You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

“People should go where they are not supposed to go, say what they are not supposed to say, and stay when they are told to leave.”
Howard Zinn

In 1994 I read Howard Zinn’s You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. I know this from the passages I collected in my commonplace book 18 years ago.

I am quite distant from my copy of the book now and recall very little other than Zinn’s impassioned plea for equal justice in this country and the power of speaking out when it is denied. Since then, I have seen his films, read about him, and admired his life-long protests to insure genuine equality in this society.

Howard Zinn died early in 2010. I remember him on this July 4th and reassert the values we presumably celebrate today by citing some of the passages I recorded from You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.

It is easy to mistake silence for acceptance.

I knew that the letter of the law was not as important as who held the power in any real-life situation.

The chain of relationships made me think of how connections are made—you read a book [Johnny Got His Gun, Born on the Fourth of July], you meet a person, you have a single experience, and your life is changed in some way.

The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.

Free speech? Try it and the police will be there with their horses, their bulbs, their guns, to stop you.

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

…to relinquish the safety of silence.

I had always insisted that a good education was a synthesis of book learning and involvement in social action, that each enriched the other.

Going around the country, I was impressed again and again by how favorably people reacted to what, undoubtedly, is a radical view of society—antiwar, anti-military, critical of the legal system, advocating a drastic redistribution of the wealth, supportive of protest even to the point of civil disobedience.

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.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act…

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