Times Malice, or Smearing Someone in the name of Good Journalism

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I suppose Tom Woods should have seen it coming. His newest book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History has made the New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction, so it was only a matter of time before the Gray Lady herself would weigh in on its contents. Recently, Adam Cohen did just that (on the editorial page, no less), and the results are utterly predictable.

Begins Cohen:

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.

In other words, Woods is a racist, or at least that is what the Times wants us to believe. In a fit of racial hatred, apparently Woods decided to "set the record straight," don his white hood, and sit down at his computer to compose something akin to Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Or, perhaps Cohen is trying to tell us that Woods’ creation is the second coming of the Times’ coverage of Stalin and the Soviet Union when Walter Duranty was the Gray Lady’s man in Moscow.)

Rather than dealing with the veracity of Woods’ claims, the purpose of my piece is to deal with the language and content of what Cohen has written. I do this because from where I see it, Cohen’s attack on Woods in what the publication self-proclaims to be the "newspaper of record" is composed of one set of logical fallacies after another. It is one thing to use the historical record to point out mistakes that someone else has committed; it is quite another to use the faulty rhetorical devices Cohen employs.

In that first paragraph, Cohen writes that Woods "fulminates against the Civil Rights Act of 1964." According to my World Book Dictionary, "fulminates" is defined as follows: "1. to thunder forth….2. to denounce violently." Now, it is one thing to say that one disagrees with something, but quite another to use words like "fulminates." The former permits one to engage in argument, while the other is used to denigrate and to paint the picture of a racist foaming at the mouth.

In the world of the New York Times, the only reason one could have for disagreeing with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could be racism. Things like private property rights and the rights of association (which the Times will defend when it benefits the newspaper and its ideological allies) simply are false fronts for racist thinking; no one could defend those things for any other reason. Thus, when someone points out just how far-reaching the law was, how it clearly violated much of the Bill of Rights, and how it used a tortured version of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, well, that "racist" simply must be shouted down.

To use Cohen’s own words, in this "review," he "does not disappoint." In other words, the first paragraph, as wrong-headed and evil as it may be, is only the beginning. Let us continue by examining the second paragraph:

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.”

One could write volumes on this paragraph alone, but for the sake of saving the trees of North America and not using all available computer disk space the world has to offer, I will try to be brief.

The term "arch-conservative talking points" is one that is used dismissively. In other words, if one identifies the book in this manner, then nothing else needs to be said, as everyone knows that "arch conservatives" are crazy. Now, I will say that a daily look at the Times editorial page reveals a number of "talking points" of the left. (Read the many articles by Nat Hentoff on how the Times editorialists smeared Justice Charles Pickering, falsely accusing him of being a racist, using the talking points from the Democratic National Committee and People for the American Way.) But when one identifies the book via the term "talking points," then Cohen apparently believes that he does not have to deal with any substantive arguments.

His statement: "The New Deal public works programs that helped millions survive the Depression were a u2018disaster,’ and Social Security u2018damaged the economy.’ The Marshall Plan, which lifted up devastated European nations after World War II, was a u2018failed giveaway program’" needs to be closely examined. Note that he does not address the arguments that Woods makes. In his book, Woods does not simply write that the New Deal was a "disaster" then go to his next subject.

Instead, he goes through the programs, pointing out what they did, and then examines a number of statistics that clearly demonstrate just how the New Deal was a drag on the economy. Furthermore, there is a wealth of scholarship on this subject; to say that the New Deal "helped millions survive the Depression" without backing up such a statement is simple nonsense. Likewise, there is much scholarship on the failings of the Marshall Plan.

It is interesting to see the use of logical fallacies at work here. While I doubt that Cohen or his editors keep copies of Irving Copi’s Introduction to Logic at their desks, it is helpful for one to be able to recognize fallacies when they appear. So far, we have seen a number of examples of the informal fallacy of appealing to a false "everyone knows it" line of reasoning. Instead of dealing with the arguments at hand, Cohen simply dismisses them because in Gray Lady World, "everyone knows" that the Marshall Plan was the single entity that "rebuilt Europe" after World War II or FDR "saved capitalism," or other such nonsense.

In the next paragraph, Cohen steps up his attacks:

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.

