Isaiah's Digital Job

In 1937, Albert Jay Nock wrote a chapter for his book, Free Speech and Plain Language. The chapter later became a classic essay in libertarian circles: "Isaiah's Job." Leonard E. Read of the Foundation for Economic Education recommended it for over two decades. You can still read it here.

Nock argued that if you try to recruit the masses to your principled cause, you will fail to the extent that you try to take the moral high ground. If your cause is based on high principle, the masses are not interested, and people who can truly help you to spread the word will be alienated by your very promotional efforts.

Nock used the biblical example of the remnant in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. The prophet Elijah had imagined that he was the only person remaining in the nation who still worshiped God. Not so, God told him. "Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him" (I Kings 19:18). The Apostle Paul cited this passage centuries later (Romans 11:4). Elijah believed that he was alone. He was not alone, but the seven thousand had not contacted him. A direct-mail campaign would not have helped him, Nock implied.

No technology in history has ever matched the World Wide Web for enabling members of a remnant to locate those who best articulate their position and vision. The "Send" button has become a means of communication matched by no other for its ease of use, speed, and low cost. We are told that word-of-mouth advertising is the best there is. Not any more. Word-of-mouse advertising is.

Revisionist History

Let me offer an example of a modern remnant in action. By inclination, I am a revisionist historian. I fell into this affliction in 1958, when I wrote a term paper for a high school civics class. I wrote it on Franklin Roosevelt. I read John T. Flynn's The Roosevelt Myth (1948), which by 1958 was out of print. Back then, it was the only book that was hostile to both the domestic policy and the foreign policy of FDR. (As far as I know, it still is.) Four years later, I took a college class on the American revisionist historians of World War I and World War II. Even then, most of the revisionist books were long out of print. Most of them had been published by small publishing companies: Caxton, Devin-Adair, and Regnery. The market for World War revisionism had just about died by 1955.

As for the dozens of published volumes of the various Congressional hearings on Pearl Harbor, only a privileged few knew of them, let alone had access to them. And who was going to read through all of them and create an index system of the truly relevant passages? No one.

Today, all of the hearings could be scanned in, indexed electronically, and put on the Web for $29.95 per month or less. Or they could be put onto a CD-ROM and delivered by mail for about $3. The main cost of production would be proofreading the scanned-in text, but this cost drops every time an update of OmniPage Pro is released. The error rate keeps going down.

Establishment historians have tremendous advantages. Their books are numerous. These books are assigned to college students: a guaranteed market. Peer-review professional journals keep certain kinds of information away from public discussion.

Technological innovation has begun to change this by drastically altering costs. The World Wide Web and the CD-ROM have drastically lowered the cost of getting material in front of small, dedicated, highly opinionated audiences. This Web site is a good example. So is and There are thousands of others.

Here is the digital world's version of Nock's philosophy:

"A site for every remnant, and every remnant with a site!"

There is another huge advantage for small publishers. The master file of the CD-ROM is stored on computer. The CD-ROM seller can produce a CD-ROM whenever there is an order. He has no inventory expenses. He also pays no state inventory tax. This will breathe new life into the out-of-print book market. This drastically lowers the cost of publishing, which opens new markets to under-funded publishers with a vision.

A. J. Liebling's quip was clever: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Now, almost anyone can rent one, cheap. Furthermore, if necessary, he can rent one outside the jurisdiction of his national residence. Anonymously.

"If you build it, they will come." But if it bores them, they won't come back.

Primary Source Documents

One of the problems that all historians have is access to primary source documents. Printed versions may be incomplete or secretly reworked by an editor. Then there is the problem of gaining access. Only major university libraries have anything like complete collections of even the printed versions.

It is not cheap to edit, typeset, and print documents. For most volumes of collected primary sources, there is no market other than research libraries. This tends to raise the price per volume: low circulation, high prices.

By eliminating paper and printing expenses, and by drastically reducing typesetting costs, the Web is changing the nature of narrow-audience publishing. Once a Web site is on-line, a publisher can fill a site with documents. If the site's software and Web design is easy to manage, the publisher can post new materials very inexpensively. He may not even need a full-time Webmaster.

A good example of what can be done is a site on American foreign policy on a Mount Holyoke College faculty member's site. He has assembled hundreds of primary source documents, classified under two dozen topics.

There are problems with Web site documentation. The scanning and proofreading must be accurate. Readers are also dependent on the accuracy of the government's printed versions of these documents. The original documents are rarely available. It would be unwise professionally to rely exclusively on a Web version of any historical document unless there is an image of the original document available.

But this, too, has now become easy to include. A new technology developed by AT&T, called DjVu, allows posting of highly compressed scanned-in images. It is available royalty-free for non-profit publishing ventures. A Web site could offer HTML documents, which can be indexed electronically, and also supporting documentation in the form of DjVu images of the original source documents.

For anyone involved in writing history, the new digital technology will change the way he researches and writes. Thesis-supporting documents add both credibility and historical context. Footnotes will include links to the original documents. A reader will be able to read an entire document in order to verify the writer's interpretation. For both Web sites and CD-ROM use, digital technology is revolutionary.

I think future PhD dissertations in history will be submitted both on paper and on CD-ROM. The CD-ROM will include links to Web-based documents and include images of the primary sources.

You can create a decent small site with Microsoft's FrontPage, which has lots of independently published "how-to" guides to help you. For large sites with a lot of documents, I recommend Allaire's ColdFusion.

July 6, 2000

Gary North is the author of Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, available as a free download on Chapter 7, on how the Rockefellers, Harrimans, and Carnegies funded the theorists of Nordic racial supremacy, and how the Supreme Court in 1927 upheld compulsory sterilization, will not soon be quoted in U.S. history textbooks.