If I were the envious sort, I would probably be a bit envious of David Barton. After all, I have worked reasonably hard as a serious academic and have never been featured in the New York Times, the Daily Show, or Mother Jones. However, I will endeavor to keep this non-existent envy from impacting my assessment of his work.
Barton’s main theme is that America is actually a Christian nation. While he has made the “big news” only fairly recently, he has been advancing these thesis for about twenty years. It was not, however, until he was blessed by Gingrich, Bachmann and Huckabee that he achieved national fame. He has, as noted above, been rewarded for his efforts with considerable attention.
Academic historians (that is, professionals) have been extremely critical of his scholarship. Critics also point out that he has no academic credentials and is not a trained historian. While this does raise questions about his expertise, it is not decisive proof against him. After all, there are other paths to expertise other than the academy. As such, I am not inclined to dismiss his claims on that basis. To do so would, in fact, be to fall into a logical error. However, to be suspicious of his claims in the field because of his lack of credentials in the field would be quite reasonable. These concerns would, of course, be settled by considering factors beyond his qualifications.
When pressed about his credentials, Barton essential makes an appeal to the originals. To be specific, he seems to be claiming that his substantial collection of first edition works of the founders provides him with a special understanding of American history that academic historians lack.
While it is tempting to dismiss his reply as a silly “I don’t have a doctorate, but I have a lot of documents”, his reply is actually worth considering. As Hume (who was a historian as well as a philosopher) noted, a key part of empirical history involves tracing things back to the originals. If Barton’s historical documents do, in fact, contain information that is relevant to re-assessing theories about American history, then they would certainly be well worth considering. After all, this sort of thing is a legitimate method in academic history and has, in fact, been done when original documents and other evidence has been unearthed to change the received view. As such, the basic method of taking into account original documents is a legitimate method.
However, Barton goes beyond simply using original documents as a basis for historical research. He also claims that the meaning of the texts is somehow self-contained and no additional context is required for their interpretation. As such, he is highly critical of academics who do not cite the primary sources but instead make use of other sources. He also holds that the original text somehow has a plain meaning that is distorted by academic scholars.
One of the main problems with his view is that the original texts generally do not have a plain meaning that is the only obvious and plausible interpretation. While I am not an historian, I have read a significant number of original texts from the founders, primarily their political (and philosophical) writings. I have also studied original texts in my area of professional expertise, namely philosophy.
My experience has been that the original texts that are substantial in nature generally do not have a plain meaning. Rather, the texts can be interpreted in various plausible ways. This is hardly shocking, given that language is an imperfect medium for conveying the ideas of imperfect beings. However, there is no need to take my word for it. Get copies of some of the founder’s substantial documents (like the Constitution) and gather around you a diverse group of people. Then have everyone try to find the plain meaning of the document.
It is also well worth considering that the founders did not put forth a monolithic view. If you return to the original documents, you will find that they contain considerably disagreement on key points. As such, even if one could find what the founders really meant, one would find many things.
Why, then, does Barton hold to the view that there is a plain meaning that he can see and that others distort? One obvious explanation is that people naturally take their view to be the plain view. Any view that differs must then be a distortion of the correct view. This outlook is maintained and fed by accepting only evidence that supports one’s interpretation and rejecting (or re-interpreting) any evidence to the contrary.
However, as with religion, what seems plain and obvious to one person is regarded as a distortion by another. Being critical about history requires being able to take into account the fact that everyone see’s history through their own distorting lenses. While these lenses cannot be eliminated, it is possible to correct for their distortion. However, Barton’s view seems to be based on the assumption that he sees plainly while everyone else is viewing through distorted lenses. How wonderful it must be to be unique in this manner.
While I am regarded as a liberal, I do have Republican friends and recent conversations with them have often been about who the Republicans will put up against Obama in 2012. What follows is my somewhat shallow assessment of some of the possible candidates.
While its seems a bit surreal, Donald Trump is actually polling competitively against some of the other likely candidates. He does have some appeal, given his fame and wealth. However, by appearing to take up the birther line it seems likely that he has damaged his credibility among more serious minded voters. I am with Karl Rove on this point. I don’t think he has much of a chance of getting the nomination. However, I would not count him out completely-just imagine what a Trump & Palin ticket would do for the ratings.
