Thursday, January 28, 2010
Howard Zinn, who died on January 27 at the age of 87, is probably best known as the author of A People's History of the United States, published in 1980. However, he wrote more than twenty books altogether, including a 1994 autobiography called You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The title comes from a line Zinn used in his teaching to get his students to understand that they would be getting his point of view in the classroom. "I didn't pretend to an objectivity that was neither possible nor desirable," he wrote in the book. "Some were baffled by the metaphor. . . . Others immediately saw what I meant: that events are already moving in certain deadly directions, and to be neutral means to accept that." The line appears in the lyrics of the Pearl Jam song Down, available on the 2003 album Lost Dogs, acknowledging the band's friendship with Zinn. In a note on the Pearl Jam website, Eddie Vedder wrote of Zinn's passing: "We have lost a truly bright light, and a wisdom seemingly unparalleled. Fortunately he has left us with a body of work so extraordinary that it will be drawn upon for centuries to come..." Vedder also notes that Zinn "was a true and constant source of inspiration for myself and countless others. For me, he was the true embodiment of hope...And a living reminder to keep that hope alive. I'm so grateful for his friendship..."
System of a Down's song Deer Dance, from their 2001 album Toxicity, also references the title of Zinn's autobiography with the line We can't afford to be neutral on a moving train. Another of the band's songs, A.D.D., from their 2002 release Steal This Album, features the line There is no flag that is large enough/To hide the shame of a man in cuffs--a reference to a famous line of Zinn's: "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable."
Zinn himself is mentioned in the song Franco Un-American, from the 2003 album War on Errorism by punk band NOFX: I never looked around, never second-guessed/Then I read some Howard Zinn now I'm always depressed.
A 2005 album called You Can't Blow Up A Social Relationship by the band Resident Genius features twelve tracks: Six songs and six audio excerpts from several of Zinn's lectures.
Finally, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is the title of a documentary about Zinn, released in 2004.