Tonight I am a gal in Kalamazoo.

This doesn't mean I've abandoned the Triple Felinoid, the Last Homely Shack, and the delights of Easthampton, Massachusetts, for the fleshpots of a small industrial city 817 miles away.  I still am owned by own Malfoy, Gil the Wonder Cat, and Diamond Girl, and if I've been sorely tempted to send Di-Di outside to dance for dimes if she sits directly in front of my monitor when I try to write one more time, well she's adorable enough to make up for it.  And as much as it's a struggle sometimes to scrape together the money to pay the property taxes on the Last Homely Shack, once again I'll find a way to do it.  I may have been born in Pittsburgh and spent most of my childhood there, but I chose Massachusetts years ago and have never once regretted my decision to spend my life in New England, not the Midwest.

No, it means that once again, as I do every May, I have made the long, wearying pilgrimage to Western Michigan University to spend several days at the International Medieval Studies Congress, aka "Ellid gets her medieval geek on with 3,000 of her closest and dearest friends."  

I originally came here for the first time in 2006, when I presented a paper on what was most likely the wedding quilt of Catherine of Aragon and her Tudor husbands, first Arthur and then his brother Henry.  That paper was accepted for publication on what is still one of the happiest days of my life, and two years later I presented another paper, this one on a rare early example of European patchwork.  It wasn't as polished as my first effort, but after four years, several rewrites, and an e-mail correspondence with the staff of the official Tuscan conservation agency, this paper was also published.  

I didn't present this year, but I hope to next year, most likely on a small quilted "cope" (almost certainly a table covering of some sort, unless Renaissance copes were sized for priests approximately the height of this worthy warrior).  In the meantime, I've spent several relaxing days attending panels, perusing the wonders of the Evil Book Room (aka, the place where it's all too easy to drop an entire mortgage payment on reading material), eatingshish tawook (last night) and the dinner of superheroes (Saturday), and exhibited my attempts at recreating pre-1600 quilting and patchwork.

And of course tomorrow night I'll be attending the Pseudo Society.

The Pseudo Society, for those not familiar with this annual wonder, is the highlight of Saturdays at the Congress.  It's a single session of three or four papers that pretend, with the seriousness that is crucial to all good satire, that the following is true, and deserves as much consideration as the latest translation of The Cloud of Unknowing:

- Geoffey Chaucer has been reincarnated as Bruce Springsteen.

- Thomas a Becket enjoyed, among other things, going fishing, reading books to small children, and being shot out of a cannon.

- Impoverished graduate students will dance for funding, but only after pleading with famous professors (gender unimportant) to marry them so they don't have to major in American studies.

- Dante Alighieri, under the name "Mickey O'Dante," invented the limerick.

- Rabbits are plotting to take over the world.

- St. Guthlac died after being piously persecuted by evil contractors and mortgage holders who didn't deliver the hand-painted Spanish tiles for the kitchen of his hermitage in a timely fashion.

And, of course, my own presentation from last year:

- The unsung legacy of Jean Louis de Pouffe.

All of these worthy contributions to medieval scholarship, plus many, many, MANY more, have entertained medievalists in a session that seems to be unique to K'zoo; evidently an attempt to introduce the Pseudo Society to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association fell flatter than a souffle in an apartment owned by an angry Bruce Banner.  They seemed to believe that just because Truth is the Daughter of Time, she shouldn't occasionally let her hair down, shake her groove thing, and play "America the Beautiful" off-key on a kazoo just for yucks.

Tonight, in honor of the excellent research found here at Kalamazoo, I bring you not one, not two, not even three volumes, but four Books So Bad They Should Be Defenestrated With Extreme Prejudice.  One is by a political activist who seems to have fallen asleep during 20th century history classes, two are by ministers who seem to have forgotten about the commandment not to lie in their zeal to get their message before the public, and the fourth is a well intentioned but deeply flawed work by a professional who should have known better (or at least had his graduate students check his statistics):

Liberal Fascism, by Jonah "My mother is an archconservative" Goldberg - Jonah Goldberg has lived an interesting life.  A member of the second coed graduating class of Goucher College (which I nearly attended, and thank God I chose Smith instead), he is the son of Lucianne Goldberg, the conservative publisher who encouraged Linda Tripp to tape Monica Lewinsky's babblings about Bill Clinton, cigars, sex that isn't, and similar delights.  He's appeared on Fox News (repeatedly), writes a column for the National Review (where he proves twice a week that he's no Bill Buckley), and has defended Fox News as just "tabloidy" despite its numerous, public, and well documented inability to report anything but the gospel news according to Rupert Murdoch.

