera’s stencilled face on T-shirts or duped under the same spell that made a not insignificant number of western Communists shamefully, depressingly, stick by the USSR and its inconceivable depravities for decades longer than make any sense given the accounts—whom many surely read—of, for example, anarchist Grigori Maximov or the inimitable Emma Goldman and others as early as the 1920s.
*Seymour Hersh (and as evidenced in the documentary McLibel) has called Britain’s libel laws “chilling.”
**What is also true with Freedom of Speech in Canada, America, Great Britain etc., is that one can surely write and speak very freely—writing being a somewhat indirect (yet often vital) form of activism or protest. There are exceptions to this freedom, I am sure, in terms of harassment etc., and maybe more censoring.
But to push against the corporate/state agenda by gathering non-violently in protest by marching or barricading or by sit-ins etc—against, say, homelessness, or for the environment, or against the bail out, the Olympics, the war(s) etc—seems to sharply increase the likelihood of harassment, arrest (consider the numbers at Copenhagen) or incarceration—or in some way being surveilled (COINTELPRO in the United States being the obvious example of government surveillance getting out of control).
A study of the following would be instructive—maybe there has been a study—but in considering the limits of Freedom of Speech, would anybody say this is incorrect?: the police will almost always defend the average citizen against the house burglar or street mugger, but will in turn almost always defend the State and the Corporation against the average citizen (I can’t think of a single exception).
Hopefully, the justice system serves to balance this distinction to degrees, but money talks (and money pays the legal bills, and corporations have a lot of money)—and human nature is a limitation when one considers, say, class, racism and self-interest. And Lord knows corporate whistle-blowers are not exalted as they should be—even the term is almost pejorative, which speaks volumes.
The police and military, I think it’s fair to say, take their orders from the state/corporate sector, not from the citizenry outside that sector—in problems between these two groups—regardless of the morality involved (and regardless of the fact the tax-payer funds the state, but in degrees). It is hard to say if there is a limit on this truism—in other words, under what conditions this would not be true.
Although Venezuela is perhaps outside of this conversation, I think the failed coup d’etat attempt in Venezuela in 2002 may be a sort of interesting example of dissent within the military—though its complexities and details elude me.
Wow. I have to say, writing this, it’s seriously difficult to sum up—or even really know—the limitations on and possibilities of Freedom of Speech in what we generally label a free country.
I invite any comments about free speech, what hinders it, helps it, how reliable or expansive is it etc? Though if I don’t like what you’ve written, I’ll definitely delete it.
That last line was a joke, of course.