|This article is reason for great concern. The rewriting of history has become, in this case, a tool by which to not only misrepresent the truth but to define the present situation. As Cohen says, it is a call to action. Can this be? RLC || |
The Difference Between Politically Incorrect and Historically Wrong
Published: January 26, 2005
f you're going to call a book "The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History," readers will expect some serious carrying on about race, and Thomas Woods Jr. does not disappoint. He fulminates against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, best known for forcing restaurants and bus stations in the Jim Crow South to integrate, and against Brown v. Board of Education. And he offers up some curious views on the Civil War - or "the War of Northern Aggression," a name he calls "much more accurate."
The introduction bills the book as an effort to "set the record straight," but it is actually an attempt to push the record far to the right. More than a history, it is a checklist of arch-conservative talking points. The New Deal public works programs that helped millions survive the Depression were a "disaster," and Social Security "damaged the economy." The Marshall Plan, which lifted up devastated European nations after World War II, was a "failed giveaway program." And the long-discredited theory of "nullification," which held that states could suspend federal laws, "isn't as crazy as it sounds."
It is tempting to dismiss the book as fringe scholarship, not worth worrying about, but the numbers say otherwise. It is being snapped up on college campuses and, helped along by plugs from Fox News and other conservative media, it recently soared to No. 8 on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list. It is part of a boomlet in far-right attacks on mainstream history that includes books like Jim Powell's "FDR's Folly," which argues that Franklin Roosevelt made the Depression worse, and Michelle Malkin's "In Defense of Internment," a warm look back on the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
It is not surprising, in the current political climate, that liberal pieties are being challenged, and many of them ought to be. But the latest revisionist histories are disturbing both because they are so extreme - even Ronald Reagan called the Japanese internment a "grave wrong" and signed a reparations law - and because they seem intent on distorting the past to promote dangerous policies today. If Social Security contributed to the Depression, it makes sense to get rid of it now. If internment was a good thing in 1942, think what it could do in 2005. And if the 14th Amendment, which guarantees minorities "equal protection of the law," was never properly ratified - as Mr. Woods argues - racial discrimination may be constitutional after all.
At the start of the "Politically Incorrect Guide to American History," Mr. Woods says he is not trying to offer "a complete overview of American history." That frees him to write a book in which major historical events that do not fit his biases are omitted, in favor of minutiae that do. The book has nothing to say about the Trail of Tears, in which a fifth of the Cherokee population was wiped out, or similar massacres, but cheerfully points out that "by its second decade Harvard College welcomed Indian students."
The "Politically Incorrect Guide" is full of dubious assertions, small and large. It makes a perverse, but ideologically loaded, linguistic argument that the American Civil War was not actually a civil war, a point with which dictionaries disagree. More troubling are the book's substantive distortions of history, like its claim that the infamous Black Codes, passed by the Southern states after the Civil War, were hardly different from Northern anti-vagrancy laws. The Black Codes - which were aimed, as the Columbia University historian Eric Foner has noted, at keeping freed slaves' status as close to slavery as possible - went well beyond anything in the North.
The book reads less like history than a call to action, since so many of its historical arguments track the current political agenda of the far right. It contends that federal courts were never given the power to strike down state laws, a pet cause of states' rights supporters today. And it maintains that the First Amendment applies only to the federal government, and therefore does not prohibit the states from imposing religion on their citizens, a view that Clarence Thomas has suggested in his church-state opinions.
Most ominously, it makes an elaborate argument that the 14th Amendment was "never constitutionally ratified" because of irregularities in how it was adopted. This, too, is a pet cause of the fringe right, one the Supreme Court has rejected. If it prevailed, it would undo Brown v. Board of Education and many other rulings barring discrimination based on race, religion and sex. But Mr. Woods does not carry his argument to its logical conclusion. If the 14th Amendment was not properly ratified, neither, it would seem, was the 13th, which was adopted under similar circumstances, and slavery should be legal.
These revisionist historians have started meeting pockets of resistance from those who believe they are rewriting reality to suit an ideological agenda. A group called Progress for America recently produced an ad that, incredibly, used Franklin Roosevelt's picture to support President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. But Progress for America lost the public relations war when James Roosevelt Jr., F.D.R.'s grandson, announced that his grandfather "would surely oppose the ideas now being promoted by this administration."
Then there was the large Christian school in North Carolina that assigned its students a booklet called "Southern Slavery: As It Was." At first, the school argued that the booklet - which describes slavery as "a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence" - simply provided a valuable "Southern perspective." But after North Carolina newspapers reported on its contents, and quoted local pastors expressing their concern, the school quietly withdrew the text last month, apologizing for the "oversight."