Adam's Reviews > You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn
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's review
Feb 26, 12

Recommended for: Everyone.
Read from February 06 to 20, 2012

Undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I've read.

My first introduction to Zinn came at the great expense, and weight, of A People's History. While I didn't have the tenacity to make my way all the way through, the idea of an alternative history book really peaked my interest in its author.

Upon my brother's return from a semester at Morehouse College, where he spent most of his time in classes at Spelman College, he eagerly dropped Zinn's memoir into my lap, insisting I take it with me to school. I couldn't be more glad he did.

"You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" reflects on the positions Zinn held throughout his career, the choices that drove him to those positions and the challenges he faced, and posed, in each. In a similar light as Derrick Bell's, "Confronting Authority," Zinn eloquently and accessibly lays out his ideals in confrontations with those who stood in his way or actively disagreed with his pursuit of a true justice.

Much of what I find most inspiring about Zinn is not any particular ideology he holds but rather the process through which he encouraged his students to find their own path. He believed strongly in critical pedagogy, recognizing that individuals can come to their own conclusions but that in order for the educational experience to be comprehensive, it inevitably requires questioning and critical thinking, not rote memorization and passive acceptance of a world-as-is.

So much of what I read in Zinn is what I hear coming from my brother's struggles and I feel fortunate to have such a guiding and challenging force in my life. One that asks the questions of me that force me to ask further questions of myself and the world in which I exist. For if there's one take away that resonates most with me, it is not that the goal is any particular answer but but rather finding the questions that can lead us towards an ever expanding series of answers that define the path of justice.
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Quotes Adam Liked

Howard Zinn
“Perhaps the most important thing I learned was about democracy, that democracy is not our government, our constitution, our legal structure. Too often they are enemies of democracy.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“The willingness to undertake such action cannot be based on certainties, but on those possibilities glimpsed in a reading of history different from the customary painful recounting of human cruelties. In such a reading we can find not only war but resistance to war, not only injustice but rebellion against injustice, not only selfishness but self-sacrifice, not only silence in the fact of tyranny but defiance, not only callousness but compassion.

Human beings show a broad spectrum of qualities, but it is the worst of these that are usually emphasized, and the result, too often, is to dishearten us, diminish our spirit. And yet, historically, that spirit refuses to surrender.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“But by this time I was acutely conscious of the gap between law and justice. I knew that the letter of the law was not as important as who held the power in any real-life situation.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“Being fired has some of the advantages of dying without its supreme disadvantages. People say extra-nice things about you, and you get to hear them.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“There is a power that can be created out of pent-up indignation, courage, and the inspiration of a common cause, and that if enough people put their minds and bodies into that cause, they can win. It is a phenomenon recorded again and against in the history of popular movements against injustice all over the world.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“I see this as the central issue of our time: how to find a substitute for war in human ingenuity, imagination, courage, sacrifice, patience...

War is not inevitable, however persistent it is, however long a history it has in human affairs. It does not come out of some instinctive human need. It is manufactured by political leaders, who then must make a tremendous effort--by enticement, by propaganda, by coercion--to mobilize a normally reluctant population to go to war.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history--while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance--might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“Education becomes most rich and alive when it confronts the reality of moral conflict in the world.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“That chain of relationships made me think of how connections are made--you read a book, you meet a person, you have a single experience, and your life is changed in some way. No act, therefore, however small, should be dismissed or ignored.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“I didn't want to spent a lot of close time with someone who believed that fun is a bourgeois indulgence.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“A jury is always a more orthodox body than any defendant brought before it; for blacks it is usually a whiter group, for poor people, a more prosperous group...

Another lesson about the justice system: the way the judge charges the jury inevitably pushes them one way or the other, limits their independent judgment.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“Civil disobedience, as I put it to the audience, was not the problem, despite the warnings of some that it threatened social stability, that it led to anarchy. The greatest danger, I argued, was civil obedience, the submission of individual conscience to governmental authority. Such obedience led to the horrors we saw in totalitarian states, and in liberal states it led to the public's acceptance of war whenever the so-called democratic government decided on it...

In such a world, the rule of law maintains things as they are. Therefore, to begin the process of change, to stop a war, to establish justice, it may be necessary to break the law, to commit acts of civil disobedience, as Southern black did, as antiwar protesters did.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions--poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed--which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.

It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“But human beings are not machines, and however powerful the pressure to conform, they sometimes are so moved by what they see as injustice that they dare to declare their independence. In that historical possibility lies hope.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“I've always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich. The meaning of that was if you were poor it was because you hadn't worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie, about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone, harder than financiers and politicians, harder than anybody if you accept that when you work at an unpleasant job that makes it very hard work indeed.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“I was astonished, bewildered. This was America, a country where, whatever its faults, people could speak, write, assemble, demonstrate without fear. It was in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. We were a democracy...

But I knew it wasn't a dream; there was a painful lump on the side of my head...

The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests. They were on the side of the rich and powerful. Free speech? Try it and the police will be there with their horses, their clubs, 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.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“Human beings, whatever their backgrounds, are more open than we think, that their behavior cannot be confidently predicted from their past, that we are all creatures vulnerable to new thoughts, new attitudes.

And while such vulnerability creates all sorts of possibilities, both good and bad, its very existence is exciting. It means that no human being should be written off, no change in thinking deemed impossible.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“The courtroom is one instance of the fact that while our society may be liberal and democratic in some large and vague sense, its moving parts, its smaller chambers--its classrooms, its workplaces, its corporate boardrooms, its jails, its military barracks--are flagrantly undemocratic, dominated by one commanding person or a tiny elite of power.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“Politics is pointless if it does nothing to enhance the beauty of our lives.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“I had always insisted that a good education was a synthesis of book learning and involvement in social action, that each enriched the other. I wanted my students to know that the accumulation of knowledge, while fascinating in itself, is not sufficient as long as so many people in the world have no opportunity to experience that fascination.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Howard Zinn
“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times


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