Former governor and current Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ forlorn and tragicomic attempt to censor the use of liberal historian Howard Zinn’s works from being used in our public schools is an experiment in retelling a censorship story in the face of published emails he wrote. But, as usual, some shame-faced editors of newspapers try to defend this despicable act of censorship. Why? They share the same ideology as Daniels and Tony Bennett.
What did Daniels do as governor and currently is defending as president of Purdue? He isn’t interested in just changing the way liberal historians write history; he wants to use right-wing historians to retell the ugly parts of our history to change our minds about what actually happened to what should have happened, as he sees it.
Consider the loupe-eyed precision with which he judges both Zinn and his work. In Daniels’ 2010 emails to Hoosier education leaders, including his bud (Tony Bennett), he called Zinn “anti-American.” In describing Zinn’s “A People History of the United States,” he wrote: “It’s a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”
This snippet is supposed to be proof-positive that Zinn is a liar; it’s like a Goya etching in prose for the right. It has a maddeningly slippery quality. It cloaks itself in an aura of limpid virtuous purity. But beneath that cloak, things get murky because in presenting his bias as he does, Daniels is making an argument that he doesn’t explicitly make. Does he really believe as he seems to that Zinn and his works are on a moral continuum with Nazi genocide? His emails while governor are probably more telling of his bias than now as president of Purdue.
Trying to limit what middle-school students or Purdue students can learn about the past, especially the ugly parts, only keeps them ignorant for the future. Should Daniels protect Purdue students from the words of Gandhi who said, “Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing? The difference is only one of degree?”
Daniels’ Purdue sin is to stick by his statements that Zinn’s book portrayed an inaccurate account of American history. That is, he has committed rhetorical violence against the facts.
But facts don’t speak for themselves. They require context and interpretation. That’s a very good reason why we need historians.
Daniels should sway partisanship for leadership of a research university where scholarly discourse and debate is central to what Purdue does.