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Luker Blog Archives: 8-28-03 to 9-26-03

Luker Blog Archives




HEYRMAN REDUX ... 09-24-03

Timothy Burke, an assistant professor of history at Swarthmore, has posted on HNN a first rate rejoinder to my critique of Christine Heyrman's Southern Cross. It's so good that I don't understand what is wrong with the folk at Swarthmore. Look at his credentials. Give this fellow a promotion. He is a credit to the profession.
[Correction: David Salmanson corrects me about this. Burke is, of course, a fellow blogger and now a tenured associate professor at Swarthmore. I've added his"Easily Distracted" to my blogroll. My link to his credentials is out of date."It is, perhaps, an unintended irony in this discussion which is about evidence and its uses," David says,"that we get this kind of error." I laughed at myself when I read David's post. Thanks to him, I've cleaned up my mess. I'm waiting for Christine to clean up hers.]
Burke expands on a point earlier made by Caroline Ward here that much of my critique of Heyrman is no more than routine debate about matters of interpretation, to which I replied here. I replied to Burke at his original post, but here also for wider circulation. Here is Burke:

I'm somewhat disturbed by this particular criticism by Ralph Luker. Not because its substance is unfair or unjust, but because he chooses to link it to the Bellesiles case in a way that is rhetorically inflammatory but substantively deceptive, a sleight-of-hand ad hominem.

Let me say parenthetically that I admire the way that Bellesiles' critics stuck to their guns and called both Bellesiles himself and the profession to account. That was an important achievement, and they were especially correct that many academics were unprepared to hear the criticism because their political sympathies lay with Bellesiles.

But let's consider what Bellesiles' critics found, or at least what I think they found: they found that there was good reason to think that he'd outright falsified quantitative data. You can always defend an interpretation of textual material, though there are bad interpretations and good ones (and bad-faith interpretations and good-faith interpretations). Making up numbers (or making up texts) is another thing altogether.

As I read Luker's criticism of Heyrman here, much of the substance of it is an attack on the idea of"thesis-driven research". Well, first off, this is an old historiographical chestnut and for many reasons, most of them good, the vast majority of scholarly historians have turned their back on the kind of positivistic sensibility that would see having a thesis before you go into the archives as an intellectual sin.

More to the point, arguments about whether a historian's interpretation of material is in some respects strained or slanted in a particular way are the bread-and-butter of scholarly argument between historians. There's no need for the Sturm und Drang of Luker's critique here: all he's doing is what historians ordinarily do to each other, which is questioning a particular interpretation. No accusation required: this is just good, healthy scholarly argument.

Even the arguments here about numerical data are not about right and wrong, but about the basic difficulties involved in demographic assessments of populations prior to the modern era. Thousands of historians have struggled with those difficulties, and no"social scientist" could waft in on the wings of a dove and somehow do better, I think. In many cases, it's important to make the best guess you can (and to describe how you made your guess): the alternative is to say almost nothing quantitative at all about any period prior to 1850 in the US or Western Europe, and before 1900 in much of the rest of the world. In this respect, some of Luker's criticisms of Heynman's guesses seem fair enough, or at least a valuable debate, but they're not accusations of wrong-doing, or at least they shouldn't be.

This is an over-reach, and a dangerous one, because it muddies the waters about what was wrong with Bellesiles' work. Luker says he has no intent to propose"guilt by association" but this is what it comes close to. If historians are held to have committed unethical behavior for interpreting evidence and for making quantitative guesses from fragmentary data, then scholarly history (and indeed, almost all historical writing) is dead, or reduced to an undead positivistic corpse. Surely that's not what Luker has come to do?

Thinking about Glenda Gilmore's various accusations, my own comments, and Professor Burke's criticism reminds me of what Albany, Georgia's police chief, Laurie Pritchett, said to reporters when a demonstration got unruly. As rocks and bottles rained down on his police officers, Chief Pritchett asked:"Did you see all them nonviolent rocks?"

