Misquoting de Toqueville, with wild, made up stuff

February 12, 2015

Justice Sutherland is probably storming around his tomb, more than just rolling in his grave.

Putting words in the mouths of historic figures. de Tocqueville did not say this -- and the quote doesn't appear until 1951. Barely pre-John Birch Society.

Putting words in the mouths of historic figures. de Tocqueville did not say this — and the quote doesn’t appear until 1951. Barely pre-John Birch Society.

Ho, ho, ho.  This ugly distortion of democratic operations in the American republic comes around every time some Democrat proposes to spend money to make America great. Oddly, it never comes around when a Republican proposes to spend money to build death machines or take America to war.

The sentiment assumes that Congress is inherently corrupt — which it is only in Mark Twain quips.  Your congressman isn’t corrupt, you say, as about 80% of Americans agree.  Only when they get together . . .

It’s a good one-liner.  It’s bad politics, bad analysis, and bad history.  de Tocqueville didn’t say it, one can easily learn at Wikiquote.

Who said it?  Where did it come from?  Wikiquote, again:

This is a variant expression of a sentiment which is often attributed to Tocqueville or Alexander Fraser Tytler, but the earliest known occurrence is as an unsourced attribution to Tytler in “This is the Hard Core of Freedom” by Elmer T. Peterson in The Daily Oklahoman (9 December 1951): “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”

Who was Elmer T. Peterson — and more importantly, why should anyone pay heed to his distortion of the operations of the Constitutional republic we have?

Peterson was a professor and Dean of the College of Education at Iowa State University in the mid-20th century.

Peterson published two studies in collaboration with Dr. Everet F. Lindquist, Malcolm P. Price and Henry A. Jeep: “A Census of the Public School Teaching Personnel of Iowa for the School Year 1928-29”, published by the state of Iowa in 1932, and “Teacher Supply and Demand in Iowa,” published by the University of Iowa in the same year.

Brian Williams was suspended from the NBC Nightly News for less. Will the Sutherland Institute resign, now?

More:

  • The Sutherland Institute is a right-wing, states rights and anti-government group in Utah, mis-named (IMHO) after Utah’s only U.S. Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland; to the best of my knowledge, Sutherland avoided returning to Utah as much as possible after he left the Senate, a continuing part of his trials after bolting from the LDS Church; as a justice, Sutherland represented a much discredited philosophy, but keeps respect among modern scholars despite “the distinction of having more opinions overruled than any other justice in the history of the Court” (John Fox, writing for the PBS series on the Supreme Court; yes, it’s an odd claim)
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Don’t fall for the star-spangled voodoo history

September 14, 2014

Star-spangled Banner and the War of 1812 - The original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that would become our national anthem, is among the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Star-spangled Banner and the War of 1812 – The original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that would become our national anthem, is among the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Every school kid learns the story of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” or should.

During the War of 1812, Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key, stood aboard a British ship in Baltimore Harbor to negotiate the release of his friend, Dr. William Beanes, who had been taken prisoner while the British stormed through Bladensburg, Maryland, after burning Washington, D.C.  Key witnessed the British shelling of Fort McHenry, the guardian of Baltimore’s harbor.  Inspired when he saw the U.S. flag still waving at dawn after a night of constant shelling, Key wrote a poem.

Key published the poem, suggested it might be put to the tune of “Anachreon in Heaven” (a tavern tune popular at the time) — and the popularity of the song grew until Congress designated it the national anthem in 1931.  In telling the story of the latest restoration of that garrison flag now housed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Smithsonian Magazine repeated the story in the July 2000 issue:  “Our Flag Was Still There.”

It’s a wonderful history with lots of splendid, interesting details (Dolley Madison fleeing the Executive Mansion clutching the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, the guy who had introduced Dolley to James Madison and then snubbed them after they were married; the British troops eating the White House dinner the Madisons left in their haste; the gigantic, 42 by 30 foot flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow trying to support her family; the rag-tag Baltimore militia stopping cold “Wellington’s Invicibles;” the British massing of 50 boats and gunships; and much more).

It’s a grand and glorious history that stirs the patriotic embers of the most cynical Americans.

And it’s all true.

So it doesn’t deserve the voodoo history version, the bogus history created by some person preaching in a church (I gather from the “amens”) that is making the rounds of the internet, stripped of attribution so we can hunt down the fool who is at fault.

