Revisiting Bernays’ Propaganda in the Age of Trumpism and Post-Truth

The past eighteen months can be characterized by wildly variable political expectations, forcing many to search the depths of their consciences for explanations of the domestic and global emesis of id that embraces aspects of racism, misogyny, and even fascism. The rise of Trump in the United States and various nationalist parties across Europe demands that we examine the causes and processes that enabled it. Enhancing this demand is the shifting analysis following the U.S. election. Much of the pundit class is ignoring previous campaign analysis, instead attributing Trump’s success to external influence and opponent mistakes. Surely there is a grain of truth to these statements, but there is no sound reason for abandoning previous observations that Trump taps an anger that evolved out of the 2010 Tea Party movement. Although Tea Party members are firmly entrenched in the Republican Party and revile Trump, their candidates could not shake the “establishment” label hurled by Trump supporters. What, then, is this force that provided Trump with a swift consolidation of power in a political party hostile towards him, and at the same time guaranteed an overwhelming flame-out for recent political darlings? A return to the Edward Bernays 1928 classic, Propaganda, provides much insight into the process.

Bernays defines propaganda as “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale.” The word dates back to the 17th century, when the Vatican’s Office for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de propaganda fide) was established to oversee the Church’s missionary efforts. Until the Great War, the term’s meaning remained benign, but with the aggressive psychological tactics employed on the American and British people to maintain support of the military effort against Germany, it gained the negative connotation it still holds today. Bernays worked in the war effort with Walter Lippman and emerged as one of many practitioners who believed that the future of business and commerce relied upon the scientific use of propaganda to shape consumer attitudes. The book is thus both an attempt to reform the word and also an argument for why his corporate clients should engage his services. While he was wildly successful with the latter goal, he failed with the former.

At the core of Bernays’ work is the distinction between the individual and the group mind. Both are resident within each of us, and they operate independently of one another. The individual mind projects what we recognize as the self; the group mind penetrates myriad networks of interests that define our social being, ranging from book preferences to attitudes about labor unions. While specific individuals may share interests in one network, they may be opposed in other networks. It is not unusual for a person to join a network that is contrary to her individual interests. This is typically referred to as cognitive dissonance.

The sheer complexity of information assaulting the group mind necessitates the acceptance of what Bernays refers to as the invisible government. The members of this government — small and often unknown, even to each other — are responsible for shaping expectations of the group mind. The invisible government is not evil or conspiratorial, nor is it threatened by the knowledge of its existence. It is merely a mechanism of conferring credibility, prioritizing needs and wants, and shortening the process of selecting goods that will improve our lives. It falls to a few select individuals “because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses.” Whether we seek to purchase a fifth of vodka or a book on Atlantic history, we first filter the possibilities through early adopters, celebrities, thought champions, and product experts.

The propagandist, also referred to by Bernays as the public relations counsel, employs the invisible government to shape the group mind so that the goods and services offered are what the customer desires. There are various ways of achieving this, which Bernays touts in the book (remember, the book itself is propaganda for his firm.) While the archaic method involves repeatedly asserting a direct message[1], such as “Buy X for good health!”, by the 1920s a more scientific approach was advocated. The propagandist undertakes a study of customer needs and beliefs, and then executes a campaign to address the drives which might underlie the acceptance of a product. For example, instead of telling customers to buy product X to relieve stress, a campaign to set expectations of stress-free living makes the customer want to buy product X. This campaign employs members of the invisible government as well as public thought champions.

Bernays believed that checks on this process exist: customers react negatively to fabrications and dishonest propaganda. The professional public relations counsel demonstrates integrity in order to build credibility and maintain acceptance of the consuming public. Methods and messages lose effectiveness if they fail to satisfy the group mind.

Although Propaganda addresses product consumption, Bernays recognized its value in politics. Indeed, he found it ironic the original champion of the practice lagged so far behind in the precision and skill business had achieved. He devoted a chapter to entreating politicians to adopt the scientific methods of modern public relations in order to effectively engage the body politic. From page 119:

In actual fact, [molding the mind of voters] can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of the public.

Bernays realized that tapping into the networks of influence was infinitely more effective than “pressing the flesh”, making stump speeches, and kissing babies. The successful politician recognizes the desire of a network and offers the product that satisfies the voter’s need.

Which brings us back to Trump, his unfathomable behavior, his unflappability, and his success despite being profoundly unprepared for the task at hand. To understand his achievement we must examine the networks of influence he utilized to ascend to power. Were these networks available to Trump’s rivals? How were Trump’s tactics more effective than up-and-comers like Marco Rubio, or proven gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich?

