So last night I watched the documentary “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” on the life of political activist and historian Howard Zinn. A few years ago I heard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, referenced in the film Good Will Hunting. I decided to take a look at it for I was intrigued by the title. I would read parts of it at Barnes and Noble during my senior year at college, always taking a break to view the pages when I should have been studying. Finally, I picked it up last year and I have still not completed it. I think I plan to read it during this summer so I can finally say that I read it.
Anyways, what I have read in the book I enjoy. Zinn is a controversial figure, many people like to say that he is just a radical, liberal, anti- American, unpatriotic, communist, socialist (insert non-conservative ideology here), I guess you can label him however you want. One of the lines that I really enjoyed from this film came from Zinn’s own mouth. He said basically that he isn’t formed by an ideology, but is instead formed by the desire to see people be able to rest, to simply enjoy their lives. Another point he made was that democracy, when truly exemplified, includes protest. There is no way we can extend democracy to others when we only allow the privileged to voice their opinions. Justice and peace must also be markers for a democracy, and continuing engagement in war is directly counter to any true democracy.
I don’t agree with all of Zinn’s conclusions, but I connect with many of the ideas that he has. To write a book specifically from the viewpoint of the oppressed is brave, and I think his honesty in looking at the dark side of American history is a testament to good historiography.
As far as the documentary as a whole, its a little slow in parts and probably is too sentimental in praise for Zinn, but I think that there is some insight into how non-violent protests can effect those involved and help them see beyond themselves for the goodness of a cause.