"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Saturday, January 30, 2010

You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train! Thank You Howard Zinn.


Judging by the State of the Union (as evidenced by current events and President Obama's recent address) the United States is indeed, as many claim, a Christian nation.  This is evidenced by our devout leaders constantly calling on the protection of Our Lady of Perpetual War, the patron saint of the Military-Industrial Complex.  For anyone who still harbored any hope that Obama might lead us to the Promised land, those hopes should have been soundly dashed as he uttered the words "national security" during his State of the Union address.  He essentially sealed the coffin on people's hopes of "change we can believe in", if by that we think of reducing the role of the military (and its associated spending), increasing humanistic diplomacy and foreign assistance, and increasing spending on "entitlements" such as education, health care, social security and critical infrastructure.

Of course, it would be too easy to blame Obama for this entire mess, but he is really just another in a long line of Presidents, each of whom has continued building this house of cards for most of our nation's history.  We should know that we cannot rely on Presidents to change a system over which even they now have little real control. Nearly every member of Congress is beholden to one or more corporate interests.  Many, if not most, of those in other important positions in Washington got there through the revolving governmental-corporate doors.  And now, the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, with which we bestow the ultimate care of those documents on which our nation's foundation rests, have given away the farm (or should I say "foundation" to corporate, moneyed interests.

It should be obvious to each of us now that the people's interests mean little to those in whom we have given far too much of our trust.  It should be evident that we cannot trust our elected leaders to make sound decisions without our oversight and involvement.  And it should be obvious that we cannot trust what our elected (and appointed) leaders tell us because, as journalist I.F Stone used to tell journalism students, "GOVERNMENTS LIE."  These were, according to Stone, the only two words they needed to remember from their time with him.

Although Stone was speaking to students of journalism, those two words apply to every citizen.  We must question everything presented by our government, and test it for truth.  To do so requires more than just critical thinking skills; it requires a depth of knowledge of history, and not just the history that we are commonly taught in school (the history that is written by the victors) but the history beneath the thin veneer of the party line.

The recent death of historian Howard Zinn made me realize how few historians have dared to challenge (as did Zinn) the historical status quo that gives students a single, homogenous narrative that holds up a system that works to sustain itself rather than the spiritual, physical and economic well-being of its people.  Of course, the writing of history is not a purely objective undertaking.  As Zinn himself admits,
I knew that a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit.  And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian. (source: A People's History of the United States)
What is unique about Zinn is that he was much more than a mere historian; he believed that he could help people (particularly his history students) be:
not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.  This of course, was a recipe for trouble. (from: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train)
In testing what we are told, or what we read about historical or current events, we must hold them up to a strong, critical light and test them for truth, using all the tools at our disposal.  And then, it is up to each of us to decide what we do with that information that we derive from such a critical analysis.  It may seem daunting to even begin to stand up to a system dominated by military power, corporate wealth and an antiquated political system, but we should always remember that we have power, should we choose to exercise it.  In his book, A People's History..., Zinn closes with the last lines from a poem by Shelley, written after the massacre carried out by the British government at Peterloo, Manchester in 1819.  Even without rest of the poem (which is powerful) these word carry Zinn's message:

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.'
Indeed - We are many, they are few.  Let us (as Zinn said) not only be better informed, but use that knowledge to speak out against injustice and for a better world.  There is strength in our numbers if we choose to be in solidarity.  As Zinn's book says, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train", particularly one that is heading for disaster.  We can get this train on a different (and sustainable) track.  Thank you Howard Zinn.  We will miss you, but your works live on!



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