It is rare that the NY Times reviews a book on its editorial page, but that is where Adam Cohen pans Thomas Woods's new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History [PIGAH]. Mr. Cohen seems to be worried not only about what the book says, but also the effect it could have on current policy.
While he claims that the book is really just "incorrect history," he doesn't tell the reader a single incorrect fact that Thomas Woods writes. Instead he dismissively disagrees with Prof. Woods's interpretation of the affects of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, and the Marshall Plan without actually explaining why he is wrong. While I understand that space is limited on the Times' editorial page (perhaps that's why they decided to put the review there), it would be nice if Mr. Cohen made the slightest attempt to refute Prof Woods's interpretation of those issues.
There are only two ideas raised in PIGAH that he actually tries to justify dismissing. One is Prof. Woods's assertion that Jim Crow laws were modeled after Northern black codes. All Mr. Cohen does is state that Eric Foner disagrees with Prof. Woods and leave it at that. Prof. Foner is certainly a highly respected historian, but he is also a man of the Left, and his views on Reconstruction were considered revisionist at the time he first promulgated them and aren't universally accepted even among liberal historians today. The whole purpose of Prof. Woods's book is to overthrow misconceptions propagated by the likes of Eric Foner, so simply saying "Eric Foner disagrees with Thomas Woods" doesn't seem to be much of an argument. If we must appeal to authority, however, it should be noted that Prof. Woods's interpretation of Jim Crow laws and Northern black codes is no different than that of the late C. Vann Woodward, probably one of the most respected historians of the American South.
The only other place where Mr. Cohen tries to show why Thomas Woods is wrong is in regards to his views on the 14th Amendment being unconstitutional by saying that by Prof. Woods's argument the 13th Amendment (that abolished slavery) would be unconstitutional as well. In fact, Prof. Woods argues the exact opposite. The Southern States passed the 13th Amendment in 1865 when they were supposedly back in the Union that they never legally left. But when they opposed the 14th Amendment, the state governments were somehow illegitimate, and the Radical Republicans argued that the Amendment could be passed without their consent.
It should be noted that, while I recommend this book to everyone interested in American history, it can be read by high school students. Either Mr. Cohen can't comprehend a simple argument in a book that can be read by smart teenagers, or he is intentionally misrepresenting Prof. Woods's position.
It is also disingenuous to compare this book to Michelle Malkin's In Defense of Internment or the group Progress for America's attempt to appropriate Roosevelt as someone who would support their views on "privatizing" Social Security. Both of them view Franklin Roosevelt as a hero who American politicians should emulate, while Prof. Woods argues that he shouldn't be seen as a great president. Thomas Woods's book aims not only to discredit leftists, but also to make conservatives who admire Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt rethink their positions.
The only other criticism Mr. Cohen is left with is that this book is flawed because it is a corrective rather than a narrative. This leads him to argue that it allows Prof. Woods to ignore some injustices like the Trail of Tears where the Cherokees were forced to relocate and many of them died on the way. It is true that Prof. Woods does not harp on the injustices of the slave trade, the killing of American Indians, and the rest of the guilt fest that we commonly read in most modern textbooks. This does not mean that Prof. Woods thinks the forced removal of Indians or slavery was a good thing. The whole point of the book is to give people new views that they aren't exposed to in their regular US history textbooks. When I took American history in elementary school, high school, and in college, I heard about the Trail of Tears on many, many occasions. However I was never told, even in a college level class on the Civil War, that the Cherokee as well as four other Indian tribes fought for the Confederacy, which is just one of the many other facts and ideas that I'm sure many of the readers of the book were never told about in public schools.
PIGAH does not purport to be the first and last word in US history (unlike the NY Times, which purports to give us "all the news that's fit to print"), but rather to expose students and other people interested in US history to new, and yes politically incorrect, facts and ideas. Perhaps that's the reason why the NY Times is worried that so many people are reading it.
January 29, 2005