Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, the senior Conspirator posts two comments which, it seems to me, are classic examples of his wisdom. The first of these,"Respect the Box," points out that the urge to"think outside the box" actually misdirects our attention about 95% of the time. Important as it is to be willing to challenge conventional wisdom or accumulated knowledge, it has become conventional and is assumed to be knowledge for good reason. So, he suggests, that, whenever we are inclined to"think outside the box," we must also"respect the box." For historians, it seems to me, that means that, whenever we enter on a revisionist agenda, we do it knowing full well that we assume the full burden of proof and that we do so against a tide of accumulated knowledge and understandings. If our evidence is shoddy, we have only set ourselves up for a mighty fall and deservedly so.
The other Volokh classic is his commentary on the allegations of plagiarism against Harvard's Laurence Tribe. Volokh's readers had e-mailed him that they were surprised that he had not commented on the allegations. In the first place, he says, just because I blog and you care about an issue doesn't mean that I have to take a position on it. This is a point Volokh has made before when the folks at Crooked Timber were prodding him about some issue or other. Volokh then carefully outlines the accusations, citing sources, and reaches a conclusion which comports with Tribe's own public acknowledgments. He also carefully points out that he does not speak for his fellow conspirators.
Now, compare Volokh's reaction to that of former Conspirator, Clayton Cramer. Invoking my name, he takes the occasion of Tribe's embarrassment as further evidence of academic professionals' lack of professional standards. Now, I have to admit to being vaguely amused when Will Baude at Crescat Sententia says:"Lawrence Tribe has taken ‘full responsibility' for his failure to attribute some material in his book, thus proving that the art of the apology-without-resignation is not limited to the Secretary of Defense." But I don't take Tribe's embarrassment as anything like so disastrous for the national welfare as Donald Rumsfeld's recklessness. Nor am I sympathetic with Cramer's whining that he has to observe standards of evidence that he claims professional historians often blithely ignore. If high standards of evidence are important, Clayton, you would want to meet them, regardless of what other people do.
Nor, to complete the Volokh circle, do I, simply because I blog, have to express an opinion simply because you care passionately about an issue. You cared passionately about Bellesiles and the Second Amendment. I reserved judgment, for all the reasons Volokh mentions in re Tribe, until authorized experts rendered their judgment. Bellesiles thought outside the box. His evidence was shoddy. He took a mighty fall. You want to tell me now that you should be accountable to a lower standard of evidence than Bellesiles or a lower standard of attribution than Tribe simply because you're not an academic professional? Give me a break! Give me Volokh's wisdom any time over Cramer's passion.