Simon Winchester's Smooth Forked Tongue
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The anonymous book-presentation questioner of best-selling author, Simon Winchester, referred to in my November 23, 2005, article, "No Source for WinchesterÕs Hanging-Priests Calumny," was my friend, Hugh Turley. The question at issue is the claim made by Winchester in his book, A Crack in the Edge of the World, that in the wake of the great earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755 that Catholic priests roamed the streets and selected people for execution as heretics whom they blamed for causing the calamity. I had first become aware of WinchesterÕs claim when I read it quoted as fact by columnist George Will in The Washington Post. On December 1, I received the following communication from Mr. Turley:
This is just to keep you updated on the latest news regarding the story The Washington Post will not retract. Simon Winchester has revealed himself when I finally cut off all of the exits. I offered him an out, but he would prefer to continue to lie. I recently discovered that Winchester lied to me about his itinerary when he told me via email on November 8th:
Dear Mr. Turley
I have received your e-mail, and will respond in detail as soon as I am able to. I mention this caveat simply because I begin a two week tour of Canada tomorrow; and then am due to go off to China. It should not be difficult to find my source for the remark, and I will endeavour to do so just as soon as these touring commitments are complete. I hope you will understand the reason for any delay.
In this online article dated November 13th, I discovered he had a different itinerary: "Currently in the middle of a punishing tour of the United States, he has been inundated with requests for interviews, speaking engagements and book signings. Speaking from Los Angeles, Winchester says the past few weeks have felt like little more than a blur of one indistinguishable hotel room after another. Rattling off his itinerary for the next two weeks, the list of cities includes Denver, Los Angeles (again), Houston, Austin, Madison, Wisconsin, Washington, New York, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago and Miami ? Followed by a tour of Canada.... Once the tour is finished, Winchester will go back to Barnhill Farm, take care of his honey and begin the preparations for his new book, set in Beijing. Continuing his lifelong love affair with China, he will be going there for research...." http://www.theage.com.au/news/books/man-of-the-moment/2005/11/12/1131578276019.html
On November 30th when I discovered he was not honest with me about his travels, I sent him the following email yesterday and his response to my email follows:
Dear Mr. Winchester:
I spoke to you in Washington when you were at the Politics and Prose bookstore. I asked you about your statement that priests burned people following the disaster because your book states, "Catholic priests roamed around the ruins, selecting at random those they believed guilty of heresy and thus to blame for annoying the Divine, who in turn had ordered up the disaster. The priests had them hanged on the spot." You said, "It was probably some of each, but I prefer burning." I asked you for your source and you replied that very good sources could be found in your bibliography. You said you would point them out to me after your book signing. However at the end of the evening when almost everyone had left, you were unable to think of who your source might have been. You suggested that I email you. I did and you wrote: "It should not be difficult to find my source for the remark, and I will endeavour to do so just as soon as these touring commitments are complete. I hope you will understand the reason for any delay." I have been patient because I know you have had a busy touring schedule. I understand that you will be returning to Barnhill Farm before you depart to China for research on your next book. I would appreciate it if before embarking on a new project you would tie up this loose end. Shortly after we communicated, Dr. David Shi, a professional historian and the president of Furman University, retracted a statement similar to your statement. In his column Dr. Shi said that he obtained the error from the Washington Post. http://www.greenvilleonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051113/OPINION/511130308/1016 (now dead link) I think your source may have also been the Washington Post. Am I correct?
And here is how Mr. Winchester responded:
Dear Mr. Turley,
I am sure you will understand that have no wish to be drawn into a protracted dispute over precisely who burned or hanged whom in Lisbon: the principal purpose of my account was to describe the religious reaction to the event, and thereby place the more rational popular reaction after the San Francisco event into its proper context. But please rest assured that if indeed I find in due course clear evidence that it was city administrators or other secular figures who acted most violently against the heretics who were blamed for the 1755 earthquake, and not the priests mentioned in my book, I will be sure to make a correction. I would be most grateful if we could let the matter rest there.
On December 5, 2005, Mr. Turley responded to Mr. Winchester's attempt at a brush-off after having promised publicly that he would duly furnish a source for his hanging-priests accusation:
Dear Mr. Winchester,
I am sorry, but you seem to have misunderstood my question. This is not a dispute about who burned or hanged heretics. It is not a question of whether priests or secular figures were responsible. Aristotle made clear in Posterior Analytics that before we ask, "how it is" we must first know that "it is." Precisely the question is whether your statement that heretics were burned and/or hanged after the Lisbon earthquake is true. First, you said you had sources in your bibliography. Then you promised to reveal your sources by email. You have failed to do what you promised. A major theme of your book rests entirely upon an assertion that has been shown to have no basis in fact. The burden is on you to provide some evidence. Theresa Carpinelli summarized your error when she wrote: The fact that this calumny has made its way from a 1991 astrology book to a 2005 book written by an "Oxford-trained geologist," highlights a serious decline in scholarship, with a concomitant increase in anti-clericalism. It will be to our own detriment to ignore this. Writers who are intent on portraying Lisbon's deeply religious residents, particularly her priests, as irrational lunatics opposed to reason and rationality, fail to recognize the irrational lunacy of allowing their own bias to overrun their scholarship. They are twisting the facts to fit their pre-conceived notions. Calumny is a lie, and is therefore the antithesis of rational thinking. So the truth of what really happened in Lisbon puts those spreading this calumny on the side of irrationality. You owe it to your readers and the public to provide support for an important claim in your book. Good scholarship and intellectual honesty require no less. You can't really be serious that you "would be most grateful if we could let the matter rest," can you? Are you really content to let your slander, inadvertent or not, rest?
Three weeks have now passed since Winchester received this last email from Turley. It is now time to take stock of Winchester's lies:
1. The written charge that priests had suspected heretics hanged in the wake of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake was a lie.
2. The oral charge that they had them burned was also a lie.
3. The confident assurance that he had good sources for the charge was a lie.
4. The claim that he could not remember off-hand any of those "good" sources was, in all likelihood, also a lie.
5. The description of his immediate itinerary was a lie, provided, like the others, to buy time.
6. The promise that he would furnish his sources to his questioner has, it appears, turned out to be a lie as well.
If any of the charges I have made against Simon Winchester prove to be false, I will gladly retract them. We should hope for as much from Winchester with respect to the good clerics of Lisbon.
December 26, 2005
p.s. The Simon Winchesters of this world, like the George Wills of this world, apparently believe that they have a right to stonewall the Hugh Turleys and Theresa Carpinellis of this world. Here we see Winchester among other such privileged folk. He's the bald fellow in the middle next to Hillary Clinton.