Day By Day

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Bad Historian, bad, bad!

A few weeks ago I was browsing through my local Barnes & Noble when I ran across Thomas Woods' Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. I paged through the first twenty pages and found it to be horrendously lacking in understanding, detail, depth, etc. I put it back on the shelf, intending never to look at it again.

Then came an overwhelmingly negative review in the NYT that confirmed my opinion, but got my back up because it labeled this ineptitude a "neocon" reinterpretation of American history. What this mess has to do with neocons is beyond me, but in the nasty little world of the NYT anything that can be used to taint Republicans is OK.

Now Woods' book has been denounced by the arch-neocon journal the Weekly Standard, but no matter, the tarnish has been applied by the Times and will now become part of the conventional wisdom. Woods speaks for the neocons.

No he doesn't. This book is a travesty, and that's a pity, because we really do need a counter-narrative to those presented in the radical and liberal texts that currently dominate the field. There are, to be sure, articles and monographs here and there that advance revisionist perspectives on specific topics, but there has been no grand, overarching reinterpretation from a conservative perspective other than Paul Johnson's highly idiosyncratic paean to American freedom. Walter MacDougall has published the first volume of a general study, but it is still incomplete.

And there is a conservative counternarrative. Recent work on Atlantic migration emphasizes the extent to which the American colonies were opportunity societies. The frontier conflicts with native peoples were not, as many have claimed, genocidal. There were strong libertarian and conservative elements in the American revolutionary movement. The anti-federalists have been almost completely ignored, despite their numerous contributions to the constitutional system that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century. The role of incorporation statutes and business enterprises in the early republic has been generally ignored. So, too, the states rights tradition, endorsed not just by Calhoun, but also by Madison and Jefferson. The whole history of Jacksonian America still owes far too much to Schlesinger's attempt to read the New Deal back in time. American settlers were not despoilers of a pristine wilderness. The concept of judicial review is far less solidly based than is often assumed. Antebellum nativists had some legitimate points to make. The Civil War conflict is still viewed narrowly through the prisim of the civil rights movement. Our view of the Gilded Age is still too much shaped by the middle-class biases of turn of the century reformers. Those corrupt businesses and city governments achieved miracles. All too often immigrants are seen simply as victims rather than as relatively informed, autonomous actors. There was a really nasty, coercive side to progressivism and the distinction between progressive reformers and the conservative movements after WWI is far too sharply drawn. Teddy's expansionism and Wilson's idealism are starting to look a lot different in the light of recent experience with the limits of collective security. The Keynesian interpretation of the depression, that screams from the pages of every textbook, is woefully out of date. So, too, the assessment of both the New Deal and the role of radicalism in the thirties. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The standard account of American history, promulgated in schools throughout the land, is badly in need of responsible revisionism.

But Woods' book is not a contribution to that. By casting his arguments, some of them legitimate, in such extreme and outrageous terms, by making ridiculous claims, and by ignoring a vast body of counter-evidence, he has produced a book that will serve as a weapon for those who want to bash conservatives and neo-conservatives, much as the excesses of bully-boy McCarthy helped the left delegitimize and marginalize a legitimate anti-communist movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Nuff sed.

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