Friday, August 10, 2012

Christian Right pseudohistorian David Barton's reputation takes another hit

I've been writing about religion-and-politics issues this week, so I might as well continue with this story about David Barton, the Texas Republican and Christian Right pseudohistorian who is a favorite among Christian homeschoolers and FOX News: Thomas Kidd, 'Lost confidence' World 08/09/2012. Barton has published most of his previous books under his own publishing imprint, WallBuilders. But his latest attempt to rewrite the history of the American Founders in the image of today's conservative Republican Christianist political thinking, The Jefferson Lies, was published by Thomas Nelson company, which is being acquired by HarperCollins.

Now they are pulling the book from print:

Casey Francis Harrell, Thomas Nelson’s director of corporate communications, told me the publishing house "was contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about [The Jefferson Lies]." The company began to evaluate the criticisms, Harrell said, and "in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported. Because of these deficiencies we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to stop the publication and distribution."
They recognized it was hack work, in other words, and decided they didn't want their brand associated with it.

We can wonder where their editors were when they decided to publish the book in the first place.

This doesn't happen often with this kind of publication. For academic historians, the path to success for a work means getting reviews from other historians in academic journals or serious non-academic publications like the New York Review of Books. Having your analytic argument trashed isn't necessarily bad for marketing or for one's academic reputation; making hash out of the factual material is. For "popular" histories, ones meant for the general public and not specifically for an academic audience, reviews in general-circulation publications and doing book tours and TV interviews is more the path to marketing success. Readability is more important for marketing than strict historical standards, but even with popular histories it's usually not helpful to be labelled as a charlatan by reviews or other historians.

Barton's market niche has been the Christian Right and, in particular, the Christian homeschooling market. Thanks to Glenn Beck, FOX News and admiring recommendations by Republican politicians and commentators like Mike Huckabee, Barton has attracted wider public attention outside of the Christian Right bubble.

It's an odd kind of paradox. Legitimate publications and real historians don't want to give undeserved publicity or credibility to obscure pamphlets with marginal value, negative value even, as historical accounts. But the Christian Right and the Republican Party have constructed a sort of counterculture where such publications as Barton's have become well known. Eventually, when misconceptions spread by characters like Barton start popping up in classrooms or in serious discussions in the media, professional historians are eventually forced to take notice.

Kevin Levin comments on this news in A Bad Day for David Barton, But a Good Day for History Civil War Memory 08/09/2012:

... it is important to note that Barton’s published works have been scrutinized from the beginning by professional historians, but to little avail. What made the difference in recent days is the growing resistance from fellow conservative Christian historians and scholars, who are actually trained in the field. ...

On the one hand it is unfortunate that it took fellow conservative Christian historians to finally bring about the removal of this book from stores since their religious and political views have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments. Their arguments stand or fall based on how they read the relevant evidence cited by Barton as well as the strength of his interpretation. Barton is not being attacked because of his personal beliefs, but on his skill or lack thereof as a historian. Anyone who spends enough time reading these rejoinders will conclude that there are serious flaws with Barton’s work. In the end Barton claimed to be offering the general public a corrective to those evil secular/liberal historians without taking the essential step of engaging the relevant historiography. While Barton may not understand this his publisher certainly does. [my emphasis]
Kevin refers us to another report in World by Thomas Kidd, The David Barton controversy 08/07/2012:

A full-scale, newly published critique of Barton is coming from Professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College, a largely conservative Christian school in Pennsylvania. Their book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Salem Grove Press), argues that Barton "is guilty of taking statements and actions out of context and simplifying historical circumstances." For example, they charge that Barton, in explaining why Jefferson did not free his slaves, "seriously misrepresents or misunderstands (or both) the legal environment related to slavery."
Kevin also likes a series on Barton's hackery by John Fea at the American Creation blog.

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