U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (5-13-2011)

1. Beneke and Stephens on Barton and Stewart

Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens discuss “The Daily Show’s Limits” in a May 10, 2011 Christian Century article. Here’s the opening one-third of the piece (bolds mine):

“Open conversation that leads to nothing.”

That’s how Jon Stewart summed up his interview with popular right-wing historian David Barton. He was right. After 30 minutes of glib back-and-forth with Barton (ten of which made it onto TV), Stewart was flummoxed, worn down, unfunny:

As the air left the room, the conversation exposed the gaping ideological divide between Americans–and the challenges we face in bridging it.

Conservatives who go on the Daily Show usually end up looking the fool. But Stewart met his match in Barton, an ideological warrior revered by Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee. Stewart’s razor wit and trademark blue index cards were no match for Barton’s prodigious memory and unwavering insistence that America’s Christian founding has been erased by secular elites.

The show’s staff probably thought Barton could be caricatured as a half-crazed ideologue, unconcerned with larger inconvenient truths. Perhaps they figured that a few well-chosen facts that don’t fit his God-and-country narrative would render him speechless, that he would crumble under the relentless ironic jabs. But if it were just a matter of enumerating quotations and dates, members of Congress wouldn’t be calling Barton to provide them with the founders’ views on deficits, stem cell research and stimulus programs. Barton offers his listeners something much more alluring.

One thing we learned from Stewart’s tête-à-tête with Barton is that anecdote-ridden claims can’t be countered with more anecdotes. What Stewart never articulated was the essential function of historyusing the preponderance of evidence to provide a credible context for understanding the past and the present. Barton presents himself as the high priest of founding texts and the arbiter of honest truth.

If you’re interested in a thorough debunking of Barton’s claims as made on The Daily Show, read through John Fea’s series at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

2. PhilPapers Notes: Two Forthcoming Articles of Interest (with abstracts)

(a) D. Howard (forthcoming). “Why Study the History of Political Thought?” Philosophy and Social Criticism.

This article explains why its author has spent much of the past decade rediscovering the history of political thought (rather than enter into the fray of political philosophy as it has been practised since Rawls). The article is only an illustration; but its virtue is that it summarizes in a short space the thesis developed in my book The Primacy of the Political: A History of Political Thought from the Greeks to the American and French Revolutions . It lays out a general theory of the political, demonstrates that there exists an inherent anti-political tendency within all politics (as seen in the rise of 20 th-century totalitarianism), and tries to suggest how this difficulty can be confronted.

(b) Melinda Rosenberg (forthcoming). “Principled Autonomy and Plagiarism.” Journal of Academic Ethics.

Every semester, professors in every discipline are burdened with the task of checking for plagiarized papers. Since plagiarism has become rampant in the university, it can be argued that devoting time to checking for plagiarism is nothing more than a fool’s errand. Students will continue to plagiarize regardless of the consequences. In this paper, I will argue that professors do have a categorically binding obligation to confirm whether papers have been plagiarized. I will use Onora O’Neill’s account of principled autonomy as the foundation for my argument. Moral agents can only act on principles that can be adopted by all. Dishonesty cannot be adopted since honesty would cease to exist. Furthermore, failing to check for plagiarized papers is a failure to treat all students and professors and ends-in-themselves.

3. Movie Audiences Yawned at Atlas Shrugged

Producer John Aglialoro was dismayed at reviews of his feature film take on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Scott McLemee also didn’t like the film. Here’s an excerpt from his review (bolds mine):

The full course of Randian thought-reform is itself quite demanding, however. Most conversions to Rand’s worldview prove halfhearted. Many are called, but few are Galtian. The world, or at least the United States, is full of people who remember the novels fondly, and vote Republican, while otherwise falling short of the glory. Rand would have scorned them. She was good at scorn, and hardcore Objectivists get a lot of practice at it as well.

