Lies the Debunkers Told Me: How Bad History Books Win Us Over

Politicians quote them. Movie stars revere them. But these authors are so busy spinning good yarns that they don't have time to research the facts.

historians-top.jpgMarisa Tomei listens respectfully to Howard Zinn, author of the book A People's History of the United States. Tomei starred in a 2009 History Channel adaptation of his book, along with Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Penn, and several other A-list actors. (Reuters)

Earlier this month, George Mason University's History News Network asked readers to vote for the least credible history book in print. The top pick was David Barton's right-wing reimagining of our third president, Jefferson's Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. But just nine votes behind was the late Howard Zinn's left-wing epic, A People's History of the United States. Bad history, it turns out, transcends political divides.

If these books seem an unlikely pair, they also have a good deal in common. Both flatter their readers by promising to let them in on hidden truths of which most people, and most experts, are unaware. Both offer stark, simplistic accounts (buttressed, in Barton's case, by a litany of historical errors). And both undermine the notion that the past can be rationally interrogated, debated, and revised by people from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.

"Read Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States,'" Matt Damon's character Will Hunting instructed his therapist. "That book'll [expletive] knock you on your [expletive]."

The History News Network no doubt intended to amuse as much as edify: it made no pretensions to random sampling and didn't specify what "credible" history might involve. But there's a graver implication: If a poll were conducted to identify the most influential popular historians of the past three decades, Barton and Zinn might also rank at the top. Both have attracted large and powerful followings. Barton's Christian nation narratives are revered by the likes of Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, and Michelle Bachmann, while Zinn's unforgiving indictments of capitalism and American nationalism made him a patron saint among many progressives and won him the admiration of celebrities such as Matt Damon and Bruce Springsteen.

Barton's and Zinn's works have also made a discernible impression on secondary education. Barton served as an expert consultant for the Texas State Board of Education's recent revamp of its influential state social studies curriculum, while A People's History (which first appeared more than three decades ago) is aggressively marketed by an education project that bears Zinn's name and has been taught in countless middle school and high school classes.

It's not just that Barton and Zinn have large constituencies. They also inspire a degree of passion that verges on the pugnacious. In early 2011, Mike Huckabee quipped that the country's schoolchildren should be forced "at gunpoint ... to listen to every David Barton message." (Elaborating on his pedagogical vision, Huckabee suggested that students be exposed to Barton's teaching through a "simultaneous telecast.") Zinn received his own bellicose endorsement from Matt Damon's character in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. "If you wanna read a real history book," Damon instructed his therapist, "read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. That book'll [expletive] knock you on your [expletive]."

What exactly is it about Barton's and Zinn's versions of history that inspire such uncompromising, take-no-prisoners fervor? And how do they manage to wield so much influence, given the widespread skepticism about their accuracy?

Partisanship is the first answer that comes to mind. Barton and Zinn have served as eloquent and vocal supporters of right- and left-wing causes respectively, and both have reworked the past for transparently political purposes. Each has offered conclusions that resonate with his audiences' beliefs. Whatever the validity of their claims, in other words, many readers apparently think they should be true. (It's also likely that partisanship accounts for some proportion of votes against Barton and Zinn's credibility.)

Presented by

Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens

Chris Beneke is associate professor of history at Bentley University and the author of Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. Randall Stephens is reader in American Studies and history at Northumbria University and the author (with Karl Giberson) of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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