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History is constantly being rewritten in this country (among all the others) by those who wish their image of "America" to be the only one that exists.  This aspect of the propaganda process tells us more about the character of people holding on to a certain worldview than almost anything else.  One has to be very insecure about his/her beliefs to stoop to this low a level.  The story of Helen Keller is one where we can learn much about this syndrome. I have already written about two other great American Socialists Jack London: An American Socialist  and Michael Harrington: An American Socialist who influenced the democratic party. I will continue in my series below the fold.  Come learn about Hellen Keller the political force.

From a website Rethinking Schools Online we can get a good picture of the history altering process. Ruth Shagoury Hubbard  writes:

I first became interested in the activist work of Helen Keller a few years ago when I read James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995). Loewen concludes that the way that Helen Keller's life story is turned into a "bland maxim" is lying by omission. When I turned to the many picture books written about her, I was discouraged to discover that books for young children retain that bland flavor, negating the power of her life work and the lessons she herself would hope people would take from it. Here is a woman who worked throughout her long life as a radical advocate for the poor, but she is depicted as a kind of saintly role model for people with handicaps.

I wonder how many people's image of this powerful political figure is the sanitized version described here?  I also wonder how many people, once they learn the truth, feel violated in some way?  It seems reasonable to react to such a revelation by recoiling as  one would from being robbed in any other way.  As a matter of fact, the word "socialist" has been manipulated at least as much. Liberals have tasted a small bite of this kind of massive propaganda ploy in recent years.  Here's how Hubbard deals with Keller's story and its distortion:

The "Helen Keller story" that is stamped in our collective consciousness freezes her in childhood; we remember her most vividly at age seven when her teacher, Annie Sullivan, connected her to language through a magical moment at the water pump. We learned little of her life beyond her teen years, except that she worked on behalf of the handicapped.

But there is much more to Helen Keller's history than a brilliant deaf and blind woman who surmounted incredible obstacles. Helen Keller was a socialist who believed she was able to overcome many of the difficulties in her life because of her class privilege - a privilege not shared by most of her blind or deaf contemporaries. "I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment," she said. " I have learned that the power to rise is not within the reach of everyone." More than an icon of American "can-do," Helen Keller was a tireless advocate of the poor and disenfranchised.

Helen Keller was someone who worked throughout her long life to achieve social change; she was an integral part of many important social movements in the 20th century. Her life story could serve as a fascinating example for children, but most picture books about Helen Keller are woefully silent about her life's work. It's time to start telling the truth about Helen Keller.

 In fact, it is well past time.  It is time to get the history of this country straight.  here's a two question quiz for you:

Why does most of the world celebrate labor day on May First while we do it in September?

Why do Europeans and Canadians celebrate Women's Day in March while it goes almost totally unnoticed in the USA?

Both these days commemorate important events in American labor history.

Let us go to another source for a view from a stronger left bias, The Socialist Legacy of Helen Keller

Many hearing people, Marxists included, are familiar with Helen Keller in one of two ways. Either we see her as the wild child rescued from the prison of deafness and blindness through the heroic efforts of her "miracle worker" teacher, Anne Sullivan; or as the butt of cruel "Helen Keller" jokes. Neither image bears any relation to the actual, politically active Deaf/Blind woman whom that nearly mythical child became.

In these texts, she explains how she came to Revolutionary Socialism after her graduation from college. Despite her reliance on intermediaries to communicate with the outside world, Comrade Helen Keller is fully her own person.

Helen Keller became a member of the Socialist Pary in 1909 and by 1912, she had become a national voice for socialism and working class solidarity. Her articles and speeches take on a harder edge as the war machine gears up and the reformist tendency in the Socialist Party forced a split with its revolutionary wing. We can see her calling for party unity in 1913, and then breaking publically with reformism and siding wholeheartedly with the IWW in 1916 and taking up the struggle against President Wilson's hypocritical war machine .

Helen Keller's work for the cause of socialist revolution continued through the years of the First World War up until 1921. She had been long active in efforts to reduce the causes of blindess and provide relief for the Blind. With the collapse of the Socialist Party's commitment to revolution and the on-going persecution of the IWW, Keller lost her connections to the workers movement and became increasingly isolated among reformers and government bureaucrats who did not share her political perspectives.

The previous source even pulls its punches relative to this one.  I think you are getting the picture, but there is more to the story. Here's some information from Socialist Worker Online  

One big union

A doctor described the terrible working conditions in the Lawrence textile mills: "36 out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die by the time they are 25 years old." Workers walked out on strike when their poverty wages were cut and approached the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for help. The IWW, or the Wobblies as they came to be called, were formed by a group of socialists, anarchists and radical trade unionists in 1905. Their aim was to organise US workers into one big union.

The IWW organised mass meetings and parades. The strikers had to provide for 50,000 people. Support poured in from all over the country. Helen toured northern cities raising money. Wobblies were jailed and company thugs murdered pickets. But the strikers' resolve was not broken. The textile bosses gave in and the workers won a magnificent victory. In 1913 the Socialist Party expelled leading IWW member Bill Haywood from its executive committee for being too radical. Helen led a campaign to get Bill reinstated. In 1915 Joe Hill, a leading IWW organiser, was accused of murder. Helen joined the campaign for his release. Despite a massive international campaign, Joe Hill was executed by firing squad. Just days before his execution Joe wrote, "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organise." The IWW's fighting spirit and commitment to working people inspired Helen. She shocked the US establishment in 1916 by declaring in the New York Times newspaper that she had joined the IWW. She wrote, "I became an IWW member because I found out that the Socialist Party was too slow. It is sinking into the political bog. The true task is to unite and organise all workers on an economic basis. It is the workers themselves who must secure freedom for themselves."

The New York Times asked Helen whether she was committed to education or revolution. "Revolution," she replied. "We have tried education for 1,900 years and it has failed. Let us try revolution and see what it will do now," she added. IN 1917 the Russian Revolution swept away the old order. For a few brief years the working class set about creating a socialist society. Helen supported the revolution. In her office she hung a red flag with a hammer and sickle on it. She wrote numerous articles defending the Russian Revolution. She also led the campaign to end the US economic blockade of Russia, which was designed to strangle the fledgling workers' state. In 1929 she wrote an essay, "The spirit of Lenin".

 As you can see, this source has no qualms about portraying Keller as a revolutionary.  I could have stopped after the first source and you would have had a distinctly different picture.  I did not do that because I assume that you, the reader, have sense enough to realize that in her day the idea of speaking openly, strongly, and frequently about revolution were as common as the words "hope" and "change" have become recently.  As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, founded by Michael Harrington (see diary above where I talk about his influence on JFK)I am not here to promote Keller as a revolutionary and I hope we don't get distracted about this.  What is important about this story today is that her strong will and leadership in the fight for justice have been deliberately erased from most historical accounts offered to the general public.  As we proceed to use the coming election to bring about a needed change, let us not forget the many times in our past when our leaders saw the need to involve themselves beyond the episodic elections in their lives.  We will build a strong, effective, and just democratic party if we dedicate our present efforts to every day in the future.  That will insure us a living, organic movement for change and growth.

Originally posted to don mikulecky on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 05:38 PM PST.


Helen Keller's socialism

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