Historians Misbehaving Wonderfully

Historians in Trouble,written by UC Irvine historian and The Nation contributing editor Jon Wiener, is a quasi-academic book about “misconduct” in the history profession—research fraud, plagiarism, classroom conduct unbecoming a prof—but I'm not a historian nor was meant to be, and this isn't going to be an academic review. The book is interested not only in cases of professional or moral misconduct but also in why some of them have become media spectacles—front-page news or fodder for cable-news ruminations—while others slid under the cultural radar. Wiener concludes, with the kind of prudence and utter reasonableness that characterize previous books like Come Together, one of his two books on John Lennon, that the historians who get in “trouble” in the media are the ones who piss off important and organized interest groups. And he says that these important interest groups usually come from the Right, who understand that the left-leaning (in the humanities, anyway) academic world is one of the battlegrounds in the culture war they need to win if they're to perpetuate their growing ideological hegemony in the U.S.

Fair enough. Wiener tells the story of 12 historians in 11 concise chapters, outlining how they get in trouble—they cheat on their research, they plagiarize, they lie, they harass their students—and how and why their stories either get picked up in the media or not. He talks a lot about the standards and practices of the history profession, and a lot about outside power groups like the NRA, which insinuate themselves into academic debate in shameless and highly distorting ways when it serves their purposes. In the course of telling these stories, though, Wiener uncovers some very weird people doing very strange things—people and things that are so interesting in themselves that I stopped seeing Wiener's (reasonably and responsibly argued) forest for some of his bizarre trees. And in the end, I couldn't get that stuff out of my head, and I wished someone like Saul Bellow, who specialized in fictionalizing academic nuts, were still around to work Wiener's stories up.

Not that some of Wiener's tales aren't compelling in their own way. Take the story of Michael Bellesiles, the UCI-trained historian (and Weiner's former student) who wrote Arming America, a study that purports to show through careful archival research that gun ownership in America has been vastly exaggerated in the early years of the republic—a thesis that, if proved, would make mincemeat of the Right's claim that the U.S. is historically a gun culture and should remain so. Through an examination of, among other things, probate records, Bellesiles showed that there were a lot fewer guns around—and many fewer gun murders—in the 17th and 18th centuries than we thought, and his case was so compelling that he was lauded by leading historians like Garry Wills and Edmund Morgan and came away with the Bancroft Prize for the best book of the year on American history. The problem was that a small portion of Bellesiles' research on probate records turned out to be faulty, and a flood in his office destroyed many of the records backing up his work. This was serious stuff in the academic world, and it required that Bellesiles confess to his fuck-ups and make corrections in a future edition, which he did. Only that wasn't the end of it: Bellesiles had made the mistake of criticizing Charlton Heston and the NRA in the introduction to his book, and you pay for shit like that. Bellesiles started getting hounded by guys in leather jackets on his lecture tour asking hectoring questions and handing out brochures called “The Lies of Michael Bellesiles”; a campaign was mounted by Internet gun activists (on Shooters.com and other dubious places) and conservative intellectuals to spread the vitriol, and eventually Bellesiles was severely disciplined by his university. The mass media, egged on by a gun lobby eager to discredit Bellesiles and his thesis, picked up the story big time. Wiener argues meticulously that Bellesiles' errors were serious but don't essentially damage the legitimacy of the book's central argument and laments how the gun lobby tramped all over a serious historical work just because they didn't like its conclusions.

What I want to know, though, is who are those dudes in the leather jackets? I know Wiener's argument is important (if not exactly surprising) if you're a historian or someone simply interested in how ideas get circulated or suppressed in America, but I couldn't get those guys out of my head. There are a bunch of people like that in this book whom Wiener reports on, but whose comic or otherwise human interest he doesn't seem to notice. (I know, that's not his subject; it's not his fault.) There's, for instance, conservative think tank author John Lott, who, when called on to produce part of his research by skeptics, invented story after shameless story until it became clear he'd invented it out of whole cloth. And not only that: a website set up to defend Lott against criticisms of his book by a woman named Mary Rosh turned out to be written by Lott himself. What is up with this man, and how does he look at himself in the mirror?

Then there's the case of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an ivory tower Leona Helmsley who made her doctoral students clean her house, walk her dog and give her parties, and if they didn't pay her obeisance, she threatened to ruin their academic careers. There are also the union guys who defended one Dino Cinel, a defrocked Catholic priest and City University of New York professor whom the university tried to fire when it was discovered that he'd made 160 hours of pornographic tapes with boys. Wiener also gives us Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who not only plagiarized parts of a book but secretly paid off the woman she plagiarized as long as she promised to keep her mouth shut. Finally, there's the story of Joseph Ellis, another Pulitzer winner for his work on the Founding Fathers, who in lectures he gave in a course on the Vietