How interesting it is that the mainstream left and neoconservative right are equally appalled by Tom Woods’ book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. But it makes sense. Unlike many libertarians, I never really thought of the conventional history taught in schools as uniformly “leftist,” but rather as simply pro-establishment. Statist liberals and conservatives both have a stake in preserving the historical interpretation that upholds Lincoln, Wilson and FDR as the great heroes in the sweep of American history.
Notice one of the frequent critiques you’ll hear from the mainstream: So-and-so’s view sounds just like the “fringe” right (or the “radical” left)! Those who dare question the conventional wisdom on the Cold War are attacked as being in bed with the "anti-American" left. Those who point out Allied atrocities in World War II are condemned as being sympathetic to the "reactionary" right. A consistent libertarian history will be mischaracterized as being pro-Southern slavery, pro-Kaiser, pro-Nazi, pro-Communist, pro-inequality, pro-racism, pro-”Islamofascist,” or pro-anything bad that the U.S. state supposedly expanded to defeat. These attacks often come from people who have adopted the worst possible memes of establishment history.
After twelve years of boring, dull and transparently superficial history as taught in the state-school system — after learning about the great Christopher Columbus and heroic George Washington — many students understandably see leftist revisionism as a refreshing change. Leftist college professors expose many of the crimes of the U.S. military during the 20th century, vilify various American presidents and big businessmen, attack both American capitalism and the American empire. It’s not totally sound analysis, but it is nevertheless more critical and exciting than what is taught earlier.
In reaction to leftist academia, a neoconservative historical tradition has blossomed. Offering a treatment of history not nearly as hostile to dead white men, this new interpretation attracts many who, after years of being exposed to leftist revisionism, seek a refutation of the leftism as well as a conceptual restoration of the United States to its unique pedestal of glory and place in the sun.
Often, this leads to the worst of all worlds. Coming first from the primary-school mythology and then from leftist revisionism, and therefore never particularly loyal to or even familiar with the classical liberal principles of free markets, individualism, and spontaneous order, leagues of students leave behind the best, most anti-authoritarian and antiwar elements of leftist scholarship, while retaining its essential collectivism, and ultimately come to embrace to U.S. warfare state in all its endeavors in history. Thus we see a vast number of thinkers wield an anti-leftist and yet anti-libertarian view on virtually all American historical events. They end up cherishing the worst Founding Fathers, relishing the violence rather than the libertarian spirit of the American Revolution, making contextual excuses for slavery and the Mexican War in the Antebellum years, adopting Lincoln cultism and praising the defeat of Southern secession, brushing off the massacres of the American Indians, accepting unquestionably the establishment line on Reconstruction, championing both the genuine monopolist robber barons and the Progressive Era politicians with whom they conspired, glorifying Woodrow Wilson’s idealism and his "reluctant" propelling of America into World War I, crediting the New Deal for ameliorating the Great Depression and World War II for vanquishing totalitarianism all while slinging mud at Roosevelt’s detractors, making excuses for such horrors as Japanese Internment, sanctifying the Cold War as an ideological struggle between U.S. democratic capitalism and Communist imperialism, admiring the Great Society, and excusing all recent U.S. military interventions, especially in the Middle East. The neoconservative version of American history sees 230 years of linear progress, with a U.S. state expanding at home and abroad to defeat all manners of evil and tyranny.
Mainstream historical conventions are not naturally inclined to bend and adapt in the light of uncomfortable facts, and the New Right interpretation is probably more statist than that of the mainstream left. Whereas the mainstream left is at least somewhat critical of the post-World War II U.S. warfare state, the neoconservative history jumps at the chance to defend every war. And although the mainstream left is certainly more attached to many particulars of the domestic welfare state, the neoconservatives offer no fundamental opposition. The massive regulatory and welfare-state apparatuses that became fastened to the American economy, especially during the New Deal and Great Society, receive louder accolades on the left, but the statist right sees such programs as welfare as needing only tweaking around the edges and new management. Perhaps they see social programs as too robust, but, viewing the state as some sort of paternalistic figure, both for Americans and potentially for the world, cutting welfare programs is seen in the same vein as reducing an allowance to a child, rather than as returning liberty to all those suffering under the system.
