Friday, May 24, 2013

"Thanks for the info on your blog, but . . ."

Well, you cannot please everyone! From the morning electronic mailbox comes this missive:

Dr. Cebula: 

I found the "Patrick Henry Said What?" entry on your blog while searching for the origin of the attributed Patrick Henry quote about the Constitution not being an instrument. Thank you for exposing the error of this attribution. I teach AP U.S. History, and I am always on the lookout for information exposing erroneous historical claims. 

The food was terrible and
the portions too small.
But I wonder about your hit-and-run attack on the Tea Party. What is the reason for that? Are Tea Party members unique or even unusual in misquoting (and misspelling, ah, that was a nice touch!) the Founders, Framers, et. al.? I think that they are not, any more than those who assert that the Constitution contains the phrase "separation of church and state" in an effort to rebut religious objections to abortion, or the congressman who referred to the "Good and Plenty Clause" of the Constitution to--if I remember correctly--justify ObamaCare. Seems like a cheap shot to to me. 

Maybe you fallen victim to some cultural/geographical snobbery too, although why anyone teaching in Cheney, Washington, population 10,590, would feel superior by reason of location is beyond me. (Perhaps there are cultural wonders in Spokane of which I am unaware.) But, in your "No, You Cannot be a Professor" entry, you note that it's not worth pursuing a history Ph.D., because any professorships would only be available "in some part of the country usually only seen on American Pickers [sic]." Another cheap shot? 

I certainly am not urging you to suppress your political or cultural thoughts or biases. But I think that it would be more honest of you to just do an open and fully developed hit piece on grass-roots conservative political movements, or on the cultural shortcomings of "flyover country," rather than to take snarky little shots in the course of discussing other subjects. 


John D. Unimpressed 
Major, U.S. Army, Ret. 
Somewhere, Oklahoma

John, for all I know you may be correct. Certainly with as few readers as I have for this blog, I should not risk alienating any. Let me explain where I was coming from when I wrote those bits.

Wrong on two levels
The Patrick Henry post was aiming for bigger game than debunking a spurious quote from one Founder, the idea was to set out a procedure for fact-checking internet quotes. Near the end of the piece I wrote that "I could have performed this exercise with hundreds of other "quotes" from the Founders that you see plastered on bumper stickers and misspelled on Tea Party signs," my only mention of that grass-roots Koch brothers run political
group. Col. Unimpressed protests that the Tea Partiers are not "unique or even unusual in misquoting ... the Founders."

Actually, they are. In fact there is a whole, award-winning book by Jill Lepore devoted to the Tea Party misinterpretation of the American Revolution. Or just Google about for Tea Party "quotes" pages and fact check them. Here is the first one I found. I checked the first five--four of them are made up.

I have never in my life heard anyone claim that the Constitution contained the phrase "separation of church and state" (though it certainly does establish that principle, and the phrase is an actual quote from Jefferson) or a "Good and Plenty clause." The left has its wackaloons, to be sure, but fabricating "quotes" from the Founders is a right-wing phenomena.
Founders edition

As for the other charge, of elitism and snobbery against the heartland, I don't think that is particularly valid. My post discouraging students to try to become history professors was not to save them from the imagined indignity of living in the Midwest, a place I happily called home for a dozen years while teaching at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. I pointed out that there are no jobs, that a PhD can take ten years, that there are enormous opportunity costs in starting your career a decade after your peers, that a PhD in history can leave a person prepared to do little outside of academia, and that the pay for professors is terrible.

I also wanted to point out that having any chance at all for a tenure track job necessitates being willing to take a job anywhere at all. So I wrapped up my arguments with this line:

"Frankie! Seen a tenure-track job in here?"
"If you go on for a PhD, instead you will find yourself with student loan payments equivalent of a home mortgage but no home (and no equity), no retirement savings, and banking on the thin chance of landing a job in some part of the country usually seen on
American Pickers."

Dear Readers, I submit that a piece of writing as fine as that requires no further defense.


sbh said...

I get stuff like this all the time complaining that I can't prove that Patrick Henry didn't write that stuff about this great nation being founded on the gospel of Jesus Christ or that George Washington didn't say you can't rightly govern a nation without God in the picture. (This despite the fact that I can show who was responsible for the alleged quotations and how they came to be misattributed to Henry or Washington.)

I get that bit about the Constitution not containing the phrase "separation of church and state" all the time, as if people were claiming that it did. The concept is there of course; it's simply an alternate expression for the concept of disestablishment, and Jefferson didn't originate it.

That Tea Party page you referenced--even a casual examination shows numerous fake quotations. Of the four Franklin quotations given, for example, three are fake and the fourth actually dubious. (He wrote it, but put it in quotation marks.)

Lee Nilsson said...

This was very amusing.

There is an entire field of right wing evangelical writers who make careers out of misquoting the founders. David Barton comes to mind.

Mr. Unimpressed's example of church and state is really telling. You constantly hear people saying, "You know that that phrase is not in the constitution right?!"

The concept is sadly hidden behind the 18th century meaning of the word "respecting." Which people cannot seem to understand.

I hope he responds to this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I routinely get emails from my dad (gullible, not an active Tea Partier - not sure which is worse) with a "quote" from a Founding Father.

Sadly, I think merely pointing out that the quotes are wrong will fail. We need to churn out "progressive" quotes from the Founding Fathers to counter balance the other side.

If you and your students (sounds like a good student research project to me) could compile such a collection of quotes, I'd be happy to run the Tweeter/Tumblr/blog publishing them.

Larry Cebula said...

Brilliant idea, TKGUTHAT! As Thomas Jefferson said,"A nation is not just until every man can see a doctor."

Lee Nilsson said...

"The fact of evolution is beyond dispute." - George Washington

"We must be good shepherds and hold the tide against the environmental degradation of our fair nation."
- Ben Franklin

"A big government is a happy government." - Jesus

I can see why they like doing this. Its fun.

A.C. Frohnhoefer said...

It isn't only on the right though. I've been working with a student on the legalization of industrial hemp and spent a whole class period on debunking the stoners' misquotations. But, then again fact-checking does require a somewhat lengthy attention span. But here was a good one:"Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see."- Thomas Jefferson (not true)
Also, re:No, You Cannot Be A Professor, here's a good essay about whether or not to go to graduate school. The author discusses the intangible (not loans, not job security) reasons for pursuing (or not) a graduate degree in the humanities.

sbh said...

There are actually several hotbeds of manufactured quotations attributed to the US Founders. David Barton is only the most recent of the Christian Nation fake quoters; a fellow named Benjamin F. Morris more or less started that foundry back in the 1860s. The hemp-promoters, the second amendment rights crowd, and the antisemites have all been fairly prolific as well. Unbelievers have created a few too: John Adams never said "God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world" for example. I will say that they have generally been the politest of the people I hear back from. Barton's followers tend to be abusive, even when Barton himself has repudiated an alleged quotation he previously promoted. The unbelievers tend to politely thank me for the information and resolve not to use the fake quotation in the future.

I've assembled a list of fake quotations (along with some genuine quotations often found with them) at It is obviously incomplete of course.

Larry Cebula said...

SBH, that is a fine resource but I wonder if you would not be better off if instead you contributed to a larger effort, such as Wikiquotes?

I had forgotten about the fake Founders stoner quotes, there are a mess of those as well.

sbh said...

This was actually a sort of side project from my efforts at Wikiquotes, at least as far as the quotation part is concerned.

Originally Fake History was supposed to be about debunking false stories that have made it into popular consciousness and even into history books--for example the story that Ben Wright saved a wagon train from imminent destruction by Modocs (it never happened) or that George Washington added the words "So help me God" to the presidential oath (he didn't). But somewhere in there I got involved verifying quotations at Wikiquotes and kept stumbling into various kinds of misattributions and outright fakes. The bare fact of the misattribution can be stated easily at Wikiquotes, but the story behind it really doesn't fit well there. So I started telling the long version at Fake History....

An example would be the Benjamin Franklin quotation about primitive christianity changing the face of the world. It started with something Jacques Mallet du Pan wrote about Ben Franklin in French, as misquoted by Henri Martin and translated by Bancroft, who also turned it from a paraphrase to a quotation. The Wikiquotes version is already too long and yet the story (I think) is interesting.

Lee Nilsson said...

@A.C. Frohnhoefer I forgot about that.

Clay Jenkinson tells a great story about being invited to Hempfest in Seattle in Jefferson costume. The people running the show were all convinced that Jefferson grew hemp to smoke. Jenkinson tried to convince him but couldn't, so he went onstage and had to tell a couple thousand stoners about 18th century rope-making. That must have been a weird moment.