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Monday, 30 January 2012
They're not fooling anyone

WallBuilders web banner outlining their mission

When I was a senior in high school my history teacher asked us to write a paper about someone other than an American who had a definitive impact on history. Taking the villain route I wrote about Joseph Goebbels who was the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. I used Goebbels diaries as my main source, which to this day remains one of the most fascinating and disturbing things I’ve ever read. As one of Adolf Hitler's closest confidants, and as a man who killed six of his own children before committing suicide, Goebbels was equally as insane as he was intelligent. He was also a powerful propagandist who preyed upon the German population’s yearning for national pride. Without him, Hitler would not have cast such a spell over his people.

Goebbels proved that you can convince anyone of anything if they are woefully ignorant, or in desperate need of something to believe in. One of Hitler’s most powerful tools for capturing the hearts and minds of the German people was the manipulation of history to support his political agenda. By skewing the facts, misinterpreting meanings, and propagating fiction, the Nazi’s were able to create an alternate history of Germany’s origins. This fantasy later evolved into a form of patriotism that reinforced the Fuhrer’s vision for a supreme Aryan society.

Today, we have our own version of historically-slanted political marketing that is being disseminated by right-wing propagandists masquerading as historians. No one practices this crime more blatantly than David Barton‘s WallBuilders whose version of history paints America as a right-wing, ultra-conservative Christian nation that is embattled in a culture war for the very soul of the country. And although I am not equating the underlying efforts of this organization to the murderous evils that were perpetrated by the Nazis, I am comparing their practice of using history to support a political agenda. Just as Goebbels falsified Germany’s past; Barton and Co. have manipulated America’s for political gains. (What is really sad is the number of gullible folks who have been roped into believing it, although one peek at a Tea Party rally or Glenn Beck audience may explain why).

Unlike Goebbels, David Barton started out as a fundamentalist evangelist. He is a Texas minister, founder of WallBuilders and former co-chair of the Texas Republican Party. His books are dedicated to the idea that America should reject the concept of separation of church and state and institute Biblical law. He also maintains the notion that the Founding Fathers would be ardent supporters of the conservative movement if they were around today. Of course academically certified historians call Barton a Christian “revisionist” and constantly question the source of his many out-of-context quotes of American notables in his works. Not surprising, Barton rarely answers his critics with any credible sources for his historical claims.

Why should he? He is the unquestionable darling of the conservative and evangelical movements and the personal historian for right-wing mouthpieces Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee. In other words, there are plenty of rubes that adore him – and that makes him dangerous. Despite Barton’s lack of academic credentials and his sloppy scholarship, he has managed to create an important niche by traveling all over the country telling audiences that the Founding Fathers were evangelicals just like them, and intended to create a nation of, by, and for Christians.

In a report published by the People for the American Way Foundation titled *David Barton: Propaganda Masquerading as History those in the know take Barton to task: Academic historians, according to the New York Times, give Barton’s work at best a “B minus,” noting that while the historical facts he cites are more or less accurate, his biased interpretation of them is not. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said that Barton’s work is “laced with exaggerations, half-truths and misstatements of fact” and the Texas Freedom Network calls him “a pseudo-intellectual fraud whose twisted interpretations of history are little more than propaganda.”

In 1995, Republican Senator Arlen Specter wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that many of Barton’s arguments “range from the technical to the absurd” and that they “proceed from flawed and highly selective readings of both text and history.” Specter went on to state that Barton’s “pseudoscholarship would hardly be worth discussing, let alone disproving, were it not for the fact that it is taken so very seriously by so many people.” (*See a list of Barton’s most ridiculous historical claims.)

WallBuilders mission statement reads:

WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined. In accord with what was so accurately stated by George Washington, we believe that “the propitious [favorable] smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation which disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.” (Sounds like a blogger I know.)

