The Dartmouth Observer

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005
More bad history

Conservatives have been up justly up in arms over the ridiculous Ward Churchill, but perhaps they ought to pay more attention to their own faux "scholars," because right-wing revisionist hokum is becoming quite popular these days. Take for instance Michelle Malkin's In Defense of Internment, exhaustively critiqued by Eric Muller and Greg Robinson here. Another recent piece of propaganda, John J. Miller and Mark Molesky's Our Oldest Enemy, I blogged about several weeks ago. The latest is something called The Politically-Incorrect Guide to American History, by a certain Thomas E. Woods Jr., who has a BA from Harvard and a PhD from Columbia. As Max Boot points out in The Weekly Standard, don't let those impressive degrees -- or the appellation "politically incorrect" -- fool you into thinking that he's a real scholar. As a founding member of the neo-Confederate, secessionist League of the South, he's prone to making comments like these (hat tip: isthatlegal):
There has been more than one instantiation of the Klan in its history. There was the Klan that developed in the South during Reconstruction immediately after the war because it was thought that Northern troops were abusing Southerners, they were not really answerable to any law, there was martial law in effect in the South, and so the Klan was sort of a very ham-handed approach to deal with that situation.
Check out his book if you want more "evidence" that the Klan were just a bunch of "ham-handed" freedom fighters. Boot's not an academic historian, and his own Savage Wars of Peace suffers from selective examples and inadequate primary research, but he strikes me as being on the mark here.

Every work of history revises our understanding of the past by offering us a different vision of how things went, how people interacted, what caused what. But when an author -- David Irving, Gavin Menzies, Martin Bernal, Michelle Malkin, John J. Miller, Mark Molesky, Thomas Woods, etc. -- proclaims himself to be a revisionist historian, there's reason to be wary, especially if the author doesn't have solid academic credentials. And by solid credentials, I don't just mean a PhD from Harvard; I mean a tenured position at a reputable university (not Suffolk County Community College, where Woods teaches), with a series of peer-reviewed books and articles to one's name.

I'm not saying that books or articles by people without serious academic credentials should be ignored, and I'm far from implying that all's right with the American university and the tenure system. But when it comes to subjects like Nazi Jewish policy, Ming China, the origins of classical civilization, and Franco-American foreign relations, the general opinion of the experts cannot be so easily dismissed, as almost all revisionists do. History, like the other humanities, is by nature a conservative discipline, and I don't mean that in any political or ideological sense. I mean simply that our knowledge of the past, barring discoveries of major new sources, tends to increase slowly and incrementally, rather than by leaps and bounds. New interpretations of particular historical themes, periods, and people very rarely invalidate all earlier works.If you want to assert the truth of a particular reading of the past that goes against the mass of scholarly or even popular opinion, then the burden of proof is on you. You don't have to have a PhD, nor do you have to teach at Harvard (or even Suffolk County Community College). But you must engage the experts and not turn them into straw men, and you ought to have at least reading knowledge of the requisite languages.