The empire strikes back

“At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, 1954

An anonymous writer last month dipped his or her poison pen deep in the well of vitriol and spewed forth a torrent of insults intended, I guess, to stop me from urging the Princeton Historical Society board to stand up for local history.

The author of the essay in the historical society newsletter made it quite clear that correcting the 14 or so plaques that combined enshrine about 30 factual, historical errors in our three-block historic downtown is not a priority for the board.

Nor is calling out errors in newspaper articles about local history.

Nor is verifying the information in its own newsletter.

Nor is verifying the information in its museum.

Historical accuracy, in my opinion, should be the society board’s top priority. The price a lifetime member of the society must pay for saying that publicly in a personal blog, it seems, is two pages of insults and name-calling in the newsletter that is then distributed by the Princeton Public Library!

With no opportunity to respond.

And they call me a bully?

For what?

  • For asking and expecting a newspaper reporter and editor to correct factual errors in a newspaper article about one of our historic churches, and then doing it myself when they did not respond.
  • For urging the society board to take the lead in correcting the downtown plaques and other sources of incorrect information, such as recent newspaper articles about St. Patrick’s and the railroad bridge.
  • For urging the CDA to do a better job of verifying information etched on future historical walk plaques and to make correcting the incorrect plaques a top priority.

The plaque authors, we are told, did the best they could under difficult circumstances. When I asked about errors in a plaque way back in September 2018, however, I was told by one of the key organizers in an email I saved that the sponsor wrote the information for the plaque and “I took her story verbatim.”

It is obvious to me, but apparently not to the society board, that when at least 14 of the plaques downtown, and at least three on the fringe, include verified errors, new safeguards need to be established. Organizers cannot continue to allow sponsors to memorialize misinformation. Not even for $200 per plaque.

The historical society is the group best suited to ensuring that mistakes do not happen and that correcting the bad plaques is given as high of a priority as selling new ones. That’s the point of the Don Quixote post that apparently inspired the society board’s shameful rant.

We need the society board to be the champion and protector of historical accuracy not one of the worst offenders.

I am an army of one fighting an implausible battle. Truth to power, so to speak. To correct the plaques, Very Important People would have to admit they mucked up. Not once or twice, but several times.

They won’t do that. They don’t want to correct the plaques. They might say it’s because of cost. It’s not.

It’s a matter of pride. They want this to go away very quietly.

The Very Important People have made it very clear. Historical accuracy is not a priority, and it won’t be until they say it is. End of discussion, they proclaim in the newsletter.

Based on my experience, people who disagree will be publicly ridiculed in the society newsletter and shunned. The personal attack will be condoned and distributed by the Princeton Public Library. There will be no opportunity to respond. The Very Important People will spread the word.

I’ve been canceled.

It is the nature of public discourse these days, it seems. Confronted with facts, officials respond with name-calling and insults. And not just in Washington.

I was tempted to call an attorney but only for a minute. From 40 years in the editor’s chair, I know libel law very well, and a defamation lawsuit against the society and library boards because of one person’s recklessness and shameful conduct, even if successful, would do more harm than good.

There is a much simpler solution.

FIX THE PLAQUES!

Leave a Reply