History for Dummies


Mr. Greenberg writes the "History Lesson" column and teaches at Rutgers University. He is the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.

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Several weeks ago, a history book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, by Thomas E. Woods Jr., a hitherto unknown assistant professor at Suffolk County Community College in New York, appeared on the New York Times paperback best-seller chart. 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 Dummiesmeets John T. Flynn. It's published, naturally, by Regnery.

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, à 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's 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's 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's 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's 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's 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's 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.

It would be tedious to debunk The Politically Incorrect Guide chapter by chapter. Suffice it to say that the book asserts that 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. Not only does Woods reduce complex events to these kinds of simplistic interpretations, he doesn't even acknowledge that rival interpretations exist. It's history not as analysis but as catechism.

It's important to stress that Woods's disdain for complexity in the interest of promoting conservative orthodoxy has drawn fire from across the political spectrum. After all, conservatives such as Max Boot, Cathy Young, and the historian Ronald Radosh have attacked the book as beyond the pale. These commentators deserve credit for renouncing the book. But many less scrupulous rightists, including various radio hosts and cable TV loudmouths Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan—whose own similar stab at far-right-wing history caused him considerable grief in 1999—have provided Woods with a friendly forum for his cant.

And the criticisms made by Boot, Young, and Radosh have not, apparently, discredited the book in conservative readers' eyes. Though no longer on the Times best-seller list, The Politically Incorrect Guide is still weighing in at an impressive No. 217 (as of this writing) in the Amazon.com rankings. But Woods's 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.

For a while now, conservative elites have made common cause, sometimes cynically, with populist anti-intellectuals. Once upon a time, the original neoconservatives—the academics and intellectuals around the journal the Public Interest—rested their critiques of liberalism on penetrating social science scholarship and attacked the left for preferring bleeding-heart sentiment to polemical rigor. But now the Public Interest is defunct, and 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.

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.

This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.

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Michael Dean Almer - 3/24/2005

Mr. Heuisler:
You know nothing about me so I suppose your post is equally foolish. And ironic since you seem to be the only one doing the heavy breathing in this thread.

Two words for you: Anger Management.

John H. Lederer - 3/24/2005

"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."

I suspect that the truth is something that is the opposite of this -- the phrase became odious during its primary usage by liberals because the majority of people saw it as becoming abusrd in its applications. From http://www.wordorigins.org :
The second, and current, definition arose in 1970. This sense the OED2 defines as:

a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters, characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language, behaviour, etc. considered discriminatory or offensive.

The first cite of this second sense is in 1970's Black Woman by T.Cade. Other early cites include 1975's P.Gerber's Willa Cather and a Facts on File entry regarding lesbian politics. 1978 saw the National Journal use the term. In 1984 it was the Women's Studies International Forum VII that used the term. 1987 saw the Nation pick it up. 1991 it was the Village Voice and 1993 the Utne Reader. The OED2 does not even include a use of the term from a conservative source.

The converse politically incorrect first appeared in 1947, in Nabokov's Bend Sinister. In 1977 the Washington Post used it to paraphrase as statement by the African Liberation Day Coalition.</quote>

Bill Heuisler - 3/24/2005

Mr. Beatty,
Abu Ghraib was being investigated by our military for at least six months prior to the media publicity. There were Courts Martials in progress and most of the evidence was already on record. Deliberate killing of prisoners by US soldiers has not been alleged by any serious observer.

I asked, "Do you accuse our troops of murder? Where is your (or Hersh's) evidence?" You added information not in evidence. You answered, "...a US soldier who deliberately kills an EPW, outside the heat of battle, is guilty of murder." Fine. But no charge of murder has been offered nor has there been any evidence of murder. Do you know something that has been hidden from investigators, or is there an agenda to blacken reputations of US soldiers?

You give yourself away in your third sentence by accusing the Bush Administration of "embracing immorality" but not bothering to provide specifics for your accusation. Like Mr. Greenberg, you assume that all the correct thinking people know what you are implying. As a fresh graduate, have you ever bothered questioning the Leftist pablum you were apparently fed in college? As a "humble" graduate your reckless assumptions are arrogant and presumptuous.
Bill Heuisler

Michael Beatty - 3/24/2005

Sorry, Mr Heuisler, but moral relativism is moral relativism, no matter toward what end it's directed. This is the bitter irony of George W Bush as champion of "moral values," which have become conflated with "American values." In acting to uphold morality, the Bush Administration is embracing immorality.

