Neocon Shock and Horror

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Nearly two years after its release I continue to get emails about, and to observe praise and condemnations of, my Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Early next year I have another book on American history (that I finished in July) coming out, and my efforts will have to be directed there. So when it was suggested that I briefly review what has transpired in the P.I.G. affair, I figured I was game for one more go.

I didn’t manage to keep track of every review, news item, and interview related to the book, but there is at least a decent summary of things here. Naturally the book didn’t get the kind of scholarly attention that this one did, but it wasn’t intended to: it was pitched to the general reader as an overview of some important material that was likely left out of his classroom experience.

Although the book received plenty of kind reviews by a great many people — I was especially pleased by the ones that appeared in The Mises Review (here) and The American Conservative (not online) — it’s more interesting to say a few words about the negative ones. The most important ran on the New York Times editorial page, and for the most part consisted of listing the forbidden things I’d said without troubling to inform us why they were wrong. Why, these things just shouldn’t be said, that’s all! (It’s probably not necessary to point out that my sales rank shot up again following the Times’s condemnation.)

Incidentally, not long after the New York Times hit piece (which I believe is now available online only for a fee; my reply is free here), the Times actually let me give my part of the story in the form of a favorable profile by writer Natalie Canavor, who interviewed me in my office for 90 minutes. Complete with a picture of me smiling at my desk, the resulting article "Revisionist History? A Professor Hopes So," was on balance favorable toward the very person they’d condemned as an enemy of society not a month earlier. What a riot. (I do appreciate and thank Natalie Canavor.)

What has amazed me most is the longevity of Max Boot’s review. Boot personifies every appalling and jingoistic feature of what we laughingly call conservatism today. As I’ve noted in the past, Boot famously observed in late 2001 that the United States had not suffered enough casualties in its War on Terror, and later called for a “Freedom Legion” of foreign soldiers who could serve in that war. With the U.S. military increasingly strapped, Boot explained, we need to realize that there is “a pretty big pool of manpower that’s not being tapped: everyone on the planet who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.” This is a good idea, according to Boot, because (among other things) congressmen would have fewer scruples about sending non-Americans into battle than they would about sending their own constituents. (As we’ll see below, leftist bloggers happily linked to Boot’s angry review of my book — I guess they can overlook all that immigrants-as-cannon-fodder stuff in order to go after an iconoclastic historian who strays from allowable opinion.)

Juan Cole’s assessment of Boot is right on the money:

Boot never saw a war he didn’t love, never saw a conquest he didn’t find exhilarating, never saw an occupied land he didn’t think could be handled. He wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he monstrously expressed approval of the way the US killed 200,000 Filipinos to make the occupation of the Philippines stick. July 6, 2003 NYT: “The United States eventually won, but it was a long, hard, bloody slog that cost the lives of more than 4,200 American soldiers, 16,000 rebels and some 200,000 civilians. Even after the formal end of hostilities on July 4, 1902, sporadic resistance dragged on for years. There is no reason to think that the current struggle in Iraq will be remotely as difficult. But the Philippine war is a useful reminder that Americans have a long history of fighting guerrillas — and usually prevailing, though seldom quickly or easily.”

Every neocon who dislikes me solemnly refers to Boot’s review of my book. But the Boot review is probably the worst of all. For instance, Boot dismisses my criticism of Harry Truman — the neoconservatives’ favorite Democrat — for going to war in Korea without a congressional declaration of war; don’t I know that "previous presidents had sent U.S. troops into battle hundreds of times without any declaration of war"? This laughable hundreds-of-times claim originated as a piece of official propaganda during the Korean and Vietnam Wars (as I show here), so at least in reviewing my book Boot didn’t have to set aside even for a moment the principal neocon task of being a government shill.

Again in typical neocon fashion, Boot distills important questions into bumper-sticker slogans, with failure to endorse the U.S. government’s position indicating "sympathy" for the other side. Thus my "sympathy extends not only to slave-owning rebels but also to German militarists." (Yes, that’s a sensible summary of my views: I favor private property, individual rights, and peace — except when slave-owners or German militarists violate those things, in which case I abandon all my principles and stand up and cheer. Teutonoslavotarianism, I call it.)

