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I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died,” says he.
“I never died,” says he.

There was a time when major corporations didn’t encourage us to “break the rules,” business consultants didn’t promote revolutions, and prominent neo-con historians didn’t celebrate radical labor leaders. But the times, they are a-changin’. To wit:

Joe Hill was an organizer and songsmith for the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World in the first decades of this century. The Wobblies, as IWW members were called, were unrepentant revolutionaries, calling for “one big union” and the violent overthrow of capitalism. Arrested and convicted on trumped-up charges, Hill was executed by a firing squad in 1915.

Diane Ravitch is a historian who has built a successful career as an intellectual shill for the forces of public order that gunned Hill down. She served as assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, has lectured around the world courtesy of our propaganda bureau, the United States Information Agency, and is currently a well-paid pen-pusher for the Brookings Institution and the Manhattan Institute, both influential establishment think tanks.

In the old days, never the twain would meet—except perhaps in battle. But open up Ravitch’s popular 1990 American Reader, a compilation of “Words That Moved a Nation,” and there’s a song of Hill’s, as well as Alfred Hayes’s famous dream eulogy to the Wobbly. Hill is in good company in Ravitch’s history textbook. Contrary to knee-jerk lefty expectations, this conservative doesn’t ignore those whose politics differ from her own—she praises them. Her book of documents commemorates (in addition to the usual presidents and statesmen) some of the greatest radicals in American history: freelance revolutionary Tom Paine, Native American Chief Seattle, abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, feminists Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene Debs, and Hill’s comrade-in-verse, Woody Guthrie. In the pages of what Ravitch says she hopes will be a McGuffey’s Reader for our time lie W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes; Tom Hayden and environmentalist Rachel Carson; Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and Harvey Milk. Although Ravitch is a card-carrying member of the establishment, her American history reader is virtually an honor roll of American dissidence.

These new historians focused instead on the words and experiences of those often forgotten.

When we think of official history, of course, we usually think of books that honor a different type of greatness: the destiny of the country and the men who ruled it. Books where the winners are hailed with reverence while the losers are dismissed to the margins or pushed off the page entirely. “It is but little more than two centuries since the oldest of our states received its first permanent colony,” is the line with which George Bancroft introduced his 1834 History of the United States, perhaps the classic text of the genre. “Before that time the whole territory was an unproductive waste…. Its only inhabitants were a few scattered tribes of feeble barbarians, destitute of commerce and of political connection.”

Historians like Bancroft had little time for “barbarians” like Chief Seattle; they were busy exalting those who won the games of “commerce and political connection.” Historical Tales and Golden Deeds, a history primer from The Boys and Girls Bookshelf of 1912, made this emphasis clear from the start:


Now, look carefully at the word HISTORY. From the letters in it you can make several words, but only two of them are of interest to us just now. The first three letters HIS, and the last five letters make the word STORY. Isn’t it strange that history is largely made up of HIS STORY?

Strange indeed. While the authors of Historical Tales and Golden Deeds clear up this mystery by assuring us that history is his story because “history is made up mostly of the DEEDS OF GREAT MEN,” others were not so easily convinced.

In the early sixties a new generation of historians turned in a different direction for answers. History, they argued, was not merely composed of golden deeds of great men, but arose from the clash of conflicting interests and collective struggle. No longer content to record the exploits of the privileged and the powerful, these new historians focused instead on the words and experiences of those often forgotten: workers, blacks, women, radicals. Turning the old focus upside-down, they aimed to write “history from the bottom up.”

The reasons for the historians’ break with tradition were many: the arrival of working-class, non-WASP, and female students into the academy who wanted to write their stories; expanded subject matter capable of occupying the record numbers of history Ph.Ds being churned out; and, of course, the fact that the new historians were right—history is often the story of dissidents and everyday people. But it was politics that provided the primary motivation for this new history. The fathers of this movement—E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Herbert Gutman—were themselves deeply involved in radical politics. By writing history from the bottom up they hoped to give the losers—that is, most of us—back our heritage. We could learn political lessons from the past, it was believed, and salvage successful models of struggle for the future.

Still, the best-selling history book of the sixties was Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People, in which “the people” were still defined by the deeds of great men, and in which arch cold warrior John Foster Dulles was mentioned eight times while W. E. B. Du Bois never came up at all. But over the next three decades the trends in American historiography shifted. Today, only hacks write about the great men. Historical studies of industry and of corporate practice have largely disappeared, while the shelves of hip bookstores overflow with inspiring tales of the little people and their hardships. It looks like our side won.

But the conversion of an establishment-funded historian like Ravitch to the cause of “people’s history” should indicate to us that all is not as it seems in historiography-land. As should the fact that her publisher is HarperCollins—a property of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation—make it clear that something else has shifted in the past thirty years.

Thompson, Hobsbawm, and Gutman—and, for that matter, Ravitch—were moved by politics; HarperCollins is guided by demographics, the market logic that dictates that you cannot sell a mass-culture product that categorically excludes the majority of the population. The market segment of wealthy white men is just too small. If you want to sell to a mass market you had better represent the masses. This logic has spawned a vast body of corporate multiculturalism, including such curiosities as Mobil Oil’s recent campaign urging customers to “Fill Up On Black History” at their service stations. And in The American Reader you get America the Rainbow, representing the diversity of the country and its consumer base.

The tendency to ignore the forces that our new heroes fought against is a failing repeated throughout the social-history genre.

“As we get to know the history of our society and hear the voices of those who created our energetic, complicated, pluralistic, and humane culture,” Ravitch writes sensibly in her introduction, “we will understand ourselves and our times better.” But Ravitch’s goals are better understood not so much by her book’s vast inclusiveness but by the surprising group that she neglects to include: the people on top. Nowhere in Ravitch’s book will you find mention of the American Legion, which lynched Joe Hill’s colleagues, the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized African Americans, or the National Association of Manufacturers, which coordinated countrywide campaigns against unionization. Powerful and influential worthies like Dulles, A. Mitchell Palmer, and J. Edgar Hoover, great persecutors of revolutionaries all, simply don’t exist. Nor, needless to say, is there a whisper from modern-day captains of the culture trust like Murdoch. While the underdogs are everywhere triumphant, the overlords have disappeared.

Nowhere is this omission from The American Reader more glaring than in Ravitch’s presentation of Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision regarding the right of the state of Louisiana to segregate rail passengers by race. As it happens, the Supreme Court voted seven-to-one to uphold the Louisiana law, endorsing the myth of “separate but equal,” and ushering in the era of Jim Crow in the South. But what does The American Reader include? The lone dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan, and not a word from the decision that was to stand for the next sixty years.

This tendency to ignore the forces that our new heroes fought against is not something Ravitch invented. On the contrary, it’s a failing repeated throughout the social-history genre. But while the leftist scholars who invented the new history turned their attention to the powerless because they assumed the powerful would always have their hagiographers, one senses that Ravitch just saw a golden cultural-strategic opportunity: By making a tiny concession to trendy methodology she could score an enormous ideological victory. The people get to be noisily affirmed, sure, but power gets something much, much better: invisibility.

Like histories from the past, Ravitch’s reader is a story of progress and destiny. Abolition, unionization, women’s rights: A struggle is fought, great words are said, and then on to the next cause. History is a parade of good people fighting the good fight, a string of victories that made this country the great nation it is today. A more accurate assessment, of course, would be that the distinctly un-great state of our nation today has more to do with their defeat than their victory. The one big union that Joe Hill died for hasn’t come to pass; we’re heading toward one big corporation instead.

But the corporation, and its leaders and lackeys, have receded into the shadows, pulling strings yet never appearing from behind the curtain. Certainly the National Association of Manufacturers and J. Edgar Hoover “moved a nation” more than a Wobbly song writer, but reading Ravitch’s book you’d never know it. The powers-that-be don’t exist. There is no elite in America. We are all Joe Hill.

For the historians who first pushed for history from the bottom up, the conflict between the powerless and the powerful was front and center. It was the context in which dissenting words and actions made sense. But as with almost everything else in our freewheeling, image-swapping, postmodern wonderland, this material context of struggle has evaporated. Rebellion has been neatly isolated from rebellion-against-what. Now Martin Luther King can give a speech on a Microsoft commercial, while Newt Gingrich fondly quotes social reformers. A lineage is magically extended from Joe Hill’s war against capitalism to the noble corporation’s struggle against “big labor.” Beleaguered politicians are up against powerful welfare mothers and neocon pundits fight the good fight against tenured radicals.

“In a democratic society,” Ravitch writes, explaining the logic behind her selections, “the power of persuasion is a necessary ingredient of social change.” True enough, but in a society where the jackboot is frowned upon, the “power of persuasion” is just as necessary an ingredient of social order.

“The crowd is in the saddle,” public relations pioneer Ivy Lee declared in 1916, warning a gathering of railroad executives of the irresistibly rising tide of democracy. Finding ways to control the great American mob has since become the none-too-subtle object of much of our mass culture, flattering our forgotten leaders, hailing our noble dreams, encouraging our efforts for self-improvement, and keeping the machinery of power carefully out of our sight and our reach. The victors still get to write the history books, but in the age of consumer democracy they no longer write about themselves—they write about us.

It’s time to write about them, to write about presidents and statesmen, business associations and think tanks, CEOs and neo-con intellectuals. To revive that old-fashioned history from the top down—but from the perspective of the people on the bottom. The day before he was executed, Joe Hill wired Big Bill Haywood, the head of the IWW, with the message, “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” Hill has been dead for more than eighty years. Let him lie. We need to concentrate on the system that killed him.