At 8:00 pm on Monday, February 7th,The Students for Peace and Global Justice aired the film “You Can’t Be Neutral On a Moving Train,” while previously advertising it as being a film by Howard Zinn.
If one were to watch this film with the notion that it was made by Howard Zinn, it would be hard not to come to the conclusion that he is one of the most self possessed, arrogant thinkers of our time, for the film is entirely about Zinn himself. But thankfully this isn’t the case because after all, it was not written by Zinn, but someone else. Our friends at the SFPGJ simply messed up in the advertising process. That’s okay, these things happen. Zinn forgives them, hopefully.
People always find reasons to make movies about other people, and I suppose there is reason enough to make one about Howard Zinn, most famously known as the author of the book A People’s History of the United States, a widely recognized book that tells the history of the United States of America from the perspective of the have-not, whether these have-not’s be the 19th century industrial worker under wage slavery, or the Arawak Indian under brutal European conquest.
The film begins with a description of Zinn’s meager working class roots in New York City, and his experiences as one of the many workers in the New York City shipyards during the 30’s and 40’s. One of his first brushes with political activism was when he witnessed a communist party rally that ultimately fell victim to violent police repression.
This incident set forth in his mind the overall notion that authority takes sides, a notion that clearly formed the backbone of his future political motivations. Zinn, through his own desire to take part in the fight against fascism, volunteered to serve in the Second World War and was placed as a bombardier.
What seemed to touch Zinn the most from his war experience was how when dropping bombs from a plane, he would never see them actually land and cause the subsequent destruction they were meant to create. These first hand experiences of war greatly led to his ultimate hatred of it, which clearly manifested itself in his reputable involvement in the 1960’s anti-war movement. Zinn was by far the most outspoken anti-war professor at Boston University during the 1960’s.
Despite the inter-faculty controversies that resulted from his outspoken nature, he received tenure at the university and still teaches there to this day. His academic career did not originally start at Boston University in the 60’s, but at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta Georgia in the 50’s, where he spurred Spelman students to actively engage in civil disobedience against U.S racial policy. Unfortunately, Zinn wasn’t as lucky as he would be at Boston University, and was fired on account of his actions at Spelman.
To this day, Zinn writes, teaches, and lectures. There were many candid shots of Zinn lecturing at our very own Ira Allen Chapel. So I was expecting a politically charged film written by Zinn in grand defense of American left wing politics, (its easy to imagine him doing such a thing). Instead, I saw a decent, though very biased documentary on a man’s life and work. This film is not meant to sway those who think on the right to think further left, or really even act as an artistic exposition of leftist ideology.
It is a mere, “lets chill out and bask in the glory of a great leftist soldier, and pat him and ourselves on the backs for thinking the way we do” type of film. To Howard Zinn fanatics and to those genuinely curious about him, the film is undeniably more.