The Defenders of Daniels

Mitch Daniels’ attacks on the teaching of Howard Zinn have drawn widespread condemnation, even from the critics of Zinn that Daniels cited, and the conservative editor of Minding the Campus, John Leo (who condemned “politicians using their power to determine the curriculum or impose a version of history they happen to agree with”). But a few soldiers in the culture wars have resolutely stood up in defense of Daniels, although the arguments they make seem to undermine Daniels.

Roger Kimball, author of the classic right-wing book Tenured Radicals, applauds “Mitch Daniels’s effort to depoliticize the university system in Indiana — a task that, given the ideological complexion of American higher education, meant showing leftists (the AP calls them ‘liberal,’ but actually they are illiberal leftists) the door.” Ah, yes, damn those “illiberal leftists” who resist being tossed out the door. If, as Kimball claims, Daniels really is trying to banish leftists from Indiana colleges, then his attacks on academic freedom are even worse than what’s been revealed so far.

Kimball defends Daniels against the charge of censorship, arguing, “Note well, Daniels doesn’t say Zinn’s book oughtn’t to be allowed to be published. He doesn’t want to censor the book. He merely says it shouldn’t be taught as history.”

Kimball here defines “censorship” as a ban on publication by the government, so he would not regard the governor banning a book from all public schools (or, say, all public libraries) as “censorship.” I hope most people have enough sense to disagree. There are different degrees of censorship, and although the actual prohibition of a book’s publication by the government is the worst, it is surely not the only kind of censorship. My proof of this comes from a guy named Roger Kimball.

Just four months ago, Kimball wrote a column (titled “Annals of censorship”) declaring that the “most effective” form of “censorship” occurs not by government prohibition, but when society is “propagating an atmosphere of revulsion and taboo.” As an example, Kimball complained about the “the conspiracy of silence that has surrounded the subject of the President’s place of birth.” In this case, Kimball argues for a definition of censorship much broader than I would ever endorse, where mere criticism and ridicule enforce a “conspiracy of silence.” And he does so in defense of a conspiracy theory so stupid that it makes anything Zinn writes seem like the pinnacle of truth and reason. So, if making brainless crackpots feel bad about their nutty obsession with Obama’s birth certificate is “censorship,” then having a governor order his minions to make sure a particular book is not allowed in schools certainly must qualify as censorship.

Comparing Zinn’s work to Holocaust deniers, Ronald Radosh argues: “one should not debate such a purveyor of untruth, and thus give legitimacy and credibility to unscientific and false arguments that have no merit whatsoever.” To put Zinn’s work in the same category as Holocaust deniers requires such complete dishonesty and irrationality that it must cause us to distrust Radosh’s judgment. Does Radosh seriously believe that every single thing Zinn writes about is the equivalent of Holocaust denial? I wrote a book criticizing Rush Limbaugh, explaining in detail why he was wrong. Limbaugh’s factual errors and conspiracy theories go far beyond anything Zinn’s critics have alleged. Yet I would never compare Limbaugh to a Holocaust denier or call for the government to censor him.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, defends Daniels against the charge of censorship by claiming that it’s perfectly normal for governors to seek out a prohibition in schools on books they don’t like. I’m dumbfounded at the fact that Wood sees “no bright-line distinction” between a governor working with professional educators to create broad state standards, and a governor wanting to secretly order a statewide ban on the teaching of a book, even in post-graduate classes for teachers.

Wood argues that one line from Daniels denouncing the “anti-American” Zinn “shows that he has a pretty clear grasp of both American history and Mr. Zinn’s book.” Really? Does it even show that Daniels ever read Zinn’s book (a question that Daniels hasn’t answered)? If Wood doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, it shows how little this debate is about academic standards, and how much it is about political standards. If Wood thinks that one line can prove Daniels has a deep understanding of an entire book, let alone the entirety of American history, it shows that Wood simply supports Daniels’ ideological viewpoint.

Wood ends his essay by endorsing the firing of any teacher who thinks Zinn’s book is worthy of being taught. If you think this is an unfair criticism, just read the part where Wood condemns “anyone who believes that real academic freedom is consistent with using A People’s History of the United States as a text in anything other than a course on how propaganda works.” Note what Wood says: If “real” academic freedom is incompatible with using Zinn’s book unless you’re condemning it, then no one should be allowed to support Zinn’s ideas or even take them seriously as an interpretation that deserves to be analyzed. And if you don’t have academic freedom to teach Zinn, then you can be fired for doing it.

This attack on the idea of academic freedom is also embraced by Kimball, who argues, “The very limitation of academic freedom is part of its strength. By excluding the political, it makes room for the pursuit of truth.” This is the ultimate Orwellian claim: a political act by a politician seeking to ban a political viewpoint he dislikes is, according to Kimball and his ideological friends, an effort to defend academic freedom from political intrusions.

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