The US is not wrong to question terrorists - indeed, the military and the CIA were duty-bound to question them. But performance of official duty must be constrained by a moral standard. This is proven by the fact that any reputable police department maintains an Internal Affairs Bureau, to investigate allegations of breach of ethics in the performance of official duty by its officers. If there were no moral limits on official duty, what need would there be for an IAB? And if a municipal police department can live by the rules, why not the US?

To answer your snarky question directly, yes, I would say that a US soldier who deliberately kills an EPW, outside the heat of battle, is guilty of murder. I hope that the American "war effort" in Iraq hasn't so completely taxed the military's resources that we've had to throw our principles overboard to lighten the load!

And frankly, I can do without your snide commentary about my "admitted genius." I'm an humble undergraduate (University of Alabama, 1992; UM-St Louis, Class of 2006) trying to show a little professionalism and join in the (more-or-less) scholarly conversation of my chosen profession.

Mike Beatty

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2005

Actually, Bill, I confess to being the one who reported one of your critics to HNN and got his "ass" booted. I agree with you that the book should be debated on its merits, which I don't think are very strong.

Bill Heuisler - 3/23/2005

Please replace the word "murder" with the word "torture"
in my last post.

Bill Heuisler - 3/23/2005

Funny thing is, I'm not really defending the book at all.
I'm decrying/making-fun-of the idiotic mind-set that attacks anyone who differs from accepted dogma. Note how Greenberg substantively comments on slavery and sketches an argument for its inclusion, (thereby proving he can do it) but only names major issues like Bosnia and the War on Poverty and then assumes the reader accepts a Liberal world-view and will join in his sneer at the presumption of an author who would disagree with that world-view.

Greenberg's gratuitous mention of a letter's mention of Abu Ghraib and then his use of the word, murder, sets up a hear-say, straw-man argument solely to discredit a book.
Thus, the book itself is no longer the issue. The issue becomes Greenberg and his arrogant insult to his readers' intelligence. Also, I regret I am unable to engage him - or anyone else, for that matter - in a calm debate on the actual issues ignored in his sadly mangled critique.

Note also the personal remarks from posters who would rather deride me for my opinions than debate the issues.
Best wishes, Bill

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2005

Seriously, Bill, have you read some of the reviews of _PIG_ by responsible conservative reviewers? This is a perfectly dreadful book and doesn't deserve your defense of it.

Bill Heuisler - 3/23/2005

Mr. Beatty,
Your respectful opinion of yourself is nice, but artless. You assume too much and your logic has come badly undone. You righteously assert unbalanced moral standards on the basis of skewed, insufficient information. For instance, embarrassing and humiliating terrorists to save American lives is justified under any moral standard. You assume so-called right-biased opinion is wrong while withholding yours because it's too complex and fundamental for HNN.

Are you suggesting the US is wrong to question terrorists?
Or do you think the stupidity of a few MPs should erase all POW or terrorist imprisonment/questioning? Do you accuse our troops of murder? Where is your (or Hersh's) evidence? If a humiliated terrorist broke and gave information that saved American soldiers' lives do you think that humiliation was immoral? Are we unworthy of your admitted genius here at HNN?

And don't be concerned. If your answers are too complex, I'll find a professor, a mime, a priest and a Democrat.
We'll muddle through your brilliance somehow.
Bill Heuisler

Michael Beatty - 3/22/2005

*ohdear* Now the end justifies the means. So much for Republicans being the champions of moral values?

To pick Mr Heuisler's gauntlet up, yes - I do have an opinion on American History. It's much too complex, and much too fundamental to the framework of our contemporary existence to try to stuff into an ideological dogma.

Even granting, arguendo, that the majority, or even a significant percentage of scholarly historical writing is left-biased, I can't see how the situation is improved by this bombshell of right-biased writing.

Mike Beatty

Bill Ass Hassler - 3/22/2005

Actually Bill, compared to your tired defense (and far less tedious, I might add), I'd say you do a fine job of proving Mr. Greenberg's point. The simple answers given by you and obviously the Politically Incorrect Guide (P.I.G.?) to History are for simple minds looking for ideas they can fathom. Here suey suey!

I think after reading Greenberg's review I might need to buy the book just to figure out how the hell you all get from point A to B.

