One of the criticisms I receive all of the time is that it isn’t worth explaining what’s wrong with fringe theories because they’re just entertainment and are confined to fringe books and TV shows. Two events from this week show just how wrong this view is. Let’s start with the smaller and sillier story. It comes to us from the National Geographic Channel.
This past week NatGeo aired Eat: The Story of Food, a major three-part documentary series about the history of humanity’s relationship with its food supply. In the middle of the first episode, on sugar, the program decided to drop in—apropos of nothing—the conspiracy theory that the Oreo cookie features Knights Templar symbolism as a result of a centuries-old underground stream of hidden knowledge. This claim was made famous by Scott Wolter, who advocates it across multiple media, but NatGeo adapted it from claims made in The Atlantic, which as I’ve shown previously were derived from a credulous summary of an offhand question posed on April 24, 2004 on the Above Top Secret conspiracy discussion board by a conspiracy theorist who thought the Nabisco logo featured on the cookie resembled a cross associated with Freemasonry and Satan, and the resulting discussion of the connections between the Freemasons and the Knights Templar. The long and short of it is that viewers of Eat are not likely to be seeking Templar-themed conspiracy entertainment, but came away with the impression that there is a legitimate inquiry into Templar-Freemason infiltration of Nabisco.
Fortunately, that segment was confined to just a brief minute of air time. Much worse is the wholesale rewriting of history occurring in Texas as a result of the State Board of Education’s approval of new textbooks that raise Moses to the level of a Founding Father, according to articles on Patheos and Right Wing Watch. I have not seen the textbooks and cannot confirm Pantheos’s claims, but the New York Times reported that dissenting board members did raise questions about the inclusion of Moses in the U.S. history and government curriculum.
According to the Texas Freedom Network, “the new textbooks also include passages that suggest Moses influenced the writing of the Constitution and that the roots of democracy can be found in the Old Testament.” The Daily Beast quotes Southern Methodist University department chair Kathleen Wellman as saying that the books depict Moses as an honorary Founding Father.
We all know that the Constitution is routinely depicted as the Third Testament among Christian conservatives, who have suggested that it was divinely inspired.
However, the Law of Moses finds no parallels in the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly forgoes any mention of God or the divine. Consider just how many of the Ten Commandments (I used the Calvinist version here; Jews and Catholics number differently) actually make it into the U.S. Constitution:
We could look at the rest of the Law, but I have a feeling nobody would try making the case that the Constitution has much to say about mixed fibers, cross-breeding animals, etc. In fact, the one place where the Law and the Constitution are closest is the place where later generations struck it out by amendment: in endorsing slavery of people considered non-members of the citizenry.
The claim that modern democracy emerges from the Old Testament—a book devoted to patriarchs, Judges, and Kings—rather than from the ancient Athenians, the Roman Republic, and Enlightenment Europe comes to us from a tortured argument based on 1 Samuel 8. There, God initially refuses the call to appoint a monarch, and accedes only when the people “vote” for a monarchy. If you care about the whole of the argument, you can read a 1976 version of it here.
Evaluating bad claims is important because bad ideas keep popping up in unexpected places, from an innocuous show about sugar to your children’s social studies book.
So that’s why I’m going to finish out today’s blog post with an advertisement, just like the ones recently running on Wikipedia and in the Mozilla Firefox browser.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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