Lost in the Movies: Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Just as Howard Zinn, the famed Boston University professor and historian who wrote The People's History of the United States, felt it was impossible to be "neutral" and undesirable to be "objective" about human history, so it's been near-impossible for anyone to be neutral about Zinn himself. The Left adored him; the Right loathed him. The historical community seemed split between those who felt he added a stirring chorus of voices to the historical choir (helping to popularize history amongst a general readership in the process) and those who rankled at his methods and tone, feeling that he was not playing by the proper rules of the game. When Zinn passed away a few weeks ago, of course, the emphasis was on the positive and the same is true of this documentary which was released around 2003, a time when Zinn's call for dissidence seemed more relevant than ever.

Much as I enjoy elaborating and extrapolating, sometimes a simple blurb says it best. (Not that I'm going to keep it short myself here; in my defense, neither would Zinn - A People's History runs 682 pages!) In this case the blurb is J. Hoberman's. The Village Voice critic (himself of a definite leftward tilt, though not of the populist variety) wrote of the film, "Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller's fond portrait, less documentary than infomercial, is unrelentingly and in the end self-defeatingly positive -- albeit effective in showcasing Zinn's charismatic personality." That about sums it up - though I'd add that the doc is also hindered by an amateurish and rather ineffective style. Still, it's primary purpose is to provide a snapshot of Zinn's life and personality, and it does achieve this, particularly when it comes to the professor's early and middle years.

As a rightward-leaning high school student (partly the contrarian in me, as most of my peers seemed to be liberals, and knee-jerk ones at that) I often found Zinn's work irritating. Contrary to the notion that Zinn's radical re-evaluation of history remains anathema in hidebound American education, A People's History was assigned reading in several of my classes. Open-minded despite my skepticism towards the left, and genuinely curious as to where they were coming from, I would dig into a fresh chapter eager for a bracing subversion of American mythology. But by the end of each I found myself wearied by the monotony of Zinn's focus on exploitation and victimization, the contrary stubbornness of Zinn's refusal to grant quarter to any American leader as anything other than an dictator in disguise, and mostly by the lack of an intellectual tension or complexity in the work, something I relished even then. Though I still appreciate this quality above all others, in history, in art, in just about anything, I'm much more open to Zinn's approach now.

Re-reading A People's History in the wake of Zinn's death (I'm about 150 pages in at the moment) I no longer find it wearying but completely absorbing. The focus on the economic imbalance and abuse of those with less power seems more like a provocative and openly admitted bias, one which gives the narrative drive and clarity though it certainly works better in some passages than in others. (The colonial years are convincingly rendered via one long cry of moral outrage, directed at the barbarism of a greedy and ruthless culture whose cruelty was only matched by its hypocritical arrogance. However, when it comes to Revolutionary times, the author has trouble portraying Jefferson as essentially an elitist, one whose intellectual adventurousness and passion for liberty were basically beside the point. Even as Zinn struggles to demystify the words of the Declaration of Independence, the quoted passages remain stirring.)

I mention this as a segue back into Zinn's character. Underpinning the seeming one-sidedness of his focus are two qualities which are often missing on the intellectual left: a personal complexity in terms of his relation to the country he's criticizing, and, conversely, a simplicity and moral straightforwardness which is in the best tradition of American radicalism. On the first note, Howard Zinn was an antiwar activist who had fought and killed in war, a fierce critic of air bombardment who had himself been a bombardier in World War II. His positions were not so much contradicted by his history, as necessitated by them; it's quite possible that if he could have re-lived his life he would not have served, but his story is far more compelling in the fashion it occurred: it gives him a moral authority which stems from humility, humanity, and experience. He is not hovering above what he condemns, pointing the finger from a place of purity (like some of the college kids who jeered at soldiers without ever having been in their shoes, either literally or conceptually).

Likewise, Zinn was not an academic theorizing about the working classes after receiving a healthy dollop of Marxism, he was a slum kid who worked menial labor for years before attending college on the G.I. Bill (while struggling to support his growing family). Hence his championing of the underdog was not merely a self-loathing nose-thumbing at the bourgeoisie, as it seemed to be with so many sixties intellectuals. This may also explain his much-noted good cheer and patience with opposing views, at least according to those who experienced him as a teacher. His revisionism was bucked up by a history of patriotic service (however much he questioned it later), and - despite his unwavering criticism of those in power - a relative deficiency of personal bitterness (in the sense that Zinn tended to see almost everyone as tangled in the web, even to a certain extent the spinners). This leads to one of the film's most compelling moments (though it bungles the delivery, it can't really taint the fascination of the anecdote). In North Vietnam to receive some POWs whom the Communists have agreed to release, the representatives of the peace movement (including Father Berringer and Tom Hayden) are invited to sing, as is the tradition at Vietnamese gatherings. Zinn stands up and sings "America the Beautiful."

