Why Conservatives Are So Upset with Thomas Woods's Politically Incorrect History Book
Writing in the New York Times on January 26, editorial board member Adam Cohen launched a major attack on Thomas Woods Jr.’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Rather than Woods's book being an effort to “set the record straight,” Cohen charges, it is something else: “an attempt to push the record far to the right.” Cohen finds that among other claims made by Woods, the most egregious is the author’s attempt to resurrect “the long-discredited theory of ‘nullification.’”
Cohen’s worry is that the Woods volume, which already had reached the best seller lists, was being grabbed up on the campuses and was a strong part of what he calls “a boomlet in far-right attacks on mainstream history.” Cohen does give lip service to the argument that it is good that many “liberal pieties are being challenged,” but he leaves this to a brief comment. His real concern is that Woods’s book is “full of dubious assertions, small and large,” and that the author makes “ideologically loaded” and “perverse” arguments. It amounts, he writes, to “rewriting reality to suit an ideological agenda.”
Reviewing the same book in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, columnist and author Max Boot joins the assault on the Woods volume. It is clear, particularly from the tough-minded and accurate blast by Boot, that Adam Cohen is indeed correct: Thomas E. Woods Jr. has written a propagandastic, cartoon-like portrait of the United States, which as Boot asserts, treats history as a “Bizarro world.” His book is, as Max Boot asserts, a truly “absurd manifesto.”
Printed in a tabloid-sized flashy mass market paperback format by Regnery, the book appears as a conservative antidote to the satire of Jon Stewart’s America: The Book, a volume that truly has taken over the undergraduate market by storm. Woods’s book is indeed filled with “substantive distortions of history,” a point elucidated well by Max Boot. Indeed, Woods has used a book I co-authored with Harvey Klehr, The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism, as the main evidence for his pathetic attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the late Senator Joe McCarthy. Any careful reader of our book -- a group that clearly does not include Mr. Woods -- will learn that what Klehr and I do write is that Joe McCarthy “cynically used the Amerasia affair” and was actually “indifferent to the facts of the case.” What Mr. Woods does with his excerpts from and citation of our book is to misuse our research and work for a politically contentious argument that is far from the truth.
In so doing, as with his entire book, Mr. Woods has fallen into the very trap set for him by Adam Cohen of the Times. His specious far-right assault on the truth has allowed others to use Woods’s book to blast any serious attempt to reinterpret our past from anything but a left/liberal perspective, and to undermine those who are attempting to do so in a serious fashion. Thus Mr. Cohen is strangely silent about the influence on the campus and the media of a far more influential and also deeply flawed history, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s ideological use of history from the perspective of the far-Left, has had more of an impact than Woods’s volume will ever have. Writing candidly to serve what Zinn calls a “social aim,” and to use history as part of the “social struggle,” Zinn’s narrative of America is, as the distinguished left-wing historian Michael Kazin has argued inDissent, about Americans who constantly strive to achieve equality and democracy but who are always defeated by a small group of rulers whose only concern is greed.
Zinn’s book, unlike Mr. Woods’s new right-wing vision of our past, has sold over one million copies, has been adopted in scores of high schools and universities, and has attained cult status with references to it in major motion pictures and television shows. It is typical of the New York Times to use a necessary attack on ideological history to make it appear -- through such an omission -- that the only sinners are on the far Right. Tellingly, Cohen does not alert Times readers to the quite different serious reinterpretation recently published, Larry Schweikart and Michael Patrick Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. Any reader of Schweikart and Allen’s book will see immediately that it is a serious and substantive volume, based on a full recognition of the important secondary sources written by our major historians. While one may differ with some of their judgments and conclusions, no one would accuse them of conscious ideological distortions of the facts. Rather than let its readers know that conservatives are equipped to write honest historical interpretations, the Times omits any reference to this new book and lets Woods’s nuttiness stand as the representative book of conservative thought.
I would suggest that it is the success and influence of such skewered left-wing versions of the American story as that by Howard Zinn that has opened the door for a similar crude response from the quarters of the paleoconservative Old Right.
- Eric Muller: What You Should Know About the Author of the NYT Bestseller, Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
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Edgar Aviles Corral - 3/18/2005
I find it quite interesting that it is non-conservatives that find the title of this book offensive, if not outlandish. Liberals, particularly, claim they are just as patriotic as, if not more than, conservatives. That's all fine and dandy, but if that is indeed the case, wouldn't it make sense that they should rejoice at such a title if, as they claim, they, too, are patriotic? But of course, we all know the opposite is true.
The only texts liberals are satisfied with are those that exclusively focus on American atrocities (which I don't deny, as a neo-con, have ever taken place). You cannot write one text praising your country from an admittedly pro-American point of view without being labelled a right-wing ideologue.
Michael Green - 3/10/2005
I presume that Mr. Radosh meant not "skewered" but "skewed," because it is so easy to skewer what he would deem conservative works. Consider the title he recommends: a PATRIOT'S history? Am I to presume that because I might be to the left of the author, I am not doing patriotic history? It might be good to bear in mind that a true patriot will stand by his or her country and praise it when it does right but criticize it when it does wrong.
More to his point: I do not agree with everything that Howard Zinn says. He did what we all do--even narrative and conservative historians--and sift the facts and interpret them. He interpreted some of them incorrectly, or so I believe. But I believe any errors he made were honest errors. That is more than I can say for the right-wing responses he has generated.
Lisa Kazmier - 3/7/2005
The author mentions a bunch of books I haven't read. I'm not an American historian. So, while I have some familiarity with the central topic as it has been covered, I don't know what's in the others to make them seem questionable (and is it at the same level of questionable-ness)?
- The Memorial Where Slavery Is Real
- Thomas Piketty accuses Germany of forgetting history as it lectures Greece
- Greek ‘No’ May Have Its Roots in Heroic Myths and Real Resistance
- 150 years later, schools are still a battlefield for interpreting Civil War
- Where are America's memorials to pain of slavery, black resistance?
- Historian: "I don’t want my students to simply choose sides in a polemic between heritage and hate"
- Harvard’s Nancy Cott says the conservatives in the gay marriage case have a stilted idea of the history of marriage
- Did a historian who said he’s a victim of McCarthyism get the story wrong?
- Stephanie Coontz’s work on the history of marriage cited by the Supreme Court.
- How Does It Feel To Have One’s Work as a Historian Cited by the Supreme Court? Cool. Very Cool. Thank You Very Much.