[Originally posted 12 July 2009]
When I did a series a while back on “Forsaken Roots” (or whatever you want to call it) I ended up establishing a text for it, mostly because there was no authoritative source, and I’m picky about my texts. If I’m going to take the time to write a commentary on something, I want to be sure that I have something resembling a definitive text to work with, else what’s the point? For my purposes at the time I simply picked four texts sort of at random—but not quite. I looked for older examples, and I wanted examples that were textually divergent. If the textual tree had branches, I wanted samples from as many as possible.
Actually I already knew that the tree had at least two branches, a longer recension and a shorter one. I’d picked that up pretty quickly when I went to Ed Brayton’s commentary with questions from the longer recension only to find he didn’t cover them; his commentary was based on the shorter recension. I suspected the most likely explanation was that the longer recension had grown by accretion from the shorter recension, but I didn’t assume anything, which was just as well, as that hypothesis proved incorrect.
Since for technical reasons (the width of my screen mainly) I wanted to restrict my comparison to four versions, I decided to pick two from the longer recension and two from the shorter. If I could construct something resembling a reasonable text from them then I’d be off and running with my real purpose—doing the commentary. Close enough for jazz.
When my laptop died one of the things I lost—I’d never bothered to copy it—was the “Forsaken Roots” synopsis I’d used to construct the text. I figured I was done with it. But as I see new versions of it surface again like a goddamn hydra my textual sleuth keeps being activated—there’s another one of those, I say to myself, noting the missing word “Supreme” in front of “Court” and the telltale period after “first” and before “Harvard”. Where are they coming from? Idle Googling produced some answers (those missing-Supreme copies for example all go back to a website published by one Mary Jones), but I kind of wanted to know a bit more. I didn’t particularly want to repeat the work I’d done, but I wanted something. I decided to see if I could establish a text for the longer recension.
So I went back to hunting for these things, examining example after example, looking for particular textual characteristics. Most examples turned out to be either from the shorter recension or from the Mary Jones family, neither of which were any use to me. A kind of sadness came over me as I examined these things in their original context, often a blog entry or a comment thread. First the text itself would appear, typically cut-and-pasted from the Mary Jones or some other familiar site. Next would come the admiring comments. This one is pretty typical:
Thanks for sharing. This was very informative. Neither in my secondary or college education, do I recall this information be read, taught or discussed. It shines a brighter light on the foundation of America for me.
(If you're wondering about the text of the version immediately above this comment, it's from the longer recension, but not part of the Mary Jones family, which, if the date is correct, had yet to be established.) All the elements are there—gratitude, admiration for the research, enthusiasm for the Christian light on early America, and curiosity (or anger) about why this information had been suppressed. Missing is the clear light of common sense which, for some reason, nobody ever seems to think to switch on. Is it bloody likely that these guys would have said or written the sorts of things attributed to them here? Would Patrick Henry really refer to this “great nation” before it had been established? What conceivable set of circumstances would have prompted Congress to pass a resolution recommending the Holy Bible for use in all schools? (The “1782” is a particularly nice touch on this one.) What on earth does it mean for the Bible to be quoted 94% of the time?
Sometimes the next question will be, Did you write this? And the reply comes (if at all) No, I got it from the internet. From the internet. Words from on high, I guess, supplied by the Internet Genii for the benefit of us lesser mortals. What do you mean, you got it from the internet? You might as well have said you found it blowing in the wind alongside the road one day, or you found it scurrying through the fields of Elysium. The internet? Somebody wrote those words, and somebody did the research behind them, and, you know, that somebody deserves credit.
Now, in all fairness, in this case not a lot of credit. The writer/researcher here has simply bundled together a clutch of remaindered misinfo, and retailed the package to the gulls. He or she may even be quoting from memory for some of them; there are pointless variations in them from the authentic text (though speaking of the authentic text of a forged passage seems a bit on the paradoxical side). The fake Madison is a case in point:
We have staked the future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments
sounds more like a fuzzily-remembered
We have staked the future of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government: upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God
than a poorly-copied one. (It is quite possible that a skip of the eye from the first capacity to the second caused the omission of the one genuine bit of Madison in this whole farrago—the capacity of mankind for self-government; that wouldn’t explain the mangling of what follows, however.)