Let me be clear: Heyrman is not Bellesiles redux. Were there an inquiry, I would testify on her behalf. She should not share Michael's fate: not run out of the country, not run out of the profession, and not run out of her job. Her Bancroft should not be revoked nor her book pulped. I've said repeatedly, there is much that I admire in it, but she should publish a revised second edition of it.

So, why the Sturm und Drang? If Burke is disturbed, I am delighted. We should all be disturbed by having awarded Bancroft Prizes to deeply flawed books. Burke should be disturbed, not because Heyrman is Bellesiles redux, but because Bellesiles is Heyrman reflux. His book was modeled on hers and, as we rushed with praise of hers, so we rushed with praise of his. Unthinking, uncritical praise, except in obscure places.

Given a tip about a finding in an obscure place, I pursued its lead and was, frankly, astonished to find errors of the kind, if not the magnitude, in the teacher's book that recently had so much attention in her student's book. Given my findings, it would have been irresponsible of me not to take note of their relationship. It wasn't just an ordinary student/teacher relationship: same publisher, same editor, same Bancroft. Ultimately, I think, this a lesson both about what we publish and about what and how we teach.

I am happy to learn from Burke that"the vast majority of scholarly historians have turned their back on the kind of positivistic sensibility that would see having a thesis before you go into the archives as an intellectual sin." This is a sophisticated historian speaking, but if we have learned nothing else from the Bellesiles episode, surely it is that his sophistry must be revised. Such sophistry betrayed us. Historians who know what they will find before they look at evidence are simply propagandists. Bellesiles knew what he would find before he looked at the evidence and he shaped it to fit what he knew it would be. We wanted him to be right about that, but he wasn't. We had rewarded Heyrman for reshaping primary sources to say what they did not say, why wouldn't we reward him? We did.

How did Heyrman exemplify that for him? By using ellipses to cause a source to say what it did not originally say. She knew before hand that Jon Butler's magic/shaman thesis was provocative. He had found evidence to sustain it for his book. It must be there in all the sources she would consult. Lo, here's one. If I ellipse all the qualifiers, it will say what I want it to."Ralph Luker is an unemployed historian, who has a book which might have won a Pulitzer Prize." can be:"Ralph Luker is an ... historian, who ... won a Pulitzer Prize." I like that. It isn't true. But if I believe it before I go into the archives, I can make it so. I like the aspiration, but all the luck, the labor, and the sorrow, the real agony, are lost in the ellipses. Ultimately, I don't believe that"you can always defend an interpretation of textual material," neither"bad interpretations" nor"bad-faith interpretations." They are fabrications.

If I can ellipse the troubling qualifiers in small, as Heyrman and I just did, why can't I ellipse the troubling qualifiers in large? I can go to the archives with the thesis that no Holocaust occurred in Europe, that no lynchings occurred in the South, and that there were few guns in America before the Civil War. Troubling evidence to the contrary can be reshaped to sustain what I already believe. If you don't respect the hard contours of evidence, then anything can have been true and, however skilled at propaganda, you are no longer a historian.

I am no positivist, but objectivity is the impossible necessity or the necessary impossibility: impossible to achieve in any absolute sense, necessary as a valued goal to constrain fantasy. Empirical data should ground us in what is and was so. They should curb our flights of fancy. What value do they represent otherwise? My criticism of Heyrman's data was on four levels: a) the sources of her data were flawed by exclusions (she should have known that); b) even if you added up the numbers from her sources, as she claimed to have done, they didn't result in the numbers she reported; c) only one of the reasons that they did not is that she used incomparable numbers in some cases; and d) her quantitative errors repeatedly overcounted white folk and undercounted black folk The last quantitative blinder re-enforced a point about her qualitative evidence. I am astonished, given Burke's professional interests, that he so easily excuses work written about the South which still thinks Southern means"White." Michael's numbers feinted in the direction of empiricism. Christine's didn't. They were numerical abstractions, so despite the fact that we knew there were black Presbyerians, she could count all the Presbyterians as white. What's up with that? What is the difference between"a guess" and"making up numbers"? Or, for that matter, what's the difference between ellipsing a text so that it says what it didn't say and making up a text? Christine's"guesses" were poorly informed, but equally insistent ones. Stubborn wrong-headedness is foolish. I'm a witness.

