Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Book #7.

The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands.

I can't remember who recommended this to me, but this guy, a professor at Texas A&M, is one of the worst historians I've ever had the misfortune to read. The fact that he was nominated for a Pulitzer for a previous book fills me with rage and dread. Actually, the fact that he's a tenured professor at a major university while better historians slump along in adjunct positions fills me with rage and dread.

Let's start with his premise, which is presented in the most obnoxiously leading terms possible: liberalism in America, which Professor Brands more-or-less defines as "the belief that large government can help people socially and economically" (not an actual quote, but in the spirit of his reductive bullshit), was a Cold War phenomenon. Professor Brands claims that while America continues to have liberals (and be prepared, because from here on out, liberals are treated as a aggregate that agrees on everything), liberalism as a general political philosophy died with the fall of Russia. Professor Brands attempts to present this neutrally (and I suspect, based on his chapter on the Reagan years, he might be a Joementum-style Democrat), but fails to consider any other definitions of liberalism -- despite acknowledging that the word is ill-defined at best by its own adherents -- and goes on to discount (discount, mind you! From a historian!) the possibility that political alignment with social programs changes over time and with modifications to the program. To Professor Brands, context is nothing.

After the appalling introduction, Professor Brands rushes through recent U.S. history to set up his thesis. Keen eyes will notice that there is not a single human being in the book. Sure, the names of a few presidents get thrown around, primarily to stand in for an Administration, but this book is shockingly thin on evidence. Professor Brands relies on a few historic polls and voting data as a way of telling us what voters (i.e. the whole lot of them), liberals (again, all liberals), and other abstractions were thinking and doing at a certain time. Professor Brands provides no context for these polls. For instance, to "prove" that the American people were opposed to government social spending in 1939, Brands provides the results of a poll telling us that the vast majority thought the government was spending too much. Who do you think was answering polls in 1939? Do you think they were hitting the labor camps or migrant workers? How about the factory workers putting in 12 hour days? Do you think they even found one person without a telephone, considering what having a telephone meant in 1939? And who paid for these polls? How were the questions worded? Were they statistically significant, and, if so, of what population? Brands obviously doesn't have time to question his data: he's too busy polishing his rhetoric.

Even as a popular-history narrative, Brands fails with this book. The crux of his argument is that Dean Acheson and Harry Truman enabled popular liberalism by creating the Cold War, but that chapter flies by so inconsequentially that I didn't even realize I'd passed the most important point until two chapters later. Awful. Who is this written for, if not semi-literate idealogues like Sean Hannity? If I were to write a book arguing that, for instance, liberalism is thriving and using this type of scattered narrative and paltry evidence, I would be rightfully ignored or excoriated. I would not be a full professor at a major university. Professor Brands was an oral historian at one point in his career; he really should know better. The echoing of C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow in Brands' title is enough to make me sick.

So: avoid, avoid, avoid. Go read a real historian like Larry Goodwyn or C. Vann Woodward. You'll find the lack of question-begging and the ample evidence to support any conclusions they have drawn to be a refreshing change from bunk like this.


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