[Paleopsych] NYT: The Difference Between Politically Incorrect and Historically Wrong

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The Difference Between Politically Incorrect and Historically Wrong
January 26, 2005

[Is there a single thing Mr. Mencken would not have agreed with?]


The Difference Between Politically Incorrect and Historically Wrong


    If 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

    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 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

    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."

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