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Who are America's Heroes? A Debate with Peter Dreier

In my last column, I wrote a critique of the activist professor Peter Dreier’s new book. Dreier wrote an answer, which appeared as comment number 7 and which I reprint below.

Peter Dreier

Thanks to Ron for taking my book seriously. Everyone I profile in the book — The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century — contributed to making America a better society. In the introduction I point out that they were “heroes but not saints.” I don’t agree with everything they said or did.

Teddy Roosevelt was an imperialist and something of a racist, but he was also an early environmentalist and pro labor. Thanks to the pioneering Meat Inspection Act — which TR supported after socialist Upton Sinclair’s book THE JUNGLE raised awareness of the awful conditions in slaughterhouses — our food is safer. Ron says that the book has two presidents, but it has three; he omits Lyndon Johnson. He was wrong on Vietnam and other foreign policy issues, but his support for the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the war on poverty merits his inclusion in the book. I don’t forgive Alice Paul’s anti-semitism, but I admire her remarkable work on behalf of women’s suffrage. I don’t agree with Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics, but her courageous advocacy of women’s reproductive freedom was a blow for human rights.

Ron asks why I didn’t include “businessmen, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and other Americans who were not defined by their politics?” The book does include scientists (Albert Einstein, Henry Wallace, Rachel Carson), and businessmen (Tom Johnson, Wallace), as well as athletes, musicians, Supreme Court justices, organizers, social workers, playwrights, theologians, academics, and others. I also admire entrepreneurs like Julius Rosenwald and Edward Filene who devoted their energies and fortunes to social philanthropy, a proud American tradition.

Because the book defines “greatest” as those who helped made the U.S. a more humane and democratic society, it is inherently about politics.

Ron says “all his entries are pro-Communist.” Ron knows this is wrong. Quite a few were strongly anti-Communist, including Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, Allard Lowenstein, and Michael Harrington, and of course Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Most of the people I profile in the book were not involved with Communists one way or another, including Louis Brandeis, Jane Addams, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, John Kenneth Galbraith, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Cesar Chavez, Billie Jean King, and Thurgood Marshall.

Some of the 100 people in my book were liberals and reformers, some were progressives, some were radicals and revolutionaries. Some were Socialists.

Ron looks at 20th Century America through the lens of whether someone was or wasn’t in (or sympathetic to) the Communist Party. Of the 100 people in the book, a small handful — including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Harry Hay, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Betty Friedan, and others — were either in the CP or its front groups dealing with labor, women’s rights, and civil rights issues. I look at their overall contributions to society, which were incredibly positive. They are lifelong reformers and radicals. They are not defined simply by the few months, or even the few years, they were involved with the CP and its orbit.

Ron’s is simply wrong about my take on Bayard Rustin. From his work with King on the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) to his work with Randolph on the March on Washington (1963), Rustin was not a public figure, as his biographer, John D’Emilio discusses at great length. His most important contributions to the civil rights movement were mostly behind-the-scenes, because King and others considered his homosexuality and radical affiliations a liability.

Finally, Ron also makes a serious error in relying on Stanley Kurtz’s book about Obama to learn anything about me. The book mentions me in a few places as having some influence on Obama’s political views. I am hardly one of the “main characters” in the book, as Ron suggests. More importantly, Kurtz has no evidence of my having any influence — directly or indirectly — on Obama. I’ve never met Obama. I have no idea whether Obama ever read anything I wrote or ever heard me speak. Neither does Kurtz, which is why he uses words like “probably” and “possibly” to describe a relationship that never existed. Kurtz’s book is not history or biography; it is conjecture and paranoid conspiracy theory. Ron is misguided to rely on it.

My book is about the great figures of America’s liberal and progressive movements — women’s rights, labor, civil rights, environmentalism, peace, human rights, gay rights — and the many ways they’ve made America a better country. From women’s suffrage to workplace safety, from Social Security to the Civil Rights Act, from the progressive income tax to the minimum wage, from the Environmental Protection Act to laws requiring seat belts and nutrition information, they helped transform ideas that were considered radical to taken-for-granted common sense. We all stand on their shoulders.

Because I believe dialogue and argument are important and that our side -- rather than that represented by Dreier -- is correct, I welcome this chance to bring his remarks to attention in my own column, and to proceed to answer him. First, I thank Dreier for writing a serious response to my critique of his book, and for avoiding ad hominem remarks so typical of many on the Left. It is important to have the opportunity to debate serious issues with one’s opponents, and it is to Dreier’s credit that he obviously agrees with this and has sought to engage me on our very real differences.

First, Dreier has a traditional and I believe very wrong-headed comprehension of the reforms of the Progressive era and its aftermath, including the New Deal. I am surprised that he seems unfamiliar with the pioneering work of an entire group of left-wing historians of the 60’s and 70’s, including Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism, my friend the late James Weinstein’s The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, and my friend Martin J. Sklar’s masterpiece, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism. These scholars, like the late libertarian economic historian Murray N. Rothbard, (with whom I co-authored a book, A New History of Leviathan, that you can download free on the internet), all of whom provide a very different paradigm of our past than the one favored by Dreier.