Choosing Your Facts and Rewriting History

In my field we read books and journal articles in order to find information to make informed decisions based upon the facts. In politics some might do this, but it is common to seek out books which confirm one’s own ideological prejudices. When Republicans don’t like the facts, they can also find a revisionist writer who will give them the facts they want.  The Politico reports that “House Republicans are tearing through the pages of Amity Shlaes’ ‘The Forgotten Man’ like soccer moms before book club night.” The reason is that the book differs from conventional historical and economic views of the great depression:

Shlaes’ 2007 take on the Great Depression questions the success of the New Deal and takes issue with the value of government intervention in a major economic crisis — red meat for a party hungry for empirical evidence that the Democrats’ spending plans won’t end the current recession.

“There aren’t many books that take a negative look at the New Deal,” explained Republican policy aide Mike Ference, whose boss, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, invited Shlaes to join a group of 20 or so other House Republicans for lunch earlier this year in his Capitol suite.

As Steve Benen points out:

…the fact that House Republicans would seek out books critical of the New Deal tells us a little something about their approach to problem-solving. For these GOP officials, one starts with the answer — FDR bad, spending bad, government bad, Hoover good — and works backwards, seeking out those who’ll bolster their answers before the questions are even asked. To those ends, Shlaes fills an important Republican niche.

The book will make Republicans happy, but won’t necessarily provide them with any greater knowledge of economics or of the history of the depression.  Steve points out this review of the book by Jonathan Chait.  David Weigel also wrote about this back in February.

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  1. 1
    b-psycho says:

    Here’s one that’s even skeptical of intervention before the New Deal.  Of course, once they got past the deceiving title and actually read it they’d end up burning it in disgust, but whatever…

  2. 2
    MKS says:

    A centrally planned economy was tried in Russia, and it didn’t work.  It was tried in China, and now is abandoned for a much more autonomous economy.  It was tried in Europe, and productivity stagnated.  It was tried in Cuba, and people have been fleeing that country for nearly 50 years – there is something wrong with a country when you have to restrict people from leaving!  We can point to no success stories for centrally planned economies.  U.S. efforts at a centrally planned economy are no better – there have just been implemented to a lesser degree (until now, perhaps).   I must concede that Hoover and Roosevelt may have staved off some worse government affliction of the economy, but the New Deal did not help, and we still suffer from its “legacy”.

  3. 3
    Michael Boh says:

    You hit the nail on the hit with that critique. The New Deal debacle was embarrassing for them in so many ways. Their whole “thought process” seems flawed, from the RNC down to the least significant school board member. All they seem to do these days is search for obscure – marginal – data and references to support what the majority see as unsupportable positions. Unfortunately, their minority continues to fall for their CRAP! They are an upside down party at the moment, and I don’t see any signs they intend to right themselves anytime soon. Thx. Michael

  4. 4
    Fritz says:

    “FDR bad” does not have to mean “Hoover good”.   Murray Rothbard laid blaim for the depth of the Depression on the Fed, and did so in 1963.

    It is not unreasonable to wonder whether a decade of massive government programs, intrusions, and regulations might have done more harm than good.

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:

    It is not unreasonable to wonder, but in this case it looks like working backwards to provide the history which fits their ideological beliefs.

  6. 6
    Fritz says:

    I’m sure it is.  But that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    No, but 99 out of 100 times those who search out information to verify their own beliefs in this manner will be incorrect. The numerous flaws in this book make it look like it follows these odds.

  8. 8
    Eclectic Radical says:

    The real issue is not about correctness or incorrectness of facts, though facts are certainly important. Nor is it the validity or invalidity of theories, though theories are certainly important.

    The real issue is good scholarship.

    It’s the question of working backward or working forward that truly answers the question of good or bad scholarship, it is the source material used by the scholar and the attention given to all of the available source material. The good scholar searches out the material that supports his thesis, the material that might disprove his thesis, and the source material for those sources, and then weighs it all in its entirety and references it all in an accurate and honest fashion. This may not lead to an accurate thesis, good scholarship can lead to wildly opposing theses. However, it creates a firm structure to advance or counter. The good scholar views efforts to disprove his work as opportunities to improve his work.

    The practice of cherry-picking sources to prove one’s thesis, misrepresenting sources that oppose one’s thesis, and citing vague anecdotal sources to prove one’s point is bad scholarship. Bad scholarship is worthy of scorn even if one agrees with the thesis advanced while good scholarship is worthy of praise even when one completely rejects the theory being promoted. This is why Carl Sagan is regarded as respected scientific scholar and Erich von Daniken is regarded as a sensationalist hack. Sagan, regardless of the acceptance of his theories, practices good scholarship in articulating them while von Daniken does not.

    Poor scholarship should be derided for the intellectual propaganda it is regardless of whether we agree or disagree with its thesis. Even if we believe Francis Bacon or John de Vere, Lord Oxford might have been the real author of Shakespeare’s plays we should all be honest enough to recognize that the authors claiming to have proved that Shakespeare did not exist have not come close to doing so.

    That is the real issue, because scholastic integrity is far more important than any theory or ideology.

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