FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Battle Over History and Howard Zinn

Photograph Source Slobodandimitrov | CC BY 2.0

It is rare to get an intelligent, well-sourced and coherent discussion of issues today such as the role of history in education, politics and scholarship, but David Detmer of Purdue University Northwest has provided such with his new book, Zinnophobia: The Battle over History in Education, Politics and Scholarship.  Detmer has very carefully dismembered much of the right wing’s “intellectual” assault on critical scholarship.

Dr. Detmer, Professor of Philosophy, has used the attack on the historical work of the late Howard Zinn as his entrée to the discussion. And Detmer starts close to home, discussing then-Indiana governor and current President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels’, efforts to ensure that Zinn’s work not be allowed in any Indiana classroom.  In February 2010, while governor, Daniels sent e-mails to several subordinates, “to make sure that a book he did not like, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United Stateswould not be ‘in use anywhere in Indiana’” (p. 17).  Detmer used e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act by the Associated Press (AP) to examine Daniels’ deplorable behavior.

Daniels’ problem with Zinn?  The heart of it, from a Daniels’ e-mail, “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page” (18).

Once the e-mails were published by the AP, Daniels and members of his administration tried to mitigate the ensuing controversy by trying obfuscation.  To divert the attention on his efforts, Daniels referred to “Respected scholars and communicators of all ideologies agree that the work of Howard Zinn was irredeemably slanted, and unsuited for teaching to school children” (19).

Detmer has none of it:  he carefully discusses the charges and countercharges and, in this book, also examines the work of his critics, both those Daniels relies on as well as others, to examine the quality of right-wing commentary on Zinn’s thinking and his research.

He starts with Daniels:  “Notice, first, that in the initial emails, Daniels offers no evidence, argument or reasoning of any kind in support or his harsh judgment of Zinn’s work.  Nor does he engage Zinn’s text—no page numbers or specific claims or analyses are cited.”  Obviously, Detmer is not impressed:  “we demand much more of our freshman students in the papers they write for our introductory courses” (21).

Daniels will probably not get this, as the current President of Purdue University has no academic qualifications to even be appointed into this position; as Detmer notes, “[Daniels] did not have a Ph.D. or comparable research degree; he had no teaching experience; and he had never published any peer reviewed scholarly research.”  However, Daniels had an advantage with those who hired him:  “the trustees [of Purdue University] owed their own positions as trustees to him—as governor, he had appointed eight of them to the Board of Trustees, and had re-appointed the other two” (17)  But despite whatever he’s learned since becoming Purdue’s president in January 2013, it is difficult to imagine a more damning condemnation from a Faculty member, comparing Daniels’ work unfavorably to that required of freshman students in an introductory course.

Yet, as Detmer shows again and again in his consideration of Zinn’s esteemed critics—and he respectfully examines and then dissects the work of 25 of them—most of them don’t meet the standards required of Freshman students either:  so Daniels is not alone, as the people upon whom Daniels relies on in his vain effort to discredit Zinn also do an incompetent job when discussing Zinn and his work.

One can have fun reading Detmer’s intellectual devastation of Zinn’s critics—I especially appreciated his dismembering of David Horowitz’ supposed “scholarship” (pp. 271-308)—but, for me the meat of the book is in the second chapter, “Bias and Objectively in History,” where Detmer discusses Zinn’s personal and intellectual history, and his approaches to history.  This is an area where Zinn has been criticized.  Detmer explains:

Generally, the idea of ‘objectivity’ has to do with carrying out activities such as thinking and writing (activities that are subjective in the sense that they are done by subjects—that is, by humans, who have feelings, attributes, desires and biases) in a manner that is maximally faithful to the external objects with which those activities deal.  Objectivity in this sense, is most likely to be achieved when one’s conclusions are based on precise measurements, careful observations, and rigorously logical appraisals of relevant evidence—in short, on a maximally attentive and responsive engagement with the object being investigated (115-116).

While beginning here, Detmer continues, “But the tasks of the historian are very different from those of the tennis line judge, and Zinn argues that objectivity-as-neutrality is neither possible nor desirable for historians.”  He elucidates, “First, historians, unlike tennis line judges, must make decisions about what to include, what to exclude, and what to emphasize” (117).  These choices, accordingly, are based on each historian’s personal values about what is interesting or not, what is important or illuminating.

Secondly, society at any time is moving in some direction, and one can accept, acquiesce to or reject that direction.  Refusing to take sides, according to Detmer’s take on Zinn, is that “the decision to refrain from taking sides does not constitute genuine neutrality, but rather acquiescence to the status quo” (118).

After discussing this, Detmer returns to Daniels:  “We are now in a position to appreciate the jaw-dropping depths of Mitch Daniels’ intellectual dishonesty, in asserting, without any kind of explanation or qualification, that Zinn simply rejected objectivity disdainfully…” (126).  As Detmer explains, Zinn believed that “all of these tools of good scholarship,” which he had previously identified as accuracy, careful observations, precision or intellectual rigor and related efforts, “should be brought to bear on pressing social problems, even if scholarly engagement with such problems might require scholars to take sides on controversial issues” (127).  So, contrary to Daniels’ ideological assertion, Zinn’s work was thoughtful, very seriously researched, and based on serious consideration of evidence that both supported and challenged his own thinking: Howard Zinn and his work deserve respectful appreciation.

