Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The great crusade

Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy has devoted several recent posts (see them here, here, and here), in which he takes on an essay that historian Michael Bellesiles has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Bellesiles, it will be recalled, was widely, and apparently accurately, criticized for (ahem) bending the truth or simply fabricating data in his book Arming America, which argued that the notion of a gun culture in the U.S. was a fairly recent invention. Lindgren, apparently, was the person who led the charge in calling out Bellesiles.

The essay Lindgren is now critiquing is some thought piece on Bellesiles's experiences with a student who, he says, had a brother injured in Iraq. The point of the essay is more or less that war is bad and that the US uses the patriotism of the least advantaged to fill its military ranks. Mr. Lindgren has noted several inconsistencies in Bellesiles's account and has tried to demonstrate that the student's brother Bellesiles has written about could not have had the experiences Bellesiles recounted in the essay. Mr. Lindgren, apparently, has researched the number of injuries and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past year or so and found none that corresponds to what Bellesiles wrote.

I have very mixed feelings about this project. On the one hand, I haven't much sympathy for Bellesiles. His past performance probably rightly subjects him to higher scrutiny. And the decision to publish anything carries the implicit "risk" that one's facts will be checked. In that sense, what Mr. Lindgren is doing is entirely appropriate.

On the other hand, Mr. Lindgren seems to take an inordinate amount of glee in tailing Bellesiles. (I'm also not fully convinced that Lindgren has uncovered much of a damaging case because his refutations seem, to me, to be explainable, or at least potentially explainable and not in themselves particularly damning. Still, if Bellesiles's account is good, it should be able to withstand scrutiny. As my adviser once said, the "lying" strategy doesn't work.) It seems unbecoming, almost as if Mr. Lindgren has appointed himself the conscience of Bellesiles.

Still, motivations shouldn't matter. If Bellesiles's account is wrong, it is wrong regardless of whether Mr. Lindgren is a nice person. (While I'm making moral judgments, I should add that I have never met him personally, that he once courteously responded to a blog post I wrote about him, and that while he posts under his own name, I write my posts anonymously). And what better person to rely on to check another's facts than someone who has an interest in discrediting that person's facts? People who already agree with Bellesiles are likely not to devote sufficient time in calling him out. (I do, however, personally know one scholar who, early on, wrote about inconsistencies between Bellesiles's Arming America and what she knew of some of his source base. I don't know her views on gun control, but I suspect that whatever her views are, she doesn't have a lot of respect for the "oh-my-gawd-they're-gonna-take-my-guns" lobby.)

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