While the liberal media loves keeping Sarah Palin in the news, her standing with Republicans seems to have been steadily declining. While she is a Tea Party darling, I doubt that she can pull together enough support to get nominated as the presidential candidate. However, she clearly has a shot at the VP slot again.
Mike Huckabee has quite a bit going for him, not just his winning first name. He has the charisma and experience to make a solid run. However, he is hindered somewhat by his track record and some voters will be uncomfortable with his religious views. He also has a sweet gig on Fox, which he might be reluctant to give up. However, he does seem to be a far more substantial candidate than either Trump or Palin.
Mitt Romney is doing well in the polls and looks like a movie version of the president, but has to worry about the horrible specter of his success as governor of Massachusetts . As governor he was able to work out a successful health care plan for the state-one that served as model for some parts of Obamacare. He also seemed liberal in those days-no doubt due to the infectious nature of Massachusetts’ liberalism (or maybe due to the lingering effects of Innsmouth). Ironically, Romney will have to distance himself from his past self in order to get the nomination. After all, much of what he did to turn Massachusetts around goes against the Tea Party/Republican agenda today. There is also the fact that he is a Mormon-although Kennedy was able to overcome comparable worries about his being a Catholic.
Michelle Bachmann is a Tea Party darling and seems to appeal to certain base elements of the Republican party. However, her historical errors, lack of understanding of the Constitution, and amazing lies will probably hamper her appeal as a candidate among more moderate Republicans and the general population.But, some folks really love her anti-gay stance and perhaps she can parlay this into nomination success.
In any case, a Bachmann-Palin or Trump-Bachmann ticket would both be ten ring media circuses and supply comedians with material for decades to come.
Off the top of my head, I would say that a Romney-Huckabee ticket would be an excellent choice. They both seem reasonably rational and have significant experience in politics. Plus, Huckabee can rock. There are, of course, some other folks who might throw their hats in. Feel free to bring them up.
Jill Lawrence of Politics Daily has declared Michael Huckabee‘s 2012 presidential campaign DBA (Dead Before Arrival). This is based on the fact that Huckabee commuted Clemmon’s prison sentence in 2000. Clemmons allegedly murdered four police officers recently and the folks in the media have been quick to note the connection between the two men.
While one incident would be bad enough, Lawrence asserts that Huckabee has a pattern of making bad choices when it comes to commuting sentences (such as the case involving Dumond). Interestingly, no mention is made of any positive results from his commuting sentences.
What makes this incident so politically damaging is the fact that a similar sort of disaster was used to attack Michael Dukakis. Folks who have been around a while will recall that while Dukakis was governor, the convicted murder Willie Horton raped a woman while on furlough from prison. The Willie Horton club was wielded quite effectively by the Republicans to beat down Dukakis. Obviously enough, the Democrats can easily pick up the club, dust it off, spray paint “Maurice Clemmons” over “Willie Horton” and commence beating.
This sort of attack would seem to be especially effective against a Republican. After all, Democrats are generally stereotyped as being soft on crime but Republicans are supposed to be tough on crime. As such, Huckabee would seem to be fatally wounded by this situation. Or so it would seem.
In the case of Dukakis, the Republicans were able to cast him as weak and soft on criminals because of this weakness. Huckabee, however, is presented as commuting sentences primarily based on his faith and his belief in redemption. That is, he tended to commute sentences because he believed that the individual had found religion and had been redeemed.
Interestingly, while folks on the American right generally believe in being tough on crime, those with religious leanings tends to also believe greatly in the power of redemption through faith. As such, Huckabee can be presented as not being weak on crime but being a true believer in the redemptive power of faith. As such, Huckabee’s mistakes can also be presented as failings on the part of the once-redeemed. In the case of Clemmons, he did not act until nine years after his sentence was commuted. This would certainly seem to mitigate some of Huckabee’s responsibility. While it is true that if Clemmons was still in prison, then he would not have killed the officers. However, it is not clear that Huckabee is responsible for how those nine years affected Clemons.
While Huckabee’s chances in 2012 have been damaged, I think it is premature to count him out. First, he can make use of the redemption angle to deflect attacks on him based on him being soft on crime. Second, he can apply damage control to the situation now and let it lose political beating power over the next three years.