Old Cliché and Conservative Chauvinism; an Ancap History of the US.
In July of 2011, the late David Graeber – one of the most well known and popularly beloved writers of anarchist ideals in contemporary times – wrote an essay title ‘Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?’, in which he discussed the idea that, by and large, ambitious texts which seek to redefine the way we think about concepts have died out. Writing in reference to his then-new book Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber claims that he attempted to balance the scholarly ambitions of the text with an ease of reading that he found lacking in most similar contemporary projects. This balance between accuracy and accessibility was something he felt had waned over recent decades; decades in which Big Question books either tracked the route of pop-science – sacrificing accuracy for simplicity and feel-good affirmations of common sense – or the obscurantist which targeted the questions at a level that is more difficult for some than the questions themselves; for this, Graeber cites French and Italian critical theorists and philosophers.
If only, then, he had lived until 2022 and become witness to a third approach to writing the Big Question book, a way exemplified by A Twisted History of the United States; that is, simply listing conservative historical talking points as though having transcribed audio of a late night conversation at a branch of the Mises Institute.
A Twisted History of the United States (Written by Gary Richied with Charlie Westerman) makes several bold claims in its introduction. Some of these claims are refreshing to see – the authors freely admit that they hold a perspective and that this perspective will, inevitably, colour their interpretations of the facts. While this idea is not a new one and calls to mind the classic fishmonger metaphor regarding historians, it is pleasant to see the authors themselves offer it up unprompted for any readers who may not be aware of it. Similarly, the claim that history is often taught in an unsatisfying way holds merit, and the authorial intent to both reveal under-taught concepts and to do so in an accessible way is admirable. The problems, however, begin as soon as these positives end. Firstly, while it is pleasant to see the authors confess that they – as humans – have a perspective and that it may influence their interpretations, this admission runs counter to their idea of becoming historical contrarians for the simple reason that their position is that of anarcho-capitalism. Without spending precious hundreds of words re-stating the historical origin or strange content of this ideology, it is sufficient to say that it is essentially just not anarchism at all and the presuppositions that it holds both conceptually and historically are far from contrarian; they are in fact some of the core presuppositions that support modern political science and economics and have filtered thoroughly into the cultural consciousness. Many of the claims the authors make throughout the book are simply reiterations of pop culture ideas that, far from challenging narratives, simply attempt to affirm past misunderstandings or bigotries.
These misunderstandings and reaffirmations of bigotries begin early. Discussing the first chapter as representative of the rest of the text, the strange comments and inaccuracies begin early. Rather than cataloguing questionable claims, however, it may be more useful to examine one or two specific claims in detail. One the first page of the first chapter, we get the claim that ‘the lack of stability’ possessed by indigenous Americans due to an often mobile lifestyle meant an inability to form ‘lasting, durable institutions’ which encompass a broad range of concepts that the authors summarise as ‘a class of scribes, recorded language, trade systems, and uniform religious rituals and rites’. The exemplary institutions worth examining here are twofold; firstly, the class of scribes, and secondly, the idea of recorded language. To begin with, there is a simple flaw in the claim. Failing to be properly tentative in their claims, the authors do not make it clear that this lack of recorded language was not a universal trait shared by all indigenous groups; the Mayans, for example, had a pictographic writing system similar in many ways to Egyptian hieroglyphics, which was well developed and is comfortably attested to in historical literature. While it is true that writing systems were not omnipresent, they were also not absent – this needs to be made clear, and isn’t. One cannot give the benefit of the doubt, either, and simply assume that the authors are making a distinction between what are often considered central American societies like the Mayans and Aztecs, and the more stereotypically ‘North’ American tribes, as the authors reference the Aztecs and Mayans explicitly later in the chapter for their ‘ritualistic human sacrifice’. Interestingly, this idea of lacking recorded language appears in the same paragraph as their reference to the Mayans, in which they claim even more broadly that ‘the Native Americans […] had no written language.’ How a historian can make this claim within literally one sentence of discussing the Mayans and not notice the incongruency is difficult to understand, and reveals one of the underlying flaws of the book as a whole; a tendency to flatten and generalise in ways that serve established monolithic presentations of the quote-unquote uncivilized world.
This cannot be merely assumption, either. Despite being attacked as a concept, this re-visiting of the concept of literacy is accompanied by the claim from the authors that ‘Native Americans were rather primitive’. Associating literacy with a linear advancement in society is a common mistake to make, but as Pierre Clastres makes explicitly clear for us in his book Society Against the State, ‘peoples without a writing system are no less adult than literate societies’. The lack of written language does not indicate an insufficiency in the maturity or the complexity of a given society; much as in the biological sciences, there are no animals more or less evolved than others as evolution is not a linear progression but instead the process of adaption to circumstance, cultural progress is not a teleological process with required milestones such as the written word.
