Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: Commemorative Edition

[23 September 2010]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

One of the two or three most important figures on the academic Left in the last half-century, Howard Zinn inspires passionate responses. While there are those who see his contributions – especially his hugely popular People’s History of the United States, which has gone into many editions since 1980 – as indelible, necessary, and fundamental to the gathering social conscience of a postcolonial America, there are just as many people who regard this same work as rabble-rousing and revisionist.

As an academic historian myself, I can attest both to the number of my colleagues who routinely quote from his work in their articles (basically no one), and to the number of these same who admire his work, his life, and what he represents (pretty much everyone on the Left). This apparent paradox stems from Zinn’s relentless populism as an historian. He didn’t spend much time in the archives, and didn’t engage much with the other players in his field; rather, he sought out the stories he felt were being undertold, and laid them out on the page, or related them to rooms full of people open to his messages. As an academic, then, he was a bit of a bust; as an historian, teacher, and (by all accounts) colleague, he was an inspiration.

When he died in 2010 at the age of 88, Zinn was effectively canonized as a saint of the activist Left, and for very good reason. He was a key figure in the American Civil rights movement (as a white professor at a black college in the south in the ‘50s and ‘60s he found himself in a curious and influential position), a major player in the anti-Vietnam War movement, a tireless advocate for peace, a campaigner for immigrant and minority rights, and a longtime critic of liberal-capitalist hypocrisies concerning the persistent myth about equality of opportunity.

His most powerful contribution on that score (as far as I can see) was to demonstrate to a generation of readers (after his People’s History came out) that the vast majority of people in the United States had never and would never be able to “become someone”, to overcome the institutionalized racism, patriarchy, and plutocracy which organized the United States into its curious form of democracy. To teach this perhaps depressing fact – “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” tends only to work if you are a white male with some money behind you – was to alert people to the important (and actually motivational) reality that the deck was stacked against them. Get up and try to change the world you are living in, unless you are comfortable with the fact that you are living in a world that would prefer to keep you right where you are. It’s a powerful piece of information – and Zinn’s efforts as an historian were directed toward discovering, uncovering, and representing the myriad moments in American history which demonstrated this simple truth.

His famous explanation about his activism – “you can’t be neutral on a moving train” – was used as the title for this 2004 biographical documentary about his influential work. Narrated by Matt Damon, and replete with numerous incisive interviews with people like Alice Walker (a former student), Studs Terkel, Tom Hayden, Daniel Ellsberg, Bob Moses, and Zinn himself, the film takes a wide view of the career of this singular man.

It’s a rousing document, and at times a powerfully moving film. Briskly-paced, and brief (at 80-minutes), it makes a wonderful classroom tool. As students continue to come to me (and, surely, to millions of other professors and teachers across the world), clamoring for direction on how to do something, on how to be a force for positive change in the world, you could do a lot worse than to introduce them to Howard Zinn through this little film. 

This Commemorative Edition of the DVD was put together in the wake of Zinn’s death, and contains a wealth of extras covering much of the man’s life. There are over an hour of new features here, including a raft of bonus speeches and interviews (in which you can hear Zinn’s thoughts on war, civil rights and labor activism). There are excerpts from an interview with Studs Terkel, another of the most significant Left figures of the 20th Century. There is also something called Zinn’s “Recommended Reading List”, a few speech transcripts, and Daniel Ellsberg’s elegiac recollections about one of his (and our) heroes. All in all, some worthy stuff.

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