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Don’t Believe Jeff Sharlet on “Fundamentalism”

posted by David Klinghoffer

Popular atheist blogger PZ Myers is all excited about a book by Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Turns out the paperback is doing incredibly well, No. 5 on Amazon, perhaps due to a sensational Bill Maher interview that PZ also links to. Sharlet is full of shocking revelations about the sinister Evangelical Christian power brokers behind the National Prayer Breakfast. Can you believe a word he says? No, you can’t. How do I know?


Because several years ago Jeff reviewed a book of mine in the Washington Post. It was a witless review but more to the point, he tried to show he’d read my first book, The Lord Will Gather Me In, and described an episode in it that anyone who’s read the earlier book will remember. But Sharlet couldn’t even read a book, or a read about a book, and report accurately what was in it. He mangled the story in such a way that I appeared to be an insane victim of self-mutilation mania. For the sake of good taste, I won’t go further than that except to say that a lawyer friend after the fact told me I should have considered suing the guy. So FYI, this is how competent a journalist Jeff Sharlet is.

(UPDATE: Sharlet responds to this post in the comments thread, without apology or comprehension. You’ll find my reply to him there.)


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Gabriel Hanna

posted August 2, 2009 at 6:38 am


Impugn another journalist’s credibility, but don’t quote what he said, in fact don’t even link to what he said, or explain why what he said wasn’t true.
No, just a blanket statement that he’s a liar will do. Throw in the name of a prominent atheist while you’re at it.
Can I link to what he said, or will you “unpublish” my comment?



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Gabriel Hanna

posted August 2, 2009 at 6:44 am


So I’m looking at reviews of “The Lord Will Gather Me In” and they all seem to describe this incident in much the same way. Maybe they are all copying from each other.



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Gabriel Hanna

posted August 2, 2009 at 6:52 am


Here’s an excerpt; but maybe you didn’t write it?
http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/klinghoffer-lord.html
Sharlet’s characterization:
http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/exegesis/wwad/
Salon’s characterization:
http://www.salon.com/books/sneaks/1999/01/25sneaks.html
We report, you decide.
Of course this has no bearing on whether there really is some kind of fundamentalist conspiracy running America.
But it is a little hard to call another journalist a liar for describing, pretty accurately it seems, what you wrote in your own book.



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Gabriel "Held pending moderation" Hanna

posted August 2, 2009 at 6:57 am


In fact, David, looking at his statement, and the excerpt from your book, they seem substantially the same.
Do I get unpublished if I quote your own book?
http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/klinghoffer-lord.html



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Your Name

posted August 2, 2009 at 1:05 pm


Wow Klinghoffer, you’re setting lower standards nearly every day when it comes to lying and whining. I don’t know how you do it.



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Theo Magyar

posted August 2, 2009 at 1:09 pm


Gabriel:
Why would anyone trust Mr. Klinghoffer? You have amply demosntrated, in approximately twenty minutes of research, that he is unreliable. You and others have refuted his arguments on evolution many times. Furthermore, he hasn’t answered many pertinent questions posted in the comments on sexual orientation and the sexuality of women. Neither has he changed his mind on these topics or even mentioned that he is doing more research. His only response appears to be unpublishing comments or calling people rude.



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Theo Magyar

posted August 2, 2009 at 1:16 pm


Apparently questioning Mr. Klinghoffer’s veracity gets one unpublished!



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Phil

posted August 2, 2009 at 2:20 pm


Dang David,,
Seems all the same old critics just keep criticizing you day in and day out…I bet if you did a piece on Mother Teresa and how her faith in God brought a little kindness to this world, they would attack that too…I think they just want to mud sling no matter what…Oh well,,some people have no life,, keep up the good work anyway Dave..



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Old Warrior

posted August 2, 2009 at 6:12 pm


Ad hominem attacks are the sign of an empty argument. What, other than your say-so, would you claim are errors and inaccuracies in Sharlet’s book?



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What's Good for the Goose

posted August 2, 2009 at 7:33 pm


It seems to me that if the fundamentalists had such power, Obama wouldn’t be president, the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, and prayer would be back in school.
Paranoia strikes a beat/
Into your life it will seap



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Your Name

posted August 2, 2009 at 9:35 pm


The Family, a book which I have read, unlike most if not all the folks here, is a superb piece of research, footnoted, fact checked, corroborated. You can tear down the author however you wish because he didn’t like your book some time ago but his journalistic credibility is beyond reproach.
If one read the book, one would understand how irrelevant the questions regarding Obama’s inauguration and Roe v. Wade are. This is not a book about conspiracy theories or the horrors of Christianity. Sharlet knows his theology. He spent five years researching.
Apparently, you are quite quilty of that which you accuse him of: not reading closely. Your hollow comments reflect poorly on your own integrity.