The first step that Bernays prescribes is to create a need or expectation in the customer (in this case the voter.) This is not something Trump did himself, but he correctly identified it. The American Right has received a consistent narrative of “reverse oppression” across multiple media. For over two decades right-wing media has relentlessly “othered” liberal and non-white members of society. The breakdown of the social order, reverse racism, job loss, and faithlessness have been attributed to “coastal elites” and immigrants. Homosexuals are recruiting children in bathrooms. Liberal humanities professors are teaching young adults to hate their nation. These are not propaganda strategies to invoke direct action, instead they are designed to create a feeling of siege, a notion that what was once a position of wealth and power is now ephemeral. Despite the fact that individuals live in affluent, white suburbs (or other homogenous enclaves), their group mind is wracked with anxiety about losing everything at any moment.

Looking at Fox News (cable news on the Left has tried to copy but without the same success), it is obvious the opinion personalities highlighted during the evening hours are the network’s thought leaders, nurturing and shaping the prized networks of influence. “Real news” is relegated to the daytime hours when the audiences are smaller. Unleashing O’Reilly and Hannity with their fear-mongering and message of imminent social destruction helped form the network of influence that has driven the Republican Party (until recently the GOP considered Fox News a mouthpiece.)

One important factor that is different from politics in the days of Propaganda is the lack of overlap. Bernays spoke of myriad networks all overlapping. Today, ideological isolation is more pronounced than at any time perhaps since the Civil War (I will yield to constructive criticism on that judgment.) These silos of belief make it harder for people to find some common ground, even if it isn’t the topic under discussion. The idea that we might interact with a wide variety of people based on social contacts, church affiliation, work experience, or recreational endeavors seems less credible today than it did in Bernays time[2].

By the time Trump takes the idea of candidacy seriously, the infrastructure is already in place. It is important to give him credit for realizing it’s potential; no one else seemed to. “Gaffes” like calling Mexicans rapists or accusing the Chinese of fabricating climate change actually fueled his popularity, not because individuals accepted the veracity of these claims, but because a group mind had been conditioned to be satisfied by the slaying of these demons. Trump’s GOP rivals who tried to navigate a more responsible path were quickly vanquished, because there was no network of influence they could utilize. Their message didn’t resonate; they were irrelevant.

Those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power. Click To Tweet

Trump is a current crisis, one that Bernays did envision, albeit indirectly. The consummate professional, Bernays believed that integrity is the hallmark of the public relations counsel. He practice what he preached, dropping large tobacco clients when it became clear that smoking was harmful to consumers (long before the Surgeon General’s report.) And in fairness, he did believe that communists were a threat in Guatemala when he orchestrated the public relations campaign that encouraged lawmakers to support the CIA coup. He cautions politicians in Propaganda to be honest, lest the public punish them (page 113.) It appears that we are now in uncharted waters. The notion of Trumpism as “post-truth”, with the employment of “alternative facts” to present a fictional narrative, demonstrates that those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power.

Trumpism presents the United States with a seemingly overwhelming set of obstacles, which may destroy the republic or take decades to repair. We must accept the asymmetrical political networks of influence that divide our body politic and spread a false narrative (alternative facts.) Our group mind is reliant on propaganda to filter and coordinate the overwhelming number of social signals that are presented to us each day, yet the only thing separating us from the responsible assimilation of information and misdirection by influential people is the integrity of those shaping the message. Propaganda is our drinking water, and we rely on the invisible government not to poison it. This is not to say that we can fight propaganda by appealing to the individual mind; Hillary Clinton made a strategic error by focusing on policy and how it appeals to the voter. We cannot separate ourselves from the group mind; it is a facet of our personality unaffected by awareness or education. Those opposing Trump can only formulate their own group narrative, one that is more effective than the current one. Ultimately we can only campaign against corrupted networks and champion those that provide honest influence (as opposed to those that align with our ideology.) Finally, working to re-establish the myriad overlapping networks that Bernays described in 1928 may help people reconnect at the civic level, tearing down the ideological silos that separate us.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. New York: Ig Publishing, 2005.

[1] For an interesting read and discussion about cumulative advantage, see Roger L. Martin’s post in Harvard Business Review, “How the Attacks on Trump Reinforce His Strategy.”

