Maybe 18 months later, curious when the book would appear, I sent a general inquiry to the publishing house, but never got a response. The publisher’s Web site was such a byzantine maze that I figured this is surely a quixotic pursuit and decided just to keep an eye out for the title when it appeared in print, which it eventually did. Ordering it for the memoir shelf was easier said than done, for it had been published in different variations, for different markets. Making an educated guess, I shelled out a hundred bucks and received a handsome 4-pound volume of nearly 700 pages.
I opened it with pleasant expectation, calculating that hundreds of thousands of middle schoolers would be reading (and toting) this text and gazing upon my brother, a quiet hero of a different era. The American Journey: Modern Times,** with a 15-page table of contents and an enormous number of photos, graphs, and charts is a most impressive textbook unlike the more modest texts of my distant youth. Turning to the exceptionally fine-tuned index, I quickly found the reference to Jeff indicating that he had both a page and a photograph.
I looked through the general section, Challenges at Home and Abroad, with chapters on the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War, to get a sense of the setting . Perusing the Vietnam War and antiwar protest chapter, with the exception of a factual error and a mere map reference to the My Lai massacre without explanation, I noted that the discussion was generally balanced on the origins, conduct, and conclusion of the war as well as the variants of the antiwar movement – civilian, GI, draft resisters, and conscientious objectors.
The GI was even more upset, charging that I had mangled my "valiant brother's memory and role in history," and described his first encounter with VGI:Of course, I did not know [Jeff], but the Vietnam GI newspaper was legendary as the first of about 200 such antiwar papers written by veterans and GIs. I and all the GI and veteran activists who came after Jeff owe him a debt of gratitude for cutting trail for us.
I remember VGI, the first antiwar newspaper by GIs! Jeff was a revolutionary! I was in the Army at the time & later became involved in the GI antiwar movement. VGI had a lot to do with that and I remember passing around the paper while I was stationed in Germany.
David Zeiger, the director of the award-winning documentary, Sir! No Sir! † (SNS), on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement, co-dedicated to Jeff Sharlet, put Jeff's appearance in American Journey and the consequent misstatements in broader perspective. There had been a number of documentary films on the civilian antiwar movement, but the crucial role of GIs in protesting the war had been forgotten until David resuscitated it and in a single stroke changed the way the antiwar movement would henceforth be remembered. Although equally dismayed by the 'spin', David concluded that "even mentioning Jeff and the GI movement is an advance", given that the book is being used in schools all over the country by vast numbers of middle schoolers.It is absolutely standard practice in the textbook publishing industry to assign ALL the writing to freelancers. Then you rent a name to go on the cover.***
The only remaining question for me was how did my consent to a welcome request to use Jeff’s photo in a mainstream schoolbook come to such a surprising ending. All signs pointed toward the multi-billion dollar textbook marketing business, especially to the markets that play major roles in the national process. Of these, Texas has the second largest school population, is one of the few large states that pay 100% of the cost of textbooks, and mandates a review of guidelines for school texts every ten years – all of which gives it enormous clout in the writing, and ultimately the marketing, of texts for school children at every grade level.
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is an elected body whose chair is appointed by the governor. Given low interest and even lower turnouts for school board seats, political conservatives gained control of the elections, and their minions have exercised great sway over standards for textbooks used in the state. Because of Texas’s purchasing power, the major textbook publishers, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Houghton Mifflin, and McGraw Hill, publisher of American Journey, customarily pay close attention to what the state wants.Texas guidelines tend to dictate the shape of the big three’s products, especially on sensitive issues. As the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me wrote, “Fear of not winning adoption in Texas is a prime source of publisher angst ….” (215) Given the cost of producing a typical text, usually in the millions, books crafted for access to the Texas market then end up becoming the default choices for most other states. Since the ‘70s, the highly politicized Texas SBOE has been especially concerned about stemming what it considers a ‘liberal bias’ in text writing, especially in science and, somewhat more recently, social studies.The most contentious science issue has been the fight over evolution by those who prefer creationism or its euphemistic alternative ‘intelligent design’, while the thrust in social studies has been rolling back secularism and multiculturalism. According to a rightwing newsletter, “contested subjects” in social studies that draw the attention of the Texans include the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War.Wouldn’t one assume that the Texas SBOE calls in academic experts to assist in their deliberations. They in fact do, but if the conservative board members are not pleased with expert advice on an issue, they seek other less qualified but more congenial points of view. The initial impetus to censor textbooks in Texas came from an oilfield worker with a year of college. Until a few years ago, a dentist who regards evolutionary theory as nonsense ruled the roost. Most recently academic opinion was set aside for the input of a special politically connected consultant, an insurance salesman with no higher education.****Were Texas standards the genesis of the distortions added to Jeff’s story in American Journey? The claims that he was ‘disgusted’ with Vietnam War protestors and welcomed pro-war views in his antiwar paper would certainly pass muster in the Lone Star state. Texas is not only deeply religious country, but well-known for its patriotic fervor. Outside of a minority of students at the University of Texas in liberal Austin, most Texas campuses were relatively quiet compared with universities elsewhere during the ‘60s and ‘70’s.Did McGraw Hill think it wise to add a few ‘patriotic’ flourishes to Jeff’s narrative. Where does the chain of responsibility from the Texas SBOE lead. Was it a staffer working in the bowels of a giant corporation who took it upon himself to ‘spin’ the sole reference to GI antiwar protest, or was it an anonymous freelancer doing piece-work. What about the distinguished historians gracing the title page as putative ‘authors’ of American Journey. Three of them are from Princeton, Columbia, and UCLA with impressive scholarly publications to their credit. Do they share responsibility for ‘lies my teacher told me’. Or was it understood they were meant to be mainly window-dressing, exchanging a few letters with the publisher, lending their names, and drawing a nice fee.Whatever the motive or the cause, the full truth on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement is out there where any middle schooler, curious for more information, can Google ‘Jeff Sharlet Vietnam’ or ‘Vietnam GI’ and instantly find Jeff’s Wiki and Web site as well as this blog.* F Gardner, Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case (1970), p 210. The author dedicated his book to “Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, dead at twenty-seven”** Published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2009*** J Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995, 2007), pp 253, 319**** On the Texas SBOE, see M Blake, “Revisionaries: How a group of Texas conservatives is rewriting your kids’ textbooks,” Washington Monthly (2010), and G Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” New York Review of Books (2012)