Publisher’s Note: Jeff is one of my favorite contemporary observers of liberty and history. He is a frequent contributor at Mises and his mellifluous voice informs many pod-casts and audio books on libertarian topics and books. I have a tremendous interest in history and most of the library annex at my house is crowded with books on that very subject. My essays tend to draw from the historical well frequently and try to tease out the hidden history one will not find in mainstream government media-education complex factories at the schools or the major media outlets. Jeff offers a unique perspective that is far more informed and nuanced than the professional drones who claim the title of professional historian. There are some surprises here and please enjoy the interview. -BB
Good afternoon, Jeff. Tell us how you view revisionist history and how it sharpens our perspective on how the world really works.
We should always remember that history is written by the victors. Or, to put the same idea in a slightly different way, history is invariably written by people who have a dog in the fight – people who have a stake in how the events of the past (and their consequences in the present) are viewed. These people will, naturally, put what they regard as the best possible face on their accounts of past events. It is therefore extremely foolhardy to read a book on, say, World War I, by a celebrated, honored, thoroughly mainstream historian who teaches at Harvard or Princeton or Stanford or Berkeley and has served as president of the American Historical Association (AHA) or the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and then say to yourself, “Okay, now I know what happened during World War I and why. Now I can move on to some other topic.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You have only begun your investigations.
The next step is to ask yourself how a person becomes a celebrated, honored, thoroughly mainstream historian who teaches in the Ivy League or its equivalent and is elected to run the AHA or the OAH. Isn’t it by telling readers what they want to hear? Isn’t it by going along with the conventional wisdom – with whatever is almost universally “known” to be true – in order to get along? Are there historians who take another tack? Who either adduce different facts or who argue that the agreed upon facts should be understood in a different way, looked at from a different perspective, examined in a different light? Who are these writers who care so little for their career advancement? What do they have to say?
Now there can be many reasons why someone might accept the conventional wisdom on any particular subject. Maybe the conventional wisdom is the truth. More often, however, I’d say people buy into the conventional wisdom out of naïveté – it never occurs to them that what “everyone” knows and believes could possibly be wrong – or out of opportunistic careerism – you live more affluently and enjoy more influence if you go along to get along. And, of course, there are many people outside the historical professions for whom the most compelling reason of all pertains – boredom. History bores them and they really don’t care who’s right about a controversy they never knew existed to begin with.
On one level, you can’t really argue with that position. The person who is bored by history knows far more about what genuinely interests him or her than I can ever know. On the other hand, a part of me wants to cry out to such a person: Don’t you understand that you’re missing one of the great eye-opening experiences possible in this life? You have a chance to read a conventional presentation of a historical topic or period and then read a revisionist discussion of that very same topic or period. Point, counterpoint. It makes you realize in a way I guarantee you never have before just how much more there is to say about any subject really worth talking about than initially meets the eye.
Most people associate revisionist history with the history of wars; in fact, Brian Doherty, in Radicals for Capitalism, his very valuable book on the modern American libertarian movement, uses the term “war revisionism” whenever he refers to revisionist history. This is understandable, certainly. Through its control of most “education” in this country, and through its enormous influence on the mass media, the State has more to do with shaping the public’s beliefs about American history – especially recent American history – than any other person or institution you can name. The State also has more to hide than anyone else in society. It is guilty of more and greater wrongdoing than anyone else. And its wrongdoing reaches its apex (or, depending on how you look at it, its nadir) in time of war. During wars, States not only add mass murder and vandalism on a gigantic scale to their ordinary daily crimes of robbery, extortion, abduction and imprisonment; they also use the wars as pretexts for new exercises of State power over the individual or for vast expansions of powers they already had. Little wonder, then, that revisionists have often focused on wars.
But historical revisionism is a concept that applies everywhere and should be heeded everywhere. We need a revisionist history of American literature – one that stresses the individualism that lies at the heart of our national letters, exposes the Euro-centric bias of almost all traditional discussion of American literature, and unapologetically acknowledges the literary importance of the so-called “genre fiction” that is one of the greatest and most original contributions Americans have made to the imaginative literature of the world. We need a revisionist history of American journalism – one that offers a different and more instructive portrayal of the “bad old days” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries when newspapers were openly partisan and there were not yet any established “standards” for those who wrote periodically about current events to adhere to.
I happen to think a libertarian perspective tends to bring the world into sharper relief. One tends to be free from a partisan political filter that unbalances evidentiary bars; in other words, believers in a certain system tend to be more credulous of evidence that supports their respective positions. We tend to look at history as a contest to attain power over others. What do you think?
I agree that a libertarian perspective casts the world into sharper focus. Because a libertarian understands the difference between government and the State and between a country or a people or a culture and the State that attempts to control it, a libertarian is less easily bamboozled by mainstream journalistic and historical accounts that portray the State as some sort of hero, “defending” or “rescuing” ordinary people from some menace or other. On the other hand, I think “confirmation bias,” which is to say, “the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position,” is quite as common among libertarians as it is among our uncomprehending liberal and conservative friends. I strongly recommend a short but very instructive piece on this question in the December (2011) Atlantic by the libertarian economist Dan Klein, who teaches at George Mason University in suburban Virginia, outside Washington. It was Klein’s words I quoted just now on the nature of “confirmation bias.” His piece in The Atlantic is called “I Was Wrong, and So Are You.” Read it and weep.
I love Gore Vidal and find his strong “Old Republic” vision and wonderful lyricism a strong draw for his historical fiction. I find the same for Alan Eckert’s Narratives of America series. Our children are homeschooled and I found my love of history was best passed to them through outstanding historical fiction. Is this one of the reasons you find Vidal so intriguing?
I’m not a particularly great admirer of Vidal’s fiction as fiction. I think Vidal is one of the most brilliant writers in American literary history, and I think it’s his personal tragedy that he dreamed as a kid of being a novelist, of writing fiction, and he never gave that up, no matter how obvious it became that he has very little talent for storytelling. Writing fiction requires two basic skills. One is writing; the other is storytelling. There are many novelists who have enjoyed very successful careers without ever being able to write very well. They got by on their talent for storytelling. The reverse phenomenon – the successful novelist who writes extremely well but can’t invent vivid and memorable characters, places, situations, plots – is much less common. Have you ever read any of Vidal’s fiction outside the American Chronicle series? At its best it’s somewhat painful. At its worst, it is almost unthinkably bad. Vidal’s best novels – Burr, 1876, Lincoln – are the ones in which he didn’t have to invent any major characters or make up any stories, just write a pre-existing story already peopled with characters. Not that doing this and doing it well is an inconsiderable achievement! These three novels do have some legitimate claim, I think, to literary as well as historical importance. But for the most part, my interest in Vidal is based on my enthusiasm for his non-fiction writing and for his views on American history.
I’m sure there are many kids for whom historical fiction is a good way to stimulate an interest in history itself. I suppose, looking back, that I myself was such a kid. The history I was taught in the public schools I attended in southeast Texas in the ’50s and early ’60s made the entire subject seem dismal and boring, but there were certain works of historical fiction that did excite me. Two in particular that pop into my mind as I think about your question are a couple of novels by Howard Fast, originally published in the 1940s, just before I was born. One was Citizen Tom Paine, which definitely played a part in my evolution into individualism. The other was The American, a fictionalized biography of John Peter Altgeld, the Illinois governor who threw away his political career in defense of principle by deciding to pardon the surviving Haymarket anarchists.
I happen to think that a Left-Right taxonomy has lost its descriptive value and find the descriptors of Collectivist and Individualist with the appropriate Interventionist or Non-Interventionist preamble more telling. You take issue with Rothbard’s “Old Right” notions. Could you expand on that?
I agree with you that the Left-Right taxonomy has lost its descriptive value, but I also think that as long as we persist in using the Left-Right terminology, even if it’s only in discussing historical cases, we ought to try to be consistent and coherent in our usage. Rothbard provided an excellent short account of where the Left-Right distinction came from and what it originally meant in his important 1965 essay “Left & Right: The Prospects for Liberty.” The Right, the Conservatives, stood for the interests of a subsidized, privileged class that used the power of the State to keep itself wealthy and influential – the monarchy and its hangers-on in the beginning; various big business and banking establishments and their hangers-on in later years. The Left, the liberals, stood for free international trade, free markets domestically, and freedom of thought and expression.
As late as the early 1930s, this remained the standard conception of what Left and Right referred to. Individualists and libertarians like H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Garet Garrett, and John T. Flynn – the people Rothbard wanted us to think of as the intellectual vanguard of the “Old Right,” were popularly thought of in the 1920s and early ’30s as liberals or radicals. People who favored State subsidies and other special favors for big business, people who favored government-managed international trade to benefit big business, people who favored what today would be called “government-business partnerships,” people who were comfortable with government intrusions into personal morality like Prohibition – these people were popularly thought of back then as conservatives. Herbert Hoover is a good example of what I’m talking about here, but so is any of the so-called “progressive” followers of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (a DINO or Democrat in Name Only, since his policies were pure Rooseveltian Republicanism). To characterize the opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as members of the Right is to concede what ought to be not only rejected but ridiculed into oblivion: FDR’s preposterous assertion that his package of warmed over Hoover administration programs was “liberal” in spirit – that it represented the aspirations and beliefs of the Left.
I haven’t seen the book itself yet, but, judging from early reviews of it, I’d say Corey Robin sets forth a view of contemporary conservatism in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin that is at least compatible in its main features with the view of conservatism Rothbard presented all those years ago in “Left & Right.” Robin’s view is also instructive and interesting.
I happened to see the agendas for both major historical academic conclaves [AHA and OAH] in America and year after year, I get the feeling that absent class, gender and ethnicity, no papers would be presented. When and why did the practice of history go adrift here in America?
Have patience. Before the ’60s and ’70s, too few people wrote about this stuff; now too many do. Which is worse? I think it’s always better to have too much of something than too little of it – unless, of course the thing in question is intrinsically worthless. But I don’t think all examination of history from the point of view of gender or ethnicity or class is worthless by definition. Most of what’s actually done is pretty worthless, of course. But it’s easy enough to ignore unoriginal and unimportant work; it’s much harder to produce work from scratch when it isn’t being written by other people at all. You have to take the long view where issues like this are concerned – or so it seems to me. Most people in any field lack creativity – lack, really, the temperament to even try to think outside the box provided by their professional subculture. It never occurs to them to do anything other than what everybody around them is doing. At this moment in time, what everybody around them is doing is ethnic studies, gender studies, and Marxist class analysis. But this moment in time won’t last forever. We need more libertarian academics to choose history as their field. We need them to write energetically about history and do worthy work that will be presented at the annual meetings of the AHA and the OAH.
Among my many paradoxes, I am an anarchist whose first love in history is military history (I am also a retired career Army officer) and it almost seems to be the sole sub-discipline that takes cause and effect seriously as a lever to understand why we are where we are. Yet military history is not only dying like Classics departments across the nation but is even sneered at by “professional” historians. Why?
Who knows? I never could get interested in military history, myself. And thinking about it now does rather remind me of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of history from The Devil’s Dictionary: “An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which were brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” I think everyone should read the sort of history that interests him or her. But I think the pretense that particular acts of mass murder (known popularly as “battles”) have been among the most important facts of history is rather like the pretense that class, gender, and ethnicity have played that role in history.
There is an annual event where the leading court historians are asked who the best presidents are, and inevitably the list is topped by the most bloodthirsty and tyrannical occupants of that office. Why? I happen to be fond of Cleveland and Coolidge, do you have any favorites?
Why do the most bloodthirsty and tyrannical of the presidents win the popularity contest? Because most members of any profession are both unimaginative and of limited intelligence. The way you become a leading court historian is not by exhibiting intelligence and imagination in your work. It’s by parroting the State-sponsored conventional wisdom and by excelling at the packaging job you do on it. Most of these court historians have never even considered the idea that society might be possible without the State. To them, the legitimacy of the State is self-evident, whatever the flaws of any particular State. What you call “bloodthirsty” presidents are those who demonstrate the power and glory of the State – its strength, its valor.
As to my favorite less evil presidents, I’ve always rather liked Cleveland, too, though he’s far from unimpeachable. I prefer Harding to Coolidge. In fact, Harding is probably the only Republican president I’d include in my Less Evil Top Ten. The others would all be Democrats. One of them, by the way, would be Jimmy Carter, whom I’ve gradually come to realize was one of the least harmful presidents of the 20th Century.
I do wish more folks would listen to podcasts like those of you and Dan Carlin, you happen to be finding a way to captivate the greater number of non-readers emerging from the government education system. How do we encourage a more active interest in history? What new venues are emerging that encourage you?
The podcasts you refer to so flatteringly are being gradually phased out at the Mises Institute website. It’s generally felt – by me as well as by the folks at Mises – that I’ve now covered most of the people we had hoped to cover in the Libertarian Tradition series, so it’s time to move on to something else. I admit to having been a bit startled a couple of years ago when it began to be clear to me that there were a significant number of young people listening to my podcasts and that these young people didn’t read nearly as much as I had always tended to assume all libertarians did. One of these young people, in correspondence with me (I always answer my fan mail), told me bluntly that he preferred to listen to me reading a book or article aloud than to read it for himself. I will continue to do libertarian audio of various kinds in the months and years ahead. It hadn’t occurred to me that an important audience for material of this kind might be casualties of the public school system. But now that you bring the matter up, I must admit it seems highly plausible.
I’m not the kind of guy who feels encouraged most of the time. Nor am I the kind of guy who has a master plan for the enlightenment of the masses. I’m the kind of guy who sees the half empty glass. I just struggle along, lurching forward, doing what I seem best suited for, and hoping for the best. I tend to expect the worst – or something more like the worst than like the best – but I do hope for the best.
What particular area of history interests you the most?
American history. Within American history, intellectual and cultural history.
Tell us about the future of ongoing projects you have in mind?
I should have a couple of books coming out in 2012. One will be a collection of the Libertarian Tradition pieces I wrote for the Mises Institute and published on their website during 2010 and 2011. This book will have a new introduction by me, some of the pieces in it will be expanded and revised from the versions that originally ran on Mises.org, and there will likely be a new piece or two, written expressly for the book.
The second book is a biography of the Objectivist libertarian Joan Kennedy Taylor. Taylor is important for a number of reasons. She was the original pioneer of what is now called “libertarian feminism” or “individualist feminism,” and Reclaiming the Mainstream, her book on that subject, remains indispensable to anyone interested in the topic, not least because of the very persuasive revisionist history of feminism itself that it presents. Joan Taylor was a fixture in libertarian publishing for 30 years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. She knew and worked with nearly everyone of importance in the libertarian movement during those years, including both Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. She “discovered” Charles Murray, who has agreed to provide a foreword for the book. Joan worked for the Libertarian Review Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Foundation for Economic Education. She was the closest friend Roy A. Childs, Jr. had in the world for the last two decades of his life. She was on hand for some of the most interesting and influential events of the last half century of libertarian movement history. So her story – my book – turns out to be, not just a biography of Joan, but also a detailed history of a key period in movement history, in which Rand, Rothbard, Childs, Wendy McElroy, Sharon Presley, and other notable libertarians play key roles.
Jeff Riggenbach is a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians, a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, and an Adjunct Scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, he has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His first book, In Praise of Decadence, a revisionist history of developments in American politics and culture since the 1960s, appeared in 1998 and is still in print. His second book, Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism, appeared in 2009. Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach has also narrated more than 150 audio books, including the audio versions of numerous libertarian works.