By labeling the book "far right," Cohen is able to avoid engaging in substantive argument, since "everyone knows" that the "far right" consists of a bunch of kooks. But that is not Cohen’s only sin. No, he decided to lump Woods in with Michelle Malkin and her infamous book. Keep in mind that what Cohen wants is for his readers to believe that Woods, too, was in favor of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

While I have never asked Tom his position on the internment, I suspect it is in line with what I have read on archive.lewrockwell.com regarding that subject, and I never had read anything on that page that is in agreement with Malkin’s position. In other words, Cohen is trying to associate Woods with an obnoxious political belief without knowing if Woods believed it or not. Somehow, I doubt the editors of the Times would permit such sloppy pronouncements if Cohen were reviewing the latest bit of plagiarism from Doris Kerns Goodwin.

Unfortunately, there is more, much more:

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.”

Again, we see Cohen’s blatant dishonesty at work. Perhaps the reason that Woods does not address the Trail of Tears is that there is nothing else that needs to be said about this sorry episode of U.S. History. Tom is addressing those issues that modern statist historians have distorted. (That is why I like to identify Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., as a "distorian," since the man has a problem with the truth.)

When it comes to the Trail of Tears, no revision is necessary. However, when one examines how the white settlers treated the Indians, perhaps it should be part of the record that Harvard had Indians as part of its student body. If nothing else, this is testament to the complexity of early American life. (Gee, I always believed that "thoughtful leftists" at the Times liked to believe that life is full of complexities. Guess I was wrong.)

Again, what we see here is a not-so-subtle attempt to paint Woods as a racist. By placing those two things together, Cohen is able to make the false point that Woods believes that life in the United States has been a wonderful, cheerful affair in which everyone got along quite famously. However, Woods simply is doing what revisionists do well: pointing out that the historical record just might be more complex than what Cohen wants us to believe.

Not surprisingly, Cohen saves his most heated rhetoric for Woods’ revisionist look at the "Civil War":

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.

If one has ever employed a greater use of the informal fallacy "appeal to authority," I would like to see it. Since dictionaries refer to the "Civil War" as a civil war, then Woods simply must be wrong. After all, dictionaries are the final authority to everything, I suppose.

The reference to the Black Codes again is based upon the "appeal to authority." By invoking the name of "Columbia University historian Eric Foner," we are supposed to assume that anything the man wrote is an oracle from the gods. (For that matter, Tom received his doctorate from Columbia. Does that not also make him one of the gods?)

Again, Woods did not simply make the "offending" statement, then move on. No, he examined the laws in question. Furthermore, Woods is able to poke holes in the discredited argument that makes northerners in general and Abraham Lincoln in particular look like Enlightened Liberals on race, something that is a favorite tactic of the "court distorians" of the Times. If Woods is wrong here, I would like to see something other than an appeal to authority punctuated with backhanded claims that Woods simply is a Klansman in a coat and tie.

Proof that Cohen is utterly ignorant of American History comes in the next paragraph:

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.

In fact, for a long time, the Supreme Court took just that position. The U.S. Constitution was a document outlining the separation of powers, and the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. Not until the language of the Fourteenth Amendment was later applied by jurists as part of the “Incorporation Doctrines” did the Bill of Rights become legally applicable to state law. As to the issue of states and churches, in the early years of the Republic, a number of states did have official churches. That is well-documented in history, and for Cohen to deny that this was the case is to engage in dishonest revisionism.

It is not just Cohen’s refusal to look at the simple historical record that makes such statements so irritating, however. The paragraph is full of loaded terms like "pet cause of states’ rights supporters today," and "a view that Clarence Thomas has suggested in his church-state opinions." In other words, because some groups hold to certain positions, and because Thomas has cited real history in his opinions, that alone discredits what Woods has written. Cohen is saying, in effect, that if Thomas writes anything, it must be wrong prima facae. At this point, we can safely say what Cohen has written is not a book review, but rather a leftist screed.

There is even more, as Cohen tries once again to paint Woods as a racist, but I believe I have made my points. Perhaps it is ironic that in trying to paint Woods as a liar, Cohen himself resorts to falsehoods and logical fallacies. I would like to say that I expected more from the New York Times, but to be honest, I received exactly what any objective observer of that self-proclaimed "newspaper of record" would have predicted. Indeed, the spirit of Walter Duranty lives on at the Times and Cohen is living proof.

January 27, 2005

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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