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By Michael Kazin
Michael Kazin’s critique of Howard Zinn was cited by Purdue President Mitch Daniels in response to the controversy over Gov. Daniels’ emails attacking Zinn. Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent magazine, wrote this reaction to the issue.
I don’t know if Daniels should be fired, but I agree that he should be roundly condemned for his attempts to stop students from reading Zinn’s big book and for calling Zinn a liar, whose work is comparable to the Protocols (a purposeful fiction depicted as fact) or Lysenkoism (bad science, motivated by dogmatic materialism, which set back Soviet agriculture for many years).
I don’t think much of Zinn’s interpretation of US history, it’s true. But it’s an interpretation, which like any serious work of history, chooses to emphasize certain themes and details in order to make a larger argument. I would be unhappy if Zinn’s book were the only or even the main text in a high-school or college history class (as I understand is sometimes the case). But chapters of it can be quite useful if contrasted with alternative interpretations.
When Daniels accuses Zinn of being a “biased writer,” he just shows how little he understands about how history is now and has always been written. Every historian has a point of view about whichever portion of the past they choose to study. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place. Zinn’s point of view is more driven by a desire to inspire his fellow leftists, instead of to make them think about the complexities of the past, than I would like. But I could list many other works of history — by conservatives, liberals, and radicals — which were also written to advance a political cause.