We got this in an e-mail yesterday; patriots save us, there must be a hundred repetitions that turn up on Google, not one correcting this horrible distortion of American history.

Horrible distortion of American history

(The full version is a mind-numbing 11 minutes plus.  Some people have put it on other sites. )

Why do I complain?

  1. It was the War of 1812, not the Revolutionary War — there were 15 states, not 13 colonies.
  2. There was no ultimatum to to Baltimore, nor to the U.S., as this fellow describes it.
  3. Key negotiated for the release of one man, Dr. Beanes.  There was no brig full of U.S. prisoners.
  4. It’s Fort McHenry, not “Henry.”  The fort was named after James McHenry, a physician who was one of the foreign-born signers of the Constitution, who had assisted Generals Washington and Lafayette during the American Revolution, and who had served as Secretary of War to Presidents Washington and Adams.
  5. Fort McHenry was a military institution, a fort defending Baltimore Harbor.  It was not a refuge for women and children.
  6. The nation would not have reverted to British rule had Fort McHenry fallen.
  7. There were 50 ships, not hundreds.  Most of them were rafts with guns on them.  Baltimore Harbor is an arm of Chesapeake Bay, more than 150 miles from the ocean; Fort McHenry is not on the ocean, but across the harbor from the Orioles’ Camden Yards ballpark.
  8. The battle started in daylight. Bombardment continued for 25 hours.
  9. Bogus quote:  George Washington never said “What sets the American Christian apart from all other people in this world is he will die on his feet before he will live on his knees.”  Tough words.  Spanish Civil War. Not George Washington.  I particularly hate it when people make up stuff to put in the mouths of great men.  Washington left his diaries and considerably more — we don’t have to make up inspiring stuff, and when we do, we get it wrong.
  10. The battle was not over the flag; the British were trying to take Baltimore, one of America’s great ports.  At this point, they rather needed to since the Baltimore militia had stunned and stopped the ground troops east of the city.  There’s enough American bravery and pluck in this part of the story to merit no exaggerations.
  11. To the best of our knowledge, the British did not specifically target the flag.
  12. There were about 25 American casualties.  Bodies of the dead were not used to hold up the flag pole — a 42 by 30 foot flag has to be on a well-anchored pole, not held up by a few dead bodies stacked around it.

You can probably find even more inaccuracies (please note them in comments if you do).

The entire enterprise is voodoo history.  The name of Francis Scott Key is right; the flag is right; almost everything else is wrong.

Please help:  Can you find who wrote this piece of crap?  Can you learn who the narrator is, and where it was recorded?

I keep finding troubling notes with this on the internet: ‘My school kids are going to see this to get the real story.’  ‘Why are the libs suppressing the truth?’  ‘I didn’t know this true story before, and now I wonder why my teachers wouldn’t tell it.’

It’s voodoo history, folks.  It’s a hoax.  The real story is much better.

If Peter Marshall and David Barton gave a gosh darn about American history, they would muster their mighty “ministries” to correct the inaccuracies in this piece.  But they are silent.

Clearly, it’s not the glorious history of this nation they love.

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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One more time: Recognizing bogus history

May 14, 2012

2012 is an election year, a time when we make history together as a nation.  Potential turning points in history often get tarred with false interpretations of history to sway an election, or worse, a completely false recounting of history.  Especially in campaigns, we need to beware false claims of history, lest we be like the ignorants George Santayana warned about, doomed to repeat errors of history they do not know or understand.  How to tell that a purported piece of history is bogus?  This is mostly a repeat of a post that first appeared at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub six years ago.

Recognizing bogus history, 1

Robert Park provides a short e-mail newsletter every Friday, covering news in the world of physics. It’s called “What’s New.” Park makes an art of smoking out bogus science and frauds people try to perpetrate in the name of science, or for money. He wrote an opinion column for the Chronicle of Higher Education [now from Quack Watch; CHE put it behind a paywall] published January 31, 2003, in which he listed the “7 warning signs of bogus science.”

Please go read Park’s entire essay, it’s good.

And it got me thinking about whether there are similar warning signs for bogus history? Are there clues that a biography of Howard Hughes is false that should pop out at any disinterested observer? Are there clues that the claimed quote from James Madison saying the U.S. government is founded on the Ten Commandments is pure buncombe? Should Oliver Stone have been able to to more readily separate fact from fantasy about the Kennedy assassination (assuming he wasn’t just going for the dramatic elements)? Can we generalize for such hoaxes, to inoculate ourselves and our history texts against error?