Finally, to return to the"guilt by association" charge, I have linked student to teacher. I see nothing wrong with and much to be learned from doing that. My critics might as fairly link me to my greatest teacher, my rabbi, Will Herberg, the best I've ever known. His mind was encyclopedic, but Will was also a liar. He fabricated every one of the academic degrees he claimed in order to be able to teach. He lied about his age in order not to be forced to retire. Am I Herberg reflux? Please. I am not worthy of mention in the same breath.

Posted by Ralph 11:00 p.m. EDT

TAKING GLENDA OFF MY LIST ... 09-20-03

Bear with me. This takes some backgrounding. Almost a year ago now, my friend the Woodward Professor of History at Yale, Glenda Gilmore, published a Yale Daily Newsop-ed in opposition to American preparations for war in Iraq. Andrew Sullivan picked up a clip from it and gave her the Sontag Award for its predictably leftish remarks. Subsequently, Professor Gilmore curtly responded to Andrew here. The exchanges deteriorated from there. You can find them in Andrew's archives from mid-October 2002.

But Yale's Woodward Professor was taking a pretty heavy beating both on the net and in New Haven. Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass created a new Gilmore Award for"statements by public figures uttered in the same spirit as Glenda Gilmore's nasty ad hominem response to legitimate criticism of her ideas. Off-topic personal attacks, ethnic and gender slurs, and metaphoric accusations of terrorism are the qualities most admired by the judges in this category." In New Haven, the responses to Gilmore's op-ed on the Yale Daily News website were astonishing. Scan through all 297 of them if you wish (they're archived below the op-ed). Actually, that site has been cleaned up at Glenda's insistence after a torrent of vulgar abuse fell on her. Yale's pc filters had failed it. Recall all of the nasty sexist euphemisms you learned in your youth. They were all there at one time. I hadn't seen anything like it since a few students directed their most impressive five and six letter words at me at Antioch. So, I pitched in and defended the dignity of the professorate, Glenda Gilmore's integrity, and her right of free speech.

You can imagine my disappointment this week, then, when I included Yale's Woodward Professor of History among a group of historians to whom I circulated my posting of 17 September (scroll down) about problems in Christine Heyrman's Bancroft Prize winning book, Southern Cross. I'll let Glenda speak for herself:

I have enjoyed our warm emails in the past, and I will not forget that you came to my defense last year. I also read your initial piece that criticized Heyrman's book.
You have brought your concerns to Professor Heyrman and to her publishers, and you have posted them on the internet. By doing so, you have put them in the court of public opinion for consideration as well.
Your email below [simply the 17 September posting] seems neither constructive nor kind. The only thing that I can imagine it will accomplish is to upset Professor Heyrman and increase pressure on her to engage you in some sort of public debate. I don't know her, but since she knows of your criticisms, I'm sure that she is concerned about them and is checking into them.
It feels rude to me to demand that she answer you, and it feels threatening to send a group email to get her to do so. It is up to her to decide if she wants to continue to correspond with you or answer you in a public forum.
All I can do is point out to you that this crosses my boundaries of civility, and that I would appreciate your taking me off this list.

"Kind!""Threatening!""Rude!""Boundaries of Civility!" I'd show you unkind, threatening, rude, and incivility, Glenda, but you demanded that they wipe the"b" words and the"s" words off the YDN's website. If you want to see"unkind" and"rude," look back at the below the belt punches you threw at Andrew Sullivan last October. Surely, you haven't forgotten your own high toned remarks about his immigrant status, the trajectory of his career, and such personal matters. Ad hominem seemed good to you then. I haven't engaged in it. But here's the kicker:"It feels rude to me to demand that she answer you, and it feels threatening to send a group email to get her to do so." That's classical language for:"You are a male who is criticizing the work of a female historian. You had best back off, you sexist, you." Properly arrayed, of course, such language would immunize the work of all female historians from criticism by all male historians. It's the gender card and the best female historians know that it's a cheap shot. Glenda's getting a lot of experience with them.