[2] I realize I have stepped in a large pile of goop here. For the purpose of this essay, we do not need to discuss the race and sex segregation of the 1920s. I only wish to assert that Bernays’ suggestion of ideological interaction is less likely today.

Neoliberalism and the God Emperor

I had the television on the other day while talking heads preached the gospel of low taxes and small government inducing economic growth and innovation, and I was overcome by the image of the God Emperor of Dune, Leto Atreides II. What would prompt such an association, short of powerful hallucinogens or a vacuum of social interaction? It is the quandary that we share with Leto II (or he will share with us, since his time is still several aeons in the future.)

Leto, the son of the prophet Muad’Dib, undergoes a physical and mental transformation from man to sandworm. For 1500 years, Leto crafts a new narrative of the human place in the Universe. He squelches independent thought and provides the tyranny that comforts so many in their banal lives. The God Emperor becomes the repository of ambition, risk, and power.

At the time of the story, Leto falls in love with Hwi Noree, the Ixian ambassador who speaks to his lost humanity. He faces two pathways: the most likely and necessary is his death and consequent reorganization of the Universe; but for a time he contemplates a life with Hwi as a human. The important point is that Leto can reverse his metamorphosis, yet he realizes that it will take another 1500 years. And here we come back to the talking heads on television…

For decades we have been sold a narrative that not only prescribes an optimal economic model, but defines our relationship to the community. Despite the fact that considerable evidence demonstrates the deficiencies of this economic model, we continue to build our identity around it and accept the bondage that it imposes. Much as humanity watched the transformation of the God Emperor and accepted his tyranny and order, we fling ourselves down the road of neoliberalism, without questioning its consequences or even our eventual destination.

This may sound trivial, but there are serious implications for the New Left, or whatever is out there in opposition to the American Right. Policy change is difficult and circumscribed without first changing identity through messaging. At present, a unified message does not exist, whether you are watching a Democratic spokesman like Chris Van Hollen on television or following the various fractured factions of the Occupy movement on social media. Until a coherent, alternative identity exists to challenge neoliberalism, catastrophes like the 2008 financial collapse will be inadequate to drive change, and leaders like President Barack Obama will operate within existing political confines. Even failures of the Right will be softened by the framework they have already built.

Too many people see themselves in a rising boat, even if it’s a dinghy. Much of the population matured in an era where no other message was communicated. The reality is that thought leaders are seeking a permanently impoverished working class to provide cheap labor for capital. Until I hear the opposition articulate that far and wide, I will remain skeptical that change is on the horizon.

QOTD: Douglas Hurd

I found this while reading for my examination of the British response to famine in the nineteenth century. It is a 1994 quote from then British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd speaking to the scope and limits of capitalism and the free market (emphasis is mine):

But capitalism without the community is an empty husk. Capitalism does not on its own possess some supreme moral quality, regardless of its consequences for people. It is a technique rather than a religion. … The market can only deliver its promise within a social and political context.

I think the American Right could use a small dose of British conservatism these days.

Possible Cause for Hope?

I know I have reached rock bottom when I post video of Joe Scarborough on Meet the Press, but there was a glimmer of hope embedded in the roundtable discussion yesterday.

This is like layer cake: a conservative defending Ronald Reagan for being considered a RINO by the Tea Party; that same conservative undoubtedly seen as a liberal media stooge by those he criticizes; the admission that the next century will require soft power in order to project influence; the lack of acknowledgment that American Empire stopped providing dividends long ago and is responsible for much of the fiscal trouble driving the right-wing into a frenzy. I am unwilling to attempt an assessment of the net value of all this.

But let us reflect for one moment on what happened yesterday. A former congressman from the Republican Revolution has recognized that hard power is not a sustainable mode of operation. Never mind that he invoked Reagan — one of the most ardent enthusiasts of American Empire — in nearly the same breath. Let us simply appreciate the fact that the goals of fiscal responsibility and reduced militarism were, for one moment, conflated.

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History and the Culture Wars

Update 3: Yikes! I missed this direct response from the History Department at the University of Texas — Austin.

Update 2: I am pleased that Richard Fonte commented on my post. I also want to add a link to James Grossman and Elaine Carey’s recent response to the NAS report (published in The Chronicle.)

Update: I have added links to several other good blog posts addressing the NAS report at the bottom of my post.