The later years, following Zinn's involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements, are not as compelling when presented in the documentary. Zinn's feud with BU president John Silber is a potential source of drama, but it's defused instantly when, after beginning to develop the conflict, the filmmakers tie the story up quickly with a rather rambling response by Zinn in a lecture hall. In this and a later speech, Zinn dismisses his critics through guilt-by-association (talking about a historian who criticized his work, he haltingly begins to engage the historian's criticism and then falls back on, "He supported Nixon" and the film leaves it at that). This was the favored tactic of Zinn's more right-wing enemies ("he's a Marxist" or "he's a radical leftist" therefore his arguments must be wrong) and it's no more satisfying coming from Zinn than from them. Indeed, as the filmmakers document Zinn's dogged dedication to dissidence, they ironically display the American left's descent into something of an ideological rut.

Contrary to the teeming mass of freshly radicalized students we see in newsreel footage from the civil rights and Vietnam era, the crowds at the Iraq rallies and book presentations which close the film give the impression of having made up their mind long ago. Asked what she thought of Zinn's talk, one young woman says she liked it because "it basically confirmed everything I already thought." This is a far cry from Zinn's earlier intention to rattle the public's complacency and turn the way students and historians approached the past - and the present - on its ear. To be fair, Zinn himself did not want to preach to the converted; he's shown at one point inquiring, "Are there lots of people there who haven't made up their minds yet? 'Cause those are the people we need, the ones we want to reach." He's assured this is the case, yet in the crowds we see it looks like the usual suspects, clothed in the garb and speaking the language of the self-enclosed guardians of the flame. The heirs of the New Left are no longer new, and their world has become as sterile and fixed as that their progenitors rebelled against.

Anyway, to the end Zinn remains a charismatic presence - and the film, narrated by Matt Damon (who famously name-dropped his Cambridge neighbor in Good Will Hunting), is most successful at giving that presence a channel through which to communicate. Whatever his flaws, the left today could use a healthy dollop of Zinn's good humor, moral clarity, and most importantly and suprisingly, his all-Americanness. Zinn's ideal Left was less one which thrived in a brooding marginalization and alienated sense of "difference" than one which sought to demolish senses of difference, to establish an underlying humanity, and to reclaim the United States for "the people". A mere Marxist catchphrase for many (their particular misanthropy belying their vague anti-elitist rhetoric) the notion of "the people" seemed to have real meaning for Zinn. At his best - which is what I'd like to focus on here, given his recent passing and my renewed appreciation of his work - he can remind even those skeptics among us of radicalism's moral foundations, and constructive potential.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Just Another Film Buff said...

Holy Cow. This was the movie I was about to watch next. Creepy. So was the moment when I saw the post called "Goodbye, TV" just after I had watched Goodbye, Dragon Inn!

Will get back once I'm done.

MovieMan0283 said...

Instant Netflix must have some sort of mind control device installed in our computers, sending out a signal to our brains...

Just Another Film Buff said...

Wonderful review MovieMan. I thought this one really killed itself.

When the passage from the people's History was being read, they put the sales statistics of the book smack dab on the screen. How fanboyish can you get?! And sometimes I felt they were using easy potshots which Zinn might have told as a casual ice breakers to make us cheers for the film.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, JAFB. That said, after writing it, I found it was more an investigation of Zinn than a full-on review of the movie (though I tagged it as such anyway). The movie was indeed fanboyish. As for the "easy potshots"/"casual ice breakers" if that's the case they had the opposite effect of making me cheer for the film - shouldn't they have been building up Zinn's intellectual credentials (supposedly he was an excellent debater) rather than making him look like another reflexive ideologue, which was what those very critics claimed? But they did capture his charisma, though I suppose it would be hard not to.

In light of the conversations I've been having with Stephen about best vs. favorite, good vs. "liked", docs like this are a good example. They convey information I'm interested in, and even if they don't do a very good job of it, I still enjoy myself. I couldn't in any respects call this good filmmaking but once they chose their subject I was hooked. That's why that distinction is important to me.

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