Writing, certainly, has some benefits to a culture, but it is also clear and well understood that it may have downsides too; as James C Scott points out in his book Seeing Like a State, ‘legibility is a condition of manipulation’, and it is no surprise that colonial powers love to engage in literacy campaigns wherever they go. After all, if your subjects are illiterate, it becomes much more difficult to sort, organize, catalogue, and manage them; Scott goes even further in his later text ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ when he explores the concept that several cultural groups in history appear to have purposefully avoided becoming literate in the first place for precisely this reason; ‘to refuse or to abandon writing and literacy is one strategy among many for remaining out of reach of the state’. None of this is discussed within The Twisted History of the United States; a lack of written language is presented as a surface level negative that demonstrates how ‘primitive’ a culture is, as if reaffirming the concept of the illiterate savage were a desired result of the authors. Neither, of course, is there a mention of the fact that while written language had been invented in many other parts of the world, it was far from omnipresent there; at the time of Columbus making his apocalyptic voyage to the Americas, the vast majority of Europe was as illiterate as any indigenous American; was the vast majority of Europe ‘primitive’ too? This is never explored. Instead, the old prejudice is simply packaged up and delivered unquestioningly. This is far from revelatory or challenging.
Another claim – still from the first chapter of the book – is the claim that Columbus ‘certainly was not’ someone who ‘engaged in and promoted heinous measures against the Indians’. Note, here, how the use of the term ‘Native American’ appears to have dropped from the vocabulary of the authors within a single chapter, and more archaic and oft-racist language has returned. Is this intentional racism on the part of the authors? Probably not, but it underlines the dependence of their language upon stereotypes nonetheless. In any case, what of the claim; is it true that we have been misled and that Columbus was not, in fact, cruel to the indigenous peoples he found? Put simply, no. While the authors make reference to extant sources demonstrating the opposite, these sources are nowhere to be found within the text – as will be discussed at more length later. The horrors of Columbus are well documented and historically evidenced. As recounted by Zinn in his seminal A People’s History of the United States, Columbus kidnapped, enslaved, executed, burned, and much more. There is a curious note in Zinn’s text; discussing eminent historian Samuel Eliot Morison – a well known figure among Columbus scholars – Zinn finds himself pleased to note that Morison confidently admits that Columbus engaged in genocide. Zinn however, also finds it noteworthy that this fact does not prevent Morison from speaking of Columbus in glowing terms and from brushing the genocide away in favour of other things. I repeat Zinn here in full, as it is important and I see no value in simply restating his words:
‘Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important-it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world. […]
To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly-to justify what was done.’ – Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
What, then, are we to make of the ideological choices of the authors of A Twisted History of the United States, who claim that Columbus himself was ‘certainly not’ someone who engaged in ‘heinous measures’? I leave this conclusion up to the reader.
The final note of examination from the first chapter, in which we somehow still find ourselves, is the consideration of the genocide of the indigenous American peoples. The reader is informed that, despite how ‘primitive’ the indigenous peoples were, and the scale of Aztec human sacrifice – which, interestingly, the authors do not fail to call ‘genocidal’ – this does not justify European exploitation. Well, that’s good to know. Less good, however, is the avoidance of the term genocide and its replacement by the disgraceful euphemism ‘generally unplanned decimation’. This term is untrue in two difference ways; firstly, decimation in its literal sense – meaning a reduction by ten per cent – vastly underestimates the volume of murder which saw a much larger reduction in population size than that. Secondly, the idea of it being unplanned is, frankly, absurd. There are huge numbers of extant documents from both the early colonial period and later years which make it clear that the extermination of indigenous peoples was a desired and purposeful outcome, perhaps most famously letters from the siege of Fort Pitt in 1763, in which British colonists purposefully spread smallpox though the use of infected blankets with the express written intent to ‘extirpate’ the indigenous population; this is genocidal intent, and is certainly not ‘generally unplanned’. Further famous, well known examples of this intentional genocide of the American bison in an attempt to destroy the means by which various indigenous groups could support themselves – a practice supported by men as well known as General William Sherman.
How is any of this addressed in A Twisted History? Well, Sherman is mentioned only with reference to the Civil War, the genocide of the bison is not mentioned at all, and the word smallpox only occurs in the text once in a brief aside, which the authors use to ‘both-sides’ the affair; they mention that indigenous Americans were ‘devastated’ by ‘European diseases’ with no mention of how that devastation occurred. This is then followed by the curious historical fact that syphilis appears to have originated in the Americas. While this seems to be true by most accounts, it is nevertheless irrelevant; the ‘exchange of diseases’ cited by the author was not the same in scale or kind, and it being a featured point here seems at least partly like further laundering of genocidal intent.
