“I am clearly more popular than Reagan. I am in my third term. Where’s Reagan? Gone after two! Defeated by George Bush and Michael Dukakis no less.” Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, DC
“I’m going to be honest with you — I don’t know a lot about Cuba’s healthcare system. Is it a government-run system?” Sen. John Kerry
“Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann
“Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the Ten Commandments.” Sarah Palin
“We have a lot of work to do. It’s a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border.” John McCain
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.” Pat Robertson
The above quotations go far in showing the level of political knowledge among elites in the US. That might matter if politicians – as opposed to oligarchs – had much power. The above quotes go even farther in showing how important clear, focused thinking can be. Its not as if the peace of the world hangs in the balance. What people don’t realize is that such rigor is not a normal condition of humanity: it takes tremendous effort. To be a truly critical scholar requires total freedom; it requires the complete abandonment of self-interest; it requires extraordinary knowledge and a desire to follow the evidence even when the conclusion is unwanted, or even career-destroying.
I’ve been a TBR employee, editor, and contributor since November of 1999. They’ve published two of my books and, over the next few years, will publish a few more. I’m a tad biased. However, paying for a TBR subscription is essential for those interested in history. History is a field dominated by power, self-interest and the desire for comforting lies rather than painful truths. As is well known: its written by those who have killed the most people and have the most money. Historical studies also attract lots of amateurs and well-meaning hobbyists who, despite their overflowing enthusiasm, are not aware of the stringent rules of evidence. Most importantly, they don’t realize that an opinion, when expressed loudly or in all caps, is not improved thereby.
We at TBR have suffered for what we write and print. We’re proud of that. Just getting credit card companies to work with us is a problem. On the one hand, it says that history is a powerful tool. Our enemies wouldn’t go through all that work if it were not. On the other, it shows that powerful elites find us to be a threat. At the same time, this is what a historian is: He’s always the most unpopular guy in the room. To receive a Rockefeller grant is to be placed under elite control. That academic historians announce their grants as if they were trophies is endlessly amusing as well as pathetically pitiable.
It’s easy to say that, since you can get all manner of historical analysis online for free, why pay for it? The easy answer is that you get what you pay for. Here’s the problem: it’s easy for an idiot or fanatic to sound like an authority on a topic. If his listener is ignorant, its almost impossible to tell the difference. Its true that a proficient and critical historian can spot a phony a mile away, but that is our job. That’s the slightly longer answer to the question here. Those subscribing to TBR are not experts, they’re interested, discerning, and critical citizens looking for answers to the pathologies of the day. To offer establishment pabulum to them is to spit in their face.
The point is that, since TBR is now peer reviewed and always contains articles only by actually recognized, real experts, you can be sure that the opinions expressed in its pages are solid. Yes, we can’t agree with everything, but even in disagreement, we realize that the opinion offered is not out of ignorance. It might contain errors of fact or interpretation, but no one is innocent of that. The one thing that we can promise is that these errors will not be committed knowingly. The academic or establishment journalist cannot say the same.
The internet offers information rather than knowledge. It offers mountains and mountains of data that even full time specialists cannot keep up with. The question is how do you know what to discard and what to keep? Who do we accept and who do we ignore? That is not a question easily answered. The most dangerous person in the world is a good writer with a little knowledge about something. He has just enough expertise to convince the novice that he’s knowledgeable, but not enough to actually provide substance. Today, even a very specialized and focused writer can not hope to ever master the massive amount of data available online. How can the average person?
The interested and curious reader cannot know in depth. So many problems come from people speaking with faux-authority in a field that is not theirs. Clearly, the politicians cited above are in this group. This is a severe problem and is the main reason why buying a subscription to TBR is essential in grasping historical truth unfiltered by professional or ideological self-interest.
Personally, I define “expert” as someone familiar with the academic and popular literature in a very specific field as well as the arguments, debates and technical vocabulary. These need to be understood in painstaking detail. Sometimes, it also requires learning another language. Such a person should be widely published, a full time scholar and a regular contributor to his field. That’s a lifetime of work and in truth, only scratches the surface. All opinions are not equal.
Sources of information essential to contributing to my field, for example, are almost totally unknown to the uninitiated. Each area of focus, each field of study, has its own technical vocabulary and manner of speaking that is often closed to outsiders. In my field, writers are always using language that implies the reader is familiar with centuries of historical development and the scholars that have interpreted it. That’s the nature of expertise in any subject, historical or otherwise.
The entire staff of TBR is made up of expert writers in the above sense. Even if you don’t agree with every thought coming out of their keyboards, you realize that they can guide you into what counts as serious scholarship and what does not.
I once had a friendly debate with someone who stated that “expertise is obsolete” since the web contains all the information on any subject you need. I replied: “that’s precisely the problem. A foundation, a schema, is required to properly filter that information.” He said that “all you need to know is the basics of a subject to develop a basic opinion.” I replied, “how do you know what counts as “basic”? Basics as opposed to what? How do you know when an author is using a term in its literal sense and when he’s using it in a technical sense?”
The debate ended on that note.
There was a time when university professors were dedicated to knowledge. Being an “expert” on these topics was their job. Those days are a memory. Tenure, high salaries and little work certainly comes at a price: the price of becoming a shill for the system. So then who can you trust?
Try the following for fun: find a debate about early Christianity online; you see these on Facebook where the armchair expert in Christianity will tell you how “phony” it all is. They’ll use wild sweeping statements with emotional language. Its like their offered a script. Usually, his opposition is not much better.
Once you find one of these internet debates, ask the participants their opinion of the Hexameron of St. Basil of Caesarea. The resulting chaos is hilarious. Of course they’ve never heard of it, essentially and critically important though it is. It’s a major text in early Christianity that shaped the church’s view of Genesis from Central Asia to Los Angeles for almost two millennia. Sit back and read these “cyber-scholars” employ defense-mechanisms such as dismissal, projection and deflection so as to avoid the issue. You’ll eventually be pushed out of the thread, but its worth it. While a hobby of mine, it is depressing. People bet their souls on this ignorance.
They have no conception of the patristic texts, yet they dare have an opinion on Christianity. That’s like having a strong opinion on the American Civil War without having heard of a “Carpetbagger.” Its like lecturing the internet on “Nazis” while thinking Alfred Rosenberg was Jewish. Its a little like a drug dealer believing he’s in the “medical field.”
TBR, among other things, exists to protect our discerning readership from these Seroquel Spenglers, the Haldol Hegels and the Prozac Platos. Subscribing to TBR – at a minimum – assures you that you’re getting serious revisionist scholarship that’s been read and edited by genuine scholars, not the Facebook Crusader for Justice and Stuff. We have decades of experience. We’ve been in debates with mainstream hacks, phony intellectuals and faux-critics the world over. We are capable of cutting through the monstrous amount of online information and isolating the facts from the fiction. We might not be perfect – heaven knows our limitations – but a subscription to TBR will show you the proper sources of information on historical topics that interest you. That’s a minimum promise.
To conclude: People lie. People love to pretend they’re something they’re not. They love people telling them how “smart” they are. What they don’t like is doing the decades of focuesd work to produce original historical interpretation. That’s what we do. Please, I appeal to you: subscribe to TBR. Interact with our writers and editorial staff. Its a little like taking vitamin C to boost your intellectual immune system. Subscribe to TBR to inoculate yourself from the internet phonies and overpaid pundits. Sanity is a terrible thing to waste.
Matthew Raphael Johnson, PhD
The Barnes Review