The Dartmouth Observer

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Sunday, January 02, 2005
America's Oldest Enemy?

The American Conservative has a review of John J. Miller and Mark Molesky's Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship With France, which has been hailed in some conservative circles as a Really Good Book. Well, apparently not, as Columbia's Robert Paxton points out. It isn't just that Miller and Molesky are obviously out to "furnish maximum negative spin and place most blame on the French" by "portray[ing] French malevolence toward Americans as so uniform and unchanging over the centuries as to seem virtually genetic." On a more fundamental level, it appears that they've even fallen for the undergraduate practice of taking their primary source quotations from secondary sources -- which happen to be by like-minded journalists. That won't do, especially when you consider that Molesky is a history professor with a Harvard PhD. I see that the authors have responded to Bernard-Henri Levy's hysteric review accusing them of fascism and racism. But he's an easy target. Let them take on a real history professor like Paxton.

An additional note: no one who writes about Rousseau and wants to be taken seriously should ever, ever accuse him, as Miller and Molesky do, of wanting "society razed to the ground before it could be built again." I'll point anyone who's interested in this topic to the Rousseau chapter in Jacques Barzun's Classic, Romantic, and Modern, which I re-read last week but don't have with me right now (I'll quote from it when I return home). Had the authors of Our Oldest Enemy bothered to read that little gem of a book, they might not have been so quick to accuse ol'Jean-Jacques of being directly responsible for the Terror. Given their general disregard for scholarly standards, probably not.