Lynne Cheney: Book Burner?


Mr. Ross is chairman of the history department at the University of Southern California and author of Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton University Press).

One of the marks of authoritarian regimes is their effort to stop the spread of knowledge and free speech. In May 1933, Nazi sympathizers in Berlin burned 20,000 "degenerate" books, many of them written by Jews and anti-fascists such as Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka. Here at home, slaveholders were so frightened by the power of the word that throughout the antebellum South legislatures made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write.

Now, Lynne Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney's wife and the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has placed herself in the company of dictators and slaveholders. At her urging, the Education Department destroyed more than 300,000 copies of a booklet designed to help parents and children learn more about America's past.

Cheney objected to the booklet's reference to the National Standards for History, guidelines for teaching history in secondary schools that were developed at UCLA in the 1990s and that suggest that American history should be taught with an eye not only to America's successes but to its struggles and dark moments as well.

Cheney could learn important lessons from the kind of history she apparently finds so un-American.

One is that the lines between authoritarianism and democracy have never been as sharply drawn as we might think. In his latest novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth describes what the United States might have been like if voters had spurned Franklin D. Roosevelt and elected Charles A. Lindbergh, an anti-Semite and admirer of Adolf Hitler, as their president in 1940. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here presented a scenario in which newly elected President Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, the demagogic darling of big business and religious extremists, stripped Americans of their rights, destroying the power of the legislature and judiciary and installing a fascist dictatorship.

What was so horrible about the National Standards for History that any reference to them would merit the mass destruction of several hundred thousand volumes of knowledge? According to Cheney, the standards failed to recognize the achievements of America's traditional heroes and focused instead on the accomplishments of women, minorities and radicals such as Harriet Tubman, the former slave who helped found the Underground Railroad. As Cheney wrote in 1994, "We are a better people than the national standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it."

Cheney insisted that the standards focused too much on the negatives of the past, on the presence of such stains on our democratic legacy as the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism, and not enough on great heroic figures such as Paul Revere, Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Wright brothers.

What Cheney really opposes is the prominent place that "social history" has assumed over the last thirty years. Known among its practitioners as "history from the bottom up," social historians argue that American history has too often been taught as the history of famous white men, political parties and industrialists.

Far less attention has been paid to the history of the "ordinary" people who helped build our nation. Social historians do not reject the important contributions of the former, as Cheney has repeatedly insisted. Rather, they suggest that there are two American histories worth knowing: the history of the nation and the history of its peoples. The latter is composed of a number of different histories: the history of rich and poor; of employers and employees; of men and women; of blacks, whites, Asians and Indians; of Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

As someone who has taught, written about and studied history for more than twenty-five years, I would suggest that good historical writing tries to help us understand the full contours of the past, paying equal attention to our triumphs and tragedies. Historians should not be afraid to hail the heroic figures of the past, but those should also include the less-than-famous men and women who struggled on behalf of democracy. Likewise, historians should never avoid dealing with the dark stories of our past — such as slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and McCarthyism. As our founding fathers understood, democracies are not perfect; they only grow stronger by learning from the mistakes of the past.

Destroying books that disagree with one's vision of history will never take us closer to truth and freedom. As President Eisenhower warned Dartmouth College graduates in June 1953: "Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed." His words remain true today.

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

Ryan Biggs - 2/3/2005

Mark, were you kidding? "Mere accusation not the same as proof"? What were you thinking when you posted that? Classic example of the Republican "I know you are but what am I" tactic.

By now hopefully you know that Lynne Cheney DID DEFINATELY DO THIS. The books were recalled, reprinted, and our tax dollars paid for it.


mark safranski - 10/17/2004


Cutting ege is fine so long as it is based on facts rather than ideological cant and shrill abuse.

I'll address Lynn Cheney when there is some kind of evidence provided that she has done what the author claims she did. A citation, a link, an article or even a credible statement by another public figure. Right now we don't have anything but wild hyperbole.

Who has the absolutist mindset here if you believe that a mere accusation is the same as proof ? Start reading the folks with whom you agree with the same critical eye you reserve for Republicans and you'll get a lot further as a scholar.

Lisa Kazmier - 10/17/2004

Reading the criticisms here, one learns nothing. They don't address the basic issue, the one they cannot avoid. That concerns book burning and Lynne Cheney's absolutist mindset about what should be taught, somewhat like Margaret Thatcher's view of offering "unapologetic" imperial history. Obviously, Lynne Cheney has more influence than Thatcher has had, given her sway over NEH and the like. Duh!

The second person sounds like my fossil-like, now retired MA advisor who still thought New Social history was new or something. Anything "cutting edge" had to be perversely wrong. I guess "fair and balanced" only applies to dead white men and Republican presidents.

mark safranski - 10/17/2004

First a link to some kind of news source might have been nice in an article denouncing a public figure as related to both Nazism and antebellum slave power. I'm sure the author might squeal if I associated him loosely with Pol Pot and Nikolai Yezhov.

The National Standards were wildly unbalanced and partisan - and yes I've read them and I have a copy here at my elbow - because they were an attempt by the Deconstructionist/Multicultural/Pomo academic Left to establish a Howard Zinn-Noam Chomsky interpretation of American history in our public schools. The public school teachers who participated in the process of developing the standards - who were not conservative activists BTW - later complained of being railroaded by an intolerant cabal of professors. The U.S. Senate rejected the standards 99-0 because the bias was so obvious and extreme that even that body's most progressive members looked askance.

Were the standards entirely worthless ? No. There were may useful suggestions therein in terms of teaching methodology to engage students in the public schools in real historical analysis and critical thinking. Unfortunately the agitprop was a little thick for everyone outside of the radical-crit community.


Vernon Clayson - 10/16/2004

And what Lynn Cheney urges is important or noteworthy because???? And what Charles Lindberg might have done had he been president is important or noteworthy because???? And why is their a history of a nation -and-
a history of its peoples -and- why would one think they aren't connected???? And you write a book about working-class Hollywood and think it is somehow reflective of the nation's working class???? India's old caste system, at its worst, was not so divided as the Hollywood caste system. And you've taught and thought history for 25 years, what a confused bunch of students you must have in your wake.