Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Zinn, Chapter 19

This is one of a multi-part blog series in Howard Zinn's groundbreaking and controversial book, "A People's History of the United States."

This chapter is called Suprises, and it's about Women's Liberation, Prisoners' Rights, and Native American rights. I hope you'll consider reading this chapter in its entirety; it's amazing.

Chapter 19, appropriately, starts with women's rights. It took me a while to find specific quotes to latch onto, although the entire chapter is readable and important. For me, as a white, upper-middle-class female writer, a lot of it seems pretty standard, a history I know but don't know what to say about. "At this point [about 1968 during the Vietnam war and protests], and later too, there was some disagreement among women, and even more among men, on whether women should battle on specifically women's issues, or just take part in general movements against racism, war, capitalism. But the idea of a feminist focus grew." It's the same struggle I've had personally about whether to focus on specific types of oppression as having subtle individual causes or to focus on oppression (against gays, women, non-whites, or the environment) as universal oppression, tackling the basic fear/mightmakesright/entitlement edifice that seems to create the structure for all these forms of oppression.

After recognizing continuously that women are paid less, that their work is valued less, and that they are expected by many to spend extraordinary resources to better beautify themselves for (male) society, "In the fall of 1968, a group called Radical Women attracted national attention when they protested the selection of Miss America, which they called "an image that oppresses women." They all threw bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and other things they called "women's garbage" into a Freedom Trash Can. A sheep was crowned Miss America. More important, people were beginning to speak of 'Women's Liberation.'"

This section is worth quoting in its entirety as well:

"Some of the New York Radical Women shortly afterward formed WITCH (Women's International terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), and its members, dressed as witches, appeared suddenly on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. A leaflet put out by WITCH in New York said:
"WITCH lives and laughs in every woman. She is the free part of each of us, beneath the shy smiles, the acquiescence to absurd male domination, the make-up or flesh-suffocating clothes our sick society demands. There is no "joining" WITCH. If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a WITCH. You make your own rules.
"WITCH in Washington, D.C., protested at the United Fruit Company for the corporation's activities in the Third World and its treatment of its women office workers. In Chicago it protested the firing of a radical feminist teacher named Marlene Dixon.
"Poor women, black women, expressed the universal problem of women in their own way. In 1964 Robert Coles (Children of Crisis) interviewed a black woman from the South recently moved to Boston, who spoke of the desperation of her life, the difficulty of finding happiness: "To me, having a baby inside me is the only lime I'm really alive."" This last part in particular makes me feel ill.

Zinn describes how some black women differed from some white women in that instead of talking about change, they effected it, taking matters into their own hands and demanding better conditions through action. It reminds me of a quotation I heard in church about how the way to stop injustice is to stop putting up with it. The line between peaceful protest and righteous anger is a narrow one. I don't usually advocate violence, but I do believe in anger. I long for peace but not for passivity.

Zinn writes about how a growing movement changed individual organizations' policies on women; the changed the commercials that women allowed the media showed. Zinn writes about abortion availability and how poor and rich women were privy to different availability of rights, about childcare and other issues, about rape.

"Shirley Chisholm, a black Congresswoman, said:
"The law cannot do it for us. We must do it for ourselves. Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes.... We must replace the old, negative thoughts about our femininity with positive thoughts and positive action...."
The law should support and enforce equal rights for all, but so must individuals. It's another age old question about the role of government, the struggle between a government big enough to ensure the health of people and take care of things that work better when done collectively... and individual responsibility.

I just blogged at my other site a little personal manifesto about feminism and what it means to me. Coming back to Zinn, I'm reading some important quotations about welfare and responsibility. I urge you again to read this chapter.

Zinn shifts gears and starts talking about prisoners' rights and prisoner uprisings as well. I am reminded of the words of Jesus about visiting prisoners and about Johnny Cash's unique sense of justice in his own music for and about prisoners, the way he visited them and wrote songs like "Man in Black." In Zinn's own words, "The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless "reforms" that changed little. Dostoevski once said: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.""

And this strikes home, too, and is echoed in the work of Derrick Jensen as well: "It had long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side. But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people." Zinn cites a few of the many incidences of blacks, poor people, and those who look different getting much harsher sentences than white and/or rich people. Just look at the differences in sentencing for white-collar theft versus petty street theft or for cocaine use versus crack use.

