I’ve already said that I think both Andrew Napolitano and Jon Stewart ought to leave the history to the historians. It will be interesting to see whether Napolitano continues to voice claims about the war that are decidedly false. The two that stand out include a mistaken belief that slavery was on the verge of collapsing by 1860 and that Lincoln ordered federal marshals to return fugitive slaves to the Confederacy during the war. His broader view that tariffs are somehow important to understanding secession is just downright ridiculous.
I suspect that his experience last night on the Jon Stewart Show will have little effect, but even if it does it is likely that Napolitano will simply substitute other claims to ensure that his broader view of Lincoln and the war are left intact. Why? Consider this recent NPR story that explores the challenges of sharing reliable scientific data with people who are convinced that vaccines cause autism.
VEDANTAM: Well, I think, David, what Nyhan seems to be finding is that when you’re confronted by information that you don’t like, at a certain level you accept that the information might be true, but it damages your sense of self-esteem. It damages something about your identity. And so what you do is you fight back against the new information. You try and martial other kinds of information that would counter the new information coming in. In the political realm, Nyhan is exploring the possibility that if you boost people’s self-esteem before you give them this disconfirming information, it might help them take in the new information because they don’t feel as threatened as they might have been otherwise.
GREENE: This is a matter of people not wanting to acknowledge that they may have been wrong about something for many years.
VEDANTAM: That’s right. And also that if they were to acknowledge that they have been wrong, it might mean large changes in, not just their behavior, but their sense of who they are and their sense of identity.
I don’t know whether any of Napolitano’s most egregious claims are fatal to his broader interpretation of the Civil War era. Like most libertarians the war is the moment when the federal government breaks out of its shell and becomes a threat to individual liberty. For Napolitano and others everything else takes a back seat.