Bogus science section of Thinkquest logo

Perhaps some of the detection methods Park suggests would work for history. He wrote his opinion piece after the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in which the Court laid out some rules lower courts should use to smoke out and eliminate false science. As Park described it, “The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight so-called experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee from the Daubert family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth defects.” The Court said lower courts must act as gatekeepers against science buncombe — a difficult task for some judges who, in their training as attorneys, often spent little time studying science.

Some of the Daubert reasoning surfaced in another case recently, the opinion in Pennsylvania district federal court in which Federal District Judge John Jones struck down a school board’s order that intelligent design be introduced to high school biology students, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

Can we generalize to history, too? I’m going to try, below the fold.

Here are Park’s seven warning signs, boiled down:

Park wrote:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to recognize questionable scientific claims. What are the warning signs?

I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs — even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate. [I have cut out the explanations. — E.D.]

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Voodoo history

Here, with thanks to Robert Park, is what I propose for the warning signs for bogus history, for voodoo history:

  1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
  2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.  Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
  3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
  4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
  5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
  6. The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
  7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.

Any history account that shows one or more of those warning signs should be viewed skeptically.

In another post, I’ll flesh out the reasoning behind why they are warning signs.

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Monckton in New Zealand: His reputation for fabrication preceded him

August 9, 2011

John Abraham’s work ended up giving Christopher Monckton a bumpy ride into New Zealand, according to Country 99 News:

Monckton was lucky the news channel labeled him “Climate Skeptic” and not “Barking Mad.”

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Whenever she opens her mouth

June 27, 2011

After the Republican presidential candidates’ debate, observers of the pageant opined that Michelle Bachmann had little command of history (as usual, in her case), but a great command of turning phrases that telegraph to particular interest groups that she is one of them.  For example, somewhere in the debate Bachmann sneaked in a claim that “we are the head and not the tail.”  This was said to be a cryptic shout out to fundamentalist Christians, a reference to Deuteronomy 28.13.

So, if Bachmann is so thoughtful, so careful to send coded messages to her supporters, one may wonder:  What group is she giving a shout out to, here, in her appearance in Waterloo, Iowa:

Nominally, one might think she’s sending a note to all of us in the John Wayne fan club.  But some of us in the fan club remember that Marion Mitchell Morrison  (John Wayne’s non-screen name) was born — in Iowa, true — but in Winterset, in the southern part of the state.

Waterloo was the home of another man who was born with the name “John Wayne.”  But that was John Wayne Gacy, the serial murderer who moved to Waterloo, Iowa in the middle 1960s.

Oy.  Wrong John Wayne to affiliate with Waterloo, or even to remind Waterloo residents about.  History that is, regretfully, bogus.  Or voodoo history, depending on whether one thinks Bachmann is conscious, not on drugs, and meant what she said.

Bachmann told CBS News that she’s running because “People are tired of being told things that aren’t so.”  Practice what you preach, Ms. Bachmann?

Sunday I watched Bachmann vs. CBS’s veteran report Bob Schieffer.  Schieffer asked her about her tendency to tell extremely tall tales — like her claim that the Obama administration had failed to approve any oil leases, when the total approved at that point was 270 leases.  Bachmann went off on a tangent.  Schieffer asked the question a second time.  She went on another tangent.  Schieffer asked a third time, a third tangent.

History challenged, veracity challenged: Every time Michelle Bachmann opens her mouth, it’s an adventure.


“When we’re telling whoppers about Obama and government, please don’t pester us with the facts” Department

June 27, 2011

First:  American Elephant, a blog that insults pachyderms with its mendacious ways, stretches for ways to complain about President Obama.  In a recent post, the author tried to poke ill-humored fun at Obama and companies he’s visited over the past couple of years.  It’s the headline that caught my attention:

“President Obama has never held a private job, but picks the winners and losers for the economy”

The premise is false, of course — it’s based on that Republican smear meme that Obama and his cabinet lack experience in the private sector, a smear that breaks down quickly if anyone looks at the biographies of the cabinet.  Obama also comes from the private sector, though when confronted with the facts the meme spreaders tend to make rash and foolish claims like “the Catholic church is public sector” and “lawyers all work for the government.”