The past few months have witnessed pundits of all persuasions declaring that the culture war is over. Conservative commentator Matt Lewis recently wrote in The Week that conservatives lost, and Ann Friedman’s sub-title in the current TimeOut Chicago promises to explain “Why liberals have won the battles on gay and abortion rights, immigration and drug legalization.” As a historian, I can only caution against such optimism (which saddens me.) In my world, the culture war is very much engaged, as a recently released report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) makes clear.

The NAS describes themselves as an “independent membership association of academics and others working to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges and universities.” An examination of their staff and board biographies suggests a preponderance of “conservative” (or what I prefer to more accurately describe as right-wing) weltanschauung. It should therefore come as no surprise to members of the discipline that “Recasting History: Are Race, Class and Gender Dominating American History?” raises perennial right-wing concerns about a lack of good, old-fashioned American Exceptionalism in history survey classes. The central assertion is that issues of race, class, and gender are displacing diplomatic, military, and economic history emphasis in our public universities.

The report is reminiscent of the debate over the National History Standards in the mid-90s; much of the text could be mistaken for Lynne Cheney’s Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Stopped Making Sense — and What We Can Do About It. Then, as well as now, the bogeyman was a post-modern (i.e., “liberal”) approach to Social History, which tends to complicate the historical narrative by granting agency to people other than rich, male WASPs who hold positions of power. Cheney — a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities — argued that teaching history is a matter of presenting objective facts that have inherent value and remain static over time. Strangely enough, she seems to indicate that the only useful work available in the discipline is to uncover new primary source material or examine previously ignored events.

The tenth recommendation of the NAS report is to depoliticize history:

Historians and professors of United States history should counter mission creep by returning to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

This comes right out of Cheney’s Introduction. You can even see the cross-pollination on page 14:

The humanities are about more than politics… about more than social power. What gives them their abiding worth are truths that pass beyond time and circumstance; truths that, transcending accidents of class, race, and gender, speak to us all.

To many, these words seem not only reasonable but also wise. However, there is a great danger in conflating history with a recounting of historical events.[1] When we strip events of their context — the act of memorialization — we rely upon memory to act as a substitute. Memory is easily co-opted and shaped into a useful story, or folded into mythology. Whether pre-meditated or not, this is a common tactic for the right-wing, and it highlights the gap between the perceived and actual process of conducting historical research. Ironically, it is the removal of context and a robust historical narrative that threatens our understanding of past events and prevents uncovering the Truths that conservatives like Cheney value.

It is not surprising that the NAS report focuses on Texas universities. Texas is ground-zero in the battle over history curricula. The Texas State Board of Education is infamous for its efforts to dismiss educational rigor and substitute ideological positions — Creationism and American Exceptionalist mythology — in the disciplines of natural science and history, and right-wing political advocates like David Barton[2] are given tremendous agency all the way to the Governor’s office. The audience for these reports is the body of political decision-makers that write laws and fund educational programs. “Recasting History” is simply part of a continuing effort to stoke the embers of educational activism.

The NAS report might be easily dismissed by many, but it is a wake-up call for people inside and outside of the academy. For historians, it demonstrates not only that the right-wing will continue to attack and attempt to discredit the academy, but also that a strategy for defeating this charlatanism is non-existent. This issue is not academic, it is political, and until the appropriate tactics are utilized groups like the NAS will continue to call good history into question. For those on the outside, the culture war has not ended; you are simply looking in the wrong places. The right-wing might be dispirited over gay marriage in Washington state, but they have not stopped asserting themselves in areas that will have dramatic consequences on the lives of everyone. If the discipline of History is any example, many battles remain before victory is declared.

For more discussion see:

Joseph M. Adelman at Publick-Occurrences 2.0
Historiann: History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present
Robert Jensen on Academe Blog
James Grossman and Elaine Carey at The Chronicle
Response from UT — Austin

[1] For an excellent example of conflict between interpretative history and social mythology, see the New York Times examination of the Enola Gay affair. For a whimsical look at the differences between historical events and history, see my previous blog post, “Pulled Pork as a Historical Event.”
[2] Barton, a controversial figure for years, recently had his book The Jefferson Lies pulled from the shelves by publisher Thomas Nelson due to the number of falsehoods discovered in the text. Works like The Jefferson Lies are an example of how historical events outside of context are easily shaped into an alternative narrative.

Paranoia and Conquest

A strange thing happened this week. And while it garnered attention by many for what has become known as the GOP’s characteristic lack of empathy, there was something even more strange operating at a different level. Senate Republicans voted down the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty with roots in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.) It marked another withdrawal of the party from international cooperation at the same time the party is becoming increasingly belligerent toward foreign nations.

