29 April 2010

Monotonous

I could not be wearier
Life could not be drearier
If I lived in Siberia
Eartha Kitt (from New Faces of 1952)
I’m slowly recovering from a bad bout of terror when it looked as though my bank account was going to self-destruct, thanks to the non-appearance of expected money, and I’m having trouble typing as Tiberius, my grandnephew’s adopted feral cat, bit me earlier today when I gently suggested that he should not sharpen his claws on my grandmother’s heirloom quilt, but that’s par for the course. Nothing to write home about. As I get older these things just take a lot more out of me, I guess.

I’ve been chasing shadows trying to run down enough information to put together a brief biographical sketch of Dean Clarence Manion, one of the shapers of the modern conservative movement, whose Manion Forum first introduced the likes of Barry Goldwater to a nation-wide audience. This guy was important, damn it—not that I’m an admirer, mind you. But he was a major figure in 1950s America, spoken of as a possible Supreme Court justice even, a best-selling author—and as far as Internet resources are concerned, he might as well never have lived.

I remember these guys, the old right-wing radio crowd. I used to hear them a lot, especially if my father was driving us somewhere. Dear old dad was a radio engineer, you see, and we always had to have his station on, no matter what garbage was being aired at the moment, so he could monitor the signal quality, and respond instantly if something went wrong. Sometimes we’d abruptly pull off to the side of the road to a pay phone so he could call in to the station over some oddity in the transmission; in the meantime I’d be stuck listening to some crazed evangelist or right-wing commentator hawking his social or political nostrums. Dan Smoot, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan—I used to listen (unwillingly) to them all, fascinated by them in the way you feel passing some grisly car wreck. You don’t want to look at the carnage, but somehow your eyes refuse to cooperate.

Oddly I find that I have a certain nostalgic fondness for them today, remnants of a shattered dream, political heretics to mainstream American politics. Their cause rooted in denial of reality, denial of rights to those perceived as different, denial of a fair deal to the hard-working men and women who supported them, unjust and unjustified, they nonetheless tirelessly worked on behalf of the wealthy and the powerful to carry out their designs. How well they succeeded in written in the nerves and sinews of the last quarter of the twentieth century. If free America finally goes down, they will have had much to do with its corruption. And their story should be told; it is a part of the great tapestry of our history.

09 April 2010

Posing in the Moonlight

Ah, yes, another rant against the clueless. I’m sorry about that—but this guy illustrates something that really bothers me about this whole tribe. I’ve noted previously how people in comment threads who claim to rely on primary sources give themselves away by citing fake quotations, and the other day a perfect example of the species made an appearance in a thread at a topix.net forum. Calling him- (or her-) self Akpilot, he (or she) made a set of assertions so blindingly ignorant that one commenter suggested he should “read a few biographies of our first presidents as well as the members who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.” Akpilot claimed in reply:
Actually, biographies are riddled with errors and the personal opinions of the writter [sic]. I much prefer reading the actual writtings [sic] of the founders, I find you get a much clearer picture of them that way... You may want to try this yourself as well. [ellipsis in original]
What makes this claim absolutely hilarious is that he had given examples of his “reading the actual writtings of the founders” some comments earlier, and, as you might expect, they included a number of fake quotations—the 1956 “religionists” quotation falsely attributed to Patrick Henry, for one, and the “ten commandments” quotation falsely attributed to James Madison, for another. His use of these shows Akpilot for the poseur he is—he sure as hell didn’t get them from “reading the actual writtings of the founders”.

So, just for the fun of it, let’s see what else our poseur has to offer. He starts off with an alleged John Adams quotation:
The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principals of Christianity… I will avow that I believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.
While our poseur doesn’t give a source, it’s a mangled section from a letter Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson (28 June 1813), part of a famous series. Quite a bit has been silently omitted in this twisted version. Here’s what Adams wrote:
Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.
The words in bold were those cherry-picked to give a false impression of what John Adams was saying. If our poseur in this case was also the cherry-picker, then he is guilty of deliberately misrepresenting Adams; if not he remains a mere poseur, guilty only of passing off somebody else’s misrepresentation as his own.

Next our poseur quotes part of a famous quip John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson (19 April 1817)—an item so well-known that no special research in “the actual writtings of the founders” is required:
Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!” But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite society, I mean hell.
This is a great passage for quote-miners; anti-religion types can quote the “no religion” portion, and Christian Nationites the “not fit to be mentioned” piece, but either way, they’re distorting the meaning of the original. Thomas Jefferson’s reply is not as often quoted. He wrote (5 May 1817):
If by religion we are to understand sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, “that this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.” But if the moral precepts, innate in man, and made a part of his physical constitution, as necessary for a social being, if the sublime doctrines of philanthropism and deism taught us by Jesus of Nazareth, in which all agree, constitute true religion, then, without it, this would be, as you again say, “something not fit to be named even, indeed, a hell.”
Having quote-mined Adams Akpilot moves on to Benjamin Franklin's well-known speech in favor of prayers at the Constitutional Convention:
In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered… do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?
This (for once) appears to be fairly quoted, as the larger context shows:
In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.—Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?
The vote arose during a critical point at the Constitutional convention, and there was some discussion of the question, but no vote was actually taken, and the matter was allowed quietly to die. Franklin’s manuscript notes:
The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.
I wonder why our poseur left out that item of information.

