I write late in the evening on Tuesday, April 10. This morning I woke up famous, at least in certain circles. George Zimmerman, famous for killing Trayvon Martin in Florida, had cited me on his new website. Correspondents rushed to tell me. His site was receiving so much traffic that it took seven minutes to log on to his home page. I could not reach any subsidiary page, specifically the page titled "The Facts," where I had been told Zimmerman prominently displayed my words, until late in the morning.
Many other websites had picked up my quote, however. According to "George Zimmerman Launches Website to Fund Legal Costs," an unsigned article at JD Journal, a site whose motto reads "Nothing but the Truth,"
The site carries a quote from sociologist James W. Loewen: "People have a right to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. Evidence must be located, not created, and opinions not backed by evidence cannot be given much weight."
At their websites, MSNBC, CBS, and many other news services also included the quote. CBS termed it "a philosophy attributed to sociologist James W. Loewen." By mid-afternoon at least 427 sites, from the New York Times to the "Brother Of Yeshua Blogspot," included the quotation.
I'm not the only person Zimmerman quoted, but I'm the only living person. He also included a famous sentence by Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing." A jury might take this quote to be a rationale for his vigilante activism toward "evil." Hence Zimmerman's attorneys might well have been unhappy with this posted quote, even before they resigned as his counsel later in the day. However, the Burke sentence pales compared to the macabre connotation of his second quotation, by Henrik Ibsen: "A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed." Again, his lawyers could not have been happy that Zimmerman posted this sentence, since a jury might infer that he wanted to make a "deep impression" by committing a dastardly deed. Lastly, Zimmerman quoted Thomas Paine: "The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion."
I'm happy to be in the company of Burke, Ibsen, and Paine. Who knows? Maybe Zimmerman will get me into Familiar Quotations. (I had hoped that my one-liner, "Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat the eleventh grade," which I used at the beginning of Lies My Teacher Told Me, might make the grade, but so far, only three websites use it.) However, the first of my two sentences was said in essence by Bernard Baruch in 1950, by various folks since then, and probably by others long before. So I think I must search elsewhere for my fifteen minutes of fame.
Still, it was jarring to see my name and quotation behind the talking heads Tuesday as they told the story of Zimmerman's lawyers' resignations on the evening news. I'm not happy with being used as a resource by George Zimmerman, and I disclaim any relationship with him and his cause. Of course, once they have unleashed words upon the world—in particular, upon the World Wide Web—authors have no control over their use, for good or ill. Moreover, one reason why I have not written a thing about the death of Trayvon Martin is my lack of facts. I know only what I have learned from the newspapers (yes, I subscribe) and other media. Anyone likely to read anything I might write about the matter has already read the same sources.
I would like to know how George Zimmerman learned of my words that he used. They appear on page 358 of Lies My Teacher Told Me. While I would like to believe he read the entire book, if he did, he seems to have missed its anti-racist central message.
When it comes to “Brother Of Yeshua,” who actually emailed me Tuesday morning to tell me he had used the quotation, I think it's safe to infer that he first encountered my words at Zimmerman's website or news sites that quoted it. Again, he has a (Constitutional) right to use my words to support any position he wants, and here is what he used them for:
When rightly understood, what we are presented with is the manifestation of the statement by James W. Loewen that while "People have a right to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. Evidence must be located, not created, and opinions not backed by evidence cannot be given much weight"—and while the facts demonstrate that Mormonism is actually closer to the original Gospel teachings and objectives, mainstream Christianity has been in denial of the very facts that they have long censored and remain in denial of, to the degree that those who believe they are Christian, have been spiritually disenfranchised by the very Church they look to for truth.
So now my words are invoked to support belief in Mormonism as well as George Zimmerman's innocence!
"Brother Of Yeshua" writes further, "2000 years ago I lived as Jacob who people call James, and was known as the Brother of Yeshua/Jesus." Such a statement does not carry the weight of fact. Elsewhere on his site, he states that he holds to "Religion As The True System Of Education"—again at odds with education based on fact.
At some point, I should relate all this to the study of history as taught in our K-12 schools—on which I've spent much of the past twenty years—so let's do so now. One reason why many Americans are not critical readers and do not insist upon facts stems from their history textbooks. Bear in mind that five-sixths of all Americans never take a history course after leaving high school. High school history textbooks include no footnotes or other system of references. Moreover, even when issues remain contested, such as when and how did people first get to the Americas, textbooks cite no evidence—in this case, from archaeology, human biology, or anthropology. They just go on blandly relating certainties, even on topics still ruled by uncertainty.
Moreover, if Allan Cronshaw in Graham, North Carolina, writes as "Brother Of Yeshua," that's not so different from what happens in the K-12 textbook world. There, unnamed gnomes deep in the bowels of the publishers write in the names of Daniel Boorstin, Alan Winkler, and many other famous historians whose names grace the covers of books they didn't write.
Nor does the style of history textbooks—written in a monotone, presenting "information" to be memorized—promote critical thinking skills or prompt students to question sources. Such skills might have induced Mr. Zimmerman and others not to profile young African American males, which—this much seems factual—he seems to have done.
Then there is Zimmerman's use of the American flag on his website. He wraps himself in the flag to stop thought, not to start it. All six of the twenty-first-century textbooks that I analyzed for the new edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me similarly wave the American flag on their covers, and for the same reason: to quell critical thinking. Publishers wave it so prospective purchasers will not question them or doubt that they are "good Americans." If instead these books would distinguish between patriotism and nationalism, their flag-waving might be different. I take my definition of a patriot from Frederick Douglass, who said, "For he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins." Surely textbooks need to help students to develop informed reasons to criticize as well as to take pride in their country. Nationalists, on the other hand, take pride in their nation no matter what—and do not care to think about its sins. If textbooks made that useful distinction, then Americans might not "follow the flag" even when our leaders take it into dangerous places on behalf of foolish and even immoral purposes. If the flag connoted "do your best critical thinking about the U.S.," then when politicians, vigilantes, and textbook authors waved it to garner unthinking approval, the rest of us would simply laugh at them.
I believe—at least I hope—that the millions of people who came upon my statement comparing facts and opinions Tuesday do not infer that I am George Zimmerman's ally. I am not. Rather, I hope that Americans will ground their opinions about this case on the facts. We all surely hope that a process has finally been set in place that will allow the facts to emerge. Meanwhile, those of us far from Sanford, even far from Florida, must set processes in place that will transform how we teach about the American past in grades K-12. When we allow facts to emerge—even awkward and untoward facts—when we encourage students to question national and local policies—and yes, when we insist that "opinions not backed by evidence cannot be given much weight"—then we are educating. Then we are producing Americans who are unlikely to profile. Then we are patriots.
Copyright James Loewen