The Politics of Politically Incorrect

Jeffrey Tucker points to this weak Slate denunciation of Thomas Woods' The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Though I have not read the book, it appears - as Tucker suggests - that neither has the reviewer, David Greenberg.

Let it be known that I agree with almost none of the paleoconservative/paleolibertarian agenda. I have absolutely no sympathy for confederate revivalism. Of the secondhand sources I've seen, including this review, a common criticism seems to be that Woods downplays the "plight of oppressed minorities," especially African slaves. And while I share Woods' disdain for "leaders who enlarge government, seek social justice, or take the country to war," this is no reason to ignore or excuse the obvious plight suffered by non-white, non-male, non-protestant, non-straight groups, merely because White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and other powerful majorities did not always use the terrible fist of the state to enforce their bigotry.

Despite all of this, Greenberg's criticisms are way off the mark. He ridicules the book for its "User-friendly... layout," for being "chock-full of pull-quotes, subheads, bulleted lists, short sentences, and two- and three-sentence paragraphs," and for being the intellectual equivalent of "History for Dummies." Okay, so it's not written for a scholarly audience. So what? Did it ever claim to be? Why do some academics subscribe to this elitist nonsense that writing for a popular audience is somehow shameful?

Greenberg complains that the following simplistic assertions deserve to be debunked: "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." Woods "doesn't even acknowledge that rival interpretations exist," Greenberg whines. Who cares? So Woods has an axe to grind and doesn't feel like taking the time to acknowledge all of the competing viewpoints, which is quite a reasonable position for Woods to take when you consider the fact that most highschool and college history textbooks don't acknowledge Woods' own interpretations. And since when are any of these positions so outlandish? Many of these are mainstream views among economists, if not historians, and many are even shared by the more radical parts of the academic left. I mean, if the standard story taught to young people wasn't the same old "FDR's New Deal saved capitalism from itself," maybe I could get on board with Greenberg's concerns. But to say that Woods shouldn't offer alternative views to popular dogma - views shared by a great many other scholars - is utter nonsense.

And then, outrageously, Greenberg takes his intellectual elitism one step further, praising the "conservative elites," who, "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."

These anti-intellectual conservatives, Greenberg tell us, have

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.

Full stop. Are you telling me that people like Thomas Woods are at fault for thinking that the "independent, nonpartisan expert authority" of academia - a group dominated by leftists and unrepentant Marxists who feel entirely comfortable publishing their propaganda as scholarship - are not quite as independent, nonpartisan or expert as some might have us believe? That the American Bar Association, like the American Medical Association, may have a few political axes of its own to grind, in favor of the status quo and its own selfish interests? That the mainstream media is - gasp! - "liberal, slanted, and unreliable"?

Now, I too harbor an underlying respect for the values of higher education, science, reason, and expertise as much as the next guy, but where was David Greenberg when Howard Zinn first came out with his radical leftist diatribe against America, A People's History of the United States? Where is Greenberg when this very same Marxist interpretation of American history is used as a textbook on college campuses all across the country? Where's your precious "independent, nonpartisan expert authority" now, professor?

This is not to say that Greenberg gets everything wrong. He does make one good point, regarding this strange conservative affinity for being "political incorrect" for its own sake. Writes Greenberg,

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.

This is especially true of paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians, who for some reason take great pride in trying in, as Greenberg puts it, resurrecting justifiably discredited ideas. Roderick Long made a similar criticism a while back:

Libertarians describe the PC crowd as hypersensitive and too easily offended. The charge is often valid. But being hyperinsensitive, and too easily offensive, is no improvement.

T-shirts that read "Politically Incorrect!" are popular within our movement. But why, exactly, is political incorrectness something to brag about? The idea, presumably, is that we are independent-minded folk who hew to no party line. And it's certainly true that a great deal of silliness and even downright evil has been perpetrated in the name of political correctness (as well as in the name of just about anything else, it should be noted). And the tendency for concerns about hegemony and domination to melt away when the hegemony and domination are being exercised by the state for politically correct purposes can be breathtakingly hypocritical. But just how independent-minded is it to assume that the PC crowd is right about nothing?...

Is it not true that the contributions of women, minorities, and nonwestern cultures have traditionally been marginalised and excluded? One needn’t want to give George Washington Carver more pages in the history textbooks than George Washington to agree that the PC folks are on to something here. And look at the anti-Muslim, pro-war hysteria that’s sweeping the country these days. The PC crowd, bless ‘em, are certainly on the right side of that one. Libertarians should regard the PC crowd the way we regard conservatives: as potential allies. Often infuriating and wrongheaded potential allies – but nonetheless people to cultivate, not to insult.

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Nice post Micha. I

Nice post Micha. I especially liked this particular point: "Okay, so it’s not written for a scholarly audience. So what? Did it ever claim to be? Why do some academics subscribe to this elitist nonsense that writing for a popular audience is somehow shameful?"

I recently had a commenter on my site who ridiculed Ellis for writing "popular history". His reasoning behind justifying that ridicule? It took Ellis on three years to write his current work, "His Excellency: George Washington". So frigging what, I say. If more historians wrote history books that interested a popular audience we might just have people deciding they want to read about, and learn from, the past.

I'm an ex-historian. I'll

I'm an ex-historian. I'll likely never read his book because I've seen these arguments before. Indeed, today he sent me an e-mail with a link to one of his articles at on the Civil War and I read it and sent him back an e-mail where I fisked it. I wasn't particularly impressed with the scholarship and it seemed to me that he was out of his field of expertise when he started to discuss the history of slavery in the Americas. As to issues like the New Deal making things worse, that's largely correct (of course the punitive tariff passed during the Hoover administration also made things worse), though there may been some temporary ameliorative effects from the efforts.

Anyway, this book, like Zinn's, is as best as I can tell a cherry-picking polemic and is to be treated as such. Ultimately, while it might temporarily fire up my passion re: Civil War history, its likely a rather boring read otherwise. :behead: