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Via Right Wing Watch:

[Conservative historian David] Barton continues to lash out at “deconstructionism” in the education system for distorting the truth about the Founding Fathers, arguing that the Founding Fathers did not support slavery or engage in the practice themselves. While Founding Fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry were all slaveholders, Barton has created his own theory of the cause of the American Revolution: the Founding Fathers’ desire to reject the British Empire’s endorsement of slavery. “That’s why we said we want to separate from Britain, so we can end slavery,” Barton said.
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For the record, this is nonsensical. I have no doubt that Barton has devoted long hours towards "proving" that the entire record of the American Revolution is wrong, and that in fact we went to war with Britain in order to free the slaves. I have no doubt that he has shreds of some letter from some historical figure that, when you cross out every third word, confesses to the whole scheme. And yet I feel assured that we can retain our confidence in the wider body of historical knowledge on the subject, and in the wider documentation available of the time, and in the Constitution itself, which did not end slavery, but codified it, right there in ink, still visible even today to those brave souls willing to trek to the National Archives to see it.

Barton is, of course, not quite a historian in the conventional sense. He is a more akin to a historical propagandist; his goal is to use whatever historical trivia he can muster to make distinctly modern ideological points. Towards this end, he is willing to "reinterpret" history, obfuscate it, and nitpick smaller events or ancillary historical factors into archetypical importance. Is it fair to say that some of the Founding Fathers harbored antipathy towards slavery? So stipulated. Did we "want to separate from Britain so we can end slavery"? Well, no. That was pretty damn far down the list, all told, and even the most cursory skimming of the timelines shows that Britain's attitudes towards abolition progressed faster than much of America's.

Which is the opposite of what David Barton said, right?

If this sounds familiar, it is. David Barton is to history what a conservative preacher is to the Bible, and what a conservative legal mind is to the Constitution, what conservative think-tanks are to policy and science, and what conservative critics of the arts are to, well, art. Intellectualism, science, and knowledge itself is only valuable to the extent to which it can shore up the ideological beliefs of the speaker or the listener. Facts that might subvert those assertions are simply dismissed. This is not something specific to conservatism, mind you, but the extent to which the modern conservative movement has embraced the practice is a bit shocking even to a true cynic like myself. Really?, it makes you want to ask. Really, you would rather believe all these profoundly strange things than have to adjust your own worldview to accommodate anything more complicated?


The most obvious example of this is perhaps the "debate" over climate change. The science is clear enough; we know what greenhouse gases do, we know to what extent they exist in the atmosphere and to what extent human activity has increased them. Among scientists, the arguments are almost entirely over the nuances of what will happen next.

You would not know this from listening to conservative pundits – and this should be a startling thing. The laws of physics, chemistry and biology do not change based on political affiliation. Gravity will not upend itself if some annoyed senator declares he does not believe in it. If Rush Limbaugh argues that fire is cold, he will still get burned if he sticks his head into one. But among movement conservatives, the science is irrelevant. You can rattle off the reasons: some study funded by a conservative think tank or corporate polluter claims "skepticism" in opposition to the far greater number of established scientific studies published everywhere else; some set of emails or an outlier set of data is supposed to show worldwide, multidisciplinary "fraud" being concocted by scientists in a secret bid for power; a conspiracy is cited even by the most powerful and influential conservatives in which climate change is itself entirely a hoax, perpetrated by liberals or socialists or communists that seek to use it to establish iron-fisted regulations meant to choke off free enterprise, or private wealth, or private freedoms.

It is apparently easy for them to believe in this vast, worldwide conspiracy against conservatism. By the same token, it seems impossible to get them to recognize that a polluter funding a distinctly contrarian "study" that shows pollution is not harmful is not much different from a tobacco company funding a "study" that says the jury is still out on whether their own product causes cancer. The nitpicks of minor groups are elevated to canonical status, because they best support movement beliefs: the much broader and deeper body of evidence is set aside, because it does not.


Another example: Sarah Palin's pronouncement that Paul Revere rode through town ringing bells and firing warning shots. No. No, he did not. And in the grand scheme of American life, nobody would give a damn whether or not a politician misspoke over such a thing, other than as a moment for a minor chuckle.

Editing the Wikipedia entry for Revere to better match her own version, though? Suddenly, a few sentences by a single politician requires us to revisit history? The technical conversation between Wikipedians as to whether or not to allow the edits to support Palin's version struck me as especially illuminating. Note that all but the first is from the same author, highlights are my own:

“In the article on Paul Revere, someone has added false information in an effort to support Sarah Palin’s FALSE claims about Paul Revere. ‘Accounts differ regarding the method of alerting the colonists; the generally accepted position is that the warnings were verbal in nature, although one disputed account suggested that Revere rang bells during his ride.[8][9]‘ This must be removed as it is a LIE designed to mislead. dj Dajames (talk) 14:46, 5 June 2011 (UTC)

A lie? If you follow Wikipedia’s rules, we must maintain a WP:NEUTRAL position, representing the mainstream position as well as disputed versions. I think the addition represents this fairly — the mainstream position is that Revere’s warnings were verbal, but there are differing accounts that the warnings were done with bells — with two sources: WDHD television plus a live interview, with a highly influential US politician relating these facts.–Tomwsulcer (talk) 14:50, 5 June 2011 (UTC) [...]