Occasionally—not often, but occasionally—somebody will question the item. Once I noted somebody actually asking the key question—what are your sources? More often it will be a remark to the effect that this can’t be true, since the Founders were all deists, and anyway, what about the treaty of Tripoli? or something like that. And then maybe somebody will contribute a story about some kid they heard of from a friend of a friend who wasn’t allowed to bring her Bible to show-and-tell, or some such idiocy. (Okay, I made that one up, but it’s always something in that vein.)
But the thing that really gets me is the pitiful sense of gratitude emanating from these comments. Children picking up pretty pieces of broken glass and telling themselves they are diamonds. Playing with them, passing them around. The pathos of it all starts to overcome me. I almost want to depart from my rôle as observer and help out. The “Forsaken Roots” I could write for them! Oh, it probably wouldn’t have Madison in it, but there are many famous names among the Founders, and I can cherry-pick with the best of them. Of course that would only be what Archie Goodwin calls fancy lying, rather than Forsaken’s plain lying—a matter of taste, really, I suppose.
But, getting back to the textual issues at hand—the one thing that really bothers me, and for which I can see no answer whatsoever, is—what on earth created the shorter recension in the first place? Some horrible and malign force, early in the transmission history of this bagatelle, blew two large holes in it, seemingly at random. And yet, and yet, the disseminators of this savagely shattered version went right on distributing it, never noticing its broken condition, as mindless as those ants who, upon running out of food, start cutting off the back ends of their larvae to try to keep the front ends fed. And the hosannas of joy were just as heartfelt, regardless of the presence of palpable nonsense like
Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed … to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?
(And that question-mark is part of the original text.) Did they not read what they were writing? How do you go about instructing a student to lay Christ as a foundation for our children to follow anything at all, let alone the moral principles of the Ten Commandments? It’s madness—but nobody seems to notice.
And the other hole that makes it look as though Thomas Jefferson, rather than John Quincy Adams, was an officer in the American Bible Society—this is greeted as a welcome new discovery, rather than as a sign of the corruption of the text. And they say random mutation can’t generate new information! Tell Jefferson! He never would have made president of the ABS without it.
The whole thing reeks of corruption. Fake quotations, themselves misquoted, and then further mangled through copying errors. False interpretations given new false twists, without anybody apparently bothered enough by any of it to even check the goddamn internet, their source for it all. Random holes fixed by random guesses—
Seriously, how much trouble is it to Google something? No, it looks like it’s easier to just plain guess. Here’s an example. The original text read:
However, in 1947, there was a radical change of direction for the Supreme Court. It required ignoring every precedent of Supreme Court ruling for the past 160 years. The Supreme Court ruled in a limited way to affirm a wall of separation between church and State in the public classroom. In the coming years, this led to removing prayer from public schools in 1962. Here is the prayer that was banished: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee. We beg Thy blessings upon us and our parents and our teachers and our country. Amen.”
The Mary Jones version dropped a piece of it here, producing:
However in 1947, there was a radical change of direction in the Supreme Court. Here is the prayer that was banished: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee. We beg Thy blessings upon us and our parents and our teachers and our country. Amen.”
(Note also the change of “direction for” to “direction in”; this is one of the seven distinguishing characteristics of the Jones text. Of course the omission that follows is another.) And here’s how one transmitter “fixed” the problem:
In 1947, it all changed! The Supreme Court removed the prayer that had been used for over 100 years at the opening of each session of the Court. “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee. We beg Thy blessings upon us and our parents and our teachers and our country. Amen.”
Again, is it likely that the Supreme Court began each session with a prayer begging the blessings of God upon parents and teachers? Doesn't this sound more like a school prayer? Hello? Is nobody awake in there? And this version is supposedly reprinted from the February 2005 edition of the Liberty Tree newsletter. No checking, even with the quasi-immortality of print in view? Just guesswork?
I guess. Sometimes my sense of exasperation overcomes my feelings of pathos. People this unreflective deserve to eat garbage.
But nobody deserves this. Not even those poorly-informed clowns who blather on about how Jefferson invented the concept of separation of church and state when he wasn’t even in America at the time the Constitution was being written—how would he know anything? And besides, wasn’t it some unknown justice named Hugo Black who decided to pull it out of an old forgotten letter written to the Danbury Baptists, of all people, and foist it off on all of us as settled law?—yeah, not even these crackers deserve this kind of treatment. Even canonical critics and flat-earthers deserve better.
Well … maybe not canonical critics.