Thursday, January 28, 2010

The State of the Union, Howard Zinn, and the western. Yeah somehow I think they're related

Last night, Obama made his first State of the Union speech as President. I was very interested to see it. More than usually. If I was President, my speech would have probably gone something like, "Nothings changed. You can all go home now". Well, I'm not the President. Obama was clearly pissed as he took the podium last night. In his speech, he called out his opponents who pretty much surrounded him (yeah I'm talking to you Pelosi you spineless witch). He made some jokes, and tried his best to inject some of that campaign era hope and change stuff back into public discourse. Here's my opinion. I was encouraged that he seemed to be genuinely critical of himself, especially when he said "change hasn't come soon enough". I was happy he called out his enemies, to their faces. I was happy when he said "if you have better ideas, let me hear them". I was happy he "hated the bailout", and was a bit surprised at his new anti-wall street agenda. I was even happy he tried once again to make the case for health care reform, and that he blamed himself for not communicating clearly to the public about what it would do for us. I would be happier however, if I believed any change could come from this government. I know better. "Hope" and "change" are nice things to say, but making things happen has never been this government's strong suit. If we really want to change anything in this country, we are going to have to do it ourselves. I know for a fact that everything the man said at the podium fell on deaf, stupid, ears. Those people that sat in front of him (mostly standing and clapping after every sentence) will not, god bless them, lift a finger to make the Obama agenda happen. Democrat and Republican alike will do all they can to protect their lobbyists and their corporate campaign contributions. Especially now since the Supreme Court has basically given corporations a blank check to fund any candidates they want, effectively destroying the average person's ability to decide who will represent them in government. Voting now has been rendered completely useless, so don't expect another 2008 election to ever happen again. If you had any doubts about who really runs this country the Court's decision I think makes it catastrophically clear.

This brings me to my next topic. Right after the address, I heard that Howard Zinn died. Howard Zinn was a historian and activist, best known for writing "A People's History of the United States". It is still the best book on American history I have ever read. Howard Zinn dared all the way to his death to challenge the official version of American history. Every textbook we have ever read on history was written by those who won, not by those who suffered as a consequence. Zinn changed all of that in one book. His basic points: war for any reason is wrong. Economics drives all policy. And most importantly, especially now, nothing was ever changed in this country through government, but by mass social movements. Howard Zinn, in every book I own that he wrote, caused me to think about how our emperors present the history of this country, and how they use it to justify what they do now. Think back to the last dufus in office and how for eight years he used the official version of WWII history to justify his war in Iraq. Howard Zinn's heroes are not Washington, Lincoln, or Jefferson. In fact, he analyzes these official heroes and lifts the facade about who they really were. His heroes are people like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, dissidents and agitators you have never heard of. Yet, without Howard Zinn's heroes of American history, we would still work in sweatshops, women still wouldn't be allowed to vote, and the segregation would still be law.

Lately, I have been watching a lot of westerns. You're saying, what the fuck does that have to do with anything? Well, allow me to explain. Westerns are a dying genre in American film. It's a shame, because some of the best movies ever made are westerns. These movies also have me thinking about Howard Zinn's writings in a kind of abstract way. Most of the westerns I own have either John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in the starring role. Clint even directed some of his. One thing I have noticed is that there is a striking difference between westerns done by John Wayne vs. those done by Clint Eastwood. The western is a complicated genre of film. They are meant to tell fictional (sometimes true) stories about a particular period of American history. They often deal with the Civil War, railroads, gold rushes, Spanish, Mexicans, Indians, you name it and if it was a theme for this time period there's probably a movie about it. The main difference between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood westerns is the fact that Clint Eastwood never, ever kills a Native American in any western he has ever been in. It's true. Don't believe me? Check out IMDB. John Wayne on the other hand, kills Indians at will. The Indians in John Wayne movies are often portrayed as these evil savages, hellbent on destroying the good, God fearing white people on the frontier. The Indians in Clint Eastwood movies, when there are any, show a different side. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is the perfect example. Not only does Clint's character not kill any Indians, he befriends them. He even finds a way to settle a dispute with a Comanche chief by saying in essence "there is no need to kill each other. We can share the land". John Wayne must have had a shitfit when this movie came out. One character in the movie practically has a 10 minute monologue about how the white man destroyed Native American life. In every movie where John Wayne came across the Native people, they were dead soon afterwards. John Wayne during his career made two types of movies. Westerns where he killed Indians and war movies where he killed everyone not American. The standard American hero version of historical events. We are the good guys so whatever we do, no matter how horrible, is the right thing to do. Everything is black and white, good vs. evil with a extremely low level of moral ambiguity. The only exception would be "The Searchers" where John Wayne sort of comes to terms with his irrational hatred's and becomes semi human. He still kills a lot of Indians though. Clint Eastwood westerns, whether he directed them or not, are the total opposite. Eastwood's characters are usually neither good nor bad in the child sense of the terms. They have complex issues and demons and motivations that go beyond right and wrong. The historical issues in Eastwood westerns are also interesting in that many times they show the traditional "good guys" doing terrible things. For example, in "Josey Wales" where the Union soldiers kill Eastwood's character's entire family. Basically, whether he meant to do this or not, Clint Eastwood involved himself in westerns that challenge our traditional viewpoints.

SO what's my point in all of this. Howard Zinn gave us the Clint Eastwood western version of American history. Right and wrong when it comes to American history, is determined by those who are writing the history. John Wayne made propaganda films. He helped to perpetuate the myths we take as gospel in High School textbooks. What's more, he knew he was doing it. It was no secret what side John Wayne was on. Howard Zinn recognized this, (maybe not in terms of John Wayne movies but whatever I'm trying to make a connection fuck off), and sought to change our view. He knew what he was taught in school wasn't necessarily wrong, but biased in one direction. He also knew that change does not just happen in America. America has to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing what is right, and he aimed to illustrate those people in our history that helped make that happen. Like Clint Eastwood westerns, Howard Zinn challenged our views on who the heroes of American history really were. That is why he will be missed. Especially now.

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