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In Defense of My Book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

My friends in academia have been telling me to ignore the attacks on my book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Most of these attacks have avoided the book’s arguments altogether, resorting instead to smears and character assassination. This is the kind of treatment that anyone – left or right – who strays from the three-by-five card that constitutes the range of acceptable opinion these days can expect to receive. Such people, my friends insist, are not worth a single moment of my time, which should be devoted to my scholarly work.

Sensible advice to be sure. But before I go back into hibernation for a while, at least one final word. The History News Network, for which I have written in the past, has at this point featured four major attacks on my book (here, here, here and here). That struck me as, well, rather excessive. One of them was written by a University of North Carolina law professor who admitted he hadn’t read the book. But he sure had dug up some things I had written in graduate school ten years earlier.

Although some of those statements do not reflect my views today, I have no intention of going through the ritual charade of breast-beating and apology that public figures routinely undergo when the thought police come after them. (For heaven’s sake, whose views haven’t changed since graduate school?) But I couldn’t help laughing at this professor’s indignation that I’d said that the barbarism of American foreign policy made a major terrorist attack on American soil inevitable. Which part of that statement is wrong? The barbarism part? What else would you call a policy that starves half a million Iraqi children, complete with assurances from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that its ghastly price “has been worth it”? (And I’m the moral outcast here?) What is crazy about concluding that some people are going to get very angry about policies like this and perhaps seek revenge? I’d be shocked if at least half the scholars who read HNN didn’t fundamentally agree with me, yet this point was solemnly advanced as evidence of my nuttiness.

The most recent attack comes from someone named David Greenberg. From what I have been able to gather, David Greenberg is a professor of history, journalism and media who has written a book on Richard Nixon. By the end of what I guess was supposed to be a review, he has essentially said that I have no scholarly standards.

Greenberg refers to me as a “hitherto unknown assistant professor of history at Suffolk County Community College.” I never claimed to be famous, though readers of my other books and articles had certainly heard of me. My background includes four degrees, three from Columbia including the Ph.D., and an undergraduate degree from Harvard. I have also written several other books, including The Church Confronts Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2004) and a recent study (more recent, in fact, than the Politically Incorrect Guide) of Catholic social teaching in light of the Austrian school of economics. My scholarly and popular articles, which have appeared in scores of outlets, number about 125, and my work has been translated into seven languages. I am also the translator of Alfons Cardinal Stickler’s memoirs of Vatican II from German into English. Some would say this is not a bad record for a 32-year-old, though (oddly enough) none of it appears in any of the attack pieces on me that have been featured on HNN. All the better to paint me as an idiot who can be safely ignored, no doubt.

Part of Greenberg’s complaint has to do not so much with my facts as with my selection of topics. (When intellectual historian David Gordon – of whom it has been said, “Who needs the Library of Congress when you have David Gordon?” – couldn’t find any errors, I knew for sure there weren’t any.) But when Regnery Publishing approached me with the idea for this book, they gave me a strict word limit of 80,000. Any serious historian knows how quickly 80,000 words go by. That’s why I point out in my preface that the book is not intended to be a systematic textbook on American history. Good heavens, how could it be?

Thus Mr. Greenberg complains that I don’t spend enough time talking about slavery – a bogus charge that to my mind proved he never intended to treat me fairly. Of course the book discusses slavery, though not at the length Mr. Greenberg would prefer. The book doesn’t discuss the Spanish-American War at all, despite the watershed that 1898 represents in the history of American foreign policy. (That chapter, in fact, simply had to be cut.) I decided to spend my 80,000 words on aspects of American history that the traditional narrative either mangles or neglects altogether. How Mr. Greenberg would spend 80,000 words discussing American history holds no interest for me, though something tells me his version would include precious few facts or interpretations we haven’t all heard a million times before.

My friend Bill Watkins’s book Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) was the first book on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 in a hundred years. Think about that. That’s why my Politically Incorrect Guide to American History devotes an entire chapter to what Americans for a long time called the “Principles of ’98.” Despised alike by nationalists of the left like Greenberg and neoconservative nationalists of the right like Max Boot, these principles are central to any serious understanding of American history. Yet as the paucity of scholarship on the subject amply reveals, they have simply dropped down the memory hole. (I must have missed all the bicentennial celebrations in our nation’s capital in 1998.) Why am I not allowed to focus attention on them? If Greenberg wishes I had covered other issues instead, why doesn’t he just write his own book and stop wasting everyone’s time?

Greenberg goes on to complain that my book is simplistic and merely a political screed of some kind – quite unlike Greenberg’s review, on the other hand, which is doubtless innocent of any political motivation at all. To the contrary, given its scope and introductory nature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is positively filled with some of the best and most recent research.

I am morally certain that Greenberg is unfamiliar with – for example – Robert Higgs, Kevin Gutzman, Dominick Armentano or Richard Vedder, since the work of these scholars does not confirm his prejudices. But I would hesitate to describe someone’s scholarly work as without merit simply because it holds no interest for David Greenberg. Robert Higgs is one of the best economic historians in America, and one can hardly speak with authority on the U.S. economy in the 1930s and 1940s without some familiarity with his pioneering work. Dominick Armentano, professor emeritus at the University of Hartford, is one of the great scholars of American antitrust law. Kevin Gutzman, whose publications span the major journals, has produced some of the most important and original scholarship on Virginia's political traditions to come out in some time. And although many readers have probably never heard of it, I venture to suggest that no one can speak definitively on the New Deal and its effects on employment without reckoning with the evidence in Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth Century America by Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway.

Finally, a brief word on the Balkans, a section of my book that was considerably longer and more detailed in its original manuscript form. Greenberg is shocked that I question the Clinton administration’s line on the Balkans and on Kosovo in particular. Let me be candid: it is hard for me to respect people who swallow war propaganda whole when it comes from a Democratic president but throw up their hands in disgust at the same behavior in a Republican (and vice versa). In my book I am as dismissive of the Clinton administration’s fabrications as I was of the WMD nonsense that issued forth from the Bush administration. I am frankly shocked that someone claiming to be a scholar still buys into what should now be the laughable claims of the Clinton administration concerning Kosovo, including intimations of hundreds of thousands of deaths. “Despite Tales, the War in Kosovo Was Savage, But Wasn’t Genocide,” read the Wall Street Journal headline of February 21, 2002.

Thank goodness for principled leftists like Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, whose interview with Bill Clinton – whom she skewered for his disastrous and immoral foreign policy – I recall with immense delight. As one of my reviewers put it, nothing makes establishment left and right kiss and make up faster than the desire to smear someone like Amy Goodman (or me, for that matter), whose views fall outside the ever-shrinking spectrum of allowable opinion.

Finally, remember what my book is: a lighthearted if information-packed overview of important or often neglected episodes in American history. No, it doesn’t cover every issue under the sun, because 1) it never says it is going to; 2) it expressly says it is not going to; and 3) the manuscript had to be kept to 80,000 words. Complaints that do not take these factors into account are simply dishonest. And while I shall happily entertain serious criticisms that show where I am factually mistaken or where my interpretations do not hold water, smear jobs and character assassination only serve to confirm me in my views.