Letter from the Land of Opportunity

Except for Alabama and Mississippi no state has a worse reputation than Arkansas. For many the very name conjures images of slack-jawed Ozark hill apes, scrofulous swamp-dwelling rednecks, and hookworm-plagued darkies with chains on their ankles and whip scars across their backs. Besides football, the local amusements are assumed to be moonshine drinking, incest, nigger baiting, and hippie hunting as seen in Easy Rider and other versions of the late Sixties grail legend.

So most people are less than astonished that Grant Cooper, a self-described communist history teacher at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is being hounded out of his job. But it is not being done as believers in the popular version of the state might imagine. There are no Slim Pickens types circling the campus in pickups and Cooper is in less physical danger than he would be as a stranger on Saturday night in a local bar.

The firing of an assistant professor for political reasons is news only because it confirms what people expect in Arkansas. In Des Moines, Salt Lake City, or Hartford the job would be done more smoothly, and if Little Rock were not an international symbol of backwardness, Cooper would be just another idealistic young fool out of a job. So while the particulars of Cooper’s case all have to do with Arkansas, a unique blend of irony, outrage, and buffoonery, the broader implications are all-American.

In July, 1973, Grant Cooper began telling his classes that he was a member of the Progressive Labor party and would be teaching history from a “communist” point of view. The announcement did not astonish his students. Cooper had been teaching at the university for three years, the general slant of his politics was well known, and UALR is a commuter school attended largely by working students who have no time for or interest in campus politics. Cooper seems to have been reasonably popular with students, and respected for his sincerity and non-dogmatic manner, neither of which is over-abundant at UALR.

Hardly anyone in Little Rock had ever heard of the Progressive Labor party. There are now only three admitted members in the state. So the relative standing of PL among left parties was not and is not an issue. What the PL line is and how it differs from more fashionable or respectable organizations is not clear even to those of us who have made an effort to find out. From Cooper’s public statements one can only conclude, first, that it is at once as broad as the Arkansas River and as narrowly tortuous as a cowpath, and, second, that every communist government now holding power is “revisionist,” even Mao’s, which PL once espoused. The party newspaper, Challenge, combines strident rhetoric with reformist zeal.

Cooper himself is anything but strident. In public he often seems embarrassed and almost reluctant to give pointed answers to direct questions. Asked the inevitable question about the violent overthrow of the US government, he is more likely…

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