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Joyce

posted August 3, 2009 at 10:47 am


to What’s Good for the Goose:
The lyric you misquoted and misspelled as
Paranoia strikes a beat/
Into your life it will seap
is really
Paranoia strikes deep/
Into your life it will seep
If you’re gonna quote from “For What Its Worth”, please make the effort to get it right.



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Your Name

posted August 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm


I have long defended Israel as being the most tolarent Middle East country towards gays. Turns out I am wrong, as this weekend shows. It is in fact Lebanon that is described as the Provincetown of the Middle east.



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Gabriel Hanna

posted August 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm


I wouldn’t want to pick on David for what he describes in his book-I know I did some things at 15 that were pretty weird and I wouldn’t put them in a book I’d written about myself. It seems as though growing up was tough for David; my heart goes out to him, if so.
My problem was that David called another journalist a liar for accurately, if unsympathetically, describing what David said happened in his own book, and he didn’t bother to explain why.
And if David’s “lawyer acquaintance”* actually said David ought to sue, that lawyer is not fit to practice law, given the way libel works in this country.
*c.f. Goodbye Girl “An actor. Another goddamn actor…’I happen to have a lawyer acquaintance’ – right out of Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski and summer stock, right?”



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Jeff Sharlet

posted August 3, 2009 at 5:27 pm


If I had a nickel for every writer who contemplated suing a critic, well, I’d be so rich I wouldn’t bother defending my honor on Beliefnet.
I’m sorry you didn’t like my review of your book, David. You’re entitled to take issue with it. That’s why we have letters to the editor. Had you found an error and demanded a correction, I’m quite certain the Washington Post would have made it. I would have been glad to sign off on it. Errors are errors.
But ad hominem attacks are something else all together. I’m puzzled as to why my negative review of your book — even if it did contain an error, though I don’t see where it does — entitles you to declare a book you don’t seem to have even have laid hands on to be entirely false.
That’s just shoddy. You want to mount a powerful argument against a book? Try reading it first.



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David Klinghoffer

posted August 3, 2009 at 6:07 pm


Hello, Jeff Sharlet: the error in question was the sensational claim of self-mutilation which, if it were true, would certainly have resulted in my being hospitalized, and likely being checked into a mental institution afterward. Adult circumcision is a surgical procedure.
That’s no ordinary “error” on your part. Someone reporting such a thing would be duty bound to check it out by looking in the book he was describing. You didn’t do that, which makes you, in this case where I know the facts first hand, guilty of startling incompetence as a writer. Unapologetic about it, too, I see.
The actual incident, one of self-administered “hatafat dam brit,” is on p. 85 of my book. It may be evidence of teenage oddity but no more than that. It’s wildly different from your version. I could have written a letter to the editor asking for a correction, but I judged at the time it would be better not to draw attention to a review that not all that many people would read in the first place. Maybe I should have acted otherwise.
Your book, “The Family,” is different in having a much wider readership than that review. From what I can tell of it, you report some pretty sensational things. Maybe they’re all true, who knows? I didn’t say your book is “entirely false.” Nor did I attack you personally by saying anything outrageous, personal and false about you as you did about me. I said that, based on my personal experience of you as a reporter, when you report something sensational, you can’t be relied on to have done elementary fact-checking.
For any startling piece of information you report, I would advise a reader not to believe you on your word alone but rather to suspend judgment and wait for other more reliable reporting on the subject.



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Gabriel Hanna

posted August 3, 2009 at 8:11 pm


David, can I post the excerpt from your book and the excerpt from Sharlett’s review side by side and let your readers judge?
Or would you like to do that?
Of course you wouldn’t.



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Gabriel "Held pending moderation" Hanna

posted August 3, 2009 at 8:24 pm


I expect you’ll unpublish this, David, prove me wrong:
David Klinghoffer, The Lord Will Gather Me In:
http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/klinghoffer-lord.html?_r=2
For much of my own life I had the sense of something hidden and secret, great and ancient and marvelous, approaching the daylight from below. The surface may have been broken, as if by the tip of the mast of a long-sunken ship, quite early on, maybe the night that I sought to ensure for myself that I really was a Jew, entering a bathroom in my parents’ home with an old prayer book and a soap-cleansed razor blade to perform a do-it-yourself version of an ancient conversion rite.
Sharlet’s description of the incident:
http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/exegesis/wwad/
In his first book, The Lord Will Gather Me In (Free Press, 1998), he tells the story of his gentile parents, his adoption by a secular Jewish couple, and his decision, at age 15, to abandon both worldviews by shutting himself in the bathroom and slicing off his foreskin with a razor.
Where is the libel?



