Magazine article The American Conservative

Guilt Trip: Eric Foner Writes History to Suit the Politically Correct Left-And the Neocons

Magazine article The American Conservative

Guilt Trip: Eric Foner Writes History to Suit the Politically Correct Left-And the Neocons

Article excerpt

ERIC FONER, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is the most professionally successful academic historian of our time. He has served as president of all three major historical organizations, published a widely acclaimed book on Reconstruction as "America's unfinished revolution," and appears frequently on national television. He and a likeminded historian, James McPherson, have been conspicuously urging President Obama to sustain affirmative action and consider reparation payments for the descendants of American slaves. Foner has put before the public what he considers the unfinished civil-rights agenda in his 2002 textbook Give Me Liberty: An American History and in other books written for a popular readership, such as The Story of American Freedom and Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Rarely has an historian had such abundant opportunities to shape public consciousness on a critical social issue.

Foner's vision of American history comports with the political correctness favored by the Left today--indeed at times he seems less interested in Reconstruction than in reconstructing latter-day American society. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, this project has won him influential admirers among the Republican Party. But even as Foner invokes the legacy of slavery and other racial iniquities as pretexts for government-mandated "social justice" and sensitivity today, he has never had to say he was sorry that he and his family whitewashed the crimes of Stalin's USSR.

Foner has earned high praise from George W. Bush's gray eminence, Karl Rove. A 2003 New Yorker profile by Nicholas Lemann noted that one of Rove's favorite books was Foner's study of the early Republican Party, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. According to Lemann, Rove read the book "less as a dispassionate analysis of the early Republicans' strengths and weaknesses than as a guidebook on how to broaden the appeal of the Party." Foner was delighted to learn of this: "Karl Rove is my man," he told his class at Columbia, even as he continued to hold Rove's employer in disregard. In 2006, Foner published a Washington Post op-ed saying of President Bush, "He's the Worst Ever." "I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history," Foner wrote, comparing him unfavorably even to the alleged "fervent white supremacist" Andrew Johnson.

Despite the professor's Bush-bashing, Rove clearly respects Foner, and so it is perhaps not remarkable that certain phrases from Foner's ideas about "the unfinished revolution" popped up in Republican campaign literature during the 2006 midterm elections. Party strategists evidently decided that linking the Union side in the Civil War with the later civil-rights agenda would provide a useful metaphor for the war to build democracy in Iraq. The plan only partly succeeded. Although Rove's party picked up votes from the descendants of those who bled and died on the Confederate side, it did far less well among black voters.

Foner's appeal to the Left and to vote-seeking Republicans such as Rove is as much moral as historical. But on both accounts, there are reasons to have deep reservations about the Columbia professor. As the late liberal historian John Patrick Diggins noted, for Foner "Liberal America, it seems, must remain forever corrupted by slavery while Bolshevik Russia remains, even in the historical past tense, forever free of tyranny. Foner ... is both an unabashed apologist for the Soviet system and an unforgiving historian of America."

Foner's father and two of his uncles had been associated with the American Communist Party, something the professor has never deplored. In fact, in a 1994 exchange in Dissent with historian Eugene Genovese, Foner brushed off the accusation that he and other Communist sympathizers had failed to "ask the big question"--namely, why the Left defended one of the most murderous regimes in history. …

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