Sunday, November 07, 2010

Clothing Naked Statues: An Instructional Fable

In a recent online discussion, I came across the following, with reference to John Ashcroft:

"Wasn't he the one who ordered clothing be put over statues of women with naked boobies?"

Curious, I did a quick Google, and located the relevant information on Wikipedia. The fact on which the story is based involves not statues of women with naked boobies but one statue of one woman with one naked boobie, a representation of the spirit of justice located in the headquarters of the Department of Justice. It was veiled not with clothing but with curtains that could be used to block the view of the statue during speeches, when it would otherwise have been a feature of the background. The curtains were initially installed not by Ashcroft but by, or at least during the tenure of, his predecessor, although the installation was made permanent under Ashcroft.

Or in other words, most of the content of the story, with its implication of Ashcroftian puritanism, is bogus. Which I take as support for my general rule of thumb: Regard with suspicion any historical anecdote that makes a good enough story to have survived on its literary merit.

And just to balance myths of left and right, I note the recent widely circulated claim that Barack Obama's visit to India is costing $200 million a day. It's a good story, and obviously fits well with the view of Obama as fiscally profligate. But its sole basis seems to be a single news story from India, sourced to an anonymous "top official of the Maharashtra Government privy to the arrangements for the high-profile visit." Which did not prevent it from being widely published as fact in online (and, I presume, print) sources in the U.S.

By now most reputable media that mention it have reported it as bogus—but twenty years from now, if the Internet is still functioning more or less as it now does, the story will be alive and well. For my favorite example of the phenomenon, this time a deliberate prank by one of the 20th century's greatest journalists, google the Bathtub Hoax.

12 Comments:

At 1:11 PM, November 07, 2010, Blogger Ilíon said...

"... The curtains were initially installed not by Ashcroft but by, or at least during the tenure of, his predecessor, although the installation was made permanent under Ashcroft.

Or in other words, most of the content of the story, with its implication of Ashcroftian puritanism, is bogus.
"

Further (as I understand it), photographers were getting down on the floor so as position their cameras to be able to snap a picture (for publication with the news account) of Ashcroft with the famous boob hovering in the background.

 
At 1:25 PM, November 07, 2010, Blogger lowly said...

Obama is really President then? Fool me once ...

 
At 8:31 AM, November 08, 2010, Blogger neil craig said...

Perhaps more unproven than bogus. The administration have denied it but declined to give a figure themselves. I suspect the reality is that any good accountant could come up with a wide range of possible costs & that at the higher end, if a proportion of the running costs of allegedly 12% of the Navy were included guarding the route to Mumbai, that $200 could be included.

Not saying use of the figure is justified merely that it is more justified than those many politicians & promoters of big government regularly get away with., without any media complaints

 
At 10:51 AM, November 08, 2010, Blogger Neolibertarian said...

Interesting that your inclination to discuss Ashcroft is not in the context of his attacks on civil liberties, but to spin his permanent installation of curtains to hide the topless statue "Spirit of Justice".

While the quote you cite isn't fully correct, neither is your description. As for Ashcroft's puritanism, it's well known and admired:

- son and grandson of evangelicals
- he doesn't drink (or smoke)
- he doesn't swear
- never attended a high school dance
- did not have premarital sex
- does not gamble
- vetoed liquor sales on Sundays
- opposed condom distribution
- advocated "faith-based" government programs
- John Ashcroft held bible readings with his white house staff
- expanded pornography prosecution
- was "anointed" by Clarence Thomas

And of course, with respect to his civil liberties record, was one of the architects of the PATRIOT act.

 
At 3:41 PM, November 08, 2010, Blogger Ilíon said...

Interesting that you equate being a sincere Christian with "attacks on civil liberties."

 
At 4:52 PM, November 08, 2010, Blogger Neolibertarian said...

Interesting that you equate being a sincere Christian with "attacks on civil liberties."

I don't. I equate attacks on civil liberties with "attacks on civil liberties".

 
At 9:25 AM, November 10, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

"As for Ashcroft's puritanism, it's well known and admired:"

The fact that he is believed to be a puritan is one of the reasons why the claim I cited makes a good story, which in turn is a reason to be suspicious of it.

"Interesting that your inclination to discuss Ashcroft is not in the context of his attacks on civil liberties"

Since the point of my post is the issue of bogus historical anecdotes, I'm not sure why it should deal with civil liberties.

 
At 11:29 AM, November 10, 2010, Blogger Ilíon said...

"Since the point of my post is the issue of bogus historical anecdotes, I'm not sure why it should deal with civil liberties."

D'uh! Because Ashcroft is an evil puritanical Nazi!

;-)

 
At 11:45 AM, November 10, 2010, Blogger Neolibertarian said...

The fact that he is believed to be a puritan is one of the reasons why the claim I cited makes a good story, which in turn is a reason to be suspicious of it.

This is a good place to start with respect to critical reasoning, however it's an awful place to end. The fact of the matter is that Ashcroft's puritanism is well documented, and even celebrated. That you failed to actually investigate the claim you were suspicious of makes you guilty of exactly what you're railing against.

It makes a good story to shoot down one anecdote as overblown. By your own reasoning, one should be suspicious of your "story". And if one looks into the matter of Ashcroft's puritanism, one finds that people hold that belief because of his behavior.

Since the point of my post is the issue of bogus historical anecdotes, I'm not sure why it should deal with civil liberties.

Using bogus historical anecdotes to dispel bogus historical anecdotes is certainly your prerogative. But it does speak to your priorities. Ashcroft's record on civil liberties is atrocious, and from a libertarian perspective is certainly much more important than any bogus historical anecdote you might wish to share.

 
At 5:54 PM, November 10, 2010, Blogger jimbino said...

Is it also a fable that Adolph Hitler was a war veteran, vegetarian, non-smoker, non-drinker and altogether wholesome guy?

 
At 6:45 AM, November 11, 2010, Blogger Hernan Coronel said...

Hi, I work on security and although Obama did not probably spend USD200M a day only to go to India. I believe it is very probable that Obama's security or, to put it better, US Presidential security costs even more than USD200M a day but that does not change *significantly* if he visits India or not. The fact that some clever journalist "assigns" the expenditure to India to make up a good story supports David's view of the matter which I also share.

 
At 7:39 AM, November 11, 2010, Blogger Ilíon said...

"Is it also a fable that Adolph Hitler was a war veteran, vegetarian, non-smoker, non-drinker and altogether wholesome guy?"

Yes, yes, yes, yes, no (and the "no" is not about Hitler-as-Evil-Incarnate).

 

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