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David Klinghoffer

posted August 3, 2009 at 8:59 pm


Gabriel Hannah, is this how careful a reader you are when you study scientific texts? You’re reading into that bit from my book what you expect to find there based on Sharlet’s mangling. In fact, the “ancient rite” is hatafat dam brit — Google it if you want — the drawing of a symbolic drop of blood, not adult circumcision. As I pointed out in my reply to Jeff Sharlet, there’s all the difference in the world, as a religion journalist like himself should be able to discern. Adult circumcision used to be, probably often still is, performed under general anesthesia. It’s serious business. Only a lunatic, or a prophet in contact with God (like Abraham), would venture such a thing on his own body with a razor blade!
If you need more help understanding, take it out of the sexual realm. Imagine accidentally nicking your face with a razor while shaving, drawing a drop of blood. Now imagine cutting off your own ear with a razor blade. The difference is roughly the same. I think there’s been enough on this for now.



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Gabriel "Held pending moderation" Hanna

posted August 3, 2009 at 9:12 pm


David, I asked you for an explanation of your charge against Sharlet. You did not provide one. Now that I have quoted the texts, you have. Thank you.
The source of the confusion may well be that very few people who are not Jews would be aware of the difference. This is not uncommon-for example, a lot of people think “Immaculate Conception” is the same as “virgin birth”, the two are unrelated.
Looking at the texts side-by-side, you’d have a hard time accusing Sharlet of libel, and his account hardly rises to your description of it.



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David Klinghoffer

posted August 3, 2009 at 9:25 pm


Gabriel: Actually, what I criticized him for is an act of stunningly incompetent journalism. Your defense of ignorance for him doesn’t wash. He’s supposed to be an expert on religion, and of some Jewish extraction at that.



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Gabriel "Held pending moderation" Hanna

posted August 3, 2009 at 9:47 pm


Actually, what I criticized him for is an act of stunningly incompetent journalism.
And now we all know why. I agree with you, he should have known better, if what you wrote on page 85 or whatever it was is what you wrote here, then his characterization was unjustified and inaccurate (I don’t have your book).
I just objected to your accusing him of just making things up without giving any reasons. Now you’ve given them, and I think you’re quite reasonably annoyed.
Not that you need my approval. But you accused him publicly.



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Bruce Wilson

posted August 4, 2009 at 7:20 am


It detracts from Beliefnet’s credibility as a publication.
Even if Mr. Klinghoffer’s premise (that Sharlet made a mistake in a review of Klinghoffer’s book) were true, the purported conclusion (we can’t believe anything Sharlet has subsequently written ?) would not logically follow.
The vehement incoherence of this attack would seem more in place on a far right or far left wing tabloid. I wasn’t aware that Beliefnet aspired to such a niche on the journalism/news spectrum.



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Husband

posted August 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm


“The vehement incoherence of this attack would seem more in place on a far right or far left wing tabloid. I wasn’t aware that Beliefnet aspired to such a niche on the journalism/news spectrum.”
Bruce, Beliefnet wallows in such attacks. Go to the Crunchy Con blog (if you can stomach it) for more than ample evidence. Not sure why Waldman allows such, apart from increased ‘hits’.
As for Mr. Klinghoffer’s personal vendettas – both against a reviewer and his own readers here – what a cheesy excuse for ‘journalism’. I have not read Mr. K’s book, nor do I have any intention of doing so, but if the quoted pieces are accurate and complete, there was/is much reason for a misunderstanding.
If Mr. K only said, “I sought to ensure for myself that I really was a Jew, entering a bathroom in my parents’ home with an old prayer book and a soap-cleansed razor blade to perform a do-it-yourself version of an ancient conversion rite.”, then that is where the confusion comes from.
Did he or did he not elaborate (as he takes great pains to do here) or bother to clarify that “In fact, the “ancient rite” is hatafat dam brit — Google it if you want — the drawing of a symbolic drop of blood, not adult circumcision.” – in the book???
I wouldn’t have known any differently regarding the “ancient conversion rite” anymore than any reviewer would have; I, too, would have assumed he meant “adult circumcision” which is what the reviewer describes.
Perhaps Mr. K. is just an abominably bad writer. (Not to mention mean-spirited.)
Can we add a blog entry that’s headlined, “Don’t believe David Klinghoffer on Judaism”? (Or ‘on homosexuality’?). That would be extremely helpful.



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