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What to do, what to do?

Several weeks ago I posted a link to Ron Paul’s comments on Abraham Lincoln on NBC’s Meet The Press.  I did so because so many people in the blogosphere and on various internet newsgroups were talking about it, and I thought it was useful for people to have a chance to see it.  Paul’s comments seemed to me to be so bizarre and uninformed that they did not merit commentary, let alone refutation (much the same can be said of Andrew Napolitano’s comments about Lincoln, which I found equally bizarre).

However, recently I came across the following comment pointing people to my post:  “he didn’t condemn it so we can only assume by disseminating it he supports [.]”  Setting aside the fact that this is evidently a fine mind at work, I raise a more serious question I have thought about before: what is the obligation of the professional historian when s/he comes across such mindless claptrap (from all three people, Paul, Napolitano, and the fine mind)?  Do we stand up and object?  Do we take it apart in a detailed examination, in the process setting aside our own work to reveal the flawed history behind such assertions?  Do we ignore it?  If we pay attention to it, what is the most effective way to broadcast our views?  I seek your input. 

Comments (9) to “What to do, what to do?”

  1. I think this is an important question for historians to ask as it cuts to the very question of professional responsibility. I couldn’t have been more pleased by the fact that the Cliopatria committee which honored me with the award cited my commitment to challenging the nonsense of black Confederates. Of course, we all have responsibilities that dictate how much time we can spend on these topics, but dare I say that you wouldn’t be blogging if you didn’t implicitly acknowledge some responsibility to address these types of issues. I hope to address this very question on a panel with Mark Grimsley and Anne Sarah Rubin in New Orleans at the SHA.

  2. I think highlighting it, with a brief set of remarks about why it’s so completely foolish, is the way to handle it.

    If you want to see how someone else handled it, take a look at this:

    Although note that the comment thread is over 200 and counting.

  3. I understand Kevin’s overall statement of philosophy, but this seemed to be a case where so many people were taking Paul apart that it was worth just showing what he said (same with the Napolitano comment, which in some ways I take more seriously, because he’s obviously deeply ignorant for a man in his position); I think that if I was to respond, it would be in a way that asks what’s in the water when certain people who claim to be for freedom criticize Lincoln while overlooking who exactly was against human freedom. Of course it’s foolish, but I’m beginning to wonder whether it is also dangerous.

  4. I understand the impulse to ignore such bilge as being beneath notice, but I have long thought that was a mistake. Error must be confronted and corrected, or it gets repeated and repeated until some folks begin to think it is not error, but truth. And the more often we let an outlandish piece of drivel pass, the more likely it is that someone will pick up on it and take it (or something based on it) seriously. So, yes, we should make a point of jumping on these statements of idiocy, and people like you, Brooks, have a special obligation to do so. I know it won’t be fun, but I’m afraid it is necessary.

  5. I think so many people jumped on Paul that it isn’t as if he was allowed to say what he wanted to say and then left alone. Some of the refutations were not as persuasive as they ought to have been; the Napolitano comment has not received as much attention, in part because I sense that over time Napolitano has tended to discredit himself as a commentator by revealing more and more of his views. I think there are larger questions here about the nature of an anti-Lincoln wave in which people from the opposite ends of the political spectrum feed off each other in interesting ways. You see this in the appropriation of Lerone Bennett by anti-Lincoln conservatives/neo-Confederates.

  6. I believe posting a link without any comment can be interpreted as implicit support. Clearly, this was not your intent, but the ambiguity created by a lack of comment should not be held against someone who regards it as furthering the point of view expressed. I humbly suggest you express even a brief judgment in the future so as not to be misunderstood. (PS. I enjoy this blog very much)

  7. Jack — In truth, I now think this a good idea, precisely because the person who drew the conclusion he did (and publicized it) did so out of malicious intent, not naivete. I’m quite sure that in this case I was misunderstood: I was deliberately misrepresented. We all have our fans. :)

  8. I think that when public figures make such irresponsibly uninformed statements as Did Ron Paul, that those with the knowledge and professional standing to combat the misinformation should do so. Certainly, no one who reads your blog, or is familiar with your work, could have concluded that you endorse Paul. As for your friend with the “fine mind,” he is dishonest, and anyone who has occasionally read that newsgroup would know this. Unfortunately, the world is full of such “fine minds” who are equally dishonest and willing to spread misinformation to suit their agendas. I think that historians should be willing to see themselves as public intellectuals, with an obligation to participate in public discourse when such figures as Paul speak from ignorance to suit an agenda, and to help curb the misinformation spread by other “fine minds.”

  9. I agree misinformation needs to be opposed. You can pick your analogy, whether it’s the political campaigning rule of thumb that any attack must be countered or else it becomes perceived as fact or the aphorism that nature abhors a vacuum, and if you don’t fill it with good information someone will come along and fill it with bad information, especially those “fine minds” with malicious intent.