Right Wing Watch made a nice catch yesterday and it has to do with our old “friend” David Barton, who likes to re-purpose American history. I hope by now people are becoming familiar with this liar without equal because like Brian Fischer – who even The New Yorker has taken notice of (and Fischer noticed he was noticed) – he is likely to become even more important as we approach Election Day. If you’re not familiar with Barton, you can bring yourself quickly up to date here.
Those of you who are familiar with Barton know he wrote a book of lies about Thomas Jefferson called The Jefferson Lies (2012), which is basically an attempt to turn everything we know about Jefferson on its head and pretend the opposite is true. He cherry-picks, tells lies of omission and commission with equal fervor, misquotes, takes out of context and just out-right invents “facts” to push his version of Jefferson. I reviewed it here.
Two actual scholars (conservative scholars at that), Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, countered Barton by writing a correction entitled, quite appropriately, Getting Jefferson Right (2012), which I reviewed here. There is a world of difference between these two books: Throckmorton and Coulter (besides not taking things out of context) quote the primary documents to a much greater extent than does Barton, making it difficult for even a reader to take things out of context.
Barton, of course, is claiming in his book that scholars don’t do this, that they don’t quote primary sources (Jefferson), only each other. Since this is untrue, and now that Barton is faced with evidence that he lied (yet again), he told an interviewer that the two gentlemen did not quote from primary sources but only other professors.
Throckmorton counters Barton’s claim here but you could also simply buy and read the book. It’s an eye opener and highly recommended – nor is it expensive. You can download a Kindle app and be reading it on your computer in just a couple of minutes. Pick up both books; read them side by side and come to your own conclusions.
Which brings me back to Right Wing Watch and even an more underhanded attempt by Barton’s deputy at WallBuilders, Rick Green, to “prove” Barton is telling the truth (and everybody else is lying) by the simple expedient of claiming that criticism proves Barton’s honesty.
Let me make that point more clearly because you are probably scratching your head right now: the fact that Barton is being criticized is proof that Barton is telling the truth. Yes. He said that.
Green: We’re worried about cratering because someone might say, ‘that’s mean-spirited’!
French: Exactly, or, ‘you’re a bigot,’ and then all of a sudden you are immediately backpedalling. It shows the power that we have allowed peer and cultural regard to have over our lives and heart. One of the best things that any Christian can do is to begin to just break away from that, to become indifferent to that.
You guys, you and David, get such hate all the time from folks who are just appalled that you are bringing truth about America’s heritage into the public square, a truth they have been spending generations trying to squelch. I’m sure it hurts on some occasion when you see it but it’s also a sign that you guys are making incredible progress and incredible headway and you’ve gotten a message out that I can just tell in the Christian community in the past five to ten years, there’s a difference in knowledge about America because of the work that you guys have done.
Green: Hey man, if you’re not taking flak you’re not over the target right?
Green: It could be a good thing. I think you’re dead-on, if you are speaking truth, if you are doing something that’s going to make a difference, you’re going to take some criticism. We need to challenge this generation to actually be excited about the opportunity to stand for truth.
Now I just want to point out a couple of obvious implications of this claim. First of all, you can’t say this “truth-test” is true only of David Barton or true only of conservative Christians who are being criticized. If being criticized is proof of telling the truth then this proof applies equally to all who are criticized for saying something. In other words, every time David Barton criticizes scholars, for example (including, significantly, Throckmorton and Coulter) it is proof that Throckmorton and Coulter are telling the truth. And it applies equally to Green and his criticisms of Barton’s critics – the critics must be telling the truth because they are being criticized for it.
Throckmorton and Coulter are taking flak because they’re, to borrow Green’s expression, “over the target”. All those scholarly critics Green is criticizing are “over the target” which explains the flak Green is throwing their way.
That this is not a very useful “lie detector” should be obvious: don’t people also criticize people for lying? Can’t we expect people to be criticized for lying? It seems a natural enough reaction to me. If I said Barton molested my cat, wouldn’t Barton have a right to criticize me? Or does Barton’s reaction prove he did in fact do some very unwholesome things to my cat?
But instead of considering this possibility we are left with some real conundrums; Green’s contention creates more problems than it solves, bringing us no closer to the truth-content of a claim. Even scholars regularly criticize each other, as anyone who has actually picked up a scholarly journal knows (Barton and Green obviously have not), a fact which leads to the impossible contention that virtually everyone is right even when they contradict each other.
Which means that Barton is right. Throckmorton and Coulter are also right about Barton being wrong. Historian and author (Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? 2011) John Fea of Messiah College, who has regularly and roundly condemned Barton’s travesty of a book, is also right that Barton is wrong, and Green is right about Throckmorton and Coulter being wrong about Barton being wrong about being right.
It’s a mess. We might as well throw our hands up and like the biblical revisionists who deconstruct biblical texts, become, to use archaeologist William G. Dever’s words, “historians without any history”.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to do this. I studied history because I think it can be proven that history is important and relevant and more than a collection of stories we like to tell about ourselves. History is something we can and do know and the more recent the history the more knowledge we can have.
Jefferson was, in the vernacular, a “writing fool” – he wrote thousands of letters and he wrote books, including a brief autobiography. His authorship of the Declaration of Independence is well known. If we can’t know anything about Thomas Jefferson we can’t know anything about any of our Founding Fathers.
But rather than actually look at what Jefferson wrote (as he claims to do) and come to a conclusion about what Jefferson thought and believed based on that evidence, Barton first decided what Jefferson thought and then went looking for proof of it. When he could not find that proof in Jefferson’s copious correspondence, he proceeded to do what he does best: he made it up: he lied.
Barton misquoted Jefferson, took what Jefferson said out of context, and outright invented things to put in Jefferson’s mouth and writings. Then he wrote a book of his findings, and when, as was to be expected, criticized for it (as I said, even legitimate historians get criticized), rather than engaging in a debate based on the evidence and on its merits, he lied about the fact-finders and sent his deputy out to lie about how we can know what is and is not the truth.
Sadly, this is an effective strategy, as the tobacco companies (cancer denial) and the fossil fuel industry (climate denial) have already proven: all Barton has to do to win this exchange is to sow doubt and he is doing an excellent job of that.
It is left to those of us who genuinely care about historical fact to prove that Barton, again to use the vernacular, is “full of shit”. It’s an uphill battle for the simple reason that shit rolls down hill. The truth is regularly shat upon by ideologues who find it less than congenial to the lies they want us to believe.
Barton has a ready legion of supporters who will believe anything he says. It is left to the rest of us to counter those lies, to make ourselves knowledgeable and ready to argue when we are confronted by those lies. But we must actually acquaint ourselves with the facts because contrary to Barton, simply believing or wishing something is true doesn’t make it true.