Jewish World Review Jan 26, 2005/ 16 Shevat, 5765
Restoring and reclaiming history ... 10 minutes with best selling historian Thomas Woods
Thomas Woods is a college history professor with a surprise hit on his hands.
His upbeat look at our past, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History," (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) has become a best-seller by putting a decidedly different spin on the liberal "facts" and myths we learned from our school textbooks.
Thanks to its catchy title, breezy style and "old-fashioned conservative" point of view, the guide has been on The New York Times' best-seller list for five weeks. It's receiving high praise from the likes of Pat Buchanan, who recently called Woods the most original thinker of 2004.
Woods teaches history at the State University of New York. I talked to him Tuesday by telephone from his Long Island home:
Q: Is this just a conservative version of history compared to the "liberal" mainstream version we've grown up with?
A: That's the way The New York Times has interpreted it, but I think that's not a fair assessment, because then my book is no more valuable than the typical left-wing book. Then my book is just another piece of propaganda. To the contrary, my book is simply telling the truth. I've got citations all over the place. I've got 10 pages of bibliography. This is not a piece of propaganda. It's trying to correct the record, frankly.
Q: What specifically is so different about your version of history?
A: Number one, the book, unlike the typical American history textbook, has a real sympathy for the free market economy and does not make the free market the scapegoat for every ill in America. To the contrary, it shows how central market economics has been to American prosperity. It doesn't go after businessmen as the source of all evil and portray government as the repository of people who are just disinterested crusaders for justice, for example. Secondly, it's sort of Jeffersonian. It has sympathy for the idea of local self- governance. Unlike the typical treatment of American history, it does not portray the centralization in Washington as an unambiguously progressive development that the more power gets centralized, the better the country is. ... Finally, it also covers things that just sometimes aren't covered at all. For example, I have a chapter called "Yes, Communist sympathizers really existed." I talk about the '20s and '30s, when you had a lot of prominent people in the American left, seriously, with a straight face, suggesting that the Soviet Union could be a great model for America. That's really embarrassing today, so you don't really read anything about that in a typical textbook, but I think that's an important moment in history that should be recorded.
Q: What's the worst thing that students learn when they are taught U.S. history?
A: The story of the Great Depression that you learn in school is that the free market caused the Depression and the government solved it. That's the way the left thinks about the economy in general that the economy does this and then we need government to step in. That is just about as wrong as wrong can be, but it goes to show you that historians have certain presidents they like and you can tell the presidents they like because they are always the presidents that centralize power and increase the power of the federal government. When you read a textbook's take on Franklin Roosevelt, you could almost hear the pompoms in the background.
There isn't even a pretense of objectivity.
Q: Who is your favorite president?
A: My favorite is probably Martin Van Buren (1837-1841). No one's even heard of him, but my friend Jeff Hummel wrote an article arguing that he was actually the greatest American president. Here was a guy when the economy was bad (who) resisted the temptation to expand government power in response. He said, "Look, this is going to repair itself. That's the way the economy works." ... (H)e was a small-government president at a time when all the pressures were there to be a big-government president.
Q: What is a book that the establishment or liberal historians don't want us to read, and why should we read it?
A: I would say it would be Thomas Sowell's "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?" It's about 140 pages, but it pretty much overturns just about every piece of propaganda you've ever heard with regard to black and white income differences and whether they are caused by racism. Sowell is hated by the establishment because he dares to be black and conservative at the same time, which is absolutely not allowed. I've assigned this book year after year to my students. I cannot get over how much myth-busting he has included in such a short book. It was a model for my own book. You put this book down and you say to yourself, "How was I ever duped by any of this stuff?"
Q: Can you define your politics and how they affect your book's political incorrectness?
A: I'm the sort of conservative you would have read in National Review in the '60s and '70s. Conservatism today is kind of disappointing to me, because it doesn't seem to have the old commitment to limited government and some of the principles that I believed in.
I understand that John Kerry was a bad guy, but that doesn't mean George Bush is the second coming of Christ. For heaven's sake, he's expanded government faster than anyone since LBJ, and if we have any principles, we have to be willing to say that, even about Republicans. I think of myself as basically an old-fashioned conservative, and the way that affects the book is that I take that kind of perspective on every aspect of American history. A lot of conservatives today would cheer a lot of aspects of American history that I don't cheer. They would cheer, for example, the 14th Amendment as a wonderful advance for justice protecting people's rights. But I actually think the 14th Amendment is the beginning of the end of the Old Republic, because, again, it centralized power in Washington.
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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2005, Bill Steigerwald