Last August publisher Thomas Nelson pulled David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson because a number of Jefferson scholars pointed out that the book was inaccurate. Jefferson, one of the many U.S. founding fathers who was a deist rather than a committed church-goer, is a splinter in the craw of evangelical Americans who claim that America was conceived as a Christian nation, and Barton’s book is part of a concerted campaign to re-cast Jefferson as not only sympathetic to Christianity but a committed evangelical. Thomas Nelson found—much later than they should have—that the facts got in the way of the book’s argument, but that didn’t prevent Barton’s work from doing very well while it was on the market. Now that the rights have been returned to Barton, no doubt it will soon be for sale again, this time with a marketing blurb that says something along the lines of “The facts mainstream publishers tried to suppress!”
When I taught rhetoric courses, I used to do an exercise with my students, asking how many of them had actually met Stephen Harper, how many had been to China or Afghanistan, how many had actually witnessed the lunar landing, and so forth through a series of commonplace facts, events, and people that “everybody” knows. Of course, though the commonplaces were central parts of everybody’s knowledge, nobody in the class had firsthand experience of any of them. The upshot of the exercise was that of the vast mental picture of the universe each of us constructs, only a tiny sliver actually comes from personal experience. In the information-saturated global village, almost everything we think we know comes from the texts and media around us, and that makes everybody vulnerable, especially now that most of our information sources are concentrated in the hands of a few corporate owners or, increasingly, conveyed through unverifiable digital files that are changeable with a click of a button (See, for example, the infamous shift in the New York Times’s online coverage of how Occupy protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge).
For Renaissance thinkers, the imagination was a kind of mirror that reflected an image of the external world to the rational mind. If the imagination was warped, the decisions of the will would be unsound even if they followed reason, because they were based on false images: GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). Our media are our mirrors, and there’s no doubt that various interested parties are struggling to shape those mirrors to their particular ends. Of course, within the narrow bounds of our own personal worlds, our views even of first-hand experiences are subject to our own predispositions and biases. But if we’re fortunate life grinds away at the distorting bumps and pits in the mirror of our imagination, polishing it so that it offers a more accurate reflection. But as the personal is crowded out by the vicarious, that corrective is becoming harder to find.