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.

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.

Marisa 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.)

But that's only part of the explanation. There's a more insidious mechanism that helps explain both the passionate support these authors inspire and the well-founded suspicion that they are fudging the record. In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities -- Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not. For devotees of Barton and Zinn, it's as though a switch has been flicked and everything in a darkened room illuminated. (Barton compares his labors to those of a soldier who discovers an IED and then alerts others.)

Now, Barton and Zinn aren't conspiracy theorists exactly, but they press the same psychological buttons. Barton's hyper-patriotic Christian founding narrative and Zinn's unmasking of elite white male criminality offer the dual satisfaction of solving a mystery and showing up a teacher. This double-win is so sweet that readers might not wish to entertain any non-complying facts, and so easy that wrestling with more complicated accounts will seem pure drudgery. Read Barton and you see vividly how pointy-headed secularists stole our Christian heritage from us. Read Zinn and you understand how capitalism has robbed us of justice itself. Scales fall from your eyes.

The trick works partly because of how little credit Barton and Zinn give their fellow historians, even those who have some affinity with their own conclusions. To acknowledge their full debts to other scholars (and how selectively they've drawn from them) would complicate their black-and-white narratives, diminish their implicit claims to originality, and undercut their self-aggrandizing roles as historical redeemers. Barton's strategy is to trumpet his allegedly unique, unmediated study of historical documents; Zinn's was to apply a subversive and allegedly populist lens to every significant episode in American history. The effect, however, is largely the same.

All of this is worth remedying because a well-functioning democracy requires at least a minimal threshold of public trust and a modest baseline of historical agreement. When we repeatedly fall prey to partisan debunking, and when the validity of basic facts -- and even the method of defining them -- is subject to constant ideological chicanery, there's very little room for substantive debate and conversation.

Of course, democracies need skepticism too, and lots of it. But, in general, they should avoid reserving their biggest, most prominent platforms to those who dress up half-boiled theories as raw, unexamined truths. Barton and Zinn haven't just revised earlier scholarship; they have snuck up from behind and bludgeoned it. In the process, they have undermined the trust and sense of common purpose that is essential to understanding our past -- and to democratic life itself.