Tag Archives: Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck presents a history exhibit

Glenn Beck hosted an exhibit of historical artifacts called the “Independence Through History Museum” at the Grand American Hotel in Salt Lake City over the July 4th weekend.  The museum was only one part of Beck’s “Man in the Moon” event, which included conferences, lectures, and a live performance that (as far as I can determine) was an attempt to combine historical pageantry with Cirque du Soleil.

More info here and here.  Note that the exhibit featured Arnold Friberg’s painting of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge.  Since it’s doubtful the incident in the painting ever happened, it’s highly fitting that David Barton helped select the items to be displayed.

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Remind me again why this guy is an authority

Whenever Glenn Beck and David Barton get together to talk about history, you know you’re in for a show.

Check out this conversation they had about the movie Lincoln.  Beck asks Barton about the film’s accuracy, and Barton claims that, contrary to what the film shows, the Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress easily as a “slam dunk” and without all the wheeling and dealing.

In reality, the vote in the HOR was anything but a “slam dunk.”  Approval of a proposed constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority, not a simple one, and the Thirteenth Amendment just barely passed.  A mere handful of additional nays, and it wouldn’t have.

Barton’s supporters are always assuring us that he’s an expert in matters constitutional and historical; he does know how new amendments get added to the Constitution, right?

As for the “wheeling and dealing,” Lincoln’s administration did, in fact, put quite a bit of pressure congressmen to support the amendment.  The exact nature and extent of that pressure is a matter of some uncertainty (for obvious reasons, it’s not the sort of thing that leaves a paper trail), but that Lincoln was more heavily involved in this congressional matter than was usual for him is pretty well established.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War

Show and tell

Head over to Civil War Memory to watch Glenn Beck pick up Nathan Bedford Forrest’s sword, explain that the weapon likely “skinned people alive,” and proclaim it “a sword of tremendous American evil.”  Sort of like the One Ring, I suppose; we should put it in a fire to see if it’s got an inscription.

As you might imagine, the SCV was less than thrilled with Beck’s attempt to paint Forrest as a nineteenth-century Hannibal Lecter.

Beck also had a number of artifacts on hand during a rally in Texas this past weekend.  If this broadcasting thing doesn’t pan out, maybe he can get a gig as a museum docent.  Hopefully he’ll do some additional reading between now and then.

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The Bat Creek Stone rolls onward

It’s a source of both surprise and amusement to me that the post on the Bat Creek Stone continues to get passionate comments almost two years after it went up.  Whenever I glance at the search terms that bring people to the blog, “Bat Creek Stone” is invariably near the top of the list.  I can understand that, since it’s a pretty obscure topic and thus there are only so many places on the Interwebs a Google search will take you.  But the fact that people continue to post replies is unusual, since this blog gets very modest traffic and it’s rare for any of my posts to generate more than a few comments.

I’m also surprised at the diversity of these reactions.  Some people take issue with specific points, while others just seem irate that I was critical of Glenn Beck.  Some readers want to use the post as an opportunity to make a case for pre-Columbian contact in general, or for the validity of Mormonism.

I’m not qualified to make a case for or against the Bat Creek Stone.  I’m neither an archaeologist nor a linguist.  But I have a real problem with a public figure like Beck taking it upon himself to educate his audience about the past and making such a mess of it.  Getting one’s facts straight is the first responsibility of the public historian.  When it comes to the Bat Creek Stone, it simply won’t do to present it as an undisputed artifact.  That’s what Beck did.

I’m not complaining about the reaction the post has gotten, mind you.  Far from it.  I wish readers would pitch in like this all the time.  I just think it’s interesting that of all the subjects we toss around here, this is the one people want to discuss the most.

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Everything you’ve read about George Washington is probably more or less accurate, and here’s more of it

Among the things for which I can be thankful this season is the release of a book about George Washington by none other than Glenn Beck.  Whenever Beck dons his history teacher’s hat it makes for great blogging fodder, and the comments his fans leave are invariably entertaining.

It is thus with a girlish squeal of delight that I share the following ad copy:

Through these stories you’ll not only learn our real history (and how it applies to today), you’ll also see how the media and others have distorted our view of it. It’s ironic that the best-known fact about George Washington—that he chopped down a cherry tree—is a complete lie. It’s even more ironic when you consider that a lie was thought necessary to prove he could not tell one.