Tuesday, members of the United States Senate walked past former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole on their way to the Senate floor. Dole, seated in a wheelchair, was there as an advocate for passage of the treaty, which has already been signed by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and many other nations. In a succinct demonstration of how far the Republican Party has shifted over the past two decades, thirty-eight Republican Senators rejected the treaty and Bob Dole’s leadership.

Judging from the recent column by hyper-conservative Rick Santorum, many Republicans feared that the treaty would infringe upon the sovereignty of the United States. That in and of itself is not surprising, for it has long been the modus operandi of the conservative movement to engender fear of outsiders among its members. Using the United Nations as a bogeyman is old news.

So what is different? The paranoia of international institutions and belief in military projection are not conflicting attitudes held by different factions of the party, but exist within individual party leaders. While Rick Santorum advocates for withdrawal from cooperation with international bodies, he beats the war drum for military intervention in countries like Iran. Mitt Romney spent his most recent campaign for President beating up the United Nations while warning that Russia requires military containment. This bipolar view is emblematic of the Republican Party.

Shrinking from involvement in international relations while advocating the projection of military power demonstrates a lack of coherent strategy in foreign policy. The successful implementation of a nation’s will is dependent upon cooperation and negotiation with global partners. The current attitude of the Republican Party denies agency to other nations that play a significant and legitimate role in global politics. Military projection is symptomatic of a belief in American empire, yet the rejection of cooperative international institutions abdicates the responsibilities of leadership. Demanding conformity to the will of the United States while denying agency to other nations reflects an authoritarian outlook that is counterproductive to stability.

It would be understandable if these conflicting attitudes were visible in different factions of the Republican Party. What is troubling is that they coexist within individual party leaders. The maintenance of United States dominance across the globe is dependent upon encouraging interdependencies and regional cooperation with other sovereign partners. Rejecting such cooperation jeopardizes that dominance. If Republicans expect to claim a leadership role in the future, they need to resolve this dissonance between isolationist paranoia and imperial conquest.

Pulled Pork as an Historical Event

I have been chatting a bit with people who either don’t understand why David Barton is at the center of a firestorm, or believe he is the victim of a liberal smear campaign. Barton, the powerful culture warrior from Texas, is often a target for politically asserting his revisionist views of the Founding Fathers (ironically, his supporters consider this unfair.) One theme that emerges repeatedly is the mistake of equating the historical fact with history. This is common, and highlights the lack of understanding most people have about the process of historical research.

History is more than a simple annal. If it was nothing more, then there would be no work for historians, whether David Barton or the “academic élite” variety. And yet, one of the most common criticisms leveled by people outside of the profession is that a historian did not stick to the facts. Barton supporters often note that his book is full of citations, and that his facts are not disputed (that assertion itself is often disputed, but that is not the point of this post.) So, do historians line up the “facts” and see where they take us, or do we accept that a historian does more than discover previously unknown source material?

Maybe you have guessed that I fall into the latter group. The professional historian (regardless of their academic background) does much more than arrange historical events. That said, and despite the discipline’s roots in poetics, professional historians still have to “follow the data.” Histories are derived from a careful examination of primary source material, the consideration of historiography, and the placement of a thesis into context. Approaching a primary source with an a priori conclusion courts failure.

I want to work with an example, since the theory is worth months of effort at the graduate level, and much of it evokes strong urges for distilled liquor. Instead, let me utilize two of my favorite things — food and photography — to demonstrate the relationship between historical events and histories.

Today I visited a favorite restaurant, Chicago q (if you visit Chicago you could do much worse than eat there.) When my pulled pork sandwich arrived, I “commissioned” two photographers to photograph the same subject: the plates did not move, and the lighting did not change. Let us view the results.

First Image

Image from Photographer A

Photographer A stepped back from the table and captured the entire plate in her composition. Using a medium aperture setting, much of the image is in focus. The ISO speed and film stock create a natural color palette. The frame is above the subject and behind the light source.

Photographer B obtained a completely different result, again without moving the subject. Most of the image is out of focus, due to the very wide lens aperture. Instead of stepping away from the subject, he employed a macro lens to allow a very intimate composition. The slower ISO reduces grain, and the film stock creates a more vivid, saturated palette.

Second Image

Image from Photographer B

Yes, it was delicious. Now back to history.