While this review focuses on the first chapter as representative of the overall style of the text throughout, these issues are by no means the only ones. In Chapter Two, which also sees Ludwig von Mises called ‘the greatest economist in history’, we are given an example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a historical/anthropological concept that has been thoroughly exploded as essentially just propaganda for private ownership concepts, and which makes the mistake of discussing a common as though a single individual owned it. In Chapter Three, while the authors rightly concede that the United States is not a ‘good neighbour’ to Mexico, they also list slavery as third on the list among causes of the American Civil War and do so entirely wrapped up within the old cliché of ‘state’s rights’. This is immediately followed by a presentation of John Brown as a kind of bumbling racist who accidentally stumbled into his historical image. Chapter Four claims that while the Rockefellers and Carnegies attained huge wealth, the nature of the economy which was ‘as free a market system as the United States ever had’ caused all boats to rise; any claim to the contrary is dismissed as the result of history teachers simply trying to dodge economics. No, say the authors of A Twisted History; the Vanderbilts weren’t crooks, they were ‘market entrepreneurs’. Okay.
This continues throughout the book; while the atomic bombing of Japan is rightly called a war crime, it is nonetheless accompanied by the claim that Japan was resolutely refusing to surrender – something which we know to be untrue, as Japan had strong motions towards surrender as long as they could retain the Emperor, and had already made as much known at the time as they sought aid from the USSR in negotiations: something the authors must have known as they discuss the Yalta conference explicitly. John Maynard Keynes is described as one of several ‘hideous men’, in sharp contrast to von Mises and Rothbard, who are both described as ‘truly great’ – his role in Bretton Woods gets Keynes described as hideous but for some reason Rothbard’s promotion of child-trafficking does not disqualify him from greatness. North Korea is called communist; it isn’t.
Interestingly enough, the text also contains a bibliography in spite of lacking citations anywhere for any claim at any point in the text. There are no superscript numbers, no footnotes, no endnotes, no in-line citations. The exact point of this bibliography, therefore, is unknown; without any citations, it is impossible to know which claims are supposed to be evidenced in what source, or if the sources actually apply to distinct claims in the first place. After all, George Orwell’s 1984 is included in the bibliography and, while the literary merits of the novel can be debated, even the staunchest supporter of Orwell would be hard pressed to explain which insights can be gained about the history of American tax policy from the adventures of Winston Smith. The authors of A Twisted History may have been better served by reading Orwell’s Politics and the English Language’ an essay which, while flawed, might have diverted them from their weaselling descriptions of indigenous Americans being ‘rendered prone’ to genocide; a passive voice which has lent their text a certain dreariness and an Eichmann-esque banality of evil.
Suffice it, then, to say that this is not a history text in any real sense. Certainly, it contains historical claims and some of these are true. Others are half true, and others still are simply wrong or ill-thought. Rather, it is an extended exercise in propaganda; a paginated PragerU video, complete with slightly strange graphics, unsourced claims, and – particularly in the closing ‘In Gratitude’ section – various ridiculous tangents that range from claiming wearing a facemask in during the COVID-19 pandemic is equivalent to accepting a boot on the neck, rambling about ‘Western Civilization’ (a term Graeber’s brilliant essay ‘There Never Was a West’ dismantles handily), and a resort to religious justifications. Finally, as if unaware of how awfully this final section of the book comes across, the authors conclude by claiming that people were not so subservient to the state during the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic (which also had widespread use of facemasks and quarantines, somehow unaddressed here) and the postulation that South Korea – a bastion of rampant exploitation, capitalism, and American foreign power, elsewhere condemned in the book – is ‘free’.
I suspect that this book will find some popularity among fans of the domination of capital, perhaps becoming a companion text for those who already find the works of H. W. Crocker III lining their bookshelves, but for anyone in search of a legitimate challenge to mainstream and statist histories of the United States it will fall woefully short. Perhaps the best role for A Twisted History of the United States is to serve as an emblem of how clumsy language and even clumsier propaganda can lodge within the popular consciousness perhaps because, rather than in spite, of the scale of its absurdities.■
Jay is a writer from Lincolnshire in the UK. He is currently completing an MA in English Literature and has written for Organise!, Strukturriss, and Lumpen Journal among many other places. Find him on Twitter @JayFraser1 if you are so inclined.
"A Twisted History Of The USA" is published by Gary Richied under the moniker Hot Water History and is available to buy via themselves or Amazon. Gary and Charlie can both be found on Twitter via @garyrichied and @chuckwest20.