Tag Archives: Glenn Beck

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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Filed under History and Memory

Here’s a pretty devastating review

…of the book on Washington’s religion that Glenn Beck has been plugging.  Check it out.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

If George Washington chops down a cherry tree in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it but Glenn Beck, does it make a sound?

The other day I was sitting in Pizza Hut with a friend of mine, enjoying a plate of boneless chicken wings, when I looked up at the TV mounted on the wall to find Glenn Beck talking about George Washington. 

Beck’s new favorite book is George Washington’s Sacred Fire, by Peter Lillback.  He’s been bragging that its sales have skyrocketed because of his endorsement, and evidently he’s right.  As of my writing this, it’s ranked no. 1 on Amazon.  I haven’t read the book, but as far as I can determine (and if anybody knows differently feel free to correct me), Lillback is trying to make the case that Washington was a more orthodox Christian than a lot of us believe.  Personally, I think Washington was well along the deism end of the spectrum, though not as far as some of his contemporaries. 

While I was looking for information about the book, I found out that Beck has been on a real Washington kick lately.  On May 7, his guests were Andrew Allison and Earl Taylor.  Allison is co-author of The Real George Washington; Taylor is president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the organization that published Allison’s book.  Beck has been encouraging people to read that one, too, but based on the transcript of his interview with these guys, I think I’ll have to pass.  Here’s a sample: 

BECK: Yes, and [Washington] was trusted on making treaties. And people, they did. They trusted him. Tell me the story of — I’m trying to remember the name of the Indian that came up and made the George Washington prophecy. A, is it true? Tell me the story and then, is it true? 

TAYLOR: That is true. This is actually in the French — during the French and Indian War when he in his early 20s was on aide to General Braddock – British General Braddock. And they were leading about almost 1,500 troops out to western Pennsylvania, Fort Duquesne, around Pittsburgh now. And Washington had warned — because Washington knew the area and he had warned Braddock that there are places that are real good ambush sites, I wouldn’t go there. 

Washington at Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela, from the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-02418)

Well, General Braddock, he was a — he was a British general. And, you know, they’re — most of them are quite proud. And they know it. So they march right into — through this area. And almost 1,000, I guess the number is 700 French troops with Indians ambushed them and just started mowing them down. And out of the almost 1,500 that they started with, there was over 1,000 deaths and wounded. And among those were all of the officers including Braddock, except George Washington. And he wrote the next day to his family, he said, ‘I don’t know why I’m still here. It must be the hand of Providence that had preserved me. I’ve got bullet holes in my hat, through my clothing. I’ve had two horses shot out from under me.’ 

BECK: He was never wounded ever, was he? 

TAYLOR: No. Not in battle. 

BECK: And he — and the troops talked about bullet holes through his clothing and he was on a white horse. 

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. 

BECK: It would be like camouflage! 

(LAUGHTER) 

BECK: Camouflage your horse! 

TAYLOR: Well, 15 years later, Washington — this was in 1770, Washington was with a group of men that were reviewing and kind of scoping out the same area. And an old Indian was part of an Indian band that discovered them and invited them to sit down in the council, around the council fire. And this old Indian chief gets up and he said, ‘I was there. As a matter of fact, I was in command when the Indians and the French drenched this area with the blood of the soldiers. And we killed a lot of them. But we could not kill that man.’ He said, ‘I had moved my best marksmen on him and I told them they cannot miss and they usually did not miss.’ ‘But this time,’ he said, ‘we couldn’t hit him.’ 

BECK: And is this the same Indian that said, you will be a great leader of… 

TAYLOR: Yes. And that was his — that was his prophecy. He said, ‘I’m telling you, the great spirit is with that man. He will one day be the great chief of a great nation.’ 

ALLISON: Preside over an empire. 

TAYLOR: ‘He cannot die — he cannot die in battle.’ 

Washington did indeed escape from Braddock’s defeat without a scratch, which is remarkable enough, but if the part about the prophecy sounds more like drama than history, it’s because that’s probably all it is.  Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote a play about the incident in 1828, claiming that he got the story from Dr. James Craik, a physician who was at Braddock’s defeat and on the 1770 surveying expedition.  (He was also, incidentally, one of the attending physicians at Washington’s death.)  

Years later, the tale turned up again in Custis’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, where he again attributed it to Craik but admitted in a footnote that Washington made no mention of the incident in his diary.  Interestingly enough, the same footnote mentions a separate meeting with Indians during the same trip that is found in the diary, and for which (unlike the supposed prophecy visit) we have a specific name for the embassy’s leader.  I suspect that Craik took this visit, embellished a few details, and turned it into the prophecy story after Washington was dead and elevated to the pantheon of early national heroes, but that’s just me. 

This wasn’t the only bit of questionable history Beck and his guests were throwing around.  Here’s Beck during the same show: 

His country, Britain and then the United States of America, had him serving for year after year after year after year. After he won the Revolutionary War, he went back to be that farmer in Mount Vernon. And things started to fall apart. And they came knocking at his door and said, ‘George, we need you, because the whole thing is falling apart.’ I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was pretty close to — ‘Have I not yet done enough for my country?’ No. He went back and he didn’t say very much during the Continental Congress and the constitutional convention. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. He was a revered figure. He was — that’s my favorite painting of him. He was a revered figure. He was a guy — this was actually a painting done on the, just on the words of one of the — I think it was a farmer if I’m not mistaken. A farmer came into the field one day, and heard some noise and heard him standing there, in the field and he just watched him as he got down in Valley Forge on one knee and he prayed all by himself. He’s a guy that in the end could have been made king. He could have been made a ruler. He’s a guy who could have been really upset at Congress. Boy, oh, boy. 

The “farmer” was supposedly a Quaker named Potts, who decided after seeing the general in prayer that soldiering wasn’t such a bad gig after all, and became a fervent supporter of the Revolution.  That, at least, is the story as it originally appeared in the Washington biography by Parson Weems, who never met an anecdote he didn’t like.  Since then it’s appeared in illustrated form so many times that the question of whether or not it actually happened is essentially moot.  It probably didn’t.  Weems is a notoriously unreliable source, and in 1918 Valley Forge park officials refused to allow the erection of a monument to the event when they were unable to find any evidence to substantiate it. 

At one point during his Washington segment, Beck claimed that “it’s ironic to me that we make up a lie about ‘I shall not tell a lie’ on George Washington when there are so many great truth stories with him.”  That makes two of us—or maybe one of us.  I’m glad he’s urging his audience to study the founders; I just wish he’d do it a little more carefully himself.

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