Consider the sandwich to be the historical event. It occurs at a fixed moment in time, in a specific manner. Those facts never change. However, even to eyewitnesses present — to say nothing of someone studying the event generations later — multiple legitimate versions emerge. Like the photographer making choices about perspective, film and lenses, the historian must make many decisions about their available tools, including voice, frame, and selection. The result is histories with considerable diversity.

Of course, this doesn’t explain Barton (yet.) You are probably saying, “Exactly! David Barton is telling his own version of established historical events.” But it is too early for you to get excited.

Editing, framing, and selecting voice shape the history, but historians must defend their choices. It is not adequate to claim that the events support your thesis. Back to the photographs: what if my thesis relies on the number of sauces on the table? One view of the historical event is clearly more credible than the other. Why did I choose the limited (or expanded) historical frame? Why did I discard data considered important by previous historical works? Why did I select a sectarian, rather than secular, voice? The defense of these questions and others is how histories achieve credibility.

Historical events are the cornerstone of good histories and narratives, but a rigorous, credible history carefully balances many additional characteristics. Failure often occurs in the choices made after the selection of events. Anyone approaching history, let alone writing it, needs to be cognizant of how each characteristic will impact the final result, and fit into the historiography of the topic. David Barton has selected events and source material to support a particular conclusion, but has failed to justify why such a revision is credible in the face of two centuries of history. Although David Barton’s supporters choose to wage war in the political arena, his current setbacks are attributable to a rigorous, apolitical review process that insures intellectual standards in the midst of the culture war.

Why Barton Doesn’t Matter (and Does)

The Christian and political activist David Barton has had a rough week. His most recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson was pulled from distribution by its publisher Thomas Nelson. A plethora of critics from the Christian Right have denounced his work, and NPR broadcasted a stinging profile of him this past Wednesday. But focusing on the man himself distracts us from a more interesting historical frame and set of questions addressing how we view education and history in this country.

There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all. –Senior Vice President Brian Hampton, Thomas Nelson Publishers

Barton is powerful and therefore a force to respect. He wields tremendous influence in Texas politics as well as with Christian opinion-molders at the national level. His most effective tactic in persuading his audience is the systematic delegitimization of academia, which has advanced his narrative for the current generation. But it is important to remember that the role he plays is perennial; in that sense David Barton is the flavor of the month for culture warriors. He occupies a niche in a pantheon of actors that began in the nineteenth century and have engaged in political battles to influence academic narratives of history.

David Barton committed a cardinal sin for the Right: he wrote a post-modern, revisionist history. I am sure he will not view it that way, but the fact that it is attracting criticism from such a broad spectrum of voices will make it difficult to dismiss. Unfortunately for him, he appears to have engaged in selective editing and framing in order to support a priori conclusions. That is something that a historian is not permitted, regardless of their worldview. Intellectual rigor does not maintain a mythical interpretation of historical events, but presents evidence to support a thesis and attempts to counter those who disagree.

Certainly historians can look at this week and surmise that the process is working: peers have examined an author’s thesis and pronounced it for what it is (in this case junk.) Ironically, this is the same process that is often attacked by culture warriors as being inadequate at policing “proper history.” Recent debates over the National History Standards, the role of the Enola Gay in ending World War II, and — most infamously — Holocaust denial have all highlighted the importance of the careful presentation of evidence and a reasoned response to existing scholarship (even if you seek to overturn it.) By writing The Jefferson Lies, Barton invited peer review and reasoned criticism of his thesis.

David Barton doesn’t matter because eventually, another political actor will take his place and continue the fight. David Barton does matter because he currently embodies the disconnect between politics and epistemology. He illustrates how woefully prepared the academy is to wage the fight, and parents to engage in local school board meetings. After a century and a half of battle to determine the history narrative, we still can not agree on the rules of engagement.

Thank You Sarah Palin?

Last month I wrote about my concern that the American right would focus the machinery of imperialism on domestic politics. Yesterday, Sarah Palin – the half-term governor of Alaska and vice-presidential disaster – provided an excellent example of how that is manifest.


In just under 70 seconds Palin portrayed the sitting President of the United States as a foreign “Other”: his world view is unknown (Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado went so far as to say that he is un-American); his vessel is “empty” and Americans can’t know what is being poured into it; and he has Marxist associations (which naturally makes him an enemy of the state.) The danger posed by this imperial view is that whatever falls outside of orthodoxy is heresy, thus competing viewpoints in a pluralistic democracy can no longer be tolerated. Ironically, the need to protect freedom insures the imposition of authoritarian means.