A David Gordon Anthology
I recently ordered and am now eagerly devouring the anthology of David Gordon’s reviews and essays An Austro-Libertarian View published by the Mises Institute. Gordon belongs in more than one way to the institute that brought out this volume. Indeed in his Foreword he lets the reader know that when he first read Man, Economy and the State in 1962, he became a “convinced Rothbardian,” and “it is from this standpoint that I have written my articles.” This may understate the relation described. David was a close friend as well as disciple of Murray, who returned David’s admiration by describing him as a “universal genius unequalled in my experience.” Following what David characterizes as Murray’s “lamented death” in January 1995, he founded The Mises Review, at least partly to perpetuate the legacy of the thinker who influenced him the most profoundly. As someone who speaks to David with some regularity, I can testify to the fact that he often begins his sentences with the phrase “Murray would say.” That is meant to seal his argument in the same way that a medieval thinker might invoke Aristotle as a text proof.
None of this is meant to suggest that David writes as a slavish follower of anyone. Although many of the reviews in his anthology undoubtedly point back to Rothbard as an economist and critic of the state, there is something unique to David in all his sparkling essays. His predilections might often leave a conventional libertarian scratching his head, for example as when in a study of Patrick Allitt’s book Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985, he expresses his preference for the very right-wing Catholic authors, Thomas Molnar and Frederick Wilhelmsen as against the Catholic leftist Gary Will and the neocon celebrity Michael Novak. The reason given for this judgment is that the first set of Catholic intellectuals write with “intellectual power,” while the other two are mere celebrities attached to the American political establishment.
There is always a certain ambivalence in David’s assessments. Like Murray Rothbard, he prefers those who make coherent arguments to those who play to the crowd. He also prefers those who are true to themselves as opposed to those who seek social acceptance. Whence David’s generous judgment of the Southern traditionalist, M.E. Bradford, whose life and career were destroyed by the neocon press and whom he treats almost as the equal of his beloved mentor Rothbard. Although Bradford never described himself as a libertarian, his criticisms of the modern administrative state would have been the same as those of Rothbard or my own. But even more significantly, Bradford was an anti-establishmentarian who would sooner have died than compromise his integrity. (That was indeed his sad fate.)
David is one of the very few reviewers whose writings I can read with profit years after they were first printed. One learns from him new things every time one looks at his reviews about books one has read or at least glanced at. This I find is especially true about authors who never bowled me over but whose defects I had been insufficiently aware of before I consulted David.
In a notable review of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The New History and the Old in 2004, for instance, he concedes part of Himmelfarb’s polemic, about historians nowadays injecting fiction into their scholarship or giving up narrative history entirely. But David then examines Himmelfarb’s tendency to vent her moral indignation in what she wishes us to believe is a pure scholarly exercise. In a comment on A.J. P. Taylor’s controversial thesis that Hitler blundered into a world war when he attacked Poland in September 1939, Himmelfarb responds, as David points out, with a garbled “apriorism”: Since Hitler was a bad man, he must have planned the world conflagration that followed. Her statement about this matter (check page 363 in the anthology) is angry drivel that should not be confused with scholarship. In an equally effective dissection, Kenneth McIntyre in his biography of English historian Herbert Butterfield (that David reviews) shows that Himmelfarb attacked Butterfield, who was a veteran of World War One, for blatantly unprofessional reasons. Butterfield, we are told, had dragged his feet about supporting England’s entry into the war against Hitler and was therefore a bad person. Himmelfarb, who self-confidently judges the professionalism of other historians, has never felt the slightest scruples about dumping on scholars for failing to follow her political positions.
David has become famous or notorious for criticizing authors for factual errors or fallacies that others (like me) would have trouble noticing. One of his most devastating jobs in catching errors big and small is his review of an anthology of essays by historian John Lukacs, Remembered Past, edited by Jeffrey Nelson and Mark Malavasi as a “reader.” David does not leave a single generalization in these collected essays unchallenged and assails with particular fury Lukacs’s efforts to prove the uncertainty of truth claims by citing the mathematical theorem of Kurt Gödel and the quantum mechanics of Werner Heisenberg. According to David, Lukacs misrepresents both German-language scientists in order to advance his assertions about the relativity of historical knowledge.
If Lukacs is right that truth about the past is always relative, why should I believe his historical judgments any more than those of Nazi or Soviet historians? Of course it is defensible to claim, as I do in my study of fascism, that earlier ages often grasp historical events better than those who come later and whose judgments are more ideologically colored. It is also the case that historians necessarily examine the past in relation to their own time. But that it is not the same as saying that historians because of their location in time and place always interpret the past with an equal degree of bias. Although David applauds Lukacs’s censures about “the overly ideological approach to the Soviet Union” taken during the early phases of the Cold War, David also notes that Lukacs does not hesitate to “smear the American opponents of entry into World War II as German sympathizers.” David is right that this double standard is present in how Lukacs, for all his achievements as an historian, treats the history of the twentieth century.
Despite all my published diatribes against Jonah Golberg’s New York Times bestseller Liberal Fascism, I never fully fathomed the worthlessness of Goldberg’s testimony to conservative movement scholarship until I re-read David’s review yesterday. Goldberg, as David proves, attributes to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and to the Swiss-French political thinker J-J Rousseau positions they could not have possibly taken. One has to doubt whether Goldberg ever read a word of either. He also commits such howlers as mistaking the Jacobins during the French Revolution for communists and having Napoleon battle “the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” which was not created until 1867. In the “notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment,” fascist Democrats committed a true atrocity when “poor black men were allegedly infected with syphilis without their knowledge.” No such experiment ever occurred, as David explains: “Rather men, who already had syphilis were deceived into thinking they were being treated for their illness.” If President Trump sometimes blurts out questionable facts, one comes away from this critical assessment believing that next to Jonah the Donald practices rigorous scientific methods.