Bill Heuisler - 3/22/2005

Mr. Almer,
Since you know nothing about me, your post is foolish. Fingernails? How graphic. How irrelevant. Were you breathing hard after you finished your little screed? The word torture here is pejorative and ignorant. Aside from stupidity and lack of judgement exhibited by some of those MP troops, few prisoners were seriously injured and much information was received. The word, "homicide", in connection to Abu Ghraib is gross overstatement. Some have been alleged (one by that paragon, Seymour Hersh) but none proven. I find it objectionable that you judge US soldiers murderers without real information other than rumors from knuckle-dragging Leftist web sites.

Most important, you miss the point just as awkwardly as Greenberg. His use of Abu Ghraib - and yours - has little to do with the article he attempted to write. Have you an opinion on American history?
Bill Heuisler

bill farrell - 3/22/2005

Greenberg points out that the book ignores the large number of forced immigrants, the slaves. In view of the importance of slavery in American history, that is a serious problem.

Michael Dean Almer - 3/22/2005

Mr. Huisler:
You write like a man who hasn't had the pleasure of participating in a naked pyrimid or a faked execution or threatened with sodomy or smelled the breath of a snarling German Shepard up close. You've probably never even been forced to stand on a box with a sack on your head while, perhaps, listening to the very real homicides that we now know did take place at Abu Ghraib. Give it a try and then pop off about it's only torture if you lose your fingernails in the process.

Bill Heuisler - 3/22/2005

Mr. Ass Hassler,
Shouldn't your last name be hyphenated? Or is it based on an old familial honorific - a distasteful task performed for a king or dictator somewhere to curry favors?

No matter. Your cutesy, non-specific message becomes its own communication of childish uncomprehension. And yes, do go buy a book and read it - a unique and educative experience for many young minds.
Bill Heuisler

Jesse David Lamovsky - 3/22/2005

I agree with Mr. Heuisler's post. Mr. Greenberg, like Adam Cohen in his New York Times "review", as well as Cathy Young (who seems to object to Mr. Woods simply because he is pro-Confederate, an outlook shared by a lot of libertarians not named Cathy Young), and Ronald Radosh (who seems to object to Mr. Woods simply because he makes conservatives look bad to the left), hasn't bothered to counter the claims made in Mr. Woods's book. Instead he settles for one-upsmanship (Mr. Woods hasn't sufficiently stated his objections to slavery), insults ("History For Dummies"), and complaints about Mr. Woods's "agenda". That's not good enough. And the specific objections Mr. Greenberg does make to the content of the book- that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, that the New Deal worsened the Depression, that the Bosnia intervention was ill-advised- are clearly politically motivated. Why are these claims factually incorrect? Mr. Greenberg doesn't bother to tell us. Maybe we're simply supposed to be shocked, shocked that they're even made, and leave it at that. Tom Woods may indeed have an "agenda", but clearly he isn't the only one.

If Thomas Woods gets facts wrong in his book, by all means let him be called on it. But these attempts to discredit him by means of smear-by-association and political attack just don't cut it.

Bill Heuisler - 3/21/2005

Mr. Greenberg,
Your slipshod shuffle over the bestselling Conservative history book lacks enough substance to make me wonder if you've only read bad reviews. Your Abu Ghraib aside in the beginning put me on notice. The rest of the article lived down to my expectations. To mock a letter writer's objection to calling mistreatement and sexual harassment
"torture" both debases real torture extant in places like Turkey and Russia and shows your ignorance of most of what occurred in Abu Ghraib. It also has little to do with the book in question. Why include it, but to mock?

You didn't take opportunity to debunk some major claims in the book you reviewed. Too tedious, you said. Maybe you couldn't refute the claims. Sneering had to suffice.
You wrote:
"It would be tedious to debunk The Politically Incorrect Guide chapter by chapter. Suffice it to say that the book asserts that 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. Not only does Woods reduce complex events to these kinds of simplistic interpretations, he doesn't even acknowledge that rival interpretations exist."

Tedious? That's the task of writing a review/critique. Defend your shibboleths. Too complex, Mr. Greenberg? But HNN is a history site. So, debate the Revolution. Bosnia intervention. Nah. For too many dogmatic creatures of modern Academe, it's easier to attempt clumsy, disjointed dissections of the opposition and then sneer at those with the temerity to disagree with accepted truths.
Bill Heuisler