02 December 2012

The Perils of Research

So, it seems that Chris Rodda has got her copy of the new edition of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies only to find that not only was it not published by a bigger outfit than Thomas Nelson, not only did it not contain the promised pages of new documentation for his outlandish claims, but it wasn’t even a new edition. Yes, the new edition of Barton’s work announced at Amazon was nothing but leftover copies of the Thomas Nelson edition. Chris Rodda went over it page by page and literally nothing had been changed.

God, what a disappointment. I feel quite confident that those couple dozen pages of documentation would have cleared everything up, made it all plain, and revealed to us that what he was writing was actually reasonable, rather than a dish of moldy cabbage that somehow got pushed to the back of the refrigerator. Research is like that sometimes; you expect a diamond and you get cubic zirconium; you expect enlightenment and you get Carlos Castaneda’s dissertation.

Think of the feelings of those Beatle enthusiasts when the long-lost first recording of “Please Please Me” turned up (in the back of somebody’s closet as I recall. No, that was the newspaper I kept of the first landing on the moon …) It should have been a slower, blusier, Roy Orbisonesque arrangement—but instead it was essentially identical to the version found on their second single. (The drummer was different—the moody magnificent Pete Best had been replaced by some interloper—but the same essential feel.) That must have been a real disappointment—it was for me, anyway. And so the slow version recedes into the mists of prehistory, an artefact like Jane Austen’s First Impressions, intriguing to think about, but perpetually out of reach.

Am I making sense this first Sunday of Advent in the year twelve thousand twelve of the Holocene era? I doubt it very much. We live in senseless times. Uganda fires a blow in the War on Xmas with a promise of new anti-gay laws in time for the holidays—as if the old ones weren’t severe enough. Republicans in the US Congress unveil more plans to increase the wealth of the idle bloodsucking class (or “job-creators” as they like to ironically call themselves) by robbing the nation pension fund that employees have paid into all their lives. We live in senseless times; why should I be immune to the zeitgeist?

And speaking of senseless, ever tried to follow a David Barton footnote? Footnotes are supposed to be helpful guides pointing to sources, not joke roadsigns that point you to nowhere, or useless decorations put in to give the appearance of research in the absence of evidence. Of course real research takes you off those convenient well-lit roads into the shadowy hinterland of unexamined sources. You read that such-and-such paper had a reporter at the front, you open the crumbling pages with excitement—and it turns out that the so-called reporter was only sending out political diatribes from a point some fifty miles away from the scene of action. Can’t be helped; research is like that.

Many years ago I spent considerable time and money running down a copy of the first (unrevised) edition Alfred Meacham’s Wigwam and War Path only to find that there really was no such thing. The so-called first edition is nothing but early copies of the supposedly revised edition with an errata sheet and no signature on the author’s picture in the front of the volume. There are numerous minor corrections throughout, some of which are identical to those on the errata sheet, and some of which are not, but it is manifestly the same edition, and the editorial confusion that is manifest in the volume is the same no matter which printing you use. That was a disappointment—but, as I say, research is all too often like that.

So, to recap on the David Barton saga: first, when Thomas Nelson pulled The Jefferson Lies for its inaccuracies, Barton announced that he had a bigger publisher for the book, and that it would be new and improved. Second, when a new edition was announced, the new publisher is (apparently) Barton himself, through his own Wallbuilders press. Third, when the book is actually delivered, it turns out to be published by Thomas Nelson, not by a new and bigger publisher, and it is the same old book, not new and improved. Pretty much a clean miss all the way around.

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