The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

The history behind current events.
March 11 2005 3:47 PM

History for Dummies

The troubling popularity of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

Book cover

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 Dummies meets 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.

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But Woods' 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' 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' 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' 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' 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' 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' 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' 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. 

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.