The Jefferson Lies

You may have seen David Barton on Jon Stewart the other night, plugging his new book, “The Jefferson Lies.” Barton is a right-wing fundie who’s rewritten history to make Thomas Jefferson a religious man who never wanted religion out of public life. (You may also know him as a “professor” at the famous Beck University.) Fred Clark, famous for calling out the charlatans in his faith, has a bone to pick with how the mainstream media depicts David Barton:

Who is David Barton?” CNN’s Dan Gilgoff asks.

And then Gilgoff refuses to answer his own question.

Instead, Gilgoff retreats into a wretched, flaccid display of false-equivalence, view-from-nowhere, opinions-on-the-shape-of-earth-differ non-journalism.

“Barton’s work has drawn many critics,” Gilgoff writes, in lieu of actual journalism.

That’s a remarkable sentence. It’s like saying, “Bernie Madoff’s investment skills have drawn many critics.” Or, “Ty Cobb’s sportsmanship has drawn many critics.” Or, “Leroy Jenkins’ teamwork has drawn many critics.”

Who is David Barton? David Barton is a man who says things that are not true.

David Barton makes stuff up. He surgically alters quotations deliberately in order to deceive others.

David Barton says things that are not true. He is not merely “controversial.” He is not merely “a lightning rod for critics.” His many, many false assertions are not merely “disputed” or “questioned” or “challenged.”

David Barton says things that are not true. After being repeatedly, publicly corrected, he repeats those very same untrue statements. This is what he does. This is how he makes his living.

David Barton has not attracted “critics.” David Barton says things that are not true, and those Gilgoff mislabels as his “critics” are simply those many, many people who have pointed out the many, many untrue things that David Barton has said. His false statements are obvious. His false statements are extravagant. His false statements are hard to miss.

David Barton says things that are not true. That is the primary, pre-eminent, pervasive fact about David Barton.

To say anything else about David Barton without also saying that is to be inaccurate, misleading and dishonest.

But Paul Harvey, a real history professor, says of course it won’t matter:

I don’t question the necessity of pointing out Barton’s history of outright falsehoods, explaining the fallacies of his presentism (as in using a 1765 sermon or a 1792 congressional vote to show that the original intent of the founders was to oppose bailout and stimulus plans), and introducing to non-experts the abundant evidence calling his historical worldview of the Christian Founders into question. Yet while these kinds of refutations are necessary, they are not sufficient. That’s because Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one.

That’s why historians’ takedown of his ahistorical approach ultimately won’t matter that much. Nor will historians’ explanations of his presentism, and his obvious and unapologetic ideological agenda (albeit considerably muted for his appearance on The Daily Show). While all the historians’ refutations are good and necessary, ultimately they won’t matter for the audience which exists in his alternate intellectual universe, one described in much greater detail in my colleague Randall Stephens’ forthcoming book The Anointed: Evangelical Experts in a Secular Age…

After all the refutations and belittling of pedigree, Barton still appears in a New York Times “puff piece,” argues with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and fields calls from congressmen and presidential candidates. In short, if this were a basketball game between Barton and professional historians, in some ways it’s already a rout, with Barton far ahead and the scrubs in to play out the garbage time.

Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and his organization WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. He simply is playing a different game than worrying about scholarly credibility, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy.

And once again, our librul media is outplayed.

3 thoughts on “The Jefferson Lies

  1. The fact that Jon Stewart had Barton as a guest is more proof of how low-brow the mainstream media is, and of what a lightweight Stewart is. Barton isn’t even a real scholar. If Stewart wants to talk with an author about Jefferson, why not Garry Wills, a genuine scholar and a great journalist who wrote an erudite but very readable book about the man? TV blows, and Stewart is way overrated. Stephen Colbert at least has a mind.

  2. The thing I puzzle over is what could be done about liars in mass media. Let’s say we could wave a magic wand and implement anything, I’m still not sure what could be done.

    If people hear lies, some proportion is going to believe them. If the proportion is large enough, policy will be based on lies and before you know it, we’ll be dealing with the modern world.

    The usual answer is that people should be taught to analyze what they hear. Well, sure. We should also all be kind, good-hearted people who would never take food from a baby.

    But too many people do, no matter what they should. We need rules against lying, and punishments for doing it, just like any other crime against the public.

    How do you outlaw lying? What kind of rules could get the liars to shut up, and leave the people with weird ideas free to speak?

    Really. This keeps me awake at night. Are there any rules that might work?

  3. I get the nuggets of wisdom written by these “historians” in my inbox a good bit.
    My favorites are the historical facts regarding Democrats and Republicans after the Civil War. Most of these folks must have missed that day in school when the “Southern Strategy” was discussed.
    Then the these Republicans would stop calling themselves Civil Rights heroes…..

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