Annoyed Librarian
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Get Rid of Ideas

Most of the time it’s not fair to compare contemporary American politicians to Nazis. That’s a sort of easy out for leftists who think anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is unconscionable. Sometimes, though, it starts to make a little sense.

For example, a state representative in Arkansas has introduced a bill to ban books by Howard Zinn from any use in the curriculum. That’s really specific, but the intention seems obvious: to eliminate political views the guy disagrees with from the schools.

And Zinn might be the only leftist historian the guy has ever heard of, since progressive historiography probably isn’t a hobby of his.

Fortunately, the bill doesn’t require students to actively burn books by Zinn, but the intent isn’t much different from Nazi book burnings in the 1930s. “The books targeted for burning were those viewed as being subversive or as representing ideologies opposed to Nazism. These included books written by Jewish, pacifist, Religious, classical liberal, anarchist, socialist, and communist authors, among others.”

Considering that Zinn was Jewish and “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist,” the Nazis would be targeting his books as well if they were still in charge. Fortunately for them, there’s an Arkansas state representative ready to take up their cause.

I’m assuming Zinn’s politics are the reason his books are being targeted, but who knows for sure. After all, this is the same guy who a few years ago referred to New York Senator Chuck Shumer as “that Jew.” Accounts are vague about whether he also called him “the senator from Jew York.”

His explanation was somewhat baffling: “I was attempting to explain that unlike Sen. Schumer, I believe in traditional values, like we used to see on ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’”

That makes a little bit of sense, because anti-Semitism and suppressing dissenting voices probably were traditional values in small North Carolina towns in the 1960s. I’m sure we can all recall Aunt Bee’s frequent ranting about “Jews and commies” as she serves Andy and Opie some American apple pie.

The representative presumably wants to make America, or at least Arkansas, great again, and thinks a good way to do that is through banning books by a Jewish leftist from the schools.

Given that Arkansas is one of the poorest and least educated states in the country, one might think the legislator would want children to read at all, not be trying to ban books.

If the intent is to make sure students are never exposed to any ideas, there are probably easier ways. Maybe he could introduce a bill banning reading instruction entirely. Instead of reading books or discussing ideas, the students could just watch episodes of The Andy Griffith Show everyday.

Banning reading entirely is the best way to keep students from ideas and to completely disempower them, but there might be times when the state would want at least some literate people, if only to draft laws banning ideas, so that might not be an option.

If you object to students being confronted with a range of ideas and facts, you’re not really interested in education, so maybe the schools could change into something else, indoctrination camps maybe. When it comes to teaching history, a lot of schools are already well on their way.

Then Arkansas wouldn’t even need a pretext to suppress ideas, because there wouldn’t be any to suppress. The students could read nothing but David Barton and David Irving for history class. If those are too sophisticated for the students, they can just read those Rush Limbaugh history books for children over and over.

That way they could grow up with all the critical sophistication of that Ancient Aliens guy, which would be perfect for politicians who want gullible, ignorant citizens. What better way to make sure Arkansas remains among the poorest and least educated states in the country. After all, that’s tradition.

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  1. The cry of censorship continues to be very situational and opportunistic (and ever will be, I imagine). There are plenty of academic historians – even some who emerged from the same radical crucible as Zinn, and most of whom, it is axiomatic, are liberal-leaning – who are dismayed that the “People’s History” has entered the curriculum. This is mostly a matter of pedagogy. The state of Arkansas need never spend a dime on it, and it will still be readily available by the boatload, in libraries and used book stores.

    From the National Review – why, no, it’s the New Republic, that bastion of mainstream liberalism! – comes a good overview of opinion: https://newrepublic.com/article/112574/howard-zinns-influential-mutilations-american-history. My favorite sentence: “He wrote a creditable dissertation, on Fiorello La Guardia, which is still occasionally cited by scholars and which would constitute Zinn’s only sustained engagement with archival documents.”

    With regard to your reference to the British Holocaust-denier David Irving as somehow the leftist Zinn’s opposite, presumably you mean to suggest Irving is a gadfly, or problem personality, of the right. Do explain: why would he be, exactly? The most well-known – and prominently-placed – anti-Semite in the Anglophone world right now is the head of the UK’s Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn.

