Jonah Goldberg And The Historians: Whose Schlock Is Being Gored?

In a recent assault on the intellectual Left, Jonah Goldberg complained about “the dreck” that is circulating in our culture courtesy of anti-American Leftist historians. [The Stone Truth: Left-Wingers Are Boring, National Review, December 7, 2012]

Jonah is especially exercised by Oliver Stone and his co-author, American University historian Peter Kuznick, who have published a “miasmic 700-plus-page tome”, called The Untold History of the United States Goldberg, whom we are led to assume is a maven on American history, the way he is on “liberal fascism,” is exasperated by how the Left, which he deems “boring,” dares to recycle the same stuff again and again as “new, fresh, and courageous.” He criticizes not so much the “substance” of Stone’s book but “the manufactured rebelliousness, the kitschy nostalgic play-acting of the thing.” He cries out against the “kitsch of leftism” and the “hackneyed left-wingery” which passes for scholarship on American campuses.

Far be it from me, as a forty-year veteran of college teaching, to deny Jonah’s charges about those boring leftists who micromanage American campuses and academic publications.

Indeed, the idiocies of this breed become exponentially more intolerable the farther you descend into the academic cesspool. Those in charge of our less-esteemed colleges have begun to emit the same kind of Cultural Marxism that now dominates the better schools, but in a garbled fashion two generations later.

But I see two problems with Jonah’s screed.

For one thing, I can’t see why he thinks that he and other minicon commentators are more interesting than Oliver Stone. For all his nuttiness, Stone is a talented movie maker.

Moreover, I enjoy watching his intricately-contrived movies more than I do reading Jonah and his buds at NR. Even without seeing their columns, I could easily reproduce these word exercises as soon as I was given the theme for the day. There is nothing even vaguely original about the repetition of GOP “talking points,” partisan slams against the Dems, and liberal internationalist and Likudnik rhetoric that I find in Jonah’s bailiwick.

The foreign policy statements in NR, Weekly Standard and other magazines of this ilk are unswervingly liberal internationalist. And they come adorned with the predictable cardboard heroes: Lincoln, Wilson, Churchill, and those recent Republican presidents who have been conspicuously surrounded by neoconservative advisors. Goldberg and Friends are entitled to their prescribed hagiography and villains but I can’t see how their choices make them any more interesting than the authors of The Untold History of the United States .

My second reservation is about where Jonah imagines we can find good history. It is certainly not where he thinks it is.

If I were looking for provocative historians, I would seek them on the Dissident Right—and among some elements of the Left. Although I don’t always agree with Pat Buchanan as an interpreter of twentieth-century history, he at least provides food for thought. The same is true of Clyde Wilson, Ludwell Johnson and other Southern historians who have been critical of Lincoln’s war against the Southern secessionists; and just about anyone who has critically assessed the road to Pearl Harbor and the British role in pulling the US into World War One, including my young friend Keith Preston.

Although I find no more reason than Goldberg to celebrate the current run of Leftist historians, I do respect the quasi-Marxist William Appleman Williams, who was one of Murray Rothbard’s favorite writers on the American past. Like another historian whom Goldberg disses, Charles Beard , Williams was extremely informative about the various roads leading to war taken by the US in the twentieth century.

Unlike Goldberg, I am opposed not to leftist historians but bad historians. For example, Michael Knox Beran’s hymn to Lincoln and American military interventionism, Forge of Empires, was lavishly praised by NR’s Richard Brookhiser in a New York Post column [The Lincoln-Legacy Scuffle | What Obama`s Admirers Overlook, February 12, 2008].

But Beran’s book and Brookhiser’s encomium can only make sense to someone who has been weaned on neoconservative ideology. It seems that we Americans were blessed that Lincoln redeemed us through the violence of a just war that resulted in the deaths of as many as 700,000 Americans. Unlike Germans and Russians, whom we were destined to defeat in Beran’s version of providential history, Americans cleansed themselves of the taint of slavery and other backward institutions. We then became morally fit to take on reactionary forces and to impose on them our evolving ideas about democracy and equality.

And the entire planet has benefited from our mission, according to Beran and Brookhiser. (For my further thoughts on Beran and Brookhiser, see here).

Looking at this liberal internationalist, interventionist schlock, I fail to see how it is intellectually or morally superior to what the Left is passing off as history.

At least those whom Goldberg scorns are telling us to deal with the problems of our own country before we presume to stir up trouble elsewhere. Oliver Stone and I may not agree on those domestic problems, but we are on the same page about minding our own business.

This position, however, is not inflexible. I might be led to change it—if I knew for sure that the staff of NR and Weekly Standard would be thrust into the front lines the next time they advocate “military action.”

But perhaps I should refrain from proposing this “boring” idea.

Paul Gottfried [ email him ] recently retired as Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism His most recent book is Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.