You cannot be neutral on a moving train
Howard Zinn died a few days ago. JD Salinger too. Both were luminaries, writers who reached out beyond the scope of their own experience to millions of people. Zinn’s seminal book, A People’s History of the United States, was epic, a terrific history of a country born in blood. Zinn told it like it was; his book contained the voices of the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, and all those voiceless. Salinger, most famous for The Catcher in the Rye, told quiet truths through his fiction. While Zinn raged and roared against the system, the powers that be, Salinger cloaked his profundity in cynicism, anxiety and teenage angst. Zinn was always on the frontlines, picketing, protesting, always ready to speak out for the little guy. Salinger chose to retreat into himself; he became a hermit, distancing himself from the world at large, letting his books speak for him.
It is not my intention to compare these two. They are two very disparate people who cannot be compared. But they were both revolutionaries, thoughtful, intelligent people whose books touched a million different lives.
The Catcher in the Rye was banned initially but has since become a teenage bible of sorts. When I first read it so long ago, I was fascinated, I was captivated. Here was Holden Caulfield, I identified with him, I understood him, he was me. Salinger never flinched. His hero wasn’t typical. There were few good traits in him, he rarely did anything of merit or value, but his introspection, his understanding of how “phony” the world is, his fear of the adult world and its responsibilities all resonated with me. The book’s title comes from a wish that Holden relates to his sister Phoebe. He imagines a vast field of rye atop a cliff where children play free and whenever they near the edge and are about to fall off, he stands by to catch them. This metaphor is one that has always remained with me. Holden, for all his flaws, is beautiful. He admires children because he sees in them everything that he doesn’t in adults: kindness, generosity, freedom and genuine happiness. He doesn’t want them to grow up and become phonies. Hence, he waits for them, at the edge of that cliff, arms outstretched to catch any child who might fall off the field of innocence into that cruel, unforgiving abyss of adulthood.
Howard Zinn’s countless books, essays and writings have served a different kind of purpose. Zinn’s People’s History created a furor in the press. Told from the perspectives of the oppressed, Zinn’s history book overturned traditional accepted truths about the United States. His book exposed the cruelty, the blood and tears of countless millions, the slavery, the oppression, all that is undesirable and exempt from high school textbooks. A generation of liberal, open-minded teenage (and not-so-teenage) Americans came to see their country in a different light: that America, despite its self-stylings as the upholder of truth, freedom and justice, is a hypocrite; that America, in the past, since its inception and even now, continues to trample the poor beneath its capitalist tank treads; that America is not white but black, brown, yellow, red, and countless other colours. The passing of Howard Zinn is a sad, sad day for America. Not only an outspoken critic of American governmental policies, Zinn always put his words into action. During his time teaching, he often led his students through protests and rallies, due to which he was fired from his first teaching job. Later, at Boston University, he continued his tradition of rebellion. When he retired from teaching, in true spirit, he concluded his last class early in order to participate in a protest.
The title of Zinn’s memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”, succinctly describes his philosophy: that there the world is turning, events are happening, injustice is being committed, people are being murdered and the truth is always being hidden; in a world fraught with such complications constantly taking place, you cannot choose to ignore all that is happening around you. You cannot pretend like none of it affects you, in short, you can’t be neutral.
And so, the world has lost two important figures. I’m not as broken up about Salinger death as I am about Zinn. Salinger had already disappeared, but Zinn was always there, always prominent, always ready to speak out and stand by what he believed in. Noted professors from Cornell and other prestigious universities called his People’s History “biased” and Zinn admitted it, that it was biased but from the point of view of those about whom we never hear. He was presenting an alternative side to the history that the world accepts as true and whole. And that, I believe, is as worthy a cause as anything. I regret so much not having had the chance to see him speak. Zinn’s death brings to mind another American revolutionary who’s old, and who I need to see speak before he too passes away: Noam Chomsky.
“What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.” – Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
“Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson – that everything we do matters – is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.”
– Howard Zinn