Next up Akpilot cites a saying attributed to Alexander Hamilton—a quotation in which he cruelly betrays his limitations as a scholar and student of the Founders. His version reads:
I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.
This item first appeared in this form (“evidences” instead of “evidence” and no ellipsis between the first and second sentences) in Stephen Abbott Northrop’s 1894 A Cloud of Witnesses (p. 208). Northrop in turn attributed to Famous American Statesmen by Sarah Knowles Bolton (1888, p. 126). She gave it like this:
To a friend he said: “I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. … I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.”
Note that evidence is singular, and especially note the ellipsis. That ellipsis was a bit dishonest; these are not parts of the same quotation, but two different stories jammed together. They come from John Church Hamilton’s voluminous account of his father’s life and times (volume 7, p. 790):
It was the tendency to infidelity he saw so rife that led him often to declare in the social circle his estimate of Christian truth. “I have examined carefully,” he said to a friend from his boyhood, “the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor.” To another person, he observed, “I have studied it, and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.”
The first item is attributed to the “Reminiscences of General Morton” (presumably Jacob Morton, 1761-1836); the second is unattributed. As both anecdotes are related by his son, we may hope that they reflect Hamilton’s attitude as his son understood it, but they are second-hand at best. They are not Hamilton’s words directly, but only words attributed to him. And our poseur didn’t get them from the son—as his misquotation shows—but only from some late and derivative source.

Akpilot follows this with a mangled version of a resolution by the Massachusetts provincial congress for 15 April 1775 calling for a day of fasting and prayer. He has attributed this to John Hancock, possibly because Hancock was president of the provincial congress at that time. The actual resolution read:
Resolved, That it be, and hereby is, recommended to the good people of this colony, of all denominations, that Thursday, the eleventh day of May next, be set apart as a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that a total abstinence from servile labor and recreation be observed, and all the religious assemblies solemnly convened, to humble themselves before God, under the heavy judgments felt and feared, to confess the sins that have deserved them; to implore the forgiveness of all our transgressions, a spirit of repentance and reformation, and a blessing on the husbandry, manufactures, and other lawful employments of this people; and especially, that the union of the American colonies in defence of their rights, for which, hitherto, we desire to thank Almighty God, may be preserved and confirmed; that the Provincial, and especially the Continental Congress, may be directed to such measures as God will countenance; that the people of Great Britain and their rulers may have their eyes open to discern the things that shall make for the peace of the nation and all its connections; and that America may soon behold a gracious interposition of Heaven, for the redress of her many grievances, the restoration of all her invaded liberties, and their security to the latest generations.
Another stunning example of Akpilot’s vast knowledge of “the actual writtings of the founders” follows, when he quotes (and slightly misquotes) a 1956 writer as Patrick Henry:
It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.
The story of this bit of trash appears elsewhere; in my view only an idiot would be taken it by it. I can guarantee that our poseur didn’t get it from reading the Founders; it was first attributed to Henry in the 1980s.

Now next our poseur actually gets something right—he quotes a portion correctly from John Jay’s well-known letter to John Murray, Jr., of 12 October 1826. The paragraph in question:
Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.
But our poseur returns to his old ways with the next one, and it’s a doozy. Yeah, it’s the tired old fake Madison quote about the Ten Commandments—and he manages to give it a bogus source as well: “1778 to the General Assembly of the State of Virginia”. (Actually the only genuine bit comes from the Federalist Papers.” He quotes it like this:
We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We’ve staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity…to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God. [1778 to the General Assembly of the State of Virginia]
Now I’ve never seen it exactly in this form before, but it’s still the same old fraud publicized by libertarian economist Frederick Nymeyer in 1958. And Akpilot has actually omitted virtually all of the only genuine Madison phrase in the whole piece—“the capacity of mankind for self-government”. This is about as low as it could get. It looks bad for our self-styled expert on the Founders.

Still, he recovers a little ground with his final two (basically genuine) quotations from Dr. Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush, you may recall, was the guy who thought that the dark skin of Africans was a form of leprosy, and looked forward to the day it could be cured. Dr. Rush’s essay entitled “A Defence of the Use of the Bible in Schools” (written before 1798) included this passage:
…I lament, that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of christianity, by means of the bible; for this divine book, above all others, favours that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and all those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism.
Other than mangling the end with a silent omission, our poseur did pretty well on that one. Earlier in the piece Rush had written about “the eternal and self moving principle of LOVE,” and our poseur now backs up to catch his comment there:
It concentrates a whole system of ethics in a single text of scripture. “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you.” By withholding the knowledge of this doctrine from children, we deprive ourselves of the best means of awakening moral sensibility in their minds.
By omitting the first sentence and substituting “[the Scriptures]” for “this doctrine” Akpilot makes it look as though Rush were talking about the Bible in general, rather than one doctrine in particular, but otherwise the text is fairly quoted.

Now I’ve got to say that for a person who spends a lot of time reading the words of America’s Founders, this is a piss-poor showing. Some of these quotations are now so putrid even the loons won’t touch them. Personally, I don’t think Akpilot is ready to read serious biographies of the Founders. Not up to speed, yet—far from it. I think he should start with some popular histories of the time, something that would give him the feel for the times. Then, maybe, he could move on to some light biographies, and start working his way through some of the key essays of the Founders—portions of Franklin’s autobiography, perhaps, and some of the Federalist Papers. Once he knows his way around a bit, then he could start on some serious works. And then at last, if all goes well, he’ll have some chance of making sense of whatever out of the vast array of papers left us by the Founders he chooses to read.

Anyway, it’s worth a shot.

There are a lot of people out there who have actually spent their time reading the actual writings of the Founders and Framers and (for that matter) their opponents. Not only reading them, but locating them, editing them, and making them available for people to investigate and learn from. Akpilot would do well to actually learn from them, and not just pose as somebody who has. Especially with an effort so lame as that one.

02 April 2010

Quotation of the Day

...what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
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