He also wrote this ludicrous book, which claims to document the shocking truth:  that modern liberalism is nothing more than fascism in a clever sustainably made, eco-friendly disguise.

Yes.  Really.

Goldberg, who seems hellbent on making a fool of himself stretching the truth so far that even the estimable Reed Richards, Ph.D., would snap like a rotten rubber band, writes that fascism and liberalism were both descended from 19th century progressivism.  Add in that Mussolini, founder of the Fascist Party, was originally a Socialist, and that the prominent Fascist party in Germany had the word "Socialist" in its name, and the case is complete:  clearly and obviously, the political movement that brought the world goose stepping, concentration camps, and the abrupt drop in the popularity of the name "Adolf" among German-speaking peoples is now alive and well and manifest in seemingly harmless places like Trader Joe's, Greenpeace, NOW, and the Democratic Party.

Needless to say, Goldberg's work has not been received kindly by professional historians, politicians to the left of Herbert Hoover, or most people who've bothered to read a book by or about actual fascists.  Unfortunately, this didn't prevent it from receiving good reviews on the right or selling a lot of copies, and despite critical brickbats from almost everyone else, Goldberg still stoutly insists that he was right.

It's enough to make an American eagle weep.

The Pink Swastika, by Scott "I'm an anti-gay minister who hired a child molester" Lively - Scott Lively claims to be a Christian minister.  This is the excuse he gives to justify his opposition to LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, and the very existence of anyone who has the misfortune to be sexually attracted to anyone except a member of the opposite sex.  His ministry/hate group, Watchmen on the Walls, has been associated with a wave of gay bashing in the Baltic countries and the United States, and he's been sued by Uganda gay activists over his advocacy for a charming law that would make being gay, or supporting gay rights, a capital offense.  He's recently moved to a city near me, where he's received a less than enthusiastic reception from the religious community, the mayor, and pretty much anyone who isn't a raging homophobe.

In addition to the above accomplishments, Lively also wrote The Pink Swastika, a book that purports to expose the "real truth" about the Nazi movement:  that most prominent Nazis were gay (including Adolf Hitler), that the entire Nazi movement was grounded in homosexual thinking, and that thus the greatest war in human history and the significant military/social event of the 20th century is thus all the fault of ungodly homosexuals who hate Jesus and love little boys, or something.  That only one prominent Nazi (SA head Ernst Roehm) was actually gay, that the Nazis actively persecuted homosexuals (including Roehm, who died on the Night of Long Knives in 1934), and that the whole "Nazis are perverts" idea came largely from Socialist anti-Nazi propaganda in the years prior to 1933, doesn't seem to have penetrated Lively's extra-thick excuse for a skull.

Then again, we are talking about a man who hired a convicted child molester to run a coffeehouse targeting teenagersas possible converts to his church, so perhaps expecting consistency, intelligence, and good scholarship was just a tad much to expect....

The Jefferson Lies, by David "I am a religious fanatic, not a trained  historian, and boy oh boy does it show" Barton - David Barton sure is multi-talented:  he's a Republican activist, an ordained evangelical minister, an author, and so enamored of the American flag that he outdoes Captain America in his choice of attire.  He has dedicated his life to restoring what he claims is the true purpose of the First Amendment:  protecting the rights of Americans to be good, Bible-believing Christians (and maybe Jews and thoroughly assimilated Muslims if they're very humble and quiet about it), not Hindus or Pagans or Buddhists anyone who isn't an adherent to a monotheistic religion.