    This almost does a disservice to Zinn. But thank heavens Irving enjoys no support – only the notoriety of the demented – on the right or anywhere else, comparable to the bestselling “People’s History.” Understand, though, that a mere polemicist like Zinn makes the space in which a nut like David Irving can flourish to the extent that he does. See for instance http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Wineburg.pdf for a briefly-stated but excellent point on Zinn’s deliberate fuzziness about the timeline of the war, in support of his cherished moral equivalence between England and Germany. This may be something of which you approve, but it is not the practice of the discipline of history. Consensus may not necessarily belong in textbooks, but scholarship does.

    • So you support this bill then?

    • Of course says:

      … in a sane world there would be no reason for politicians to ever stick their noses in schoolbooks. But were that bill filed in my statehouse, it would raise no objection from me – it would be very far from the most idiosyncratic offering, from either side of the aisle, amid the tedious, regularly-scheduled political battle over the huge and unnecessary (does geometry change that much from year to year?) state expenditure on “instructional materials” most of which if it were all thrown in the ocean would result in an immediate net gain in education.

      And the good news is, you can lose Zinn and keep in the curriculum the conviction of the automatic, birthright superiority of present-day people over past people, which precedes “The People’s History” and has been safely canonical my whole lifetime. Recall that scene in “Dazed and Confused,” where the teacher calls out on the last day of school, hey, this summer, when you’re celebrating the Fourth of July, just remember you’re celebrating the fact that a bunch of rich white guys didn’t want to pay their taxes? That movie was set in 1976.

    • Yeah, c’mon…pointing out Zinn’s poor scholarship when censorship of him is proposed is a bit like focusing on what a dirty goddam phony Holden Caulfield is when parents try to have The Catcher in the Rye removed: probably true, not all that relevant.

    • So it’s being removed from the library, not simply the curriculum? … maybe I misread – or, more probably, the word “banned” has shifted yet again. I’m cool with that! But it’s a shame Zinn didn’t live to see the tempest. How he would have loved it, surely much more than he could have loved his book being bought by the forklift-load by the State … because when the State began disseminating it in its compulsory high schools, surely it kind of lost its suppressed, subversive “People’s History” cachet … and became agitprop?

      The mention of C in the R is very apposite! Are they really still “teaching” it? I hope not. That would be kind of sad. Whatever its period Horn & Hardart-type charms, or attraction for a particular sort of sensitive kid, it can hardly bear the strain of a goddam phony book report. It’s that magic “Banned Book” status, despite the book being so omnipresent most of us could recreate the cover from memory, that has kept it alive and mainstream. (A glance at PW’s 1951 bestsellers – two live on as late movies, probably unread – and the rest you’ve never heard of.) All those reprintings: I imagine publishers wished they could figure out the goddam formula – they couldn’t have orchestrated it better.

  2. mud fence says:

    J-Rho, Catcher is Fiction. People’s History is cataloged as nonfiction. I don’t believe in banning the book; however, professional librarians have always judged scholarship and research in purchasing decisions. Zinn’s scholarship sucks. Actually, it could be purchased if cataloged as fiction.

    Yep, the day is coming when the subject of history will be history. Everyone wants their own version of past events. We all got/get screwed at some point. Move on.

    • Bill ain’t about library purchasing decisions, though, is it? It’s about educational curriculum. And I would bet my last rich-dead-white-slave-owning-president-bill that it’s not his scholarship the state senator objects to, but his political opinions (which, yeah, People’s History is basically an op-ed rather than a history book, but that isn’t relevant.)

    • anonymous coward says:

      J-Rho,

      Of course the fact that it’s an op ed being taught as fact is relevant. Especially since it’s a political opinion piece being taught as fact. How can that NOT be relevant?

  3. mud fence says:

    I’d weed or not purchase the book based upon poor research and scholarship. the fact that the legislator probably wants the book withdrawn because of differing politics doesn’t make the book automatically untouchable. It’s a turd being taught as history. The freaking board that developed the curriculum should not have added it in the first place and now that they know they have a turd in their hand, they should pull it. That’s not censorship; that’s and intelligent decision making.

    Short answer: it doesn’t matter what the reason is for calling a turd a turd. What matters is what one decides to do about a turd once it’s been identified.

  4. It’s not relevant because it’s not about the value of the book, it’s about suppressing any opinion contrary to the triumphalist pro-State narrative of history. Or such is my take on the state senator’s motivation, and (I am guessing) AL’s as well, given the tone of her original article.

    Note that AL’s phrasing was that the book is banned from “any use” at all. I wouldn’t want to see it used as a the sole history book for a course, but to ban any use of it, period? That doesn’t strike you guys as direct censorship?

