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The Crisis in History: A Review of the Three Books Written About the Scandals

After the earthquake and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, we should reserve the word "crisis" for catastrophic events. The history scandals are not catastrophic. They don't rank with 9/11. Oceans quaked and edifices fell, but no lives were immediately lost. The history scandals do not even rank with Enron. Small empires collapsed, but no millions of dollars disappeared. Even so, the scandals that broke over American history in 2002 signaled a kind of crisis -- a crisis of confidence in those who are stewards of our national history. We learned that historians plagiarize, commit fraud, and create false impressions.

Just as reports about 9/11 and Enron took several years to emerge, so Peter Charles Hoffer's Past Imperfect, Ron Robin's Scandals & Scoundrels, and Jon Wiener's Historians in Trouble, the first mature reflections on the major scandals that shook American historians two years ago, have just appeared. They place the scandals in different contexts. For the University of Georgia's Hoffer, the historians' scandals are just that -- deeply flawed professional exercises which are rooted in the American practice of history itself. For Robin, a historian at Israel's University of Haifa, the history scandals should be understood in the context of a contemporary crisis over the nature of all knowledge in the humanities and social sciences. Wiener, who teaches at the University of California at Irvine, sees the scandals as political exercises, in which rightwing-leaning offenders are rescued from the consequences of their behavior, while leftwing victims of witch hunts are hung out to dry.

So, Hoffer's Past Imperfect gives us a quick sketch of the history of doing history in the United States and reminds us that each era wrote its own imperfect remembrance of the past. The contemporary plagiarism of a Stephen Ambrose or a Doris Kearns Goodwin are related to the plagiarisms of the nineteenth century's George Bancroft or Francis Parkman. Robin's Scandals & Scoundrels insists that the fraud committed in Michael Bellesiles's Arming America or the deception of Joseph Ellis's telling his students that he served in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement are better understood alongside major scandals among anthropologists: that the lives of Margaret Mead's young Samoans were a figment of her imagination, that James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon exploited and contributed to the devastation of the Yanomami people of the Amazon Valley, or that Rigoberta Menchu's autobiography of a Guatamalan Indian was fiction. The most recent history scandals are best understood, Wiener counters, in comparison with other history scandals: allegations of sexual harassment and physical abuse against Emory University's Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and David Garrow, of racism against Harvard's Stephen Thernstrom, of fraud against Princeton's David Abraham, the Getty Institute's Mike Davis, and the American Enterprise Institute's John Lott, of sexual exploitation of minors against CUNY's Dino Cinel; and of astonishing carelessness against Franklin and Marshall's Edward Pearson.

At the heart of all three books, however, are the charges against four prominent American historians: Mt. Holyoke's Joseph Ellis for making false claims about himself to his students; Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin for plagiarism; and Michael Bellesiles for fraudulent reports in his book, Arming America. What we know now is that all four of them were essentially guilty as charged.

Confronted with the evidence against him, Ellis acknowledged his error, was suspended without pay for a year, and has re-entered his career. Ironically, Hoffer presents a persuasive case that, as Ellis increasingly identified himself with his subjects, the Founding Fathers, and their own recreations of heroic selves, he both became a more skillful and a more deceptive historian. Hoffer also convincingly shows that Ambrose committed plagiarism throughout his highly successful career. In the end, his only defense was that he was a writer, not an academic. If he were a writer, you might ask, why was he plagiarizing? Hoffer and Wiener agree that Doris Kearns Goodwin's plagiarism was not so egregious as that of Stephen Ambrose, but Goodwin had made the mistake of paying for a cover-up of charges against her fifteen years before they became public. Hoffer and Wiener are in greatest disagreement over the fraud charges against Emory's Michael Bellesiles. Hoffer insists that professional historians must confront the fact that we awarded our highest honors to a work that committed fraud. Wiener remains Bellesiles's most sympathetic advocate among contemporary American historians.

For Ron Robin, the telling case is that of Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, who published an intentionally non-sensical article in the trendy, post-modernist journal, Social Text. In their glee at having found an ally in the hard sciences, the po-mos at Duke published Sokal's non-sense. With that one gesture, he exposed the vanity of post-modern humanities and social sciences and underscored the crisis of contemporary academic knowledge. If all the world is a text and the text has no inherent meaning, non-sense makes as much sense as anything else. The problem with such a result is that all judgments about plagiarism and fraud, about deception and exploitation, are no more -- and no less -- than the findings of those who have influence and power. It doesn't empower us to reach particular findings.

Though Hoffer and Wiener reach different findings, they are both after more practical results. Working his way through cases against a dozen American historians, Wiener argues that historians on the Left have too often taken a hit because they had no powerful advocate outside the academy, whereas historians on the Right who faced charges against them have often survived because they had powerful non-academic allies. Like his friend, Michael Bellesiles, Wiener cherry-picks his evidence to build his case. The accusation against Stephen Thernstrom, as he even admits, was no serious charge, but Wiener makes it evidence that a conservative historian survived serious attack, ultimately to be rewarded for braving the forces of "political correctness." I don't know why Edward Pearson, whose astonishingly inept book was withdrawn from publication, remains chairman of a history department today, while Michael Bellesiles, whose astonishingly misleading book was withdrawn from publication, is now unemployed. But I do know that Jon Wiener minimizes the import of Bellesiles's quantitative falsification and utterly ignores his qualitative errors. When every qualitative error in a book is an error in the direction of the book's thesis, you have prima facie evidence of fraud. Pearson may have been remarkably inept and naive, but no one accused him of purposive fraud.

If you read only one of these three books about the history crisis, read Hoffer's Past Imperfect. It is the work of a historian who cares deeply about the responsibilities of American historians. His effort to place our current crisis in the context of where we have been in the past is, I think, very enlightening. Even Hoffer's Past is imperfect. Most contemporary historians will be surprised that he calls all American history written prior to 1965 "consensus history." Most of us regard "consensus history" as a reading of our past that flourished rather briefly between 1945 and 1965. Hoffer is capable of discrete errors, as well. James Brewer Stewart is not "a former dean at Macalester University in Toronto," which does not exist. He is a former dean of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Yet, that is a useful reminder that even historians who care passionately about accuracy are capable of error. Hoffer delivers a very tough message to American historians and pulls no punches. A former president of the American Historical Association, Eric Foner, signed a "friend of the court" legal brief that directly conflicted with his own published work, says Hoffer. Peter Charles Hoffer's book is a lover's quarrel with his professional peers.