For all of his heroism and triumphs, Washington’s single greatest accomplishment was the man he created in the process: courageous and principled, fair and just, respectful to all. But he was also something else: flawed.

For Beck to carp about how “the media and others have distorted our view” of history is an exhibition of either striking disingenuousness or breathtaking chutzpah, since few media personalities can match his track record of erroneous historical statements.  This is the same man who insisted that pre-Columbian Indians wrote in Hebrew and built Egyptian-style pyramids, and that the Dead Sea Scrolls had something to do with Constantine.

Note the breathless overselling of common knowledge.  Brace yourself, because you’re about to get the Real George Washington At Last—and apparently he was a fallible but genuinely great human being who didn’t cut down a cherry tree.  Bet you haven’t heard that one before. 

This is standard operating procedure for history written by celebrity pundits and politicians.  Rehash general information from secondary sources, add a moral spin, simmer for two minutes, serve.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

A reader tells me what it was like back in the day and then lets me know what a jerk I am

The other day I got a particularly irate complaint on an older post in which I’d argued that Glenn Beck is a bit too credulous when it comes to stories about George Washington.  Something about these Beck posts really brings out the vitriol in people; I’ve got to stop doing them.

Anyway, this reader touched on a couple of my pet peeves, so I thought I might address his comment in some detail here.  His unedited remarks are in italics, mine inserted in plain type:

Isn’t it ironic that people who can’t even remember a world without electric lights (like Glenn Beck’s detractors) can tell us all about colonial times in America better than Mr. Beck can…?

Not really.  People who can’t remember a world without electric lights have access to colonial documents, books about the colonial era, colonial artifacts, and so on.  If being born before the advent of electricity is a requirement for discussing the colonial era, then I’m afraid Glenn Beck is in the same boat as the rest of us.

Well guys, I spent my first years in a log cabin–without electric lights, indoor plumbing or a telephone–and it wasn’t all that long ago…

Okay, this is Pet Peeve #1.

If his point is that living without electricity or plumbing gives you some unobtainable gnosis into the eighteenth century, I hope he’ll pardon my skepticism.  The problem here is that Washington’s life and times were about more than a lack of electricity and plumbing.  Knowing what it’s like to live without modern conveniences is of precious little help in determining whether George Washington really prayed at Valley Forge, which is the sort of thing I was dealing with in the post to which he responded.

If we follow this line of reasoning out to its conclusion, then I must have some insight into the childhood of John F. Kennedy which you don’t, because although I was born many years after his death into a family that did not consist of New England aristocrats, both JFK and I grew up with electricity and plumbing.

Look, as I’ve said elsewhere, personal experience has serious limitations as a means of understanding the past.  If you’re a former infantryman who served during WWII and you’re writing about mid-twentieth-century combat, then you’ve got a real leg up on the scholar who was born in 1968.  But if you’re trying to make sense of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century battles, your best bet is to go to the primary sources and the relevant secondary literature.  Likewise, I seriously doubt that merely growing up in a house with no phone lines is going to give you any profound insight into the lives of eighteenth-century Virginia planters.

There is a fundamental “otherness” to the past which is more pronounced the farther back in time we go, and this otherness is an insurmountable obstacle to the history-by-personal-experience approach, unless we’re talking about history that happened within the span of current lifetimes.  The fact that this gentleman is alive and breathing indicates that he probably doesn’t have any direct knowledge of the Revolutionary era.

Funny, I have a slightly different opinion of what Mr. Beck is trying to do than you have. Could it be that I have just a little bit different perspective about our country’s origins than you have–and maybe I have seen and experienced some things beyond your wildest imaginings…!

I don’t know; I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff.  I actually met Bob Saget once.  I’m not making this up.  Remember those episodes of Full House when they all went to Disney World, and Saget was trying to propose to his girlfriend but could never find the right opportunity?  I was there with my family and I got to be in the background during the Indiana Jones sequence.  I’ve got a picture of me and Saget and my dad somewhere.  (That would make an awesome post, come to think of it.  I need to find it.)

And then when I was in grad school I went to a Shakira concert in Detroit, and when she did “Whenever, Wherever” she bellydanced while wearing a lit candelabra on top of her head.  You don’t see that every day.  I would’ve gone to see her on her next tour when she was in Atlanta, but I’d wasted like four hundred dollars on a birthstone ring for my girlfriend, so I couldn’t really justify spending the money on tickets so soon afterward.  And then that same girl dumped me by e-mail a week or two after that.