I sympathize with German militarists, you see, because I think it was a bad idea for Woodrow Wilson to send armed merchant ships, ordered to fire on surfacing submarines, into a war zone, at a time when the country was overwhelmingly in favor of peace. I also have this crazy idea that Britain’s starvation of 750,000 German civilians — 150 times as many people as the Germans are estimated to have killed in Belgium — was kind of bad.

Boot’s discussion of my position on the Fourteenth Amendment — hilariously, he’d apparently never heard the view, most recently advanced by historian Forrest McDonald, that it was not constitutionally ratified — takes a single sentence out of context in order to make it seem that I opposed the Amendment because it disqualified ex-Confederates from holding political office. (As if someone with my views gives a hoot who serves in government.) As anyone can see, I argued that that was one of the reasons that nineteenth-century Southerners opposed the Amendment.

The real reason to be concerned about the Amendment — not that anyone reading Boot’s review would know it — is its utility to the federal government as an entering wedge into local concerns, a phenomenon well documented by Gene Healy. Boot, a nationalist to the core, has more interest in the burning question of how to recruit Togolese nationals into the U.S. Army than in the centralizing implications of the Fourteenth Amendment, but he should probably mention them all the same. (My lengthier reply to Boot, incidentally, appears here.)

Ronald Radosh, New Leftist-turned-neoconservative, referred in his own review to what he called the "tough-minded and accurate blast by Boot." To this day I still shake my head at that phrase. Radosh, himself a professional historian, is so committed to neoconservatism that he can bring himself to endorse this tissue of nonsense? Is Boot’s discussion of presidential war powers "accurate," Professor Radosh? Is his summary of the Principles of ’98 "accurate"? Was U.S. entry into World War I such an act of sheer genius that criticizing it is necessarily perverse?

The occasional leftist review reflected sheer horror at my temerity in pulling down the icons of Lincoln, FDR, and the rest of the "great presidents" before whose august visages we are supposed to wave incense as we meditate upon our unworthiness. Several reviewers actually called the book "jingoistic." Could they even have read it? What is "jingoistic" about a book that celebrates no American war other than the War for Independence? In the Age of Bush you might think the left, while not necessarily starting up a Tom Woods fan club, might at least be satisfied that a bestselling book being read by many conservatives denounced modern presidential war powers and glorified not a single American war — and therefore didn’t feed into the worst and most despicable aspects of modern conservatism.

Instead, left-wing law professors linked to Max Boot’s review, indicating that rather than just staying out of the dispute — or, heaven forbid, siding with me — they preferred to direct their readers to someone who 1) believes the president may send as many troops as he likes anywhere he likes without needing anyone’s consent; 2) wants to recruit foreigners into the U.S. Army because congressmen would be more likely to send them than native-born Americans into harm’s way; and 3) thinks the U.S. government’s suppression of Filipino nationalists was just peachy. I’d love to hear an explanation of how these positions are preferable to the conclusions of my book, or why I, an antiwar antistatist, am a more dangerous person than Boot.

Once in a while, incidentally, I hear from a libertarian who criticizes the book’s occasional arguments from the Constitution — i.e., its claims that this or that government measure violated that document. Who cares about the Constitution, demand these critics, since what matters are natural rights rather than positive law — and Lysander Spooner already showed that the Constitution isn’t truly binding anyway.

Whatever their merits, though, these arguments are beside the point. It is not to make a fetish of the Constitution to observe that the federal government has systematically denigrated and ignored it, or interpreted it in tendentious ways. A rather good proselytizing point for our side, it seems to me, involves calling attention to the federal government’s contempt for the Constitution, the very rules it agreed to observe. I know of a number of people who abandoned their fairly conventional conservatism once it finally hit them that a "return to the Constitution" would be unstable and impermanent even if it were possible, since a piece of paper that the government alone interprets is unlikely to keep that same government restrained. (Congressman Ron Paul, a great hero to libertarians, makes appeals to the Constitution all the time, but I have not heard these critics condemn him for treachery or betrayal — not that I hope to.)

Perhaps we’ll be able to start up the fun all over again next year with the release of the new book. More importantly, I hope people will lend their support to Tom DiLorenzo’s important (and excellent) new book, which I’ll be writing about following tomorrow’s official release.

Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. He is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

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