The moving trainHoward Zinn (1922-2010) was an American historian known as “the conscience of modern U.S. history.” His life was very dramatic. After working at a Navy yard, Zinn became a bombardier in the 490th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Force fighting in Berlin, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and France.
Upon leaving the military, he returned to school at the age of 27 and became a university professor. A symbol of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, the Jewish-American intellectual fought for the human rights of African-Americans. He was imprisoned and fired from his job.
What changed him? Teaching at Spelman College, Zinn wondered why there was a 12-foot wall around the campus. The inconvenient truth that the wall was not to prevent intruders but to keep students from leaving awoke his conscience. It was 1956.
The white man who fought for the rights of black students became a historian of the African-American human rights movement. His autobiographical essay “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times” is a testimony to his belief that ignoring injustice makes one an accomplice in that injustice.
Activists like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky — and critical media including The New York Times and Washington Post — have been checks against deviation from the American mainstream. But the effects of such checks are less powerful as extremism rises. As the United States suffers from a high level of income inequality, the poor whites are championing Donald Trump and challenging many traditional values of America.
It was a good moment for Trump when the United Kingdom made the extreme decision to leave the European Union. “You’re going to have many other cases where they want to take their borders back, they want to take their money back, they want to take a lot of things back — they want to be able to have a country again,” Trump said in response. As Britain, where capitalism was born, and America, the leader of capitalism, move down the path of isolationism, they are helping destroy globalization and the open-door policies and free trade system they built.
The Japanese economy had barely been supporting itself with a very low yen. After the so-called Brexit, the value of the yen is alarmingly rising because it is considered a safe haven. That’s going to have a very bad effect. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is relieved by division in the enemy camp after his clash with the West over Ukraine and Crimea.
Xi Jinping is in a complicated situation. In terms of security, China has the upper hand as American control over Europe through the U.K. became impossible. Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia and his hidden agenda of containing China is shaken. But division in the EU and an overall economic slowdown will force China to suffer a substantial decrease in exports.
What we are witnessing today is the diastrophism of civilization as Europe, Asia and the Untied States are all swept up by the storm of Brexit. Korea is not an outsider. Because it had been the biggest beneficiary of open-door policies, globalization and free trade, the struggles of such powerful partners are ominous to Korea. As China’s exports to Europe will surely decrease, China could reduce its import of intermediary goods from Korea. The Korean economy will suffer a triple whammy when you take into account its already sluggish domestic consumption and low employment.
The most worrying sign is the polarization of wealth in our society. The unexpected outcome of the April general election was a warning from an angry public to the establishment. Leaders of the three major parties — Kim Chong-in, Chung Jin-suk and Ahn Cheol-soo — all promised to resolve the wealth imbalance. But a leadership with the willpower and ability to expand employment and welfare and reverse our low birthrate is nowhere to be found.
The Park Geun-hye administration talked about policies to raise the wages of the low-income class to attain growth through consumption. It was not effective at all. Even the solid middle classes of the U.K. and U.S. are crumbling. We cannot rule out a worst-case scenario of people rejecting the values of a community that cannot protect them.
Today, Korea is a moving train. The rich and powerful have no intention to concede their privileges, and they control politics. They admit wealth polarization and low growth are problems, but they are only interested in enriching themselves. Howard Zinn’s insight that you can’t be neutral on a running train is valid today. Where is the leadership to stop the moving train in a world of conscience, democracy and tolerance?
JoongAng Ilbo, June 29, Page 31
*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.