It is tempting to dismiss former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ ignorant derision of the late Howard Zinn’s magnum opus, “A People’s History of The United States,” as yet another example of the maddening tendency of politicians to involve themselves in affairs about which they know very little.
Given that Daniels is now the president of Purdue University, and that he’s off to an excellent start, it should make scholars and students squirm that he once called a widely acclaimed and awarded historical text “anti-American” and “crap.” Not satisfied with simply swallowing his foot, he also, as governor, attempted to remove “A People’s History” from state college classrooms.
Howard Zinn was a man of dignity, integrity and enormous humanity. As an academic and activist, he participated in the civil rights movement for black freedom and the citizens’ campaign to end the gruesome horror show known as the war in Vietnam.
As if the millions of books he sold and millions of minds he enlivened were not enough to demonstrate his worth as a writer, thinker and agent of democracy, his scholarship received the Thomas Merton Award, the Lannan Literary Award, the Upton Sinclair Award and the Havens Center Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship.
The quality of Zinn’s work and life establishes a legacy that vastly exceeds the reach of hysterical politicians attempting to incite outrage over the possibility that not everyone demonstrates the same narrow thinking they depend on to garner votes.
Those who aren’t teaching or studying history at Purdue could still ignore the Daniels-Zinn scandal as petty, if it did not expose a hideous, open wound at the center of American ideology.
The slur “anti-American” is symptomatic of the arrested development debilitating much of U.S. culture. Can any word but “nonsense” describe the belief that an American who dedicated his life to teaching American youths, advocating for equality for African-Americans, wrestling for protections for American workers and struggling for peace for American soldiers hated his country?
The only people who could truly believe that inanity are those who equate the American people with the policies of the American government and who relegate patriotism to a catatonic gaze locked into a state of childlike simplicity and awe.
The reason that Zinn’s work is “controversial” is because it puts, up front and center, the victims of U.S. government atrocities — Native Americans at the country’s founding, slaves throughout its construction, peasants during its development and veterans after its conquests.
Mitch Daniels and others on the right who most thunderously denounce Zinn and label other critics as “anti-American” desire “small” government. There is no better argument for small government than an enumeration of the injustices visited upon the lives of millions by large government.
The inability of many worriers who warn of impending “tyranny” to acknowledge the actual examples of tyrannical oppression and violence in American history is one that will forever mystify even the sharpest observers.
Beyond the hypocrisy and contradictions await unavoidable questions pertaining to the idea of education and the nature of democracy.
Do Daniels and his allies have such low regard for American college students that he believes they are incapable of considering a particular interpretation of their nation’s history and formulating independent judgments?
When I was a senior in high school, my history teacher assigned passages from Howard Zinn’s book. After 12 years of learning a historical analysis that treats America as infallible, we were more than curious — and prepared — for a different take. Some students liked it and others did not. Absorbing information and making decisions based on it, and then discussing those decisions with people who disagree, is the function of education and the privilege of a free society.
“A People’s History of The United States” teaches that our free society is responsible for much brutality and beauty. The conflict makes the story more interesting, not less, and rather than inculcating hostility against one’s country, it leads to the cultivation of the deep, mature and honest patriotism necessary for recognizing and — with work, luck and patience — solving our biggest problems.