Jul 2, 2015

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard ZinnYou Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zig-zag towards a more decent society.
We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
In his memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn speaks about his decades-spanning political activism in a candid and approachable manner. The book covers the Civil Rights movement in the South, where Zinn mentored and supported black students at Spelman College (including Alice Walker); his experiences as a bomber pilot in WW2; the movement against the war in Vietnam, where he played a key role; his experiences of growing up in an impoverished working class neighbourhood in 1930s Brooklyn; and the several labour struggles he was involved in at Boston University.

This post will probably end up being a bit of a rehash of what I was saying about Zinn very recently (A People’s History of American Empire adapts some material from this memoir, so the two books cover some of the same ground); however, reading these books was important to me, and I can’t resist a further opportunity to a) talk about them in more detail and b) share some of my favourite quotes. I’ll start by saying, once again, how much I love the title You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The concept of “neutrality” needs constant challenging: we assume that it’s only when we do something that challenges the current status quo that we’re taking a political stance, when in reality the decision to go along with it is just as politically charged. This idea underpins Zinn’s approach to history and to political engagement, and I love that he came up with a title that sums it up so elegantly.

I enjoy reading Zinn because he gives me hope. And crucially, the kind of hope his writing conveys is one that I can get behind. It’s not based on a Pollyannaish approach to the world, but on a clear-sighted understanding of how unfair it is, how rigged in favour of the few and against the many, how deeply out of balance. And yet, even as he acknowledges this, Zinn reminds us that we’re not powerless, even if thousands of factors conspire to make us feel that way. The hope he offers is not passive — it’s not about keeping our chins up and smiling through hard times until things just happen to get better, but about dragging the world towards greater equality in whatever ways are available to us.

