Moral Low Ground


Republican Lawmaker Kim Hendren Introduces Bill to Ban Howard Zinn in Arkansas Schools

A Republican state lawmaker in Arkansas has introduced a bill that would ban books written by the late historian Howard Zinn from the state’s public schools.

The Arkansas Times reports state Rep. Kim Hendren, a Republican, introduced House Bill 1834, “an act to prohibit a public district or open charter school from including in its curriculum or course materials for a program or study books or any other material authored by or concerning Howard Zinn.” Zinn, who died in 2010, was a World War II bombardier-turned anti-war historian, playwright, social activist, professor and best-selling author of the highly influential — and controversial — A People’s History of the United States, as well as many other books including A Young People′s History of the United States and the graphic history A People’s History of the American Empire.

First published in 1980, A People’s History of the United States focuses largely on the struggles of oppressed and marginalized populations throughout the nation’s history. It has sold over two million copies and was nominated for the National Book Award, and is required reading in many high schools and universities. A People’s History has stoked intense debate, with critics often accusing Zinn of revisionism. The book has informed — and created — countless progressives, inspiring everyone from Barack Obama to Matt Damon. Alice Walker, the National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, said Zinn “had such a wonderful impact on my life and on the lives of the students of Spelman,” the historically black women’s college in Atlanta where he taught her and others during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

A People’s History of the United States opens with an account from Christopher Columbus’ own diary of the first contact between his gold-obsessed conquistadors and the indigenous Arawak people they “discovered” upon landing in the Bahamas. “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn,” the celebrated explorer with a US holiday named after him wrote. “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

While criticizing A People’s History for reflecting “a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience,” New York Times reviewer and future Columbia University historian Eric Foner wrote in 1980 that “Zinn’s chapter on Vietnam — bringing to life once again the free-fire zones, secret bombings, massacres and cover-ups — should be required reading for a new generation of students.” Harvard historian Oscar Handlin had nothing nice to say about the book, writing that Irish author “Brendan Behan once observed that whoever hated America hated mankind, and hatred of mankind is the dominant tone of Zinn’s book… He lavishes indiscriminate condemnation upon all the works of man — that is, upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks.”

Zinn dismissed such criticism throughout the latter decades of his life. “Our nation had gone through an awful lot — the Vietnam War, civil rights, Watergate — yet the textbooks offered the same fundamental nationalist glorification of country,” Zinn recalled in an interview with the New York Times. “I got the sense that people were hungry for a different, more honest take.”

“Should we tell kids that Columbus, whom they have been told was a great hero… mutilated Indians and kidnapped them and killed them in pursuit of gold?” Zinn asked in a 2009 Democracy Now! interview. “Should we tell people that Theodore Roosevelt, who is held up as one of our great presidents, was really a warmonger who loved military exploits and who congratulated an American general who committed a massacre in the Philippines? Should we tell young people that?”

“And I think the answer is: We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes.”

This isn’t the first time a Republican leader has attempted to ban Zinn. In 2013, then-Indiana governor Mitch Daniels sought to remove A People’s History of the United States from the state’s classrooms shortly after the author’s death, cheering that “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

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