To this end, Barton has written several absolutely terrible books purporting to prove that the Founders were all evangelical Christians, that they intended America to be a Christian country, and that the separation of church and state was never their intent, but something inflicted on this country by evil, ungodly liberals.  Among his oeuvre are such gems as America's Godly Heritage, America in Black and White, Celebrate Liberty!, and the curiously named Bulletproof George Washington.  These works are all characterized by research that would shame a plagiarizing high school senior (some of his sources include pious 1920's advertising and tourism pamphlets), deep distortions of the actual historical record, and a total (and seemingly willful) avoidance of anything that even smacks of "peer review."  

Of course, this means they're wildly popular in the Christian homeschooling community since they reinforce the idea that America is supposed to be a right-wing Christian country of devout patriarchs, meek matriarchs who swell each year with another arrow for Dad's quiver, and quiet, respectful children who will be warriors to take back America from evil liberalism.  Never mind that they simply aren't true - God's truth prevails, don't you know?

For all that, Barton's books have sold millions of copies...but only this one, which was initially published by the otherwise respectable Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, was so bad, so sloppy, so utterly wrong about so very many easily checked facts about Jefferson, his life, and his beliefs, that not only was it named "the least credible history book in print"...not only was it slagged by mainstream critics for being blatantly biased...not only was it attacked by evangelical historians for its utter lack of quality...

It was yanked from publication despite being on the bestseller lists.

Need I say anything more?

Arming America, by Michael I. "I faked my data and had my Bancroft Prize revoked" Bellesiles - on the surface, this book would seem to be anything but bad:  neither a Republican activist like Jonah Goldberg nor a religious fanatic like Scott Lively or David Barton, Michael Bellesiles was a serious, respected historian on the faculty at Emory University.  He'd spent years researching this book, which was supposed to be the first volume in a trilogy that would be the crowning achievement of his career, and when it came out to rapturous reviews and won the Bancroft Prize from the American Historical Association, it seemed that Bellesiles was living every historian's dream.

The thesis of Arming America is simple:  that the American love affair with the gun, and private ownership of guns, didn't start with the doughty farmers of the Revolution and the dauntless frontiersmen of legend.  No, gun ownership in colonial America and the young Republic was relatively rare, gun violence was rarer, and this situation prevailed until the Civil War accustomed the public to violence, and advances in post-bellum manufacturing made guns cheap and easy to find.  This would seem to make sense, at least on the surface (the Civil War was huge, there were a lot more guns around afterwards, and an awful lot of American men had learned to use the said guns effectively during the national nightmare), and despite shrieks of outrage from NRA and sportsmen's groups, Bellesiles and his book seemed to exemplify the sort of careful scholarship that debunks myths and provokes a national reassessment of policy.

And then a professor at Northwestern analyzed Bellesiles' research, and found it, to say the least, severely wanting.  It seemed that Bellesiles had claimed to consult records that no longer existed; distorted statistics in a mathematically impossible way; misreported probate records; miscited military records; misquoted actual gun counts in colonial records; and had a 100% error rate in his account of homicide deaths in 17th century Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Bellesiles attempted to defend himself by claiming that he'd merely botched some statistics, then couldn't produce his research notebooks due to a flood in his office.  Unamused, Emory accepted his resignation, Columbia University yanked his Bancroft Prize, and he found himself an academic pariah.  He's managed to publish a book of popular history in the decade since the scandal, but his reputation is in ruins and the odds of him ever being taken seriously as a historian again are, to say the least, poor.

Worst of all, his bad work has been used by the NRA to taint the work of every single other researcher who has attempted to investigate the origins of America's love affair with firearms, the actual meaning of the Second Amendment, and similar topics.  Bellesiles may simply have been careless, but his legacy continues to darken the discourse on a subject that deserves better.  It's a true object lesson in how not to research a controversial topic.

As for Michael Bellesiles himself, at last report he was tending bar somewhere in Connecticut.  He's made a name for himself as a great guy, a history buff who mixes a mean drink (some inspired by Game of Thrones, which is either awesome or terrifying), and a writer who's trying for a comeback.  Hope springs eternal, it seems....


And so, my friends, what history books do you love?  Or loathe?  Have you ever thrown a book out a window?  Wanted to throw David Barton out a window?  Had to return your copy of Arming America to the publisher in disgust?  Come join in the fun and share...


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat May 11, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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