    Regarding the actual merits of People’s History, it’s an op-ed, okay, but it’s just sloppy in its generalizations, it’s not like it’s chock full of nothing but direct factual inaccuracies. It IS a decent summary of the kind of things that get left out of the contemptible American exceptionalist viewpoint that dominates (or perhaps, if we want to be charitable, once dominated) standard public school history textbooks. Although I prefer James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me for that purpose, seeing as how it’s directly stated to be a corrective supplement rather than purporting to be a full history book in and of itself like People’s History does. Perhaps I’m letting my own political views color this, being “something of an anarchist and something of a socialist” myself, but I don’t think so, and I have serious trouble seeing the bill as anything other than the senator trying to suppress political views he disagrees with, and meanwhile, by the way, interfering with the already limited autonomy of public school history teachers to arrange their curricula how they think is best, which you’d think that people like him would be all for. (How many leftist schoolteachers can there be in Arkansas, anyway? Guessing not many.)

    @perri: I don’t know if they’re still teaching Catcher in the Rye. I’m about 18 years out of high school, meself. I imagine they are, somewhere. “Period piece” is quite an astute summary. My take is that it’s big contribution was helping to define the notion of a teenager as a distinct mental state, and that’s kinda not super relevant anymore. Order of the Stick creator Rich Burlew put it best: “The main point of Catcher in the Rye was that being a teenager is a confusing time when you don’t really know what’s going on, and you can’t rely on adults to give you the answers because it turns out that being an adult is really just about learning to live with the fact that no one has the answers. That’s pretty much it. But that was incredibly revolutionary at the time—so much so that you could easily argue that our society’s entire conception of “teenagehood” as a thing that happens between childhood and adulthood with its own unique challenges is rooted in that single observation that no one was making before then. And this is now such a commonly accepted premise that you can hear it being parroted on Disney Channel shows for “tweens” ten times a day. It’s not new anymore, which means that if you’re not approaching the book with the proper context, it seems like a fairly dull story in which nothing much happens to a not-especially-likable main character.”

    • @J-Rho: It’s been over thirty years since I read his books, which seem like one book, and I wouldn’t have – and couldn’t have – read for mighty theme anyway (the attraction would have been, one, NEW YORK, which loomed large in my suburban imagination; and 2) whatever I could glean toward my confused efforts at personality creation – a cat named Esme, when I believed I was living in “squalor,” was the chief result). All I seem to remember is Holden Caulfield’s being moved to tears when he looked at his little sister in her fuzzy pajamas. Add to that only my notion of Salinger’s bio, that he was a fretful and desperate, and yes, rather clueless, “seeker” for the remainder of his life.

      So, while I am certain curricular inclusion and classroom dissection is absurd to the point of witlessness (sadly, it doesn’t even amount to phoniness) for a book like “Catcher,” I’m in no position to say whether there’s so little to it that it must answer for annoying TV tweens and the general elevation of teenagers in the culture. But I can see that it’s the path of least resistance for the curriculum to ignore the approx. 3500 years’ worth of answers, and go straight to teaching teenagers that they stand, amid the anomie, at the center of things in a place of world-weary purity. Never mind that it’s wholly ignorant and unearned – it certainly makes quick work of “education.”

      And something like “The People’s History” perfectly plays a similar role: with the strange contortions it must go to, to explain how all advances through all of human history (details, schmetails) are somehow the work not of their ostensible authors, whatever their human frailties, but of the 20th-century labor and civil rights movements, which apparently had a time machine. Which they alone invented. Something not even Marx would have argued on behalf of the proles, so Zinn fails even on that count.

      But I concede that “The People’s History” really is perfectly matched to the times, and the seemingly-unquenchable thirst for self-righteousness. It is thus far beyond “censorship.” This Arkansas legislator’s quixotic but noble quest to rid the schools of it, is what will be suppressed in a New York minute.

  5. mud fence says:

    Well Perri and @j-Rho, the only thing I can say is that I am truly impressed with the depth of your knowledge and the clarity with which you communicate. I could read the back and forth between you two for days. I mean it.

    I’m a mental midget compared to you folks. I’d compare myself more to Mr. Mackey on South Park. “It’s bad, OK.” Thanks.

    Perri, like you I do believe our culture is full of people with an unquenchable thirst for self-righteousness. That’s a keeper.

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