I kindly remind people that it’s not our job here at Wikipedia to decide what’s true, but to report what reliable sources say, such as the LA Times, WDHD TV in Boston, numerous others. And they quoted an American politician saying that bells were used. –Tomwsulcer (talk) 15:09, 5 June 2011 (UTC) [...]

Sarah Palin is a former governor of Alaska as well as a presidential candidate of one of the two national parties in the United States. Her account of Paul Revere’s famous ride has achieved national attention from most mainstream media — LA Times, CNN, you name it. There are numerous reliable sources quoted her exact words on this subject. This article has HUGE attention (55K readers in one day) as a result. Clearly, there should be some mention given its obvious importance. And I remind people, kindly, that it’s not up to us contributors to determine who is and isn’t a ‘poorly informed view’ and to try to determine truth. Rather, Wikipedia is about verifiability.–Tomwsulcer (talk) 15:37, 5 June 2011 (UTC)”

The insistence here is that while the vast majority of scholars agree on one thing, a single conservative source with no particular expertise or background in the subject matter says differently, and so therefore fairness dictates that the controversy must be taught. A "highly influential US politician" related "these facts" that Paul Revere rang bells: this should be considered of equal weight to the entire rest of historical knowledge about Revere and the ride, and be included in the historical narrative from this point forward.

Other common defenses of Palin that have emerged: other people rang bells, therefore Paul Revere did; other people may have fired warning shots, therefore Paul Revere did. Logical fallacies both, but no matter: an ancillary supporting "fact" is attributed to – supercedes, even – the more established facts, a new narrative is declared, and a new version of history itself must now be created in order to more easily defend a single political figure from a single, trivial gaffe. And none of it makes the slightest bit of real ideological difference: whether Paul Revere rang bells and fired shots is not an ideological opinion by any stretch, and alters modern life not a damn bit, and will make absolutely no difference in the next bits of legislation being bickered about in Congress. It is solely insisted upon for the sake of defending a mere gaffe, because the speaker was of the correct ideological bent to be defended.


We could go on and on; entire books have been written with examples of conservative warfare against environmentalism, against institutions of higher learning, against public broadcasting, against other insufficiently conservative faiths, against the arts, and so forth. A supposed liberal bias is innate in, apparently, nearly everything. The broader hypothesis I wish to make here, however, is this: modern "movement" conservatives are against these things not because of any innate hostility towards them required by conservatism, but are against them solely because they are not sufficiently ideological endeavors. To repeat myself: a hallmark of the modern conservative movement, including punditry, elected officials, and the base itself, is that science and knowledge is only valuable to the extent to which it can shore up conservative beliefs.

A historian is a "proper" historian if their history produces a perceivable conservative message. A work of art is "good" if it embraces a conservative position, and is "bad" if it is seen to promote a liberal one (often resulting in calls to remove the offending artwork – say, a historical mural depicting workers, etc.) A climate study is considered credible if it produces a conservative result, and is considered a conspiracy if it produces a perceived "liberal" one – which is to say, a result that a conservative listener does not like. The credentials of said scientists do not come into play, nor does the relevant process of peer review, nor does the relative scope of one study versus another: all of those things can be dismissed outright.

This may all seem nothing more than a circuitous method to hurl a few insults towards modern conservatism; while I do enjoy that (quite a bit, these days), my intention is not quite that. Rather, I want to present this hypothesis as just that – a hypothesis – for revisiting in future controversies. A great number of people have highlighted the Republican war on Science, but it is not a war on science: that is far too narrow. It is a dismissal of the very notion that objective fact can be determined. Politicians already use this to great effect. If an outside group says that Paul Ryan's plan to replace Medicare with vouchers will result in seniors struggling to find care, that outside group is dismissed. If Tim Pawlenty proposes a tax system that will objectively cost the nation ten trillion dollars, all that is necessary is that Pawlenty reject the notion. The Congressional Budget Office is cited as infallible one moment, and a tool of liberalism the next. A single speaker will declare that an action is clearly constitutional if done by one party, and declare it clearly unconstitutional the next year, when the other party does it. The science of any number of things is "unclear". Osama bin Laden was found via our policies of torture. Which was not torture. All of these are political statements, but what is perhaps unusual is the extent to which every objective reality of the world, both past and present, is apparently similarly malleable according to ideological needs of the moment.

It is more than just insincerity or cynicism, and more than just lying: as the conservative would-be Wikipedia editor showed, it seems an outright inability to separate established fact from partisan fiction, and an inner demand to treat them both equally. Truthiness, Stephen Colbert dubbed it. Something is true if it feels true, and is false if it feels false, and that is the only evidence that is truly needed.

You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts, the saying roughly goes. But there are fewer and fewer "facts" around, of late, and I fear for the ones we have left.

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