June 11, 2012

You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train

Howard Zinn

Larger view available on The WoN Cinema (1:17:25)
Desmond Tutu said: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chose the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
My last post (also a documentary) briefly referred to Howard Zinn. Zinn was a powerful influence when questioning everything I'd been taught or told about life, religion, about history, about gender roles. This was in my mid-thirties when two teenagers could wash their clothes, fix burritos, and make their beds. Their independence freed me from time-consuming tasks, inviting self-questioning.

The scary thing is that when your urge-to-grow questions the status quo (which was pretty nice overall, safe and comfy) things change. Assumptions change. You change. And when you change, the family system is affected and shifts to accommodate your change. If they can't meet you where you're at (or don't want to), they might change by changing partners. So questioning the status quo comes with risks either way. The risk of stagnation if you don't; or the risk of divorce if you do. Stick with your process. Accept divorce as a gift. I write this to underscore how frightening it is when the urge to grow arrives and we know that our change will not be met with grace and approval. 

Much of what was discovered during my transition had been covered up for the sake of expediency.  My life was nice. Its not like I was miserable. I was fine. Had a nice house, a reliable spouse, a couple of smart kids, very exceptionally nice friends, and a finely-clipped topiary garden. How nice! When secure enough to dismantle wobbly assumptions and unquestioned beliefs, I stopped being neutral on my moving train of Niceness and the first task bubbling to the surface of consciousness was patriarchy. My family was patriarchal but what about other organizations? The truth is that once you see something you didn't want to know about oppression, you can't help but raise your dainty hammer at Mount Rushmore, Politics and Power.

I was primed though the accumulation of life experiences to broaden my mind, questioning what culture and family expected me to believe. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't welcome. It was an act of self-assertion requiring a new hierarchy of care: putting myself at the top of the NEEDS list. Which would be a huge concern were a narcissistic pathology threatening my delicate balance between self-and-other concern. When narcissism hinders self-development, all that matters is yourself. Well, I don't even know how to think like that so before anyone assumes my familial responsibilities were ignored, nix that idea! It's impossible to ignore communal concerns in service of the self only if you aren't narcissistic. Instead, you deftly do double-time because serving yourself at the expense of others means you won't like YOU at the end of the journey and what would be the point if you destroyed your relationships? It would be a short trip through self-indulgence without any gains in self-awareness, self-respect, self-esteem, OR the next stage of your life: generativityThat's my short essay on Midlife Transitions that are maturational, not narcissistic. 

During this phase, in the late eighties and early nineties, I discovered great thinkers with high integrity (not like some of the stinking thinkers today who are mercenary egotists grabbing power and money). One of these influential people was Howard Zinn to whom I am indebted for freeing my mind from conditioned obedience. Speak up, he encouraged. Learn your history beyond the glorified war generals and territorial flags raised. What was happening to society? After reading A People's History of the United States I enrolled in women-focused classes at our local college where we studied the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire omitted from prior history classes. What else had been omitted? I couldn't help but wonder. Get a woman wondering and who knows what else she might question? ha! See? A dangerous man he was, that activist Howard Zinn.

Zinn said he'd like to be remembered, "for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality," and "for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women's movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it." He said he wanted to be known as "somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before."

Howard Zinn's inclusion of women's history connected me to a greater story, re-storying a sense of power in my life. One of hope, of truth, and one of social responsibility.

Part One: A conversation between Howard Zinn and Woody Harrelson
Part Two    Part Three    Part Four    Part Five    Part Six 

Zinn said he appreciates celebrity figures using their influence to speak out as citizens. Some of you might  discount celebrities as political activists, a fully understandable opinion on a blog about narcissism. However, this six-part series of ten-minute videos is informative and entertaining. (The picture is terrible but the audio is fine!)



  1. never much liked jumping off -- or onto -- moving trains -- yeah.I'm kinda until the last wheel turns kinda gal LOL -- you just gave me cosmic clarity! I do like your thinking! And I do like Howard Zinn!

    thanks my friend.

    1. Cosmic clarity?! Gosh, i'm feeling so special now!

      Zinn was an amazing man. Whether people agreed with his views or not, he lived by his beliefs and he lived to improve people's lives, NOT just his own!

      He reminds me how shallow I can be sometimes. How narcissistic I can be...as if my sacrifice "speaking out" is equal to the sacrifices leaders like himself have made. I wonder to myself, "Would I create this blog if it meant going to jail?"

      We have relative security voicing our opinions. Posting a message about my admiration for Howard Zinn only concerned me for a brief minute or two.

      Sure, there are people who have demonized Zinn and they'll accuse me of being a liberal femi-nazi socialist and I won't like that very much and I won't appreciate reading edicts from people who consider themselves more righteous than I, smarter and wiser than I. People who have never read a word by Howard Zinn, consider themselves experts on his character. ARGH!

      He inspired me to speak up and stand by my beliefs. But I won't risk going to jail...nor being hit in the head by police...nor will I sacrifice tenure at University because of my beliefs.

      This is not to diminish the fear we face when Standing Up and Breaking the Silence. There will be consequences for doing that...but usually WE Get Better. There's a healing reward and tremendous relief when we speak up. It's self-rewarding, more so than speaking up for others.

      It is inspiring to see someone fully dedicated to equality and justice. He not only empathized with the marginalized people of the USA, he was morally compelled to do something. Yes...he was a remarkable man who touched many people's lives whether or not they realize the difference he made in the way we view history today.

      Glad you stopped by...tell your daughter to 'break a leg!'


  2. I'm finally home after an extended trip to the Midwest and am making the rounds of all my favorite blogs. When my son visited from Idaho, one of the few things he found that he wanted to take with him was his copy of A People's History of the United States. It's MUST reading for anyone who thinks that they know history. When I lived in NYC, I walked by where the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire happened and stopped to read the plaque. How could I have not known that this happened? Once I knew that, it made me wonder about all of the things that I didn't yet know. Questioning long-help assumptions is viewed by some as heresy - for others, it's about kicking down the doors and letting light shine into the dark corners.

    1. Hi Jan! Hope you had a nice trip to the midwest. AND, I hope you post about it! (LOVED your story about living in Mexico).

      What is interesting being older now, is that younger generations have no idea how much of history was omitted from our education. Zinn has had a HUGE impact on the 'telling' of history and unless someone is older, they may not realize they're receiving the benefit of Zinn's activism. Zinn was one of the first to write about 'small pox' infected blankets given to the native Americans. Now my nephew knows about it because his high school teacher taught this to the class. That's certainly NOT the good guy/bad guy version we got in high school!

      I found a documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and will post it soon. This was an important event in women's history and I did not even know about it until taking women's studies classes.

      By the way, my son took women's history classes too and he says that was the ONLY time he enjoyed history. What was happening to the people...it's such a shock when you realize history has come to mean: WAR. How many and with whom and why and who won. It's strange that I was so programmed to think of history that way that I didn't even question why were weren't learning about the significant changes in society because of automatic washing machines, and canning food products and what women were feeding their children after they'd worked 12 hours (without breaks) in the textile mills.

      You can't help but see Narcissism in the recording of history. We focus on the celebrities and not The People. In other words, we focus on who has the 'right' to determine what's important and what isn't. It reminds me an awful lot of my marriage as retold by the General and not his troops. Ha!



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