But there's more than meets the eye going on here. Glenda's at Yale; Christine won her Ph.D. there; and Christine's misuse of ellipses was in order to find evidence in the South for the magic/shaman thesis of Yale's Jon Butler. What's mere fabrication among members of the Yale Club when we're scratching each other's backs? Right? We have to pretend that there's nothing wrong when a Yale Ph.D. goes out to teach and she publishes a Bancroft Prize winning book, which is itself deeply flawed, and her teaching produces a student whose own Bancroft Prize winning book reflects and deepens the flaws in her own. Most sadly, Glenda's e-mail to me lacks any sense that there is anything amiss in our having given our highest honors to deeply flawed work.

So, I answered Yale's Woodward Professor:

Many thanks for this. The honesty of its criticism is what I have always valued in our exchanges.
I attempted such an exchange with Christine. Her concession of error was both the narrowest possible and, itself, misleading. Had I thought that the exchange was an honest one, I would not have published the article or called further attention to it.
As you may know, I am a Southerner and a gentleman. Civility stands fairly high on my scale of values. The recent embarrassments to our profession, however, leave mere civility impotent. Like sincerity, it's a second-rate virtue. It always depends on what one is being civil or sincere about.
My civility twice went to lunch with Michael Bellesiles after his debacle and long after his Emory colleagues had begun to shun him. We had fine repasts, but as soon as grace was said, I told him that I didn't believe him.
I may be wrong, but I think we've a sort of professional crisis on our hands and we will avoid confronting it if we can. It sure is easier to be civil if we do. A little brutal honesty with each other, as yours with me and mine with Christine, is necessary. Her book became no longer just her book when it won the Bancroft.

Rest assured, Glenda: However distinguished the faculty of Yale's history department, and it is distinguished, it has its own responsibility for the embarrassment to the history profession.

Update: Erin O'Connor and David Beito take note of the controversy at Critical Mass and Liberty and Power. Previously, it's been noted by Instapundit, Moby Lives (scroll down), and the Emory Wheel.

Posted by Ralph 11:30 p.m.

AGAINST MODERNITY ... 09-20-03

H. D. S. Greenaway quotes President Harry S Truman to the effect that:"There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know." How odd that someone so deeply American would have said something so deeply unAmerican. We are enthralled by the new, certain that modernity sweeps all the world inexorably into its camp, and that it's our way or no way. Here are two essays that in quite different ways raise questions about our illusions:

a) In the days before Vatican II, it took Joan of Arc 600 years to win recognition as a saint. Mother Theresa seems likely to win such recognition in little more than 6 years. What's the hurry?

b) Remember the last time the United States tried to modernize the Middle East? H. D. S. Greenaway reviews Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and Middle East Terror. It strikes me as a very important book.

Posted by Ralph 1:00 p.m. EDT

HISTORIAN JOKES ... 09-20-03

HNN's current Grapevine set me in search of historian jokes, where else? Goggle. The results were pretty lame, but here they are:

1) British historian David Irving said Thursday night that Adolph Hitler was unaware of the mass killing of Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
... Irving said that professors float historical claims like a"Goodyear blimp" and are waiting for someone to come along and prick it.
"I AM THAT PRICK," he said.
– The Daily Californian (UC Berkeley student paper), 2/27/89, p. 1,"Holocaust exaggerated, British historian claims"

2) Two historians, one Chinese, one Jewish, are comparing notes.
Says the Chinese historian:"You know, we have the world's oldest culture. It goes back 4,000 years!"
"Sorry, we have that beat," the Jewish historian."Our culture is 5,000 years old!"
The Chinese historian's mouth gapes."Wow! Where did your people eat for 1,000 years?"
– BeliefNet

3)A historian, an engineer and a statistician are duck hunting. A duck rises from the lake. The historian fires first, and shoots 10' over the duck. Then the engineer shoulders the shotgun and shoots 10' under the duck. The statistician exclaimed"got him!".
– Gregory Zarow

4)Then there was the one about the traveling historian and the farmer's daughter ...

