A Review of James Loewen’s

November 5, 2018 |  Tagged | Comments Off on A Review of James Loewen’s

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Dominique Mathura
Professor Antonova
Hist 799
A Review of James Loewen’s
Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
James Loewen’s book contains 95 numbered and titled essays arranged in the following sections: “The Far West” (essays 1-11), “Mountains and Plains States” (essays 12-19), “The Great Plains” (essays 20-24), “The Midwest” (essays 25-35), “The South” (essays 36-68), “The Atlantic States” (essays 69-85), and “New England” (essays 86-95). The book is geared toward lay readers, not professional historians. I found its revisionism convincing, but two reviewers are far less generous.
To understand Loewen’s mindset, we must know that his previous book was Lies My Teacher Told Me. In other words, Loewen is professionally focused on historical revisionism. He is a progressive, and his general points are true. For example, Loewen writes the following: “People who put up markers and monuments and preserve historic houses are usually pillars of the white community. Americans still live and work in a landscape of white supremacy” (16). Surely, these two sentences describe the reality of American history. Even today, the overwhelming majority of minority communities are concentrated poverty enclaves, so they simply do not have the funds necessary to put up monuments. Moreover, the farther back we go into history, the more this is true. Loewen acknowledges the recent honors that mainstream culture has paid to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a few others. However, he adds that “white supremacy” still rules, and I agree because there is plenty of evidence to prove it. For example, institutionalized racism is a fact that only irrational people like Donald Trump and other extremists refuse. Minorities are disproportionately represented in the statistics of poverty, incarceration, and other social evils. As a result, I consider Loewen’s thesis a historical fact. Moreover, he is far more informed than I am, so I do not know enough to detect his shortcomings.
However, I could not find critics who agree with me. One critic claims that Loewen fails in three ways. One, the critic claims that Loewen “chooses easy targets and peppers them redundantly, like a waterfowler who not only shoots sitting ducks but also exceeds the bag limit” (Isern). I do not see this, and I do not agree with the metaphor. On the one hand, ducks are living creatures without a precise human analog in the case of social injustice and so on. On the other hand, monuments are human creations that celebrate a Eurocentric past that committed atrocities against Native Americans and African-Americans. Moreover, the idea of a limit does not apply here. The country is filled with monuments, so Loewen tries to be thorough while he makes the point that the problem is ubiquitous.
Two, the same critic also claims that Loewen “offers no perceptive explanations of how perverse versions of history made their way into our historic sites” (Isern). I do not see this, either. Loewen offers plenty of explanations. The main one is that the overwhelming majority of monuments were put up by the only group that could afford such projects: Caucasians, especially privileged men from wealthy families. After all, for most of American history, women and minorities could not vote and had no legal rights. Even today, the vast majority of minority communities do not have the funds to put up monuments because they are too busy battling against unemployment, poverty, and other social evils. As a result, asking for “perceptive explanations” as Isern does amounts to nitpicking.
Three, the same critic claims that Loewen “sets unrealistic expectations and then violates them himself. He demands a history that is impartial and timeless. Usually, however, after smashing the mythology of a monument, he goes on to insist on substituting his own preferred mythology” (Isern). I am not convinced about this criticism, either. I think Loewen is simply asking for justice, not “a history that is impartial and timeless,” as Isern says. In fact, I think there is no such thing, and I am not sure Loewen does, either. History is written by those who have the means to do that: the dominant culture, the victors, the wealthy, and so on. Minorities do not have the resources or the power to erect monuments and write history. The idea of impartial and timeless history sounds like fantasy, and I do not think Loewen is after such a fantasy. He wants some justice.
Another critic accuses Loewen of nitpicking, calls the book “a qualified success,” and claims that “the book’s desire to debunk myths and ‘lies’ can overpower the search for a deeper understanding of history” (Cohn). I do not see this. As the world becomes more multicultural, increasingly more historians revise the myths and lies of the past, such as the claim that Columbus and other Europeans “discovered” this and that. I agree completely with Loewen that the claim about Europeans “discovering” the New World “dehumanizes Native Americans” (Loewen 75). In other words, Loewen is trying to substitute colonial thinking with a “deeper understanding of history,” as Cohn wrote. Then, Cohn resorts to reading his crystal ball about how well Loewen’s book will “stand the test of time”. I am not going to even touch that because nobody knows what the future will bring.
More reasonable-sounding is Cohn’s observation that Loewen’s book often demonstrates how “the goals of popular and academic history collide”. However, I am not sure where the collision takes place. There is no doubt about the fact that popular culture and academic history are two different worlds. On the one hand, academic history is a scientific pursuit: very focused, evidence-based, heavily footnoted, peer-reviewed, and so on. On the other hand, popular history is more sweeping, less focused, less evidence-based, and not as footnoted. In other words, Loewen’s book is a mass-market product. It is not intended for peer-reviewed journals of history and academics.
Where then does Cohn’s alleged collision between popular culture and academic discourse take place? The only place I can detect is critics’ mind. In fact, I suspect that when an academic finds success in popular culture, he or she invites the jealousy of many people, especially critics, who probably wish secretly they had such success. The academic world and popular culture come in contact only inside people. I know of no other platforms where the two worlds collide.
James Loewen’s book does a good job exposing the lies of our sexist and racist past, whose history was written by wealthy men almost exclusively. Only very recently have minority voices started to revise the official histories, which are colonial and biased. Therefore, we need books like this.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Works Cited
Cohn, Edward. “Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.” November 9,
2001. http://prospect.org/article/lies-across-america-what-our-historic-sites-get-wrong
Isern, Thomas D. “Review of Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by
James W. Loewen.” Great Plains Quarterly, Summer 2001
Loewen, James. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. New York: The
New Press, 1999.


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