I loved reading about the historical periods and movements covered in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, but what moved me the most was how Zinn told these stories. It would be much too easy for a memoir to default to a traditional heroic narrative, but Zinn is not concerned with painting himself as a hero. Instead, he uses examples from his live to empower others, mostly by gently saying, “Look what we did together. Look what we all can do.” He’s often angry, but never righteous, and he’s candid about his own mistakes: he describes his participation in WW2 and his younger self’s willingness to “just follow orders” when it came to bombing civilians in a humanising way that helps us understand the structures that encourage unquestioning obedience and gives us hope for breaking out of them. His concern is not to establish his own moral purity, but to remind us that we, too, can work towards a more just world.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to expand our understanding of heroism and meaningful actions so that it takes into account the more subtle choices we make within contexts that severely limit us. As you’re all probably tired of hearing me say, I genuinely believe that individual traits like courage and moral conviction are insufficient explanations when it comes to determining how much we’re willing to risk for our ideals. The availability of support to mitigate such risks is a big factor, as Zinn reminds us here:
People are practical. They want change but feel powerless, alone, do not want to be the blade of grass that sticks up above the others and is cut down. They wait for a sign from someone else who will make the first move, or the second. And at certain times in history, there are intrepid people who take the risk that if they make that first move others will follow quickly enough to prevent their being cut down. And if we understand this, we might make that first move.
This is not a fantasy. This is how change has occurred again and again in the past, even the very recent past. We are so overwhelmed by the present, the flood of pictures and stories pouring in on us every day, drowning out this history, that it is no wonder if we lose hope.
I realize it is easier for me to feel hopeful because in many ways I have just been lucky.
Privilege, too, is an unspoken factor — Zinn readily acknowledges that it’s far easier for a white man like him to get involved in a campus movement that might cost him his job than it is for someone whose chances of re-employment would be affected by structural disadvantages. And hope is another big factor. As I was saying recently in the context of The Wire, we’ll do far more if we know our actions have the potential to matter, and in its turn that builds a context that allows them to be meaningful:
To me what is so often disdained as romantic idealism, as wishful thinking, is justified if it prompts action to fulfil those wishes, to bring to life those ideals.
The willingness to undertake such action cannot be based on certainties, but on those possibilities glimpsed in a reading of history different from the customary painful recounting of human cruelties. In such a reading we can find not only war but resistance to war, not only injustice but rebellion against injustice, not only selfishness but self-sacrifice, not only silence in the face of tyranny but defiance, not only callousness but compassion.
On a similar note, I appreciated Zinn’s frequent reminders that everything counts. If we only celebrate the big, dramatic acts, we disempowered people. We tell them it’s impossible to make a difference unless you’re willing to risk everything, when in reality history tells us the exact opposite:
I have told about the modest campaign to desegregate Atlanta’s libraries because the history of social movements often confines itself to the large events, the pivotal moments. Typically, surveys of the history of the civil rights movement deal with the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case, the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham demonstrations, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Missing from such histories are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.
Here are a few more passages I really liked — I’ll start with the one on the idea of defeat:
Social movements may have many “defeats”—failing to achieve objectives in the short run—but in the course of the struggle the strength of the old order begins to erode, the minds of people begin to change; the protesters are momentarily defeated but not crushed, and have been lifted, heartened, by their ability to fight back.
On the movement against the war in Vietnam:
For most of us, the movement was a life-giving force. To join a hundred thousand others in marches and rallies, to know that even if you felt helpless against the power of government you were not alone in your feelings—that people all over the country, of all ages, black and white, working people and middle-class people, were with you—was to be moved beyond words.
We often read in the press—or heard from some people—that the opposition to the war came from young people wanting to save their own lives. That was so clearly untrue; millions of people protested the war not because their own lives were at stake, but because they truly cared about other people’s lives, the lives of Vietnamese, of fellow Americans.
On WW2:
At our bombing altitudes—twenty-five or thirty thousand feet—we saw no people, heard no screams, saw no blood, no torn limbs. I remember only seeing the canisters light up like matches flaring one by one on the ground below. Up there in the sky, I was just “doing my job”—the explanation throughout history of warriors committing atrocities.
On “meritocracy”:
I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich. The meaning of that was if you were poor it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie, about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone, harder than financiers and politicians, harder than anybody if you accept that when you work at an unpleasant job that makes it very hard work indeed.
My mother worked and worked without getting paid at all. She was a plump woman, with a sweet, oval Russian face—a beauty, in fact. She had grown up in Irkutsk, in Siberia. While my father worked his hours on the job, she worked all day and all night, managing the family, finding the food, cooking and cleaning, taking the kids to the doctor or the hospital clinic for measles and mumps and whooping cough and tonsillitis and whatever came up. And taking care of family finances.
And one final quote about how it’s not foolish to be hopeful:
It seems that human beings, whatever their backgrounds, are more open than we think, that their behaviour cannot be confidently predicted from their past, that we are all creatures vulnerable to new thoughts, new attitudes.
And while such vulnerability creates all sorts of possibilities, both good and bad, its very existence is exciting. It means that no human being should be written off, no change in thinking deemed impossible.
I’m so grateful for this book.


  1. I think the fact that I've got tears threatening to spill from my eyes just reading this post and the quotes you shared, helps show how much I *need* this book right now. Yeah, I want to read it, but seriously, I think I need to read it.
    *hugs* *because you're awesome* *and for a million other reasons too*

  2. Wow! You have definitely sold me on this book. Zinn's life alone sounds like an amazing story. :-)

    1. It's really great. He was a part of so many key historical moments.

  3. I'm reading an academic text on black representation in SF cinema at the moment, and there's a chapter where the author talks about films implying that the political is personal in a very threatening way. Like in Gattaca, where it's up to the individual to overcome their obstacles and not up to the society, which is exactly the way to encourage people to never work together politically. Zinn's focus on what people can do collectively seems like the right tonic for that nonsense.

    1. I haven't watched Gattaca, but I think I know exactly what you mean by "implying that the political is personal in a very threatening way". I've struggled with and felt paralysed by those narratives so much. I find they're very common, both in stories and in the sense of being prominent cultural narratives. Zinn is indeed a wonderful antidote.

  4. I really, really need to get my hands on some Zinn. You've shared so many powerful passages here. I think about these ideas nearly every day, and I'm always looking for some more food for thought.


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