A public forum for the voices of dissent
A man wearing a Mohawk and a skull ring on his finger is sitting in a crowded theater in Little Tokyo, explaining American history to the woman next to him. She hasn’t read a word of Howard Zinn, if you can believe it. Her thoughts on American history are still based at least in part on that limited canon they teach in schools.
Better begin at the beginning.
“Columbus’ first thought was of acquisition,” Mohawk explains, and she leans in to listen: Columbus and a string of celebrated white men to follow were responsible for murder and oppression, and these are the long-distant relatives of the imperialist right-wingers now encamped in our White House. “It’s worth reading ‘A People’s History of the United States,’ ” says Mohawk, as lights dim. “Those are the voices the media doesn’t cover. But mostly, it’s a heartbreaking story.”
And here comes the book’s author; at the sight of Zinn, attendees at the sold-out program at the George and Sakaye Aratani / Japan America Theatre erupt in raucous applause, everybody on their feet.
The 83-year-old historian, his brown khakis reaching a little short of his brown loafers, puts on his glasses and then takes them off, shifts his weight from one leg to the other.
“Thank you,” he says, then stops as the cheering begins anew. “My name is Howard Zinn.”
Kindhearted guffaws translate as: You need no introduction. By the end of the night, booksellers outside will have sold nearly 200 copies of Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s new compilation, “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” the just-published companion to the original 1980 bestseller and the script for the evening’s reading.
This is a book tour event only in the most superficial sense. More important, says Zinn, it’s an opportunity to engage publicly with voices of dissent against the established order.
“Our heroes are not Theodore Roosevelt, but Mark Twain,” he tells the audience. “Not Woodrow Wilson, but Helen Keller.”
There are other dissenters here too, of course, including actors who will read aloud passages from “Voices,” channeling moments of suffering and bravery through oppression.
Viggo Mortensen of “Lord of the Rings” fame gets the biggest ovation -- his T-shirt reads: “Impeach, Remove, Jail” -- followed by Sandra Oh, Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin and others. When Danny Glover arrives from LAX halfway through the show, the audience pauses at length to cheer his participation.
Mortensen’s text is from Bartolome de Las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus who wrote in detail of the conquistadors: The Christian Spaniards, “with their horses and swords and pikes, began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against [Native Americans.] They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed.”
A rhythm sets in, with actors rising and assuming the guise of the outspoken and oppressed. Applause breaks out whenever a word or a phrase has applicability in the partisan debates of today, which is often -- like when Emma Goldman (read by Oh) defines patriotism as “the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers.”
In sum, however, the evening moves beyond the mingling of celebrity and political correctness. When not cheering, more than a few audience members reach to wipe their eyes.
This history of the United States is drenched in sweat and blood, in cruelty and genocide, but “I don’t go around depressed,” Zinn had said earlier.
“I have been involved in enough movements for change to understand that change takes a long time and comes out of persistence. It’s a matter of having a long-term perspective, and not expecting that things will change in my lifetime. I have a basic faith in human beings, in a kind of common sense, common decency. When people learn the truth about what is going on, they respond.”
On Wednesday evening, the response is deafening.
What began with De Las Casas ended with a rousing speech by Cindy Sheehan, the Vacaville, Calif., woman whose son was killed last year in Baghdad and has since been demanding a meeting with President Bush and an end to the Iraq war.
Sheehan isn’t here in the flesh -- her words are read by Tomei. “I do see hope,” Tomei reads aloud. “I see hope in this country. Fifty-eight percent of the American public are with us. We’re preaching to the choir, but not everybody in the choir is singing.”
At the after-party held nearby, actor participants and famous radical Angelenos mingle with Zinn, who looks exhausted but nonetheless stays until midnight.
Between bites of stuffed piquillo peppers and marinated shrimp, they tell him how much they love his work, love him.
“I’d do anything for Howard,” says Brolin, wearing a black motorcycle jacket and blue jeans. “He has a truly incredible spirit and incredible intelligence, and that combination is rare.”
“It’s one of the great pleasures in my life to have met such a great man,” says Leslie Silva, who voiced African American unionist Sylvia Woods. “Somebody who has dedicated his life to people less fortunate than he.”
By Silva’s side is the man with the Mohawk, her boyfriend, a banjo player named Elijah Anarchist.
He loves Zinn too, Anarchist says, but he paints a less exuberant picture.
“The largest part of this crowd consists of people wanting Viggo Mortensen’s autograph,” he says. “If you had Emma Goldman and the rest of them here tonight, you’d have had half the crowd. The reason this was as packed as it was? Paparazzi autograph hounds.”
It’s true -- as soon as Mortensen heads out of the theater, through a side exit, somebody spots him and he’s immediately surrounded by autograph seekers, some carrying “Lord of the Rings” paraphernalia. But it’s also true that nearby, Zinn finds himself sitting at a table where three times as many people await his autograph and his handshake.