Just Above Sunset
March 13, 2005 - Two Kinds of Conservatives

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David Greenberg teaches at Rutgers University in central New Jersey and is the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image – or so this below indicates.


Here he writes a review, sort of, of a book by Thomas E. Woods Jr – The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.  I use the words “sort of” because he’s really writing about the book and the reaction to it.  And something bigger.


History for Dummies
The troubling popularity of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
David Greenberg - Posted Friday, March 11, 2005, at 12:47 PM PT - SLATE.COM

First Greenberg tells us Woods is assistant professor at Suffolk County Community College in New York, and his book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for a bit now, and is 217 in the Amazon rankings.  It’s been selling like hotcakes.  The publisher is Regnery – the same folks who published Laura Ingram’s best selling book Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America - Regnery Publishing Inc.  Fine.




User-friendly in its layout, the book is chock-full of pull-quotes, subheads, bulleted lists, short sentences, and two- and three-sentence paragraphs. It presents a brisk tour of U.S. history from Colonial to Clintonian times, filtered through a lens of far-right dogma, circa 1939.  It's History for Dummies meets John T. Flynn.


His assessment?


The book's title gives a clue to its agenda. For some time now the term "politically correct" has been used to delegitimize any left-of-center position, even those that aren't very far left or particularly outrageous. (See, for example, this letter to the editor, published last July in the San Antonio Express-News: "The media exploded into politically correct hysteria over the truly minor 'torture' in Abu Ghraib.") Conservatives happily brand themselves "politically incorrect" when they resurrect justifiably discredited ideas—or, la Bill Maher, when they merely want to appear fearlessly honest. Thus, Woods boasts of his book's "political incorrectness," hoping to claim the high ground of truth-telling and pre-emptively tag any criticism as ideologically based.


But Woods' book is incorrect in more than just its politics. Take, for example, Page One, where Woods opens with what he calls the "first basic fact": "The colonists were not paragons of 'diversity.' " I don't know any historians who teach that the colonists were "paragons of 'diversity' "—whatever that phrase, scare quotes and all, is supposed to mean. Most students of early America, however, would agree that Woods' elaboration of his claim is far from accurate. The colonists, Woods continues, "came from one part of Europe. They spoke a common language. They worshiped the same God." He then briefly describes the major waves of British immigration that came to American shores in the 17th and 18th centuries, as laid out in David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed (though Woods does not cite Fischer).


It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see why Woods' statement is false. Obviously, one large segment of Colonial Americans didn't come from England and didn't, at least initially, share their religion or language: the millions of Africans shipped to the colonies as slaves. But then, slavery doesn't appear in Woods' account until his discussion of the pre-Civil War era, by which time the peculiar institution was 200 years old. This staggering omission exemplifies the main problem with Woods' book. In his determination not to dwell on the plight of oppressed minorities, he simply ignores what was a central piece of America's political, economic, cultural, and social history for its first two centuries, offering instead a distorted view of the past. Everyone knows that getting facts wrong can produce mistaken interpretations. In Woods' case, a warped interpretive lens—one crafted to find only malevolence in leaders who enlarge government, seek social justice, or take the country to war (Woods has strong Buchananite leanings)—leads him to botch his facts.


So it’s kind of silly, as Greenberg puts it, you need to believe “the American Revolution was no revolution at all; that the Civil War was not about slavery; that the so-called robber barons made America great; that the New Deal made the Depression worse; that the war on poverty made poverty worse; that Clinton's intervention in Bosnia was a waste of taxpayer money.”   The conclusion?   This is catechism – nor analysis.


So, who cares? 


But Greenburg has other points to make. 


You’d think the right would love this thing, but Greenburg says an number of them are actually appalled – and he cites as Max Boot, Cathy Young, and the historian Ronald Radosh.  On the other hand, on television Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan love it.


What’s up with that?


Well, he says there are two kinds of conservatives.


… Woods' critics on the right belong to what might be called the conservative elite—neoconservatives and libertarians—whereas Hannity, Buchanan, and the radio talk-show hosts are, like their most fervid followers, essentially populist. Whatever jabs they may take at the liberal media or at academia, conservative elites, like their (elite) liberal adversaries (and here I'm generalizing), harbor an underlying respect for the values of higher education, science, reason, and expertise. Conservative populists, on the other hand, more often exhibit scorn for intellectual authority altogether.


Ah, it’s the populists that are the problem!  The poor intellectual conservatives – the guys who actually read Burke and the University of Chicago sage Leo Strauss (See Just Above Sunset here and here from February 1, 2004 for Strauss) – are no longer in fashion.  The anti-intellectuals have shoved them aside, led by the most anti-intellectual of them all.


… in the Bush years, conservatism has embraced not only the familiar ridicule of the eggheads but a rejection of the very legitimacy of independent, nonpartisan expert authority. The wisdom of legal professionals, such as those in the American Bar Association, is now denied, and, since George Bush took office, no longer used by the White House in evaluating candidates for federal judgeships. Mainstream journalism, such as that in the major newspapers and network news shows, is deemed liberal, slanted, and unreliable. The faith-based belief in creationism, enjoying renewed support of late, is accorded equal (or greater) weight as the scientific theory of evolution.


The problem is the right has been taken over by the anti-intellectuals.  Nothing ever changes.  The 1964 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction went to Richard Hofstadter for his Anti-intellectualism in American Life – and you can order a copy here so you too can feel put upon and misunderstood.


Greenburg’s conclusion?  All this has infected even the history books.


It was only a matter of time before this kind of thinking spread to history. Politics has always colored the ways that people interpret the past, but The Politically Incorrect Guide politicizes history in a new way, reducing all scholarly inquiry to a mere stance in the culture wars. "Everything (well, almost everything) you know about American history is wrong," states the book's back cover, "because most textbooks and popular history books are written by left-wing academic historians who treat their biases as fact." Conservatives who believe in open intellectual pursuit understandably blanch at the popularity of a book like this. The problem, however, isn't a lone piece of agitprop but a cynical alliance that conservative intellectuals forged with those who hold their ideals of scholarship in contempt. It's not surprising that the anti-intellectual currents they've aligned themselves with are proving too powerful for them to control.


But note what Greenburg posits - Conservatives who believe in open intellectual pursuit.  One must not forget about those.  They are there.  Greenburg believes, however, that most of them have sold out to “those who hold their ideals of scholarship in contempt” – and that makes him angry.  He calls it a cynical alliance – and now these anti-intellectual assholes are out of control.  The thinkers have been shoved aside.  And Bush might have been a bad choice as he is the poster-boy for being frat-boy dumb, hating ideas, but hyper-aggressive and clever – and mean.


Yeah, well, the left cheered on Michael Moore, himself not a model of intellectual rigor.  There’s the same danger on the other side.



Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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