Why the Historians May Not Matter To Napolitano

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.

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Libertarians with these views of the Civil War believe that white freedom from government interference in white lives is a more important issue than African American’s freedom to have basic human liberties. A libertarian who believes this believes that black lives are less important than white lives. I can not have a reasonable discussion with anyone who believes that.

I think the main problem with the conflation of libertarian ideals and reality is that they fail to look for the root cause of what happened in the past. They take a simplistic look at the past while searching for moments where government expanded. I usually hear them blame four presidents for expanding government; Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, and LBJ. Sometimes Teddy Roosevelt is put into that as well. While government did expand under those presidents, they did it against the situations they were dealing with which in all four cases was war.

Even that is a simplistic answer because all four were in different eras with many other underlying issues going on. Unfortunately, people prefer a simple answer even where none exist. They want short sound bites and once they get an idea into their head that couples history with their beliefs it is extremely hard to change their minds even when the information they use is wrong. We can point directly to the folks who continually confuse the Civil War with modern political thought as pristine examples of this.

I think the brand of libertarianism that Napolitano and Ron Paul follow has a cultist quality to it. They have certain ideals and beliefs; they must stay pure to those ideals and beliefs, no matter what reality says. So it doesn’t matter when the evidence plainly shows that the Morrill Tariff passed only after the first 7 states succeeded from the union and Lincoln offered loyal boarder states compensated emancipation.

The problem with popular punditry is that the pundits are paid to opine about things about which they may know relatively little. There is a facade of expertise frequently buttressed with claims or implications by the pundit that he has thoroughly researched the matter, and that he knows what he says to be the truth. On the flip side, I have witnessed people who legitimately should have credentials make spectacular fools of themselves, too. So I try hard to follow any truth-claim that I hear with my own reading of sources as close to primary as possible. I believe that everyone who has graduated from high-school should do this.

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