This claim, like most of Barton’s claims, is absolute B.S. Their true mission statement should read like this:

WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to promoting David Barton’s book sales while manipulating American history in order to push our own conservative agenda on a highly gullible and susceptible portion of the American populace. By making up our own version of our nation’s origins and lacing it with outrageous religious claims, we hope to influence voters into supporting our own right-wing candidates, who in turn will support our own special interests upon their election into office. By mixing 1-part textbook and 2-parts bible, our special brand of psuedo-christian American history makes even heathen bastards like Thomas Jefferson look like devout, bible-thumping altar boys. PS. We vote like Jesus would.

For irrefutable proof of Barton’s dishonesty, I refer you to a 9-part video blog by Chris Rodda, author of the book, Liars of Jesus. In the video, Rodda attends a religious gathering featuring David Barton. At the conclusion of the meeting, Rodda approaches Barton and presents him with a copy of her book. A few months later, David Barton, on his radio program, mentioned Chris Rodda and portrayed the meeting as one in which Barton completely and utterly confounded the quote, "clueless" Rodda by expounding upon his wealth of historical knowledge. Rodda counters this claim by meticulously picking apart dozens of Barton's material with...get this, actual facts. (It is virtually impossible to watch this video series in its entirety and not come to the same conclusion.)

As a historian and as a Christian, I find the intentional politicization of my faith and the manipulation of my nation’s historical origins to be extremely offensive. I say watch out for the “David Bartons and WallBuilders” of the world. They are just as dangerous at skewing public perspective as the Goebbels. Stand up to them by speaking the truth in matters of both history and faith.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:37 AM EST
Updated: Monday, 30 January 2012 3:24 PM EST
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Friday, 27 January 2012
Have a drink on me

Referred to in historic literature as “the Green Fairy” Absinthe is described as a distilled, highly alcoholic (45–74% ABV / 90-148 proof) beverage. Its legacy has been one of controversy and its reputation as a mysterious, addictive, and mind-altering potion has caused it to be periodically banned in many countries. Absinthe has also served as the subject of numerous works of fine art, films, video, music and literature since the mid-19th century and has spawned an ever-growing subculture of 21st century Absinthe enthusiasts.

Numerous artists and writers living in France in the late 19th and early 20th century were noted Absinthe drinkers who featured the alcohol in their work. These included Emile Zola, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Amedeo Modigliani, Arthur Rimbaud, Guy de Maupassant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Verlaine. Later artists and writers drew from this cultural well, including Pablo Picasso, August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway.

Aleister Crowley was also known to be a habitual Absinthe drinker. Emile Cohl, an early pioneer in the art of animation, presented the effects of the drink in 1920 with the short film, Hasher’s Delirium and mystery novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that his renowned detective Sherlock Holmes indulged in the pleasures of Absinthe from time-to-time. Since its resurgence in recent years, modern artists such as musician Marilyn Manson and actor Johnny Depp are unabashed Absinthe drinkers with Manson actually producing his own line of the alcohol.

Despite the fact that there is no scientific proof, Absinthe continues to be frequently and improperly described in modern times as being hallucinogenic. This is entirely false (I think) and at least partly rooted in the fact that following some ten years of experiments with wormwood oil in the 19th century, the French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan studied 250 cases of alcoholism, and claimed that those who drank Absinthe were worse off than those drinking ordinary alcohol, having experienced rapid-onset hallucinations. Such accounts by opponents of Absinthe were cheerfully embraced by famous Absinthe drinkers, many of whom were bohemian artists or writers. Their frequent physical and emotional breakdowns were then blamed on Absinthe, although alcoholism, drug abuse and in some cases, mental-illness was more likely to blame.

As a cocktail connoisseur myself, I have been recently gifted with some Absinthe and will be consulting a close friend with a doctorate in history (and more impressive, the science of bartending) as to the proper preparation and consumption of the liquid. If it was good enough for those folks listed above, it’s certainly good enough for me. And I do hallucinate, I promise to write, or paint, or compose something brilliant. Cheers!