A traveling historian whose car has broken down goes to the door of the closest farmhouse. The farmer says,"You can spend the night but you'll have to share a room with my beautiful daughter.""Oh, I don't mind that," exclaims the historian."Just one thing," says the farmer."No funny business.""Oh no sir," says the historian."You can count on me." Just to be safe, the farmer builds a wall of eggs between the two beds in the daughter's room. In the middle of the night, the historian can no longer control himself, busts through the eggs and has his way with the farmer's daughter. They take the rest of the night piecing the eggs back together one by one and rebuilding the wall. The next morning, the farmer goes to his daughter's room and takes a couple eggs to the kitchen to make breakfast. Cracking open the first egg, of course, produces nothing. Cracking open the second egg, likewise. The farmer pokes his head out the window and yells,"OK, which one of you roosters is using a rubber?"
Adapted from Raneboux

Posted by Ralph 1:00 p.m. EDT

THOMAS A. EDISON AND THE DEATH PENALTY ... 09-20-03

How did we get to the electric chair? Maybe you knew this story already, but I didn't. It's really quite remarkable. Maybe it tells us some things about ourselves that we'd rather not know. Anyway, The Economistreviews Mark Essig's new book, Edison & The Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death.

Posted by Ralph 1:00 a.m. EDT

NEED A DIVERSION ? ... 09-20-03

Had a beastly week? Need a break from serious thought? Try this. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the tip.

Posted by Ralph 1:00 a.m. EDT

MOCKING ANDREW ... 09-19-03

If David Brooks is the Left's favorite conservative, Andrew Sullivan has to be the Left's favorite conservative to mock. I'm a fan of both David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, but I'm afraid that Eric Alterman's got Andrew here:

Bob Hope Award: Andy is"not reassured that [Wesley Clark} has what it takes to wage a war on terror." Well, that changes everything. I mean, Clark is only the former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. But Andy, on the other hand, is a Gaycatholictoryredbaitingweblogger. That's definitely more impressive when it comes to knowing how to wage a war. Well, that's that for Clark, I guess. Coming next: Andy is not reassured that Isabel has what it takes to wage a Category 2 hurricane.
As Eric must have very well known, Andrew had already done the coming attraction here. Jack O'Toole and Ted Barlow call Andrew out on this one, too.

A Fair and Balanced Update: Gay, Catholic right-wingers aren't the only ones who thought Isabel was a woz. Josh Marshall thought so, too. Of course, he has more positive things to say about Wesley Clark and that has to count for something.

Posted by Ralph 3:00 p.m. EDT

LOTT-TIPPING ... 09-19-03

The balances of opinion about John Lott's credibility seem now to be tipping heavily against him. Northwestern's Jim Lindgren has weighed in with his doubts here. Glenn Reynolds joins him in doubt here. It's time for Clayton Cramer to belly up to the bar. It isn't enough to claim the Lott is credible because you want him to be credible.

Posted by Ralph 1:00 p.m. EDT

OXBLOG AND THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE ... 09-19-03

On 6 September (scroll down), I lamented that her friends at Oxblog were indisposed because there were rumors that Burma's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi was still in detention and on a hunger strike. Burma authorities disputed the report, but no external observer had recently been allowed to visit her. We can update those reports now. Suu Kyi is still in detention, but Red Cross officials have seen her. She is currently recovering from surgery. Oxblog is blogging again, but it has said little about Burma lately.

