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I wasn´t following any of this, because I am not into the gun control issue. However, since I have been reading Clayton Cramer´s blog almost on a daily basis for the past few months, even though I just skip posts that have to do with issues I´m not interested in, today, by chance, this controversy really caught my eye. This seems a classic case of Speaking Truth to Academia.

The academic totalitarian machine (represented by the Chronicle as one of the most prominent examples) going all out against a few non-academics who, like the little kid in the Emperor´s New Clothes, pointed out how unscholarly, blind, and pompous academics were.

The Chronicle´s tone is unmistakably “how dare you, non-academic peasants, question a blue blood academic,” or (speaking to academics), “look and have pity on your academic brother, a poor historian who is being shown to have committed sloppy history writing, and even fraud, is being attacked by mobs of politically motivated non-academic peasants.”

The book in question was first received as (Chronicle article):

    Arming America’s initial reception was anything but a firing squad for Mr. Bellesiles. Upon its publication, by Alfred A. Knopf in September 2000, many of his peers embraced his thesis that Americans have not always been heavily armed, that the “gun culture” of the United States is a relatively recent, post-Civil War phenomenon. Two eminent historians lavished praise on Arming America in two of the most prominent places a book can be reviewed: Garry Wills on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books. And last year, it snagged the coveted Bancroft Prize for historical excellence.

The Chronicle viciously discredits the non-academic critics (such as Clayton Cramer and Mr. Lindgren) who first brought the issue of academic incompetence and fraud to light, which the entire academic peer-review process failed to do, and it seems, some in academia wanted it hushed, specially as the scandal grew and it became increasingly embarrassing.

    And some acknowledge that Clayton Cramer, Mr. Bellesiles’s most vocal early critic, may have been correct that some of the numbers in Arming America did not add up. But Mr. Cramer’s bombastic, in-your-face rhetoric simply went beyond the pale of serious intellectual debate.

Clayton bombastic? I haven´t read Clayton´s 300 page criticism (no less) of Arming America and I´m not going to. Historians with professional standards and time on their hands should do that. However, I´m very suspicious about the Chronicle´s description of Clayton´s style. Clayton appears to be careful about everything he writes, specially the issues he feels strongest about. I have never seen him being in-your-face about any issue on his blog, which, more than articles and scholarly works, is the place for anyone to be “bombastic”. I agree with David Skinner

from the Weekly Standard:

    Cramer is a surprisingly good writer, with a master’s degree in history, but, he [Cramer] says, “Most journals are not interested in hearing from me.”

As Clayton theorized about how he was being discredited by academic historians in the Bellesiles case, in another fictional setting:

    historians either dismiss the criticisms as “outside our community” or attempted to ignore it, or when it becomes a popular issue, they start to talk about the importance of “due process,” while others emphasize that the troublemakers raising these questions are political activists, “who certainly have an agenda.”

According to the Chronicle, here is what Mr. Bellesiles had to say about his other notorious and foremost critic, Mr. Lindgren:

    Although Mr. Bellesiles now reflects that he “may be too thin-skinned” for such confrontations [with Mr. Lindgren], he launched a salvo of his own. He challenged Mr. Lindgren’s competence as a commentator on Arming America, stressing that Mr. Lindgren is an “attorney,” not a historian, and is “thus adversarial in nature.”

We could counter-argue on the same vein, perhaps because he is an attorney, and not a historian, Mr. Lindgren has more competence in eradicating fraud than Mr. Bellesiles? 😉

But here again we have the obnoxious “only historians can know what happened in the world” arrogance from academia. The Chronicle´s tone is almost “only historians can read books and records,” everyone else is illiterate and, consequently, unfit to think and criticize. And how lovely that they have so much egg on their academic faces now.

In this “amateurs” versus historian saga, when some academics finally decided to research the controversy, well, then the Chronicle thinks it begins to have merit.

    In the year following the book’s publication, Mr. Lindgren and other critics laid siege to Arming America. While Mr. Bellesiles’s earliest opponents tended to be ideological and nonacademic, the second wave of critics consisted of academics with no apparent political agenda who pursued their criticisms of Mr. Bellesiles’s work, by and large, in a scholarly fashion. They have been joined by reporters who conducted their own investigations.

