September 11, 2007

Two New Myth-Busting Books

I”€™ve just finished two books written by promising young scholars, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution by Kevin A. C. Gutzman and 33 Questions about American History You”€™re Not Supposed to Ask by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.  Neither of the authors seems interested in sounding like the staff of the Republican National Committee or getting invited to address plenary gatherings of the American Historical Association. Indeed Woods, who works as a resident scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, has engaged in heated disputes with establishment left American historian David Greenberg and neocon fixture Max Boot, shoot-outs in which he has given far better than he has taken. A Harvard honors graduate, who earned his doctorate at Columbia under Douglas Brinkley, and who while still in his thirties has published multiple historical and theological works, Woods is one of the brightest and most studious figures on the contemporary American Right. And despite his courteous manner and contemplative Catholic piety, he has no compunctions about taking apart the senile sixties leftovers who dominate his field.

The 33 questions about American history that he tackles touch upon a wide range of taboos, including what Martin Luther King really thought about racial quotas (he loved them), the fictitious character of the “€œwar-making powers”€ that American presidents have claimed and the disastrous economic effects of New Deal programs, which actually reached back into the Hoover administration. Although I have heard Tom discourse on many of these academically and journalistically approved distortions, I was nonetheless surprised by how much evidence he cites in proving his case. He never lets his opponents off the hook by ascribing their errors to well-meaning oversights. He properly notices that the falsehoods he underlines are usually connected to the same goal, justifying the increase of power at the center which is intended to reconstruct our consciousness and to project armed might beyond our borders. A less dangerous but equally despicable motive that one can find for certain misrepresentations is the zeal of victim lobbies, abetted by their academic enablers, to rip off the public by exploiting a widespread but misguided sense of guilt.

Tom never elaborates on the reasons that certain mistakes in our misrepresentation of the past are perpetuated, but it is easy to read between the lines. I was especially impressed by his demonstration of a disparity between the achievements, earning powers, and access to bank loans that exist between whites and Far East Asians”€”and which is almost as glaring as the one between blacks and whites. The Japanese-Americans, who were herded into detention camps and stripped of their property during World War Two, have not enjoyed any special privilege in white America. Nor are they receiving affirmative action benefits from either national party as the victims of past discrimination. Working hard and not living off government handouts certainly has advantages. And while both Japanese-Americans and Jewish Americans are overwhelmingly on the political left, both have succeeded by ignoring the pernicious policies that they are happy to have the government implement for others.

Gutzman’s study dealing with 200 years of misreading the US Constitution covers some of the same ground as Woods’s questions and answers. Despite his stellar publishing record as a constitutional historian, Kevin is forced to eke out a living far from the academic elites, at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut. That his study on the arrogation of power by the Supreme Court, going back to the tenure of John Marshall, is well done is confirmed by the glowing endorsement of the constitutional scholar, Lino A. Graglia, the renowned professor of law at the University of Texas. Graglia has made a memorable quip that Gutzman’s book supports, namely, that most books defending the courts”€™ “€œjurisprudence”€ designed to expand judicial power are merely redundant apologetics. But what distinguishes the present from the past, one might learn from Gutzman, is that there is no dramatic correction of judicial power that is taking place. In the nineteenth century, by contrast, such a process occurred periodically.

Gutzman cites as proof of his argument the opposing ways that the Commerce Clause was interpreted by the Federalist Marshall and by his Democratic successor Roger Taney. Marshall and his Federalist associates, particularly in Gibbon v. Ogden, a ruling dealing with a law passed by the state of New York to regulate its steamboat trade with New Jersey, declared that New York was interfering with interstate commerce. This was a power that Marshall asserted was limited to Congress. In a series of decisions between the 18030’s and 1860s, Taney tried to reverse this expression of “€œconstitutional nationalism,”€ by returning commercial and regulatory powers to the states.

Nothing as dramatic has occurred since the Warren Court hit its stride in the 1950s. In fact it seems unlikely that the social policy disguised as a judicial decision in Roe v. Wade, a decision that Gutzman easily shows was ideologically driven, will soon be reversed. What did not exist in the past was an entrenched political class including a onetime non-existent national media and public educational system. These are forces that operate to strengthen the policy-oriented decisions that the courts present, for example, when they overturn the decisions of local governments which contradict their social and cultural preferences. Although my students know little enough about Jesus or Julius Caesar, they have learned in public schools that our courts are expanding our “€œcivil rights.”€ They, or their high school social studies teachers, most certainly think that Roe v. Wade “€œprotects a woman’s reproductive rights.”€ Each time I hear this statement, I turn green with nausea. The reason is not so much the horror of the judicial fiat in question but the docile stupidity, masquerading as individualism, of those who give the predictable answer.

Although public educators and most of the media will likely ignore the works of Woods and Gutzman, they do suggest that honest American historians will continue to appear, despite the grim professional disincentives. It may be too much to hope that this tribe of honest people will greatly increase in the foreseeable future. I recall a conversation with a now retired historian about how American higher education has become “€œmore open”€ than it used to be. While mean, insensitive WASPs, according to my friend, used to keep “€œdiversity”€ from shining through, now we are fortunate enough to have feminists, Jewish Marxists, and self-conscious blacks and Hispanics enriching our higher education. The problems with this euphoric assertion are:
a) the new diversity-bringers would not be in their current high places unless the supposed bigots had advanced them in the first place; and
b) I see no evidence that higher education has become “€œmore open”€ as a result of the changes that my friend praised. On the intellectual level, just the opposite has transpired. When I attended Yale in the 1960s, long after Buckley had denounced its leftist bigotry in a famous book about his alma mater, one could still conceivably survive at that institution while saying the hard truths that Woods and Gutzman supply. In today’s diversitarian Yale and its counterparts across the country, a young prof would be out on his backside for even suggesting politically incorrect historical interpretations. How lucky we are to be in such enlightened times!

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