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The Purgatory of An Inadvertent Public Intellectual

Tags Media and CultureU.S. History

03/16/2005Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Four months have passed since the release of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and much of the frenzy surrounding it has begun to die down. I’ve had a few moments of leisure to consider the response to it, and what it all means.

This is a book written between two other booksan intellectual history of the Progressive Era and an extended evaluation of Catholic social teaching in light of Austrian economics. Both of these serve mainly academic markets. 

The in-between book that has generated such frenzy was my attempt to boil down all the most interesting but least known aspects of American history that I discovered in my graduate studies in history. It seeks to bridge the gap between popular misunderstandingsconvenient myths that prop up the American civic religionand the knowledge that is known mostly to specialists working on a particular aspect of history or research program. 

It also so happens that these least known aspects of history make a strong case against statist political biasno surprise here since (as Murray Rothbard often observed) the official history is also government-approved history. In case after case, whether we examine the history of American wars or economic crises, there is a stronger case for the free market and personal liberty than is granted in conventional history.

The book also reflects my experience in the classroom during my six years as a history professor. I've taken notice of the historical interpretations that students know least about and yet provoke serious reflection and thought. Though students have been taught official history in one form or another since grade school, they are open and receptive to new interpretations, and fully willing to consider the possibility that the approved version of history is agenda driven.

My purpose in writing this book, then, was educational. I did my best to draw attention to other resources and inspire readers to undertake their own research programs based on the bibliographies I provided. I went to great lengths to correct poor economic readings of American history. Apart from history, economics is a special interest of mine and my comparative advantage in a profession where knowledge of economic theory is more sparse than it should be.

The favorable responses have been gratifying, and come from such sources as Congressman Ron Paul, Liberty magazine, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Gary Bauer (who called it one of the top five books of 2004), Pat Buchanan, Ralph Raico, Paul Gottfried, The American Conservative, Human Events, the Mises Review, the California Literary Review, and the Weekly Standard (no, that’s not a misprint—their print edition published a favorable review). The Times of London ran a favorable piece about me, and Brazil’s Folha de S. Paolo kindly published a verbatim interview. The Washington Times and the Pittsburgh Tribune also ran sympathetic interviews. I continue to hear of reviews planned, or published, and or pulled.

The New York Timeseditorial page solemnly warned Americans about my dangerous views, as did Reason magazine contributing editor Cathy Young in the Boston Globe. (Two weeks later, though, the New York Times proved that miracles are possible by publishing a very favorable profile of me: "Revisionist History? A Professor Hopes So.") The Claremont Institute didn’t care for it (surprise). Neither did the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot or, more recently, Communist-turned-neoconservative Ronald Radosh. The reviewer for Slate evidently didn't like page 1 and 2 so he skipped the rest. Bloggers right and left weighed in for and against the book, and for and against its author.

A brief word, though, about Ms. Young, whom I’d never heard of before. About ten days before her article appeared she wrote to ask a few questions about my "background." I gave lengthy and detailed answers to all of them. They created a problem for Ms. Young, though, since they made me sound intelligent and reasonable. In addition, I constructed the sentences so that she would not be able to take a few words out of context; the entire sentence would have to be quoted in order for my remarks to make sense. That wouldn’t do at all for Ms. Young, who solved that little problem by not quoting a single word that I wrote to her. No point in letting either the facts or a sense of fair play, or even the contents of the book she was supposedly reviewing, interfere in a perfectly good hatchet job.

After her article appeared, my inbox was hit with links to her own past writing, which turns out to include a declaration that 9-11 made libertarianism impossible because the state now needs to wiretap people and read our emails. Here we have a case of the columnist as commissar, instructing readers what they may and may not think and urging the government to intervene when thoughts and ideas stray too far from approved boundaries.

An honest review from her, it turns out, was never an option. In correspondence with an inquirer who had read Young’s piece, Jeff Tucker wrote: "Tom Woods is a typical geeky academic historian from Harvard and Columbia and for [Ms. Young] to paint him as some frothing racist is immoral and evil…. I really feel awful for Tom. These haters are everywhere and he is just left gasping in shock. He is a young person who still believes that basic standards of fairness are alive. He has had a rude awakening."

I was also taken to task by an inexplicably popular "libertarian" blogger who has endorsedI am not making this up—Condoleezza Rice for president in 2008. (Can you believe someone like that didn’t like my book?) Another libertarian website, aping the tactics of the left, actually tried to portray me as a Klansman. (Yes, you know the tender solicitude and sympathy that the Klan shows for libertarian Catholics.)

One thing Beltway libertarians share in common with neoconservatives is that both go berserk whenever the South is treated with anything other than contempt. Even though a genuine libertarian would be hard pressed to find anything else in the book with which he might disagree, major Beltway libertarians have condemned me because my Civil War chapter was not sufficiently anti-Southern, and because I committed the unpardonable offense of suggesting that there might be something of value in the Southern tradition, particularly its attempt to win its political independence from Washington, D.C.

What is so funny about this is that Lord Acton, one of the greatest classical liberals of the nineteenth century, was openly sympathetic toward the Southern cause. Read his correspondence with Robert E. Lee, where he makes essentially the points I make here. A few libertarians cite my anti-Establishment view of the "Civil War" as reason enough to dismiss anything I have to say on any other subject, but they never explain why they do not apply this weird fanaticism to Lord Acton.

Acton understood that the long-term significance of the Northern victory and the South’s defeat went well beyond the issue of slavery. "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo," he said.

In the old days, conservatives and libertarians freely debated the Lincoln legacy and similarly controversial questions in the pages of National Review. Today, positions that were defended with skill and precision by distinguished scholars of the past are enough to get you smeared in the pages of the very magazines for which those scholars used to write. Correctly assuming that most of their readers will know next to nothing about the history of conservatism, they get away with posing as the guardians and expositors of wise moderation against the cranks and kooks who dare to open what our betters have told us are closed questions.

