Last of the Confederates
CONSERVATIVES often complain, with good cause, about America-hating left-wing radicals in academia. Yet in recent weeks, a college professor who co-founded an organization that refers to the United States as an ''alien occupier" in its manifesto -- and whose 2001 essay blaming the ''barbarism" of American policies for Sept. 11 was picked up by Pravda, the Russian communist newspaper -- has received gushing praise on the conservative media circuit.
Meet Thomas E. Woods Jr., assistant professor of history at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island and author of ''The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History." A main selection of the Conservative Book Club, it has been propelled to the New York Times best-seller list with help from talk shows such as Fox News's ''Hannity & Colmes."
The book's back cover promises a refutation of ''myths" written into textbooks and popular history books by left-wing academics. But don't expect a book that celebrates American heroes and American accomplishments as an antidote to hand-wringing over the sins of dead white males.
If there are any American heroes in Woods's book, apart from the Founding Fathers, it's the Southerners who fought for the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln is on the villain side of the ledger.
Woods makes the disclaimer that ''no one, of course, mourns the passing of the slave system." However, he apparently thinks the Southern states should have been allowed to abolish slavery in due time without federal intervention. In any case, to hear Woods, the ''War Between the States" had hardly anything to do with slavery: The South really fought for self-determination, the North for its economic interests. (Ironically, on the latter point Woods is in agreement with most left-wing historians.)
The book's obvious sympathy for the Southerners and their suffering is matched by a lack of any acknowledgment of the horror of slavery -- or any moral revulsion at the fact that some Americans owned, and defended the ''right" to own, other human beings.
Much of the book's second half rails against the evils of American intervention abroad. As with the Civil War, the moral issues in World War II (Woods deplores US involvement) go virtually unmentioned. Woods rightly assails Franklin D. Roosevelt for his willingness to throw Eastern Europe to the Soviets -- then slams Harry Truman's strategy of assisting nations threatened by a communist takeover as more ''big government" liberalism. In one example of his selective approach to facts, he quotes an investigator's assertion in 1999 that no mass graves of ethnic cleansing victims were uncovered in Kosovo -- without mentioning that the remains of at least 4,000 were found by 2001.
''The Politically Incorrect Guide" isn't always incorrect. Woods is right that Cold War-era Soviet espionage was not just Joe McCarthy's fantasy. His critical view of FDR's New Deal is shared by mainstream free market economists. Unfortunately, whatever solid arguments this book has can only be tainted by association with Woods's ultra-reactionary extremism.
The full extent of that extremism is camouflaged in the book. The author's official bio leaves out the fact that Woods is a co-founder and member of pro-secession League of the South. Here's a sample of the League's views, from a position paper: ''Today's white Christian Southerners are the blood descendants of the men and women who settled this country and gave us the blessings of freedom and prosperity. To give away this inheritance in the name of 'equality' or 'fairness' would be unconscionable." While generously urging ''Christian charity" toward blacks, the paper denounces the idea that ''Southerners should give control over their civilization and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants."
Woods's own writings for publications such as The Southern Partisan are revealing. In a 1997 essay, he writes that the Confederacy's defeat was the ''real watershed from which we can trace many of the destructive trends" in modern America. He vilifies abolitionists and endorses a Southern theologian's description of slavery's defenders as ''friends of order and regulated freedom." There's a lot more, collected by University of North Carolina professor Eric Muller at www.isthatlegal.org.
Woods has complained about being judged on his old writings; yet, in an e-mail exchange, he would not repudiate any of his past statements or his association with the League of the South.
If you want to talk about America-hating professors, here's someone who hates nearly everything about the last 140 years of US history. Yet only a handful of right-of-center commentators -- Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.com, Max Boot in The Weekly Standard -- have spoken out against the book. Where's the outrage? Is this the kind of ideology conservatives want to be associated with? Does anything labeled ''politically incorrect" get a pass?
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.