At first, however, I was critical of Detmer’s approach to Zinn’s many critics in this book, feeling like it was “overkill”; I would have suggested that he pick out three or four of the most cogent critiques and rigorously examine them—there’s no reason to have examined 25 different critics. Considering the time and energy it took Detmer to do such rigorous examination of the different critics, I can imagine him having much better things to do with his time.  Yet, in reviewing his book, I came to realize that Detmer’s target was more than just Mitch Daniels, or even these critics:  Detmer’s project was to challenge what passes for all-too-many people the cogency of current right-wing thinking in this country, whether in or out of the academy.  To say Detmer “struck gold” would be an understatement, as this book is a very closely researched and well-thought out examination of its subject in various manifestations.

In short, I think it’s fair to say that David Detmer has not only successfully defended Howard Zinn and his work, but assertively embraced Zinn’s approach to historical work.  He certainly has embraced critical thinking and sober reflection over the ideological blatherings of Zinn’s critics and their ilk.  This approach is relevant to much more than a former governor of the State of Indiana, but arguably, should be extended to the current inhabitant of the Oval Office.

More articles by:

Kim Scipes is a long-time political activist and trade unionist.  He teaches sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana.  His latest book is an edited collection titled Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization.  (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2016.)

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
August 22, 2019
George Ochenski
Breaking the Web of Life
Kenneth Surin
Boris Johnson’s Brexit Helter Skelter
Enrique C. Ochoa – Gilda L. Ochoa
It’s About Time for Ethnic Studies in Our K-12 Schools
Steve Early
A GI Rebellion: When Soldiers Said No to War
Clark T. Scott
Sanders And Bezos’s Shared, Debilitating, Basic Premise
Dan Corjescu
The Metaphysics of Revolution
Mark Weisbrot
Who is to Blame for Argentina’s Economic Crisis?
Howard Lisnoff
To Protect and Serve
Cesar Chelala
A Palestinian/Israeli Experiment for Peace in the Middle East
Binoy Kampmark
No Deal Chaos: the Brexit Cliff Face and Operation Yellowhammer
Josue De Luna Navarro
For True Climate Justice, Abolish ICE and CBP
Dean Baker
The NYT’s Upside Down Economics on Germany and the Euro Zone
August 21, 2019
Craig Collins
Endangered Species Act: A Failure Worth Fighting For?
Colin Todhunter
Offering Choice But Delivering Tyranny: the Corporate Capture of Agriculture
Michael Welton
That Couldn’t Be True: Restorying and Reconciliation
John Feffer
‘Slowbalization’: Is the Slowing Global Economy a Boon or Bane?
Johnny Hazard
In Protest Against Police Raping Spree, Women Burn Their Station in Mexico City.
Tom Engelhardt
2084: Orwell Revisited in the Age of Trump
Binoy Kampmark
Condescension and Climate Change: Australia and the Failure of the Pacific Islands Forum
Kenn Orphan – Phil Rockstroh
The Dead Letter Office of Capitalist Imperium: a Poverty of Mundus Imaginalis 
George Wuerthner
The Forest Service Puts Ranchers Ahead of Grizzlies (and the Public Interest)
Stephen Martin
Geopolitics of Arse and Elbow, with Apologies to Schopenhauer.
Gary Lindorff
The Smiling Turtle
August 20, 2019
James Bovard
America’s Forgotten Bullshit Bombing of Serbia
Peter Bolton
Biden’s Complicity in Obama’s Toxic Legacy
James Phillips
Calm and Conflict: a Dispatch From Nicaragua
Karl Grossman
Einstein’s Atomic Regrets
Colter Louwerse
Kushner’s Threat to Palestine: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
Nyla Ali Khan
Jammu and Kashmir: the Legitimacy of Article 370
Dean Baker
The Mythology of the Stock Market
Daniel Warner
Is Hong Kong Important? For Whom?
Frederick B. Mills
Monroeism is the Other Side of Jim Crow, the Side Facing South
Binoy Kampmark
God, Guns and Video Games
John Kendall Hawkins
Toni Morrison: Beloved or Belovéd?
Martin Billheimer
A Clerk’s Guide to the Unspectacular, 1914
Elliot Sperber
On the 10-Year Treasury Bonds 
August 19, 2019
John Davis
The Isle of White: a Tale of the Have-Lots Versus the Have-Nots
John O'Kane
Supreme Nihilism: the El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto
Robert Fisk
If Chinese Tanks Take Hong Kong, Who’ll be Surprised?
Ipek S. Burnett
White Terror: Toni Morrison on the Construct of Racism
Arshad Khan
India’s Mangled Economy
Howard Lisnoff
The Proud Boys Take Over the Streets of Portland, Oregon
Steven Krichbaum
Put an End to the Endless War Inflicted Upon Our National Forests
Cal Winslow
A Brief History of Harlan County, USA
Jim Goodman
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is Just Part of a Loathsome Administration
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail