Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Feverishly Patriotic and Irrational Effusions": Fake News in the Eighteenth-and-a-Half Century

I recently read Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man (Norton, 1996) by the late Francis Jennings, a historian whose work has been very instructive for me.  The book is a relatively brief, revisionist (though not hostile) take on Franklin's rise to prominence before the American Revolution; Jennings dug around in the archives and found some information that hadn't been taken into account before.  It describes the history of the colony of Pennsylvania, which was a relative enclave of religious liberty in that period, complicated by mismanagement both of its founder, Wiliam Penn, and his son Thomas.

I especially liked this passage, about an attack on the colonial government written by a young Anglican priest, Thomas Barton, a protege of William Smith, who was in turn a protege of Franklin's.  Franklin didn't know that Smith later spied on him for Thomas Penn.  In 1754 Smith wrote anonymously "an incendiary pamphlet, entitled A Brief State of the Province of Pennsylvania, intended among other things to "induce the Parliament to take measures for the future security of this Province by excluding the Quakers from the Legislature."  The pamphlet "aroused a great future in Britain" (99).
Barton brought copies of [William] Smith's Brief State pamphlet, already in circulation in England, attacking the Assembly, the Quakers, and the Germans. It made such a "prodigious Noise," and was so far-reaching in its intended and unintended effects, that it deserves in some detail.  Its title page describes its author as "a Gentleman who has resided many Years in Pennsylvania."  This set the keynote for the pamphlet's deceptions; Smith, at the time of writing it, had visited Philadelphia for several weeks in 1753, and had resided there less than eight months in 1754.

The pamphlet opens with a brief review of population statistics on the generous side, and lays down maxims of government.  Popular government is all right for infant settlements, it says, but as communities grow their government should become less popular and more "mixt."  Pennsylvania has become more of "a pure Republic" than at its founding.  A "speedy Remedy" is needed.  The province has too much toleration: "extraordinary Indulgence and Privileges" are granted to papists.  (They were allowed to celebrate mass openly.)  The Quakers conduct "political Intrigues, under the Mask of Religion."  (As all the organized religions did, in England as well as America.)  For their own ends, the Quakers have taken "into their pay" a German printer named Saur, "who was once one of the French Prophets in German, and is shrewdly suspected to be a Popish emissary."  (Saur was an Anabaptist, fiercely independent.)  The "worst Consequence" of the Quakers' "insidious practices" with the Germans is that the latter "are grown insolent, sullen, and turbulent."  They give out "that they are a Majority, and strong enough to make the Country their own," and indeed they would be able, "by joining with the French, to eject all the English inhabitants ... the French have turned their Hopes upon the great body of Germans ... by sending their Jesuitical Emissaries among them ... they will draw them from the English ... or perhaps lead them in a Body against us."  The Quakers oppose every effort to remedy this evil state of affairs, attacking all "regular Clergymen as Spies and Tools of State."  Thus the Quakers hinder ministers from "having Influence enough to set them right at the annual Elections."  The greatest German sect is the Mennonites -- people like the Quakers.  A quarter of the Germans are "supposed" to be Roman Catholics.  (Even Thomas Penn understood that there were only about two thousand Catholics in the province.  But he did not make that knowledge public.)  [106-7]
Smith's diatribe should sound familiar to observers and consumers of American political discourse today: furriners who refuse to learn our language are taking over, to impose Canon law on decent Christians. and pacifist surrender-monkeys not only want them to succeed, they are actively in the pay of Putin!

The other day someone shared this meme on Facebook:

It turns out, surprisingly enough (it's a meme spreading like a radioactive virus on Facebook, after all) to be a genuine quotation.  One commenter called it "prescient," which was, um, stupid since Bonhoeffer was not talking about the future but about Nazi Germany in his present and recent past.  I pointed this out, and the commenter replied that he didn't mean it "foretold" anything, which was probably a lie, or to put it more nicely, apologetic invention; he proceeded to tie himself in knots trying to justify it.  It was as if he'd found a passage where Bonhoeffer referred to sunrise, and kvelled that the sun came up this morning, so Bonhoeffer was prescient about that.

Of course it's a common and "natural" human tendency to take literary or other material from the past as not just relevant to the present as well, but as a specific reference to the present: Christianity, for one major cultural force, was built on such appropriation of the Hebrew Bible.  And like the ancient Christians, today's American liberals think of all history as a prelude leading up to themselves, the crown of creation and the fulfilment of all human hope, as foretold in the scriptures.  Liberals love to jeer at fundamentalists for thinking like this, but they are treading the same path every time they claim that today's Right is completely unprecedented.

The reason why the Bonhoeffer quotation should give Americans pause is not that he was foretelling American's future, but that he was describing a problem that was current then, had a long history worldwide, and has not gone away since then.  Thinking otherwise helps foster the dangerous illusion that things used to be different, the media used to tell the Truth, people used to be good to each other, America was the land that didn't torture, Barack ended the wars, etc., and all the Democrats need to do is take America back.
But it's also dangerous to think of "stupid people" as the Other.  I am stupid, you are stupid, we're all stupid here, or we wouldn't be here.  I told another liberal commenter on the Bonhoeffer meme that I too have given up on talking to stupid people, but that was just rhetoric.  It's always important to answer, rebut, and try to refute positions and statements we think are stupid.  True, we probably won't convince the people we're criticizing, but we might persuade someone else who reads what we've written.  That's the point of debate -- to persuade not our opponent, but our audience.

So that's why I liked Jennings's book and the passage I quoted here, though I suppose it could just as easily make people feel hopeless: if people have always been dishonest and irrational, then why even try to oppose them?  It's a question I don't have a good answer for, especially since dishonesty and irrationality so often win.  But it's possible to make them lose too.  If we remember how persistent they are, though, we won't be surprised when they bounce back.  We might even be able to think of ways to resist and stop them before they get the upper hand again, instead of wailing, "Oh no, this is unprecedented, where did these people come from, why are they being so mean?"