Pointing to thisWashington Post op-ed by Vaclav Havel, Arpad Goncz, and Lech Walesa, Havel's The Power of the Powerless, this recent address by and this profile of Havel, Oxblog's Josh Chafetz argues that a Nobel Prize for Vaclav Havel is long overdue. He's right about that. Havel is not in good health. Chafetz summons Glenn Reynolds, Eugene Volokh, Jacob Levy, Daniel Drezner, and the rest of the blogprofessoriate to nominate Havel. Professors in the social sciences, history, philosophy, law, and theology have the right to nominate candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Posted by Ralph 12:15 a.m. EDT

CAMPBELL'S IS A PIKER ... 09-18-03

There's a lady out in Utah who is suing Campbell's Soup Company because she found a human tooth in her soup bowl. Bad enough, I suppose, but I've seen worse. I was teaching at a residential prep school for African American students in rural Georgia that year. At meals, my faculty colleagues and I were always seated at two tables apart from the students in the dining room. One day for lunch, some of my fellow teachers were unhappy about the fare of white navy beans, corn bread, and collard greens. Hungry enough, however, we determined to eat what we had, until ..., one of my fellow teachers pulled from her navy beans the jaw bone of a cow. It had a whole set of teeth in it. That didn't make the dietician very popular among us.

Posted by Ralph 11:00 p.m. EDT

WORD GETS AROUND ... 09-17-03

Four months ago, at the urging of a former president of the American Historical Association, I exchanged e-mail with Christine Heyrman of the University of Delaware's history department about some qualitative and quantitative problems I had found in her book, Southern Cross. Within a month, the exchange convinced me that Heyrman was not interested in correcting its problems, so I published my findings in "Did Another Bancroft Winner Have Trouble Counting?" on History News Network. I noted, in particular, that they were strangely like the problems which had been identified in another Bancroft Prize winning book by her student, Michael Bellesiles's Arming America. Heyrman exercised her option of answering my criticism here.

The exchange won consideration attention with a link from Instapundit. I called it to the attention of Heyrman's publishers at Random House and the University of North Carolina Press, which owns the paperback rights to the book. I also responded to Heyrman's very narrow allowance of problems with the book in posts on"Welcome to My World ..." on 16 June, 18 June, and 22 June, here (scroll down).

Beyond her initial reply, Heyrman would not be drawn into a public discussion of the problems in Southern Cross, so, I gave it a rest, to post about other important things like Okra and Estonian Wife Carrying. On 22 July, however, Moby Lives posted a notice about the controvery. Unfortunately, Moby Lives seems not to archive its back issues, but I took note of its posting the next day, here (scroll down). I called that to the attention of Heyrman's and my publisher at the University of North Carolina Press, as well. Through it all, I noticed that someone from the University of Delaware was keeping a close eye on"Welcome To My World ..." and I welcomed the readership. Now, the Emory Wheel has taken note of the controversy. Really, Christine, all I care about is that you show some real professional pride in your Bancroft Prize winning book. Get Random House and UNC Press committed to a revised edition of it; don't misuse ellipses this time around; use comparable date; and do the additions correctly.

Posted by Ralph 2:00 a.m. EDT

A GREAT CARTOON ... 09-17-03

A great cartoon can be, at once, deeply offensive and very amusing. I'd say that this one in the Guardian makes that point. Thanks to Atrios for the tip.

Posted by Ralph 1:30 a.m. EDT

THE FRENCH TOKEN THE DEAD ... 09-16-03

For nearly 130 years, George Sand's remains have been in her family cemetery in the French village of Nohant. Now there is an effort to move them to the Panthéon, a secular mausoleum of the luminaries in Paris. Similarly, the remains of Alexandre Dumas were recently moved from his home in Villers-Cotterets to the Paris mausoleum because he was of mixed race. The villagers in Nohant are resisting the move of Sand's remains because she is buried exactly where she wished to be. No one doubts that Sand and Dumas deserve ranking among the notables, but must their remains be disturbed by the 21st century's multi-cultural issues?

Posted by Ralph 5:00 p.m. EDT

TODD GITLIN ON DAVID BROOKS ... 09-16-03

Three days ago, I noted that the snarks were circling David Brooks. I thought that the criticism there was petty. No one is immune to a thoughtful critical look, however. In The American Prospect, Todd Gitlin poses some good questions for the Left's favorite conservative.

Posted by Ralph 5:00 p.m. EDT

CLARK IN ... 09-16-03

Retired General Wesley Clark will

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