I mean, getting dumped is lousy enough, but what really had me peeved was the fact that Shakira was going to be performing only four hours away, and I’d knocked myself out of seeing it.  The only way I’d buy jewelry for a woman again would be if she actually was Shakira or if I was married to her.  Of course, Shakira’s got loads of cash, so she probably wouldn’t care about jewelry.  You could probably just take her to Baskin Robbins or something, and she’d be like, “Hey, it’s cool.  In fact, I’ll buy.”

Okay, where were we?

Why don’t you guys find something productive to do with your time–like finding some ANSWERS to our problems–maybe beyond the scope of “community organizing”…?

Ah, there we are.  This is Pet Peeve #2, the old “scratch someone who doubts your favorite historical myth and find a flaming liberal” routine.  I took issue with something Glenn Beck said about George Washington, so therefore I must be a left-winger.

Is agreeing with Glenn Beck’s historical claims a requirement for conservatives?  I really hope not, because I don’t particularly care for an interventionist government myself, but I have yet to listen to one of Beck’s historical lectures that did not involve the ladling out of more horseflop than most ranch hands move in an entire afternoon.  Remember his segment on Native Americans, when he tried to draw comparisons between Indian monuments and Egyptian pyramids?  Remember his lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the one that was so riddled with mangled statements—mixing up the DSS with something about Constantine building an army and placing them in the wrong century—that listening to it was embarrassing to the point of physical pain?

Can’t I oppose leftist politics and at the same time maintain that, when it comes to history, Glenn Beck is an uninformed buffoon? Do I have to agree with everything the man says in order to oppose liberalism, even when he’s saying things that have nothing to do with modern politics?

Anyway, I agree that it’s very important that we find some answers to our problems.  But since this is a history blog, I tend to spend more time discussing past events here than current ones.  This, alas, is pretty unavoidable. Most history involves the past—practically all of it, in fact.

Perhaps we can compromise on this.  At least let me finish this post, and then I might take a crack at the AIDS crisis in Africa.  Then I’ll look into the national debt; I’m pretty sure I can make some headway there.

At least drop the snobbish know-it-all attitude…!

Well, no promises on that one.  But I’m actually glad he brought that up. Coincidentally, I was hammering out some remarks on that very subject when I got this comment.  So in the next post we’ll look at my snobbish know-it-all attitude and I’ll try to explain my belief that not all ideas are created equal.

But first, duty calls—I’m off to find some answers to our problems, beyond the scope of community organizing.  History blogger, awaaaaaaayyyyyyyy!

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Filed under History and Memory

Nice blog! Which way to the weird Glenn Beck rock?

“I have always found revisiting my novels painful work,” wrote Larry McMurtry in the Foreword to a collection of his essays, “and the novels, after all, are the marriages and great loves of one’s imagination.  In comparison, the columns and articles which follow are quick tricks and one-night stands, the offspring of opportunity rather than passion.”

If an essay is a one-night stand, then a blog post must be something quite ephemeral and tawdry indeed.  Perhaps it’s a drunken French kiss in a back alley, if we were to extend McMurtry’s metaphor.

Such an insubstantial format probably doesn’t merit much of importance, which is why it seems fitting that my most-visited post of 2010 wasn’t one of my lengthy meditations on the nature of historical memory, nor one of my carefully composed site reviews, nor one of my periodic reflections on the historiographical state of a given subject.

No, the post that got the most traffic (by far) in 2010 was an irritable rant on Glenn Beck and the Bat Creek Stone.  In fact, I continue to get irate comments on that post from readers who take my skepticism toward an obscure Tennessee artifact very, very personally.

Oh, well.  I suppose that if you’re going to go Googling for historical information, it’s best that you do it for something like spurious archaeological finds rather than more substantial topics like the origins of the American Revolution.  For the latter, you’re better off reading a book, anyway.

I wish all my readers, both frequent and occasional, a happy and prosperous 2011.  I hope you’ll continue to make this blog one of your regular online stops, no matter what brings you here, and whether you agree with these unsolicited observations about history or not.

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Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Glenn Beck’s Excellent Pseudohistorical Adventure Continues

There was a time when I thought that Glenn Beck’s history lessons couldn’t get any weirder than his invocation of the Washington prophecy.

That was before August 18, when he left the shallows of pseudohistory behind him and plunged headfirst into the deep end.

