Looking for an honest man: The Palin/Revere flap
In a recent interview, recorded on video, Sarah Palin responded to a question about Paul Revere with:
"…he who warned the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringin' those bells and, um, makin' sure as he's ridin' his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we're gonna be secure and we were gonna be free. And we we're gonna be armed."
Lots of people online (and, I presume, elsewhere in the media) responded by accusing Palin of gross ignorance of American history, since the purpose of Revere's ride was not to warn the British but to warn the Americans. They are wrong twice over.
To begin with, if you actually read (or listen to) what Palin said, the obvious meaning isn't that Revere was carrying a warning to the British but that he was raising the countryside against them and by doing so warning them that they would be facing armed resistance.
It turns out, however, that Revere did warn the British in the literal sense of the term. In his ride he encountered some British officers, was questioned by them, and told them
"that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the country all the way up."
The quote is from Revere's own account, quoted on a web site. I checked it by googling for part of the passage and finding it quoted in a book written about a century ago.
The first mistake of the people attacking Palin—accusing her of thinking that Revere was riding to warn the British rather than the Americans—is either careless reading or deliberate dishonesty. The second mistake—making fun of the idea that he warned the British—is historical ignorance. I am in a poor position to criticize that ignorance since, until the question came up as a result of Palin' comment, I shared it.
The interesting question is whether any of the people who made fun of Palin for what she said will have the honesty to admit that the mistake was theirs. Googling around, I found a piece by Rick Ungar on a Forbes blog. The comment thread includes ones pointing out that Revere did warn the British. Ungar's response was that Paul Revere didn't fire any shots—true, but hardly a serious criticism of something Palin said not in a prepared speech but in a reply to a question. There was no hint that he recognized that it was his ignorance, not Palin's, that was revealed by what he had written. Rereading his original post, I conclude that he probably doesn't care, since what he made fun of Palin for saying quite obviously doesn't fit what she said.
Which gets me to the title of this post. It will be interesting to see if any of the people who publicly claimed that Palin was falsely asserting that the purpose of Revere's ride was to carry a message to the British admit their error—either the original error of misstating what she said or the subsequent error of insisting that Revere did not warn the British.
Which gets me back to my admiration for George Orwell, which I hope was clear in earlier posts, some of them attacking him. He was an honest man, even if often mistaken—and political controversy would be pleasanter if there were more of them.