Image: Drinking Bacchus by Guido Reni (1575-1642)

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:15 AM EST
Updated: Friday, 27 January 2012 3:11 PM EST
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Thursday, 26 January 2012
Two NEW books...

Eric and I have been busy going over the proofs for our upcoming book You Stink! Now that I am seeing the final layout (with the photos and tables inserted), I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that this book has far exceeded our expectations. I can also say (now that I’ve read it cover to cover), that it is the best thing in print that I’ve ever been a part of. Plan on lots of speaking engagements and publicity to follow the release of this one folks. It’s something special.

In other news, I was just informed by the good folks at The History Press that my book on the Civil War in Spotsylvania County is being re-released as an eBook for Kindle and all those other electronic thingamajigs. Details to come.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 3:27 PM EST
Updated: Friday, 27 January 2012 11:11 AM EST
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Wednesday, 25 January 2012
Being honest about Abe

There is quite a lot of chatter going on around the CW blogosphere in regards to Abraham Lincoln getting an official holiday here in Virginia. Kevin Levin has
a great discussion going on over at Civil War Memory that includes an individual who is actually involved in the crafting of the legislation. I will refer you to his post, but wanted to share my quick-take on the matter.

The counter-argument that many folks are using is why should Lincoln deserve a holiday in Virginia? The implication is that he was ‘against’ the Old Dominion. This is NOT true. He was against the portion of Virginia that seceeded from the nation, the Confederate States of America to be exact. That is not the entire population of the state. What about all the enslaved African Americans that were freed by his actions? What about the loyalists who wanted to preserve the Union? Lincoln was actually ‘for’ them.

If we can celebrate Lee and Jackson for defending the Confederacy on behalf of whites, why can’t we also celebrate Lincoln who defeated the Confederacy on behalf of blacks? And if the proud descendants of Virginia’s Confederate Veterans can celebrate their heroes – why can’t the proud descendants of Virginia slaves likewise celebrate theirs? The door swings BOTH ways in my opinion. Whether you’re a Lincoln fan or not, to imply that he did not have a positive impact on Virginia that is worthy of remembrance is wrong.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:22 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 26 January 2012 10:17 AM EST
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Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Taking Stonewall down off the pedestal

It’s certainly no secret that my affection for the life and legacy of General Thomas J. Jackson has been a major influence on my life both privately and professionally:

My first book (published back in 2005) was a religious biography on Jackson titled Onward Christian Soldier. Since then I've penned at least a dozen or so articles and have presented three lectures and a banquet address on him; I once taught an 8-week bible study class on Jackson’s piousness at my church; I started a web portal for Jackson-related information titled The Jackson Society; I’ve worked on multiple Jackson-specific studies for Mort Kunstler paintings; Jackson is featured (or at least mentioned) in 5 of my Civil War books; I have received awards from the UDC and SCV for my published works on Jackson; I am often requested for private tours to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine; I own and probably have read more books about Jackson than any other subject; my personal license plate says STOWNWL; and my youngest son is named after the good general.

Cleary I am fascinated with the guy and have spent a considerable amount of time studying him. That said, I now find myself at a point where I must suspend my own idol-worship practices and accept the painful reality that Stonewall Jackson is not hero material. Why? Because I can no longer gloss over the dark realities of this man’s life that I was once captivated by. I can no longer compartmentalize the dreadful cause in which he stood for. In other words, I can’t continue to disregard the sins on which Thomas Jackson’s memory has been founded and fortified. The legacy of Stonewall Jackson may be thick with inspiring religious fervor and military brilliance, but at the heart of it all is a man who ferociously fought for the perpetuation of slavery. How can anyone reconcile that?

Simply put, Thomas Jackson played a central role in a movement that was founded on what we would consider today to be political treason and prejudice. Jackson himself was a complex participant, a walking contradiction of sorts in regards to politics and race. A Christian man, he founded a Sunday school for slave and free blacks in Lexington, yet at the same time, he conducted incredibly successful military campaigns that served a cause vehemently against granting their freedom. One act does not excuse the other.  

