There’s a political thinker, writer and speaker who, no matter how serious or troubling his topic, always makes me feel better about the world. And I guess that’s because I know this compassionate man is in it.
About the likes of Henry Kissinger: “The whole concept of punishment is foreign to me. And revenge. To me the only useful thing about bringing these people before the bar of justice is as an education … by doing that, we are going back to a very primitive approach to punishment … some of the Indian tribes and other indigenous peoples where their idea of punishment is to shame people before the tribe … more serious than putting them behind bars.”
There’s a new film that chronicles his life, titled, “You Can’t Be Neutral On a Moving Train” which is the title of his autobiography. “The film is produced by First Run Features and is narrated by Zinn’s next-door neighbor, actor Matt Damon,” reports Amy Goodman.
Next-door neighbors. Matt Damon and Howard Zinn. Now that’s quite something. More below, with a poll …
A transcript excerpt from the film (trailer), which you can arrange to have screened in your community:
MATT DAMON: [from The Zinn Reader]I start from the supposition that the world is topsy turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail, and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power, and the wrong people are out of power. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this, because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside-down.
HOWARD ZINN: History is important. If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.
HOWARD ZINN: It’s exactly when you’re in the midst of a war or about to go into a war that you need your freedom of speech. Lives are at stake. If you are put in fear of speaking out, then democracy has been severely crippled.
FRIEND: When you think of people like Howard, you think of the person who really stands up to authority and understands radicalism in its basic meaning, that is, going to go the root of problems and demanding that those problems be confronted.
FRIEND: A life of political engagement is so much more interesting and so much more joyful and comradely than a life of private disengagement and private consumption.
HOWARD ZINN: I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.
After airing the film excerpt, Amy Goodman interviewed Howard Zinn this morning in the Democracy Now! NYC firehouse studio.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, actually, yesterday afternoon I spoke at the Bedford Hills, euphemistically called, Correctional Facility. They hardly correct anything, but… I spoke to prisoners there, women prisoners, mostly prisoners of color. I spoke to them yesterday afternoon before I gave this talk last night at Manhattanville College.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you talk about with the women?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, they had been using my book, they have classes, and they are using my book of A People’s History of the United States. I talked to them about history, about doing history and why I did history the way I did. Why I did unneutral history and how I came to do it. And I told them something about my life, and of course, I always like to talk about that, you know. And then they asked a lot of questions, a very lively, enthusiastic, excited group. I mean, if every teacher in the country had a class like that, you know, they would be inspired. And it’s wonderful, and I have always found this to be true, wonderful and always amazing when you talk to prisoners who should be the last ones to be up and optimistic and in good spirits, but it’s always there. It’s actually encouraging, you know, and of course, troubling to know that these people, these remarkable people are being kept in prison, you know, very often most of the time for non-violent crimes, and kept there for long periods of time. Sort of sad commentary on American society the way people in Washington who are free, and these people are in prison.
Zinn also talked about being fired from Spelman College and being nearly fired from Boston University:
HOWARD ZINN: At Spelman, I got involved with my students in the actions that were going on in the South, the sit-ins, the demonstrations, the picket lines. I was supporting my students, and this was the first black president of Spelman College, a very conservative institution. He wasn’t happy about me joining the students in all of these things, wasn’t happy about a lot of things that they did. But he couldn’t do anything about it, but when I — the students came back from, you might say, from jail, and then rebelled against the campus regulations and the restrictions on them, and I supported them, that was too much.
AMY GOODMAN: During the Civil Rights years?
HOWARD ZINN: This was, yeah, these were during the Civil Rights years, and so, you know, he was very unhappy with the fact that I was supporting the students who were rebelling against the paternalism and the authoritarianism on that campus.
AMY GOODMAN: They were women students?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. These were the black women students, and you know, the movement brought them out of this little sort of convent-like atmosphere of Spelman College and out into the world.
AMY GOODMAN: The author Alice Walker was one of those students.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, Alice Walker was one of my students. Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children’s Defense Fund, now in Washington, she was one of my students. I’m very proud of those students I had at Spelman. And yeah, Marian Wright Edelman was in jail, and Alice Walker was in jail. It was a great moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Boston University was many years later. Why did you almost get thrown out of there?
HOWARD ZINN: Why did I almost get thrown out of Boston University? We had a strike. Faculty went on strike. Secretaries went on strike. They settled with the faculty after what was a successful strike, but not with the secretaries. And so, I and some other faculty refused to cross the secretaries’ picket line. And five of us who refused to do that were threatened with firing, even though all of us had tenure, and so it was a long struggle, but we won.
HOWARD ZINN: That’s true, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about your final bombing run, not over Japan, not over Germany, but over France?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. Well, we thought bombing missions were over. The war was about to come to an end. This was in April of 1945, and remember the war ended in early May 1945. This was a few weeks before the war was going to be over, and everybody knew it was going to be over, and our armies were past France into Germany, but there was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them. 1,200 heavy bombers, and I was in one of them, flew over this little town of Royan and dropped napalm — first use of napalm in the European theater. And we didn’t know how many people were killed, how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it’s okay. And only afterward, only really after the war when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them, because as a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet, six miles high, couldn’t hear screams, couldn’t see blood. And this is modern warfare.
In modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings that they’re firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible atrocities to take place. And I think reflecting back on that bombing raid, and thinking of that in Hiroshima and all of the other raids on civilian cities and the killing of huge numbers of civilians in German and Japanese cities, the killing of a hundred thousand people in Tokyo in one night of fire-bombing, all of that made me realize war, even so-called good wars against fascism like World War II, wars don’t solve any fundamental problems, and they always poison everybody on both sides. They poison the minds and souls of everybody on both sides. We are seeing that now in Iraq, where the minds of our soldiers are being poisoned by being an occupying army in a land where they are not wanted. And the results are terrible.
AMY GOODMAN: You learned you dropped napalm on this French village?
HOWARD ZINN: You say?
AMY GOODMAN: Napalm?
HOWARD ZINN: Napalm. Well, we actually didn’t know what it was. They said, oh, you’re not going to have the usually 500 pound demolition bombs. You’re going to carry one — you’re going to carry 30 100-pound canisters of jellied gasoline. We had no idea what that was, but it was napalm.
AMY GOODMAN: You went to that village later?
HOWARD ZINN: Later, yeah. Later I visited that village, about ten years after the war. And I went to the library which had been destroyed, and which was now rebuilt, and I dug out records of the survivors and what they had written about the bombing, and I wrote. I wrote a kind of essay about the bombing of Royan which appears – where does it appear? — it appears in my book The Zinn Reader, and also in my book The Politics of History. But it was, for me, it was a very important experience, a very great sobering lesson about so-called good wars.
AMY GOODMAN: You learned when you were there on the ground many years later who had died?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I — you know, I spoke to people who had survived that and whose family members had died. And they were very bitter about the bombing, and you know, they attributed it to all sorts of things, the desire to try out a new weapon. It’s amazing how many things are done in a war just to try out new weapons. You know, maybe the — one of the reasons for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to see what this does to human beings. Human beings become sacrifices in the desire to develop new military technology. And I think that was one of those instances.
Howard Zinn is 82 years old.
His book, “A People’s History of the United States : 1492-Present,” is a Perennial Classic.