Patrice Higonnet: Conservative newspaper blasts Harvard scholar for writing a Bush-bashing book

Historians in the News

When a man as distinguished as Patrice Higonnet — professor of history at Harvard, a leading scholar of France and the French Revolution — writes a book as bad as "Attendant Cruelties" (Other Press, 378 pages, $25.95), it is more than a shame, it is a symptom. What drove Mr. Higonnet to range so far from his professional pasture as to write this brief history of America? It was not any great expertise in the subject; the bulk of the book is a sketchy and conventional chronicle, assembled from secondary sources, and containing no facts or interpretations that will surprise any reader who paid attention in his or her 11th-grade U.S. History class. It was not any deep historical insight; for Mr. Higonnet's method is not to explain our history so much as to assign grades to its leading actors, depending on how well they suit his present-minded criteria of "inclusion" and "exclusion," enlightened "patriotism" and iniquitous "nationalism."

No, the reason why "Attendant Cruelties" got written is much simpler: It is Mr. Higonnet's overpowering hatred of President Bush. How, Mr. Higonnet keeps asking, did the country in which he has lived for decades — the country that he admires as "open-minded, welcoming, at the forefront of nearly everything, and, in so many ways, the freest country in the world" — twice elect as president a man whom he regards as evil incarnate? This is not an exaggeration. In the course of his book, Mr. Higonnet compares the president not just to Hitler — "We can understand him better if we understand what came before him. ... Hitler was a madman, but even he did not become chancellor of the German Reich just because he was a madman" — but also to Stalin: "What Stalinism was to utopian communism, Bushism is to the American creed."

With the illogicality of malice, Mr. Higonnet characterizes Mr. Bush as simultaneously incompetent and omnipotent, feckless and relentless, the bully of his advisers and the dupe of his advisers. Reckoning the sum of these contradictions tells us nothing about Mr. Bush or about America, but it tells us a great deal about the passionate, self-delighting, deeply irresponsible hatred that now prevails even among the most prestigious and best educated precincts of the Left. It is a book that Mr. Higonnet's sympathizers will read with vigorous nods, and everyone else will read with despairing shakes of the head....
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