Interesting as a side note, second on the ranks of people who can actually know things, according to the Chronicle, are reporters. Do we need to remind the Chronicle about the recent scandals in journalistic professional standards (NYT, etc)? And, secondly, is there a single newspaper that is not “politically motivated?”

As far as I can tell from reading a little bit of this controversy, and the people involved in it, there is no doubt that Mr. Cramer and Mr. Lindgren have political positions and political motivations to criticize the main theory in Bellesiles´ book. What I find problematic is how this political motivation is being vilified. Is this not what citizenship is about? How is a citizen supposed to participate in society, if not by being active in voicing their views and expounding on the reasons why they sustain them?

Additionally, what I really take issue with is the whole “non-ideological scholarly” framing. There is no scholarship that exists outside of ideology, politics/values, and a historical moment. This is again just an attempt to white-wash how bloody ideological academia is and has always been. For the Chronicle to maintain this academic party slogan in the third millennium is a telling detail of its disingenuous academic stance. Also, although in this case, it seems academics were conversing in a reasonably civil tone, anyone who has witnessed ideological power struggles in academia knows what political Rottweillers academics can be behind their scholarly veneer.

The Chronicle, furthermore, insists that Bellesiles´ critics were all politically motivated, therefore they have no academic or scholarly competency. Since when is the latter a consequence of being politically motivated? Furthermore, it becomes clear that most of the people who reviewed and created a swoonfest for the book, were largely ideologically/academically motivated to blindly swallow many of the claims/sources in the book, and not really research their veracity.

    In the National Review, Melissa Seckora has speculated that many reviewers “uncritically embraced” Arming America “because it appeared to confirm what they have long wanted to believe” about the politics of guns in America. “One could only imagine the outcry,” she wrote, “if a conservative scholar, fabricating evidence to prove a pet conservative point, had been found to be careless (to say the least).”

    While some historians who praised Arming America say now that they didn’t have time to check the footnotes, scholars have found time in the past — when a controversial scholarly work challenged widely held views in academe. When The Bell Curve analyzed the academic performance of black students in a way that offended many professors, there was no shortage of scholars with the time to pick over its every detail.

Clayton comments on this “historians professional standards” circus in another post (related to Malkin´s controversial book):

    I suppose that I could take the “professional standards” argument a bit more seriously if we didn’t have the recent memory of the Bellesiles scandal, where many professional historians did their best to prevent any serious examination of massive and obvious fraud from working its way into popular newspapers and court decisions.

    We also have the claims of professional historians about the origins of homosexuality laws that appeared in Lawrence v. Texas (2003)–claims that are clearly incorrect, at least to the extent that they make sweeping claims that I was able to quickly demonstrate are false.

    There are professional historians who take what they do seriously, regardless of the political consequences of what they find. But I no longer have any illusion that these “professional standards” are adhered to by the vast majority of history professors teaching in the U.S.

This academic scandal is a magnificent example of how problematic the social sciences are in their inner-workings to maintain a hierarchical, closed-off, old-“academics” network that frequently fails in scholarship and ethics. Academia is more preoccupied with dominance than quality. Please note that I am not saying every single academic everywhere is lacking in quality, professional standards etc, etc, but that these are serious issues in all social sciences.

If one has any dealings with the psychology or sociology academic folks, we see the same arrogance and lack of quality frequently, the same shoddy politically motivated circus “scholarship” that is ingrained in these areas as well.

We also live in a time where a growing number of people like Clayton Cramer have mixed professional academic and professional training and interests. I cannot speak of how good his professional historian standards are, but until he is discredited with proof of wrongdoing or sloppy historical research, he will have shown that historical research and reading is not something exclusive to professional historians. To simply shoot him and his criticism down because of this is just snotty unprofessional academic behavior.


Chronicle article – Did the Shootouts Over ‘Arming America’ Divert Attention From the Real Issues?

Scholars heaped praise on a book, ignoring critics who have been vindicated on many points -By DANNY POSTEL

Clayton Cramer´s blog

Weekly Standard article – The Historian Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight

From the February 25, 2002 issue: The truth about Michael Bellesiles’s “Arming America.”

by David Skinner

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