But her fans — as distinct from her followers, sometimes called Randroids, though never by each other — form the real constituency for the “Atlas Shrugged” movie now in theaters. It is only the first of two or three parts. Whether the project will be finished appears to be a matter of debate among the moviemakers themselves. Clearly, though, it’s going over well with its intended market, to judge by the Twitterchat hailing it as one of the great films of all time. And when I saw it in New York this weekend, the audience clapped at the end, as the credits began to roll.

By that point, my capacity for disbelief had been tested quite enough for one evening; the applause seemed one challenge to it too many. The problem with this incarnation of Atlas Shrugged is not ideology but competence. The film looks cheap. Its cinematography is at roughly the level of a TV show from the 1980s. Rand’s plot is almost operatic in its indifference to plausibility, but none of the cast is up to the challenge.

4. “Cunning Forces Are Seeking To Bend History To Their Will”

The NYT’s Kate Kernike speculates on “The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories” in this 4/30 article. Here are some highlights from the piece (bolds and links mine):

[Conspiracy theories] have a long history in the United States and elsewhere, coming from left and right, covering all sorts of subjects, political and otherworldly (the twin towers were not hit by airplanes; Paul is dead). And those who doubt Mr. Obama’s citizenship fit the mold of other conspiracy theorists: they don’t lose their grip on their beliefs easily, if at all.

“It almost becomes an article of faith, and as with any theological belief, you can’t confront it with facts,” said Kenneth D. Kitts, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who has written extensively about presidential commissions that looked into events that have generated some of the biggest conspiracy theories of the last century — the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, among others. …

Eighty percent of Americans, he said, believe that President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, rather than a lone gunman, as a government commission affirmed. Thirty percent believe that the government covered up aliens’ landing in Roswell, N.M., and a third of American blacks believe that government scientists created AIDS as a weapon of black genocide. …

By definition, Professor Goldberg said, a conspiracy theory is a belief that cunning forces are seeking to bend history to their will, provoking terror attacks or economic calamity to move the world in the direction they wish. …

The strong embrace of conspiracy theories is also embedded in the American experience. A fear of enemies — real and imagined, internal and external — defined those who forged this country. A place created as God’s country was bound to see the subversions of Satan behind every uncertain turn.

As Professor Goldberg writes in an encyclopedia, Conspiracy Theories in American History: “Conspiracy theory draws power by merging with and reinforcing traditional American values and beliefs: a sense of mission, Protestant supremacy, concerns about encroachments on liberty, anti-elitism, maintenance of the racial order, and the sanctity of private property.”

Again, this is a great article. Read it all here. – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. I’m just a slow thinking, slow talking Southerner who happened as a sixty-something to read a recommended book, “The Creature from Jekyll Island” which provides documentation of the surreptitious founding of the U.S. Federal Reserve. On the basis of its premised and documented evidences of The Fed’s founding and other historical “false flag” events, as a slow thinker, I decided to read up on the 9-11 conspiracy theories and particularly “The New Pearl Harbor,” “Cognitive Infiltration,” and a couple of other well researched and well documented scholarly works by Dr. David Ray Griffin on why the 9-11 “alternative story” is so convincing. If in context, evidence – even primary sourced evidences no less – is presented that supports a theory that is conspiratorial, why do esteemed historians attack the plausibility of conspiracy theorems based on their general opinions about conspiracies and conspiracy theorists, but never actually get around to examining the evidences and how the researcher used the evidences? It seems unfortunate that historians with well honed intellects and training in research methods lay their intellectual acumen aside and render opinions not on the basis of discrediting the researcher’s evidences and her/his use of the presented evidences, but on opinions about the unexamined evidence. This seems odd and problematical to me. But then, I’m just a slow thinking, slow-talking Southerner trying-to-make-sense (common) of these “conspiracies,” who on the basis of having read the results of the research and the evidences, can only conclude that the alternate 9-11 account makes more (common) sense than does the Government account. Ditto on Mr. Obama’s birth issue.

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