"If one person kills another person, it's murder,
but if the government kills 100,000 people, that's patriotism."
-- Howard Zinn
If you live long enough, you see history repeat itself. As the pace of life continues to speed up, history does not wait until the previous generation is gone before repeating itself. Many of us who grew up during the Vietnam years have found ourselves fighting despair as we watch yet another Administration send yet another generation of American young people to die in an ill-advised war -- and use the same rhetoric to do it.
Howard Zinn has seen this cycle repeat itself again and again -- and has lost none of his zeal for justice. Now in his eighties, Zinn is still inspiring Americans who believe that America should be about social and economic justice. With seven decades of social activism behind him, Zinn has never wavered from his reverence for the U.S. Constitution and the promise that the American way has offered generations of immigrants and native-born citizens.
A new documentary by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller, HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN'T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN, recounts Howard Zinn's many years as a social activist, told via Zinn's own recollections; interviews with former students and some of the best-known names in social activism over the last 40 years; and Zinn's own writings. In this film, Zinn seems almost an intellectual Forrest Gump, present as he is at virtually every social movement in America since the 1930's.
The seeds of Howard Zinn's social justice activism were sown by the Woody Guthrie song "The Ludlow Massacre," about the events of April 20, 1914, in which 20 innocent men, women and children in a Colorado tent camp occupied by striking coal miners were killed by militiamen hired by the mine's owners. As a shipyard laborer at the age of 18, he become one of the youngest labor organizers. Later, after returning from World War II and attending college on the G.I. Bill, he was a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he participated in the civil rights marches of the early 1960's. His role as chronicler of the activities of the movement and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee earned him a place on the FBI Watch List -- then-bureau-head J. Edgar Hoover's equivalent of the Ashcroftian designation "Person of Interest." Later, while teaching at Boston University, he participated (along with 60's activists such Daniel Berrigan, David Dellinger and Tom Hayden) in one of the first prisoner-of-war exchanges with the Hanoi government. Today, in his eighties and best-known as the renowned author of the book "A People's History of the United States" and sought-after speaker, he remains at the forefront of yet another antiwar movement.
Spurred by a love of reading that began when he found a copy of "Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar" as a boy, and brought to fruition by a curiosity piqued by a Woody Guthrie song, Zinn insists that education and activism go hand in hand -- something that is going to be increasingly difficult for the American public school system to do with George W. Bush's "teach to the test" No School Left Behind initiative (which is probably the point). Howard Zinn is a contemporary right-wing conservative's worst nightmare when he states that "I never sought objectivity or neutrality in teaching...I never thought that was desirable or even possible...at the same time, I made clear to my students that I was advocating-that I wasn't pretending to give them the final word, but that they were going to get from me a point-of-view." Notwithstanding the fact that in three decades of teaching, he never once flunked a student, least of all for disagreeing with him, today's power structure and its gabbing magpies on right-wing talk radio regard teachers like Zinn who simply try to get students to think as dangerous at best, and at worst, outright terrorists. One wonders, with popular culture having become corporatized, where the message songs and political philosophers to inspire tomorrow's youth may come from.
MOVING TRAIN is both an exhilarating and a depressing cinematic experience; exhilarating because of the sheer energy and deeply-felt optimism that Howard Zinn, even after watching history repeat itself for eight decades, still brings to the table. It's depressing because of footage, such as watching Hubert Humphrey sounding disconcertingly like Donald Rumsfeld as he insists that we don't bomb civilians, but that the North Vietnamese have ringed military targets with civilians. And there is Howard Zinn, shown over thirty years ago after securing the release of two captured pilots from Hanoi, stating that the Domino Theory is invalid, that countries fall because of internal conditions, and that "the best way to make SURE a country turns to Communism is to put foreign military forces in it, because then the Communists will have a nationalist cause that they can use against the foreign power." Substitute "terrorists" for "Communists", and this statement is just as valid today...and equally shows that our leaders have learned absolutely nothing.
Howard Zinn is one of the last of that breed of intellectuals,
forged during the rise of the middle class in America,
whose zeal for social justice is utterly devoid of
calculation and cynicism. Still carrying himself with
the erect carriage of an elder statesman, he is both
a rumpled relic of the pre-media age of political
intellectuals, and a counterintuitively mediagenic
advocate for the downtrodden. Many of his comments
in this film, some narrated by actor Matt Damon from
his earlier writings, are as timely today as when
they were originally written and represent a deep
and profound insight into the nature not just of individuals,
but of the interactions of cultures. Zinn's approach
is intellectual to be sure, but it's a highly accessible
intellectualism; the intellectualism of common sense;
the belief that a world in which all people have enough
-- enough food, clothing, shelter, love -- is one
where wars over property and ideology are less likely
to occur. Devoid of the rage and stridency of the
A.N.S.W.E.R. crowd, yet still principled, the views
and teachings of Howard Zinn are still at the forefront
of the social justice movement. However, in a day
when activism tends to be more about showboating and
getting one's mug on the network news than about real
social change, one has to wonder: Who will pick up
the mantle of intellectual progressivism when men
like Howard Zinn are gone?
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