First, he pointed out that American history didn’t start with Columbus.  Indians had their own civilizations, some of them quite impressive by any contemporary standard.  No argument there, although Beck did his customary routine of arguing that he was imparting some type of arcane, forgotten knowledge.  (Ever read any history books published in the last thirty years, Glenn?)

Then he cited the theory, tossed around in some circles during the colonial and Revolutionary eras, that Indians were descended from prominent Old World civilizations.  That’s when I started to wonder where he was headed.

That’s when things took a sharp turn toward the bizarre.  Beck pointed out some superficial similarities between ancient Native American earthen structures and Egyptian pyramids, and started arguing that Hebrew artifacts have turned up in Native American archaeological sites.  The scholarly community, he claimed, had engaged in a cover-up to hide this from the public.

I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what was coming next, and I was right.  Beck spoke three little words which descended like a credibility-shattering sledgehammer: Bat Creek Stone.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bat Creek Stone, you’re not alone.  It’s a deservedly obscure artifact, an unimpressive slice of rock less than six inches long with an inscription that looks like this:

From Wikimedia Commons

It first turned up during a Smithsonian excavation of some East Tennessee Indian mounds back in 1889.  For about eighty years, nobody gave it a second thought.  Then along came Cyrus Gordon of Brandeis University, who claimed that the inscription was actually an ancient form of Hebrew.

Now, Gordon was hardly an impartial observer when it came to this sort of thing.  He was a firm believer in the notion that there was substantial contact between the Old and New Worlds well before the time of Columbus.  The possibility of an ancient Hebrew inscription in a Tennessee Indian mound offered possible corroboration for his pet theory, the sort of corroboration which is quite scarce indeed.

As you can imagine, archaeologists, linguists, and ethnographers were unconvinced.  Eminent Hebrew paleographers have dismissed the inscription, arguing that most of the characters could not possibly correspond to Paleo-Hebrew letters of the period in question and bear only a superficial similarity to ancient Hebrew script.  Frauds of this sort were common in nineteenth-century America, and in fact the Bat Creek Stone’s inscription is similar to a speculative reconstruction of some ancient Hebrew writing that appared in a late nineteenth-century Masonic publication.  Two of the stone’s critics have made a case that the leader of the Smithsonian’s original excavation may have forged the stone and planted it in an attempt to boost his troubled career.  (You can read their analysis here.)  It’s worth noting that the stone’s most prominent modern-day proponent is actually an economist, who lacks any professional qualifications in paleography, archaeology, or ethnology.

In short, the Bat Creek Stone probably belongs in the realm of Bigfoot and the Mothman, not serious scholarly inquiry.

I was only aware of the stone because for several years it’s been residing at one of my favorite haunts.  It’s on indefinite loan to the University of Tennessee’s fantastic McClung Museum, where its display label quite rightly explains why it’s a dubious artifact.

Beck, by contrast, never mentioned that anyone doubted the Hebrew inscription at all, let alone that it’s pretty universally discounted by experts in every relevant field.  He simply stated that the inscription was in Hebrew.  Case closed.

It took me, an ordinary schmuck with no expertise in this sort of thing, a few seconds to find a slew of evidence debunking the Bat Creek Stone with a simple search engine.  Just typing its name into Google is sufficient to demonstrate that it’s a troubled artifact.  Yet Beck never gave any indication whatsoever that its status was in any doubt.  This omission bothers me much more than his belief in the inscription’s authenticity.

I don’t expect Glenn Beck to be an expert in early American ethnography, archaeology, or paleography.  I do, however, expect him to employ the most basic kind of fact-checking before he assumes the responsibility of educating millions of Americans in history.

Did anybody from Beck’s show even bother to Google the darn thing?  Who in the world is he paying to be his fact-checker, and does he have any inkling how badly he needs to fire them?

Maybe the notion of an ancient Hebrew inscription in America excited him because of his own religious convictions.  That’s fine, but since the scholarly community discounts the inscription, he has the responsibility to at least acknowledge that a controversy exists.  He didn’t, and his presentation was therefore inaccurate and misleading.

Beck omitted critical information, whether out of simple ignorance that it existed or a dishonest attempt to cover it up.  Neither possibility is reassuring, and I think the American people would be much better off if he would stop trying to educate them about their own history.  Physician, heal thyself.