The condemnations of my book by neoconservatives Max Boot and Ronald Radosh are the most revealing of all, since they demonstrate that an interpretation of American history that was taken for granted by conservatives a generation or two ago is now enough to send the neoconservative smear patrol into overdrive. A famous conservative commentator wrote to me to point out that Boot "takes the establishment line on American historyone the old National Review rejectedand swallows it in one gulp." Boot’s and Radosh’s criticisms were scarcely distinguishable from those of the Times— a fact that says rather a lot about neoconservatism.

Max Boot thinks it’s "Bizarro" and "absurd" to speak of a state’s right to nullify unconstitutional federal legislation. As a historian I couldn't care less what Max Boot thinks; the point that interests a historian is that Thomas Jefferson believed this, and did not think the states could preserve their rights of self-government without some mechanism of corporate resistance to the federal government. (In retrospect, what serious person could doubt he was right?) These ideas were seriously advanced, and constituted a significant portion of the American political consciousness, throughout much of the nineteenth century.

Nationalists of left and right can hate and smear the Jeffersonian tradition all they like, but it did and does exist. They can’t bring themselves to admit that a man as illustrious as Jefferson favored such ideas, so they usually leave out Jefferson’s name when they condemn his principles. I don’t blame thembetter to make it sound as if some kid from Long Island has simply read too much Calhoun.

Radosh’s specific arguments against me revolve primarily around the three pages that the book spends discussing Joe McCarthy; Radosh is appalled that I cite his own work in my "pathetic defense" of the Wisconsin senator. Actually, as any reader can see, I do not cite Radosh in order to make a value judgment on McCarthy himself, but simply to establish some of the facts of the Amerasia case. The figure on whom I rely most heavily in my discussion of McCarthy is M. Stanton Evans, an old-line conservative and McCarthy expert whom Radosh doubtless hates as well.

The left’s response to the book was predictable enough: incredulity that I dared to criticize their favorite presidents, and outright lies about the book’s contents (it was obvious that most of them hadn’t read it, since much of the time they attributed positions to me that were exactly the opposite of those in the book). I’d like to believe that there are principled people on the left with whom antiwar decentralists on the right might be able to collaborate. I really would. (One such person, I am happy to report, is Murray Polner, whose work I deeply admire and who in spite of his resolute leftism recently wrote to express his regrets at the way I’d been treated.)

But the fact that some leftist bloggers actually linked to Max Boot’s critique of my book speaks volumes. Boot famously observed in late 2001 that the United States had not suffered enough casualties in its War on Terror, and recently called for a "Freedom Legion" of foreign soldiers who could serve in the War on Terror. With the U.S. military increasingly strapped, Boot explained, we need to realize that there is "a pretty big pool of manpower that’s not being tapped: everyone on the planet who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident." This is a good idea, according to Boot, because (among other things) congressmen would have fewer scruples about sending non-Americans into battle than they would about sending their own constituents.

Well, Boot can rest easy about one thing: no one will ever be able to parody him.

Juan Cole’s assessment of Boot is right on the money:

Boot never saw a war he didn’t love, never saw a conquest he didn’t find exhilarating, never saw an occupied land he didn’t think could be handled. He wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he monstrously expressed approval of the way the US killed 200,000 Filipinos to make the occupation of the Philippines stick. July 6, 2003 NYT: "The United States eventually won, but it was a long, hard, bloody slog that cost the lives of more than 4,200 American soldiers, 16,000 rebels and some 200,000 civilians. Even after the formal end of hostilities on July 4, 1902, sporadic resistance dragged on for years. There is no reason to think that the current struggle in Iraq will be remotely as difficult. But the Philippine war is a useful reminder that Americans have a long history of fighting guerrillasand usually prevailing, though seldom quickly or easily."

I, on the other hand, have never excused the Japanese internment, weaved apologias for mass murder, or casually called for nuclear attacks on civilian targetsall of which the mainstream of what laughingly passes for conservatism today does almost as a matter of routine. To the contrary, I join real conservatives and libertarians like Richard Weaver, Felix Morley (one of the founders of Human Events), Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and Pope Pius XII in condemning the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yet my left-wing critics seem quite happy to get in bed with defenders of all these things in order to join in their condemnations of my book. Taking a casual view of mass murder is thus morally preferable to having a sympathy for the old republic. What more do I need to know about these people?

Finally, though, I’m immensely grateful for all the defenses composed on my behalf, both by friends and by so many other folks I’ve never met. In spite of the smears, the book, now in its eighth printing, spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list. There is also the ongoing battle of the stars on Amazon--fans give 5 and the opposition gives 1. I've noticed that the former provide evidence of having read the book, whereas the latter seem to be part of some continuing campaign.

I never imagined myself to be a "public intellectual"; it happened inadvertently, a result of something I may have picked up from Murray Rothbard: a desire to bring scholarship to a broad audience so that the lessons of history stand a better chance of shaping our future. Yes, the results are frustrating, but also fun. When they stop attacking you is when you become an echo chamber for conventional wisdom. That's also when you cease doing history the way it should be done.



Contact Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Tom Woods, a senior fellow of the Mises Institute, is the author of a dozen books, most recently Real Dissent: A Libertarian Sets Fire to the Index Card of Allowable Opinion. Tom's articles have appeared in dozens of popular and scholarly periodicals, and his books have been translated into a dozen languages. Tom hosts the Tom Woods Show, a libertarian podcast that releases a new episode every weekday. With Bob Murphy, he co-hosts Contra Krugman, a weekly podcast that refutes Paul Krugman's New York Times column.

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