It turns out I wasn’t the only person who was immediately suspicious of that apparently bogus quote from James Watt that Bill Moyer used in a recent speech. A Little Reason and Stark Raving Sane were also on top of this.
I just have a couple of things to add.
First, it turns out that August Miles, who is the original source for this quote attributed to Watt, is also extremely careless about attribution. Theron Mann notes,
First, Loren emails to say that he has written to Austin Miles, the earliest published source of Watt’s alleged “last tree” quote, and Miles told Loren that he personally remembered Watt making the statement on a PTL broadcast. (Miles was unable to remember the date of the broadcast). I’m still sceptical, but it’s hard to prove or disprove without Watt, Bakker or someone else coming forward.
Obviously its difficult to obtain certainty, but we have another clue about whether the quote is genuine or not. Miles claims that, Watt “is a born-again evangelical who sat on the board of directors of the scandalous PTL Club ministry while serving as our Secretary of Interior.” That also turns out to be false. Watt was added to the PTL Club board of directors in 1987, about four years after he was forced out as Secretary of the Interior.
Miles claim is especially egregious — and he owes Watt a major apology on this issue — because Watt was brought into the PTL after the scandal erupted. When it was clear the PTL was in serious trouble, James Bakker turned over the keys to Jerry Falwell who then set up a board of directors including Watt to oversee the ministry while Falwell undertook auditing the PTL which turned out to be over $60 million in debt.
Miles clearly wants the reader to think that Watt was somehow associated with the scandal itself. This is outrageous and probably libelous if Watt wanted to pursue the matter.
So Miles can’t even get publicly verifiable information right, and we’re supposed to just trust his memory of an unspecified PTL broadcast? I think not. The burden is on those claiming that the quote is accurate, and every time we turn around we see that every other part of the story is false. There is simply no reason to believe that the quote is true. Treat it as bogus until one of these jokers — Moyers, Scherer or Miles — actually does his job and provides corroboration.
The second issue which I’m certain some people must wonder is why get so damned worked up over a single misquote? Because this is typical of how bogus claims and quotes are manufactured and occasionally enter the mainstream.
Look, when you come across an outlandish quote — especially one that puts your opponents in a very bad light — its incumbent on those repeating the quote to do a bit of fact checking.
I do a lot of writing about the animal rights movement. But when I read in a book or see someone post on a newsgroup that Ingrid Newkirk made some outrageous statement that I’ve never heard before, I don’t rush off to publish it on my blog. I check and doublecheck the quote. A lot of people don’t. Newkirk has a reputation for saying outlandish things, so some people think if they see an outlandish claim attached to Newkirk’s name they can just assume she must have said it. Just as, in this case, Moyers and Scherer simply assumed that since Watt had a reputation for making outlandish statements, that they were safe in assuming this statement was also accurate without bothering to do even a minimum of fact checking.
Scherer is especially guilty in this case. I would never write an op-ed in which I repeated a quote from a single source without any sort of reference or footnote that could be checked. Scherer was reckless and stupid in simply repeating Miles claim without trying to corroborate it.
A good rule of thumb is to treat such material as if it came from someone you don’t have a very good opinion of. Would Scherer have repeated an outlandish, unsourced quote attributed to Bill Clinton in a book by Rush Limbaugh without first corroborating it? Doubtful. But because Miles’ view of religion is similar to Scherers’, he apparently just drop his critical reasoning and went with it.
Just because people agree with us, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t also full of shit.
One final thought. I had never heard of August Miles before this, but as an atheist I found the portions of his book that I read pretty much disgusting and worthless. He seemed cut in the mold of the American Atheists, wherein atheism is mistaken for open hatred of religion.
In some respects, I agreed with Scherer, but every single item he complains about religious right extremists is also present in religious and secular left wing extremists.
Belief that we are in an end times when the entire world is on the verge of a global apocalypse? The Left’s got that in spades. Their morality all over my life? Don’t even get me started about all the Lefties I know who think that Jesus’ message is all the justification they need for redistributive tax policies and, in some cases, outright socialism.
Scherer thinks he and the religious right are nothing alike. But from my vantage point, they seem all but indistinguishable — just different sides of the same pain-in-the-ass control freak mentality, warning me I have to place my life in their hands if I don’t want the world to end. And in this case, with the same exacting standards of scholarship.
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