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Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Blind leading the blind

As a fledgling history blogger, I’m conflicted about whether or not to keep posting about Glenn Beck’s ongoing historical shenanigans.  On the one hand, it makes for great blogging fodder.  It’s timely, controversial, and relates to fascinating questions about the way that historical memory intersects with contemporary politics and culture.  

On the other hand, the fact that it does intersect with contemporary politics and culture makes me leery of it.  I don’t want this blog to turn into another current events soapbox. 

Let me therefore offer a possibly unconvincing qualifier.  I’m about to say some rather unkind things about Glenn Beck, but my motives here are not political, and I’m not trying to score any ideological points.  I’m not interested in doing so, and even if I were I doubt that either his ratings or his credibility would suffer due to the online rantings of an obscure adjunct professor of history.  Indeed, I hope that my own political inclinations are a mystery to most of you, since this is not intended to be a political blog. 

Is Beck’s engagement with history on his show important?  I think it is.  You might denounce him as a demagogue, as a blowhard, or as a laughing stock, but the unavoidable conclusion is that a lot of people listen to what the man has to say.  After he plugged George Washington’s Sacred Fire, its sales on Amazon skyrocketed.  In fact, when I searched for it to insert the link, its name appeared as a search suggestion as soon as I typed “George W,” despite the vast number of books on Washington that are out there.  Its sudden popularity seems entirely owing to Beck’s endorsement, since this is a massive book from a relatively obscure publisher, written by an author without a track record of popular publications on the founding, and containing conclusions at considerable variance from the findings of most historians.  

If Beck can send a history book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, then his remarks can potentially shape the way that a lot of people think about the past.  And to be frank with you, I think that’s a problem—not because Beck’s historical interpretations are ideologically driven, but because he seems to be remarkably ignorant of basic historical knowledge. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand what constitutes general historical knowledge and what doesn’t.  On May 21, he told his audience that he intended to “show you some of the examples of where history is just wrong.”  He then asked, “The New Deal — how many of us grew up in households that said the New Deal saved America, OK? All did. Now that you’re learning something about the New Deal, did the New Deal save America?”  Why he’s convinced that this is some type of arcane knowledge that’s been lost to the ages is entirely beyond me.  Both of the survey textbooks I used while teaching introductory survey courses last semester flatly stated that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression.  So does academic historian David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear and any number of other books. 

On the same show, Beck asked his audience, “How many of you had heard of George Whitefield before, what was it, last week or the week before?”  He then noted that only three or four had.  This is somewhat astonishing, since Whitefield is hardly an obscure figure in either historiography or in general surveys of early American history.  If Beck and his audience were unaware of Whitefield’s existence or the New Deal’s shortcomings, the problem is not that history is being lost or that historians are engaged in some type of cover-up, but rather that they should have paid more attention in high school. 

Similarly, in a May 28 piece, Beck discussed the Wilson administration’s anti-German propaganda and curtailing of civil liberties during WWI.  He then claimed, “This history of the country has been so erased, we’ve been searching for days on images, pictures, anything on all of this stuff.”  Again, none of this information has been ignored or neglected by historians or teachers.  He and his staff would have found what they were looking for in any decent textbook, or even online; I’ve never had trouble finding visual representations of WWI propaganda on the internet for use in my lecture slides.  Perhaps Beck needs to fire his research staff and hire some fourteen-year-old who’s familiar with Google. 

Beck’s ignorance, though, doesn’t prevent him from speaking his mind or even from presenting himself as an expert, as evidenced by his recent remarks about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This segment possibly set a broadcasting record for the highest number of inaccurate statements made within a short period of time.  After chiding his staff or not knowing what the scrolls are, he claimed that the scrolls were hidden away after the Council of Nicaea (they predated the council by centuries), said council having been organized by Constantine in order to build an army (it had nothing to do with an army) and resulting in death sentences for heretics (nope) and the formulation of the Apostle’s Creed (ditto).  This is not just a slip of the tongue or a case of misspeaking; this is buffoonery on an epic scale. 

And yet this is the guy sending history books to the top of the bestseller list, presenting regular history segments on his show, garnering honorary doctor of philosophy degrees, and assuming responsibility for educating America.  I don’t doubt the man’s sincerity or his patriotism, but if he’s going to keep up this history bit, then he desperately needs to be better informed.  If the blind lead the blind, it’s been written, both will fall into a pit.  And just for the record, that’s not from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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