Debunking debunking

To debunk, from the Oxford English Dictionary, transitive verb: To remove the ‘nonsense’ or false sentiment from; to expose false claims or pretensions; hence, to remove a person from his ‘pedestal’ or ‘pinnacle’. Also absolute. Hence debunker, one who debunks; or debunking.

As one W. E. Woodward apparently said in 1923, “De-bunking means simply taking the bunk out of things.” It’s a big job. He also said, “To keep the United States thoroughly de-bunked would require the continual services of..half a million persons.”

Debunking has always been an American thing. In 1930 the London Times recognized “the somewhat ruthless process which in America is called ‘debunking’ that is, pricking pretentious bubbles.” But what is this “bunk”, the humbug, the nonsense?  Why, it’s an abbreviation of “Bunkum.” Or, more properly spelled, “Buncombe.”  Named after Buncombe county in North Carolina.  No wonder the Brits were skeptical. How did this one lovely Appalachian county, home to laid-back Asheville, become the namesake of the humbug epidemic sweeping the land?

According to legend, bunkum began somewhere near 1820, when the 16th Congress had wrapped itself in heated debate over the admission of Missouri to the United States as a slave-holding state.  The debate lasted for years and ended up with the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to remain a slave state, provided the great [slave-free] state of Maine was admitted at the same time–a piece of history every Maine kid like me learns in fourth grade.

Out of this debate also came the game-changing edict that slavery was to be illegal north of the Mason-Dixon line. Major stuff.  And when the Congress, nearing the close of debate, clamored for a final vote on the big Question, the representative from Buncombe County, North Carolina, got up to speak.  According to the O.E.D., “Several members gathered round him, begging him to desist; he persevered, however, for a while, declaring that the people of his district expected it, and that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe.”

Immediately thereafter, poor Buncombe County became ground zero for political claptrap.  To pass a measure “for buncombe” meant to pass a law just to assuage a constituency; a “bid for buncombe” was a transparent plea for voter favor, and to “speak for buncombe,” that is, to speak not out of conviction, but just for show.  “Bunk” soon became applicable to all kinds of things.

Any time the state of the civilized world is at stake, and some yokel gets up to talk about nothing much, buncombe will be there. Whenever humbug sets out to filibuster reason, buncombe will be there.  De-bunking, then, would be more than just overturning a silly story for the sake of being right.  Debunking should mean dragging Mr. North Carolina off the stage so that the crucial vote on slavery’s future could be cast. It’s an essential task, nobody can move forward while buncombe is up and running.



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