The New Right historical school is also worse than the mainstream left, in that it poses, much like the New Right in general, as the more politically incorrect, the more patriotic, and the friendlier to the ideas of freedom and free enterprise. But its reactionary political incorrectness is best represented by its willingness to apologize for U.S. crimes that the far left enthusiastically denounces and the mainstream left cautiously questions, and its affinity to "patriotism," "freedom" and "free enterprise" rarely boils down to anything more than an embrace of U.S. nationalism, warmongering and state-capitalism. The New Right scholarship seeks the benefits of positioning itself against the anti-American dogmatism allegedly saturating the left, which in turn allegedly dominates academia, all the while disassociating itself with the less politically correct elements of the right, which supposedly stand in the way of reasonable social engineering and the civilizing "progressive" welfare state. It is quite attractive to those who have rejected the leftist viewpoints, not out of a belief in individualism, but out of a reactionary desire to defend the conservative and militaristic aspects of the U.S. government.
The mainstream left historians, if a little better, are not by much. Correctly seeing the enormous potential for social democratic engineering that exists in the framework of the corporate state, they are not nearly as critical of corporatism as those further on the left. They see the Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society as wonderful developments, not as cynical schemes of the ruling class to entrench corporate power and keep the people from revolting, which is how many on the far left regard them. They do not have as much beef with the police state as their "fringe" colleagues on the farther left, nor are they nearly as critical of U.S. wars as they should be and are laughably accused of being by the New Right.
So the mainstream forces, both left and right, seek to maintain a story of history most favorable to the status quo. They have small disagreements with each other, but by and large accept the historical case for the expansive U.S. state.
It is little wonder that many of the most trenchant and fundamental, however imperfect, critiques of American history, and especially of the largest expansions and projects of the warfare state, appear on the fringes, outside mainstream historical opinion. As truly problematic as the fringes are, with their fair share of kooks and troubling economic and historical theories, they are much less inclined than the mainstream to show enthusiasm for violations of civil liberties, the war on drugs, perpetual warfare, or the corporate-social democratic state as it now functions. You will see the far left and far right more willing to condemn the atrocities at Waco and Ruby Ridge and U.S. military interventions and police-state terror — and stand accused of sympathizing with all the views and sins of those enemy regimes and fringe elements pit against the U.S. government.
Such accusations are a ruse. Those who seek fundamental change in the system are simply less attached to the conventional myths and legends. When those myths and legends involve the whitewashing of great atrocities, such as the firebombing of Tokyo, the carpet bombing of Cambodia, or the invasion of Iraq, it comes as no surprise that the people who consistently bring attention to such white elephants in American history are branded as extremists and friends of the fringe. Likewise, those who realize the stark depth of propaganda involved in the conventional history are probably more likely than others to move toward the "extreme" wings of political and philosophical thought, searching for fundamental answers to what appear to be fundamental problems in the ways humans have historically organized themselves — and they, too, whether or not they deserve it, will be denounced as fringe intellectuals, as if that negates whatever valid ideas they may have.
Conventionally accepted wisdom has served as cover for many of the greatest shams and crimes against humanity in world history. Now, it is true that conventionalism has at times been replaced by intellectual movements that were no better or even far worse than what they replaced, and surely many on the fringes would be very dangerous if they enjoyed power and universal, unquestioning obedience. But a principled sensitivity to peace, individualism and liberty, when applied to history, can hardly do evil. Furthermore, if it weren’t for those willing to stand outside the mainstream and challenge convention, human progress would grind to a halt. Slavery, theocracy, and feudalism were all at one time universally upheld in conventional thought. Today statism of various stripes still enjoys dominance in conventional historical study. When statism falls and liberty triumphs, it will necessarily be due to men and women who stood outside the bounds of what was rigorously defended as acceptable thought, shaking up and making trouble for the establishment.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.