Saturday, February 02, 2002

It's understandable that conservatives would indulge in a certain amount of gloating over the Bellesiles controversy; when a claimed debunking of an important conservative premise (that guns have been deeply embedded in American culture from the very beginning) is revealed to be fraudulent, a touch of smugness on their part may even be in order. But one taunt that rings slightly false is the one echoed most recently by Ronald Radosh: that historians were negligent in heaping accolades on the book without carefully checking its sources. After all, Bellesiles' book, Arming America, was only published in 2000, and two years is a relatively short time in the world of academic assessment. Moreover, when a researcher presents what appears to be an extremely meticulously researched work, peers are understandably inclined to assume that the masses of accompanying documentation, much of it obscure and hard to track down, are not in fact an elaborately constructed fabrication. Finally, when suspicious investigators did eventually recognize significant discrepancies in Bellesiles' list of claimed sources, prominent Historians stepped in to evaluate the charges, and several have now pronounced Bellesiles culpable. In all likelihood, his career is effectively ruined.

Compare this sequence of events with what occurred when researcher David Stoll discovered three years ago that the autobiography of Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchu was rife with outright falsehoods. In that case, not only had the blatant lies been left unexamined for a full sixteen years after the book's publication, but even when they were exposed, numerous scholars dismissed or downplayed the claimed inaccuracies as irrelevant, and defended the memoir as true in spirit if not in detail. Viewed in the context of the Menchu affair, the academic reaction to the Bellesiles case is almost enough to foster hope for the future of integrity in scholarship.

More likely, though, it is a demonstration of the difference, not between now and 1999, but between the fields of American history and Latin American studies. In America, the only people who would ever have had the slightest interest in Rigoberta Menchu's ghostwritten doctrinaire screed in the first place would have been committed leftist political activists and their academic allies, most or all of them disinclined to let a mere detail like factual inaccuracy interfere with their political agenda. Early American history, on the other hand, has a following audience of millions of teachers, students, readers, amateurs and generally interested people who actually care about what happened, and to whom credentialed historians must justify themselves, to some extent, in order to retain their reputations in the field. In such an environment, identification and punishment of scholarly misdeeds is far more likely to be swift, effective, and supported by consensus.

The story of the decline of liberal arts scholarship over the last thirty years is the story of a collection of academic disciplines bereft of purpose slowly sinking into the mire of aimless, meaningless, contentless self-absorption. Against these stand the few exceptional fields in which genuine demand from without fuels serious scholarly activity and motivates rigor and originality. L'affaire Bellesiles, far from giving the profession a black eye, actually demonstrates that American History is one of those areas still in the latter camp, and that academic disciplines, given a little bit of external oversight to keep them from yielding to temptation (and enough time to self-correct), can sometimes behave quite honorably.

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