The Daily Show's limits

May 10, 2011

"Open conversation that leads to nothing."

That's how Jon Stewart summed up his interview with popular right-wing historian David Barton. He was right. After 30 minutes of glib back-and-forth with Barton (ten of which made it onto TV), Stewart was flummoxed, worn down, unfunny:



As the air left the room, the conversation exposed the gaping ideological divide between Americans--and the challenges we face in bridging it.

Conservatives who go on the Daily Show usually end up looking the fool. But Stewart met his match in Barton, an ideological warrior revered by Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee. Stewart's razor wit and trademark blue index cards were no match for Barton's prodigious memory and unwavering insistence that America's Christian founding has been erased by secular elites.

The show's staff probably thought Barton could be caricatured as a half-crazed ideologue, unconcerned with larger inconvenient truths. Perhaps they figured that a few well-chosen facts that don't fit his God-and-country narrative would render him speechless, that he would crumble under the relentless ironic jabs. But if it were just a matter of enumerating quotations and dates, members of Congress wouldn't be calling Barton to provide them with the founders' views on deficits, stem cell research and stimulus programs. Barton offers his listeners something much more alluring.

One thing we learned from Stewart's tête-à-tête with Barton is that anecdote-ridden claims can't be countered with more anecdotes. What Stewart never articulated was the essential function of history--using the preponderance of evidence to provide a credible context for understanding the past and the present. Barton presents himself as the high priest of founding texts and the arbiter of honest truth. He's not, of course. But it's going to take patient, gritty work to convince folks otherwise.

Barton's carefully crafted image as a just-the-facts historian is key to his success. He insists again and again that we should read our primary-source documents just as we should read the Bible: unmediated. Too many professional historians, he scoffs, simply cite each other and repeat liberal platitudes.

Barton's stories are made still more effective because he presents them in slick, satisfying and easily digested form. He brings props to his lectures. He reveals a tiny Bible to which he says that the early Congress gave its blessing. He tells people that they have been lied to and that their schools are under assault. He claims that historians have hid the fundamental truth of a Christian founding. It's a story that resonates.

Barton is flat wrong about many things. He likes to point out, for example, that a number of the signers of the Declaration of Independence went to "seminary"--without mentioning that in the 18th century, the word meant simply "college." Nor does he tell his audience that only a fraction of these "seminary" graduates were orthodox Christians, or that they generally refrained from using religious language in their formal deliberations.

Note the word "generally." Barton is all about exceptions rather than rules, whether he's hunting down Jefferson's occasional references to God or exaggerating some modern-day secularist's impact. But good history goes where the weight of evidence leads it. That's why the small lies that Barton tells pale in comparison to the more insidious one: the claim that he has access to evidence that others--for nefarious, anti-Christian reasons--want to suppress.

This allegedly unique stash of original documents is Barton's ace-in-the-hole. Of course, nearly every historian has access to the same documents--and many more. The difference is that they don't treat their patiently excavated findings as if they were the protagonists in a Dan Brown novel. Instead, they carefully evaluate the evidence on the basis of what many thousands of others have already discovered.

Barton's Daily Show appearance didn't just demonstrate that America's foremost far-right historian could withstand the withering assault of America's foremost left-leaning comedian. We were also reminded how much our culture depends on non-expert polemicists such as Stewart to undermine dogma and satirize paranoia--in 30-minute segments. Stewart likes to point out that he's just a comedian. We need to keep this in mind--and to prepare ourselves for the hard, generally unfunny slog of straightening the record.


Just one thought...

"The show's staff probably thought Barton could be caricatured as a half-crazed ideologue, unconcerned with larger inconvenient truths. "

And they were right. He was.

Insisting that he was still right after being shown he was wrong, especially in his view of early Unitarianism, doesn't make him right. It makes him untrustworthy even among pseudo-historians.

re: just one thought

I agree with your post. I think JS gave up, it was more like wrestling jello than an actual thoughtful discussion

Barton throws out things as fact, without even the tiniest attempt to make sure they're true. Case in point:

Stewart: So you would allow [Sharia}, like, let’s say Dearborn, Michigan was majority Muslim…

Barton: And it is.

Except it ISN'T majority Muslim. But that would get in the way of his narrative.

He forgot to say #not intended to be a factual statement

That One Question

I wonder when someone in the press will ask David Barton about a statement that was made in a Amicus Curie brief sponsored by his orgnaization that was sent to the "Five-Faiths Case" in California. "that the Founders did not intend the Religion Clauses to protect paganism and witchcraft" So to all of you out there who support David Barton, what do you think. Should only Christians/Monothiests have the protection of the 1st Amendment?



The One Question?

Why would the Founding Fathers protect witchcraft in the First Amendment when they had those people jailed? Freedom of conscience was granted to anyone provided it did not subvert public order, which witchcraft and pagan rites does.

The One Question

First off show me some evidence and documentation? When did the Founders jail pagans? Which Founding Fathers?
Also John Adams also jailed newspaper editors under the Alien and Sedition acts in 1789 I suspose you want to bring this back as well?

The One Question

Where did I say the framers jailed pagans? Some of the sedition act is still in effect.

it led to something?

I remember watching the entire interview and found myself "flummoxed" as well on numerous occasions. It is undeniable that Barton is not your average ideologue...rather the kind of ideologue that other ideologues need and revere in order to sanction their less truly-committed, more reactionary fear-based ideology.

Stewart, strangely, didn't pick him apart like he could have, or should have. It seemed like he pulled his punches. And at first, I thought that strange, since he has eviscerated so many others before, so easily.

Unless, perhaps, his intentions were a little different this time. Perhaps, Stewart himself is changing his strategy. Perhaps in the wake of his "Restore Sanity" campaign (if you could call it that), Stewart is perhaps less interested in full-out debate (although he would never do away with this completely, nor should he), and in actually doing what he has asked others to do--- talk to each other for the sake of understanding.

And if that's what he did during this interview... perhaps only because he realized the brick wall that he was up against in the moment--then perhaps the interview did "lead to something." It painted a picture for our society of a civil debate between two sides that, if the pundits are to be believed, are far too apart to ever treat each other as fellow human beings, let alone people with honorable intentions and dreams.

If the people watching that interview tuned in to see an honored pillar of the conservative movement in our country get lambasted, they were instead treated to the now-rarest of sights---civil debate, and genuine seeking to understand (at least from Stewart's end, I believe). And that, in my opinion, was worth something...perhaps more than even the most impressive tongue-lashing from Stewart.


David Barton, "America's foremost far-right historian"?? According to whom??