Conspiracy theory cartoon by Chris Madden

Cartoon by Chris Madden, via TV Tropes

I left a response there, but don’t expect the blog owner to show the decency of allowing it through moderation:

President Obama worked for a private group providing services to people below the poverty line, and then he worked for a very large private law firm, while teaching at the privately-run University of Chicago.  He had never worked for government until his election to the Illinois State Senate (is that salaried?).

You should probably correct the headline.

As if.  Not only is the headline wrong, but the evidence doesn’t support the second premise, and there are other serious problems with the claims and arguments advanced there.  True American elephants probably take to drink to try to forget what’s being done under their name.

Second, and probably third:  There is the minor kerfuffle of the hoax report out of Pakistan that nuclear power plants in Nebraska are either near meltdown, or already melted down, and you don’t know about it because President Obama ordered a news blackout to avoid panic but at the same time condemning hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners to radiation poisoning deaths.  It’s an absurd story on several fronts and several levels — news of the flood plight of the power plants has been reported around the world, for example — but those bent on being suckered by every conspiracy claim to come down the pike, or bent on criticizing President Obama no matter how much they must twist the fact to do it, cannot be dissuaded.

Take for example this odd blog:  A discussion of the imagined meltdown quickly disintegrates into defense of holding on to birther views despite Obama’s release of his “long form” birth certificate (no good information goes un-urinated upon).  Then discussion veers off into all sorts of paranoia — UN “control” of U.S. lands, occupation of several states by rogue Transportation Security Agents (you didn’t hear about it due to the news blackout, most likely), Obama’s being controlled by or controlling GE (‘didn’t GE have something to do with the design of those nuclear reactors?’), Army Corps of Engineers plots to flood the Midwest (????), Obama’s overturning the Constitution through the use of executive orders (which no one there can find at the moment, but they’re sure they exist, somewhere . . .  gee, did we misplace it?) including a wholly imaginary order to take over all rural lands in the U.S. (why?), and complaints that the U.S. is not deporting U.S. soldiers or their families quickly enough.

Such a ball of delusional paranoia and errors of history, law, and other facts!  One might imagine these people so involved in tracking down misinformation and distorting real information that they forget to kick their dogs.  (Seriously, I’d tend to think these people could be helped by having a dog or a cat, except for the very real fear I have they’d forget to feed the creatures; like a drowning person, fighting all efforts to save them.)

Our nation has a collective inability to deal with the facts of too many situations, because too many people simply deny the facts in front of our collective national faceJonathan Kay’s recent book, Among the Truthers, gets at the problem — you can imagine how strongly any of these bloggers and commenters would resist even reading Kay’s book.  It’s not that they seek information to make good decisions on policy, but that they seek the misinformation to justify their paranoid claims that “we are all really, really screwed!

As with the blogs noted above, we witness the birth of voodoo history, bogus history, and intentional ignorance.

There is a great danger from these cesspools of willful ignorance.  As more people refuse to grant credence to facts, to reality, it becomes more difficult to muster a consensus on what to do about any particular problem.  Wildfires and drought in Texas this year already wiped out more than three-fifths of the state’s wheat harvest; floods in the upper Midwest will surely do serious damage to wheat crops there.  We face a shortage of the surpluses of wheat the nation has used to bring peace and vanquish hunger around the world for the past 60 years — think of our “sale” of wheat to the old Soviet Union, stopping the starvation death toll under 10 million and indebting the USSR to the U.S. and the non-communist West — a debt the USSR never could pay off, and a debt which was the hammer to start the crumbling of the foundations of Soviet Communism.  In short, we have a wheat supply problem, caused in no small part by weather extremes that are, mostly likely, aggravated by global warming.

Can we agree to take action?  Probably not, not so long as so many people deny that warming is happening and throw every roadblock in the path of action, in the name of “preventing government takeover.”

As a nation, we have problems with flood control, and emergency preparedness, and the management of undeveloped lands and farm lands — not to mention the many urban problems we face.  What are the odds we can get a consensus on any of those problems, at least enough of a consensus to take constructive action?

For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost, begins the old saw.  We can’t even get agreement that horseshoes should be nailed to a horse’s hoof — how can we get the consensus to make sure there are enough nails to do the job?


The Sarah Palin History Network 06/07/11

June 9, 2011

The Sarah Palin History Network explains the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Sarah Palin History Network 06/07/11, posted with vodpod

Is any comment really necessary?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Joan Samuels Kaiser.


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