The Juvenile “Research” of “Historian” Nancy MacLean

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is a piñata of sloppiness and deceit: every time you whack it, more mangled quotes, factual errors, and misrepresented sources spill out.

In the past couple weeks, Steve Horwitz (2) (3), Phil Magness (2), Russ Roberts, Don BoudreauxJason BrennanChristopher Flemming, David HendersonDavid Bernstein (2), Nick GillespieMike Munger, Greg Weiner, and David Boaz have highlighted mistakes and distortions that amount to sledgehammer blows to the book’s credibility.

The resulting rubble looks, at best, like a work of “speculative historical fiction” (in Mike Munger’s words) about James Buchanan and the history of the libertarian movement — a kind of poor man’s Shock Doctrine.

But Democracy in Chains is so much more than that. It is also incredibly, spectacularly lazy.

In the same passage where she butchers a quote from David Boaz, MacLean also says this:

Leave aside, for a moment, how incredibly tired and tedious is this cliche. Instead, look at how MacLean cites it: “Goebbels…is said to have remarked.” Said to have remarked? SAID? SAID BY WHOM?

As of today, the answer was precisely no one — except Nancy MacLean. A search for her exact wording (“If you tell a great lie and repeat it often enough, the people will eventually come to believe it”) yields just one result: her book.

“About 0 results”

This is history being written by half-remembered quote-rumor. She literally just wrote this down off the top of her head, based on some half-remembered idea, and couldn’t be bothered to take two seconds to Google it.

Goebbels did not say this, but she did not come up with the original misquote and misattribution. The quote is yet another in a long line of fake or distorted quotes attributed to various tyrannical leaders.

Here’s what Goebbels actually wrote about the “Big Lie,” in 1941, while lashing out at Winston Churchill: “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.”

Does that sound like, “If you tell a great lie and repeat it often enough, the people will eventually come to believe it”?

In fact, there’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to the concept of the “Big Lie.” If she’d just bothered to freaking Google it or check Wikipedia, she might have realized that Hitler, not Goebbels, is credited with inventing the idea in 1925, in his own insane conspiratorial book, Mein Kampf:

In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

Of course, none of that really matches up to the version that MacLean made up and misattributed to Goebbels, either. But it’s certainly the original source for the dumbed-down, badly mangled fake version that she probably saw on a half-forgotten Internet meme. This is the caliber of thought and effort that you’d expect from a drunk Facebook status or a circa 2002 “Gore really won the election!” Geocities blog post.

It is baffling that MacLean — a tenured academic historian at Duke University — wrote this laughable nonsense and that her editor (if she had one) let it be published. It’s the kind of dumb, unsourced, pseudo-profound “deep thought” that freshmen use to lard up a half-assed term paper. D- — apply yourself!!

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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier


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