An example of outrageous injustice: "Martin Sostre, a fifty-two-year-old black man running an Afro- Asian bookstore in Buffalo, New York, [was sentenced] to twenty-five to thirty years in prison for allegedly selling $15 worth of heroin to an informer who later recanted his testimony. The recantation did not free Sostre-he could find no court, including the Supreme Court of the United States, to revoke the judgment. He spent eight years in prison, was beaten ten times by guards, spent three years in solitary confinement, battling and defying the authorities all the way until his release. Such injustice deserved only rebellion."

I find myself getting angrier and angrier and just fired off an email to a friend who's husband is incarcerated about whether they have enough reading material (thinking of a Zinn book drive for the prison, actually) and then Zinn changes topics to talk about another oppressed group that had its own uprising at the same time in the 60s and 70s, the Native Americans.

Gotta give props to this guy, who wrote in the 1930s but spoke truth nonetheless:

"Chief Luther Standing Bear, in his 1933 autobiography, From the Land of the Spotted Eagle, wrote:
"True, the white man brought great change. But the varied fruits of his civilization, though highly colored and inviting, are sickening and deadening. And if it be the part of civilization to maim, rob, and thwart, then what is progress? I am going to venture that the man who sat on the ground in his tip! meditating on life and its meaning, accepting- the kinship of all creatures, and acknowledging unity with the universe of things, was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization... ."
Again, Derrick Jensen would totally agree.

I personally don't know anybody anymore (I hope) who would spout the manifest destiny bullshit the following "non-Indian" did, but here's a quotation from Vine Deloria, Jr. from the late 1960s: "Every now and then I am impressed with the thinking of the non-Indian. I was in Cleveland last year and got to talking with a non-Indian about American history. He said that he was really sorry about what had happened to Indians, but that there was a good reason for it. The continent had to be developed and he felt that Indians had stood in the way, and thus had had to be removed. "After all," he remarked, "what did you do with the land when you had it?" I didn't understand him until later when I discovered that the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland is inflammable. So many combustible pollutants are dumped into the river that the inhabitants have to take special precautions during the summer to avoid setting it on fire. After reviewing the argument of my non- Indian friend I decided that he was probably correct. Whites had made better use of the land. How many Indians could have thought of creating an inflammable river?"

"Indians began to do something about their "own destruction" - the annihilation of their culture. In 1969, at the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars, Indians spoke indignantly of either the ignoring or the insulting of Indians in textbooks given to little children all over the United States. That year the Indian Historian Press was founded. It evaluated four hundred textbooks in elementary and secondary schools and found that not one of them gave an accurate depiction of the Indian." Eventually teachers got rid of the outdated material and used newer, more accurate sources. Hollywood made more Indian-friendly movies.

"In the sixties and seventies, it was not just a women's movement, a prisoner's movement, an Indian movement. There was general revolt against oppressive, artificial, previously unquestioned ways of living. It touched every aspect of personal life: childbirth, childhood, love, sex, marriage, dress, music, art, sports, language, food, housing, religion, literature, death, schools."

Zinn's last three paragraphs of this chapter are worth quoting in their entirety as well. I add the citation and link to this book chapter again in case you want to find and cite it yourself at some point:

"With the loss of faith in big powers-business, government, religion-there arose a stronger belief in self, whether individual or collective. The experts in all fields were now looked at skeptically: the belief grew that people could figure out for themselves what to eat, how to live their lives, how to be healthy. There was suspicion of the medical industry and campaigns against chemical preservatives, valueless foods, advertising. By now the scientific evidence of the evils of smoking- cancer, heart disease-was so powerful that the government barred advertising of cigarettes on television and in newspapers.

"Traditional education began to be reexamined. The schools had taught whole generations the values of patriotism, of obeying authority, and had perpetuated ignorance, even contempt for people of other nations, races, Native Americans, women. Not just the content of education was challenged, but the style-the formality, the bureaucracy, the insistence on subordination to authority. This made only a small dent in the formidable national system of orthodox education, but it was reflected in a new generation of teachers all over the country, and a new literature to sustain them: Jonathan Kozol, Death at an Early Age; George Denison, The Lives of Children; Ivan Illich, De-schooling Society.

"Never in American history had more movements for change been concentrated in so short a span of years. But the system in the course of two centuries had learned a good deal about the control of people. In the mid-seventies, it went to work."


Alex Rodriguez said...

not going to lie, you did a really good job on this analysis

Paty Frutos said...

I agree with my friend Alex!