Monday, December 12, 2011

What is your Columbian Orator?

Two years ago, historian Howard Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87. I was surprised how emotionally affected I was by his passing -- I certainly didn't know him, but saw him speak on several occasions, most notably at Northwestern University, days before the Iraq War.

I believe Zinn's death had such an impact on me because his writings and life were so formative in how I began to finally think for myself. Although most of us are familiar with Zinn's seminal A People's History of the United States, the book I always reference is the lesser-known Declarations of Independence, which has been since renamed.

This work always reminds me of a passage from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, in which he had secretly obtained a book, The Columbian Orator while in the depths of despair about being a slave for life. He wrote: "Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book....[It] gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance"(23-24). That's what Declarations was for me: an affirmation of my deepest-held beliefs, and a model for expressing them openly. Zinn had subtitled his book, "Cross-examining American Ideology", and challenged every one of the assumptions listed below.

‘Be realistic; this is the way things are; there’s no point thinking about how things should be.’

‘People who teach or write or report the news should be objective; they should not try to advance their own opinions.’

‘There are unjust wars, but also just wars.’

‘If you work hard enough, you’ll make a good living. If you are poor, you only have yourself to blame.’

‘Freedom of speech is desirable, but not when it threatens national security.’

‘Racial equality is desirable, but we’ve gone far enough in that direction.’

‘Our Constitution is the greatest guarantee of liberty and justice.’

‘The United States must intervene from time to time in various parts of the world with military power...[to] promote democracy.’

‘If you want to get things changed, the only way is to go through the proper channels.’

‘There is much injustice in the world but there is nothing that ordinary people, without wealth or power, can do about it.’

What/Who is your Columbian Orator?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Perilous-er and Perilous-er

This morning two American Studies students (I almost said "former" students, but these two are clearly still students of American Studies!) wrote to voice their opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act. This Act, which passed the Senate 93-7, grants extraordinary power to the government, allowing the military to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely.

Sources as disparate as the ACLU and Forbes are outraged, but as we head into an important election year, it's hard to find legislators who will vote against defense -- even if it means stripping U.S. citizens of their Constitutional rights. Forbes goes so far as to call the Act "the greatest threat to civil liberties Americans face." In fact, legislators who drafted the Act say that the "battlefield [in the war on terror] right outside your window." Do you agree?

If so, what, if anything, can we do?  I have written and called my representatives to voice my outrage. If you agree, you might contact your Senators (both of our IL senators voted for it): Senator Kirk and Senator Durbin.

How effective is such an action? What else might we do?