Movie review: Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2005)

The modern-day book banning of Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, intrigued me, especially since the advocate of the metaphorical burning is a former governor of my home state of Indiana and current president of an institute of higher education.

Thank you, Mitch Daniels, for bringing Howard Zinn to my consciousness. I am not one of the Hoosiers that you claim had Zinn’s view of history crammed down their throat in the educational system. I am a product of the stale, whitewashed mainstream presentation of history as a series of facts presented from the perspective of the winning side.

But I digress.

This documentary about Howard Zinn is a series of snapshots of his life, explaining how his consciousness was raised and showing the ways in his life that he fought for peace, justice, and a different interpretation of “truth”. It starts with his upbringing by two poor, uneducated parents. The lie of the US myth that anyone in the US can work hard and succeed was not born out by his parents.

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is full of interviews with Zinn as well as snippets from speeches that he gave in front of demonstrators, to audiences, and at award ceremonies. Numerous other people are interviewed about Zinn, his work, and the times in which he found himself—from Alice Walker, to Noam Chomsky, to Dan Ellsberg.

Perspectives of history inform perspectives of present events and situations. To go against the established perspective is a threat to those whose positions of power and economic wealth rely on the established perspective being followed. Don’t look behind the curtain in search of other perspectives—those of labor activists, of civil rights activists, of environmentalists, of blacks, of Chinese, of Latinos.

Zinn argues for the opposite: Do look behind the curtain.

Zinn challenges us to question the facts of history we have always been given. To know history is to understand the present. If we don’t know history, those in power can tell us anything—and we believe it.

As the subtitle to the documentary asserts, you can’t be neutral. You can’t remain on the sidelines in society. Either you intercede in what in happening in the world or you are collaborating. Silence is assent.

It is way past time to take another look at history and search for the marginalized from the pages of our education, our news, our consciousness. Where is history silent? What is the news of today, which will become the history of tomorrow, ignoring? Those are the places to look for knowledge, for answers, for understanding. And question, always question even if just internally, the facts you are given.


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