Saturday, March 26, 2011

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times
© 1995, 2002 Howard Zinn
224 pages

Howard Zinn not only taught history: he helped make it. The product of a working-class family in New York, Zinn left the shipyard and union he helped create to fly bombers over Germany during World War 2, returning to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and becoming a professor of history. His approach  rejected static observation of events and tributes to Great Leaders in favor of lively accounts favoring the underdogs and victims of history. He intended to inspire those he taught, encouraging them to look to themselves to create the changes they wished to see in the world.  Practicing what he preached, Zinn took up protest banners, broke through segregation barriers, faced arrest and and imprisonment, and even gambled his life a time or two.

During a question-and-answer period following a 1992 lecture, Zinn was asked to account for the strength of his convictions and the stubbornness of his hope. He grew up in slums, saw his fellow workers beaten by policemen when they protested for their rights: his first teaching job was in the south, where he saw the brutality of segregation firsthand, in which millions of people were treated like pariahs and forced to accept substandard homes, wages, public facilities, and treatment at the hands of the law -- just because of the color of their skin. He entered his adult years as the costly Vietnam War waged, which killed millions and destroyed the trust between the government and its people.

Despite this, Zinn maintained his belief in the tenacity of the human spirit -- for in all these desperate moments, Zinn saw acts of individual courage in which people stood up for themselves and human dignity, despite the odds and power arrayed against them. Some of these moments are justly famous -- the Civil Rights marchers in Selma come to mind --  but Zinn's life saw many such heroes. He witnessed a group of young women at Spelmen college force the public libraries to integrate all by themselves, and during Vietnam he helped a group of rogue nuns hide a radical Catholic priest named Dan Berrigan, a man wanted by the FBI for his acts of civil disobedience.  Every dark hour of history saw a glimmer of light in it, as people unfailingly decided they weren't going to take this abuse lying down. Strengthened by the courage of their convictions, they refused to accept the status quo -- and they changed history for the better.

Zinn believes in using history to create consciousness about injustice, for it cannot be fought in ignorance. His  autobiography, interlaced with the story of America in the 20th century,  is effective in this: his sections on conditions for the working class and for blacks are particularly harrowing to read.  Civil Rights and the Vietnam War dominate the book, though there is a single chapter on "growing up class conscious".  The book's most prevalent theme is the importance of active dissent -- in both keeping democracy healthy and in fighting injustice.  I imagine most people who read this are already familiar with Zinn's work (I watched the documentary movie based on this book after reading one or two of his books,)  but unless you've read The Zinn Reader there should be a few surprises in store. I'd definitely recommend it to those who want a look inside the Civil Rights movement (Zinn made the history of my hometown come alive), or those interested in the justice or frailties of war.  Even those who have read The Zinn Reader would benefit from a refresher, though: I read this because I was feeling discouraged, and the hours I spent with it have left me feeling renewed.


  • The Zinn Reader, a collection of Zinn's articles and essays throughout the years on a variety of subjects.  Despite growing up in Selma, Alabama, the Civil Rights struggles that took place here never meant anything to me until I read his on-the-ground history of events. Last summer I started walking around town on foot, visiting places like Brown Chapel and the bridge.
  • A Power No Governments Can Suppress, also by Zinn and about the role of civil disobedience and protest in maintaining democracy. 

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