Encyclopedic Knowledge and Rapier Wit


Tom Woods' new best-seller, 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask, is a blockbuster. Here, the author of such works as The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History underscores his burgeoning status as the cleanup hitter of popular libertarian writing.

For those familiar with Woods' work, the encyclopedic knowledge and rapier wit on display here will come as no surprise. How fresh, invigorating, and just plain fun it is, however, to see him turn his gifts to some of the reigning misconceptions, distortions, and just plain idiocies pock-marking popular (and, in many cases, scholarly) understanding of the past.

So, for example, one of the chapters of 33 Questions considers the question whether Herbert Hoover really sat back and did nothing during the Great Depression. The answer, developed in dismaying detail, is "Alas, no!" Far from letting the American economy recover from the government-induced disequilibrium that brought on the Depression, Hoover took several steps to artificially prop up wages in various sectors, for example, which could only make the situation worse.

Hoover's response to the Great Depression was not so destructively interventionist as that of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, then, but Hoover should be "credited" with being bad enough; and, of course, for reasons exactly opposite those developed in the standard history textbook, in the popular media, and by Doris Kearns Goodwin on NPR and PBS.

Another randomly-selected chapter of this book is in response to the question "Did Bill Clinton really stop a genocide in Kosovo?" Anyone who depended for information solely on run-of-the-mill American newspapers or newsmagazines or on American TV in the 1990s will instantly respond "Yes, and thank God for Bill Clinton!"

But the answer is "No, there was FAR more ethnic cleansing after Clinton's intervention than before. And the people Clinton helped in the Balkans did not exactly turn out to be friends of the United States." (I will not spoil the surprises here, but the two chapters on American intervention in the former Yugoslavia are among the book's finest.)

Woods considers various other shibboleths of the Left (that Franklin Roosevelt ended the Depression, for example) and the Right (that Martin Luther King, Jr., favored non-discrimination, to take one illustration) in due time. Some of his chapters (such as the one on the debt American workers supposedly owe to the union movement, say, or the one on the "wildness" of the "Wild, Wild West") are non-partisan, as they deal with myths that virtually everyone in government, the media, and academia – not to mention the general population – accepts. He explodes them all. And, again, what FUN it all is!

Tom Bethell says on the dusk jacket that, "Every chapter taught me something new and unexpected." The same goes for me.

July 23, 2007