Jackson’s untimely death is also said to have created an irreplaceable void in the South’s high-command. Therefore one can only conclude that if he had lived beyond the Spring of 1863, the potential for a Confederate victory would have been bolstered – a victory that would have ultimately maintained the institution of human bondage as the primary cog in the economic-engine of the agricultural south.

The reality is that Thomas Jackson “stood as a stonewall” against his own government and repeatedly defeated a Union Army who were pursuing the liberty and freedom of enslaved African-Americans. Yes I get the State’s Rights and defending Virginia soil counter-arguments and absolutely agree that it was an important aspect of the southern cause, but the question I now ask is what “rights” were they defending? The answer is the right to independently govern a society that maintained the institution of slavery. Once again, you can’t get around that no matter how hard you try.

It’s very easy to get caught up in all of the reverence and awe that has been showered upon the Confederacy’s heroes over the last 150 years. With countless monuments and markers testifying to their courage and tenacity, as well as book after book elevating them to a deity-like stature, Stonewall Jackson is a perfect example of a manufactured American titan. His persona has been carefully crafted and handed down for generations. We are taught that he was an Old Testament Warrior who died defending the sanctity of the Old Dominion. He is still worshipped and adored by folks on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line and his likeness is just as much a part of our pop-culture as any other historical figurehead.

I am experiencing what I can only refer to as a conflict of conscience and I am looking at Thomas Jackson and his peers in a much different light nowadays. Much like our Founding Fathers, I believe that we must make a concerted effort to reconcile ourselves to the fact that these Confederate icons were not gods, nor are they truly worthy of the elevated statuses that we project on them. They were men. We must acknowledge their humanity and this includes their faults. Perhaps hardest of all, we must accept the fact that they fought for the wrong side.

Stonewall Jackson was a brilliant military commander, a faithful deacon, a loving husband and a brief doting father. These are traits to admire. He was also a socially awkward individual with little people skills, a terrible teacher and communicator who was disliked by most of his subordinate generals and in some regards a fanatically religious egotist who truly believed himself to be conducting the will of God. He was also by textbook definition a military traitor and a racist who voluntarily chose to fight for a deplorable cause. These are not traits to admire.

Professionally speaking, I will continue to be fascinated by this man and I am sure that he will return periodically as a subject in my work. He certainly remains a mainstay in my all-access battlefield tours. Personally speaking however, I no longer find myself emotionally-attached to or quite so enamored by him. That bias is gone. Jackson is no longer a “hero” to me. None of them are. I still respect the Confederacy's conviction, but I can no longer celebrate its cause.

Some of the most respected historians I know preach the notion that one must remain completely objective and impersonal if they really want to accurately convey their subject matter. A NPS chief historian told me once that the minute you become smitten with your subject, your interpretation is skewed. Another friend who is a professor at a major university stated that the second you start writing to bolster your own affections for an individual you are no longer a historian, you are a disciple. I've certainly been guilty of that when it comes to Stonewall Jackson. 

The hardest part of studying history is accepting the fact that the people you once admired were not really that admirable afterall. I believe it’s time that we take Stonewall down off the pedestal and recognize him for all that he truly was, good, bad, or indifferent –  not at all the infallible and mythical figure that some of us have helped to perpetuate for over a century.

I think the best explanation for what I am feeling was posted in an article titled “Confederate Apologists” over at Vast Public Indifference:

When our focus is on honoring the men who fought and died, no doubt bravely, without ever really grappling with what they were fighting for, we don’t learn anything. When we implicitly deny the horror of slavery and the continual betrayal of African-Americans during and after the war, we are setting ourselves up to accept racist fantasies in the present. When we fawn over Southern leaders like Lee and Jackson as models of American manhood, what we are really doing is yearning for a white, Christian, patriarchal past in which women and slaves knew their places and real men were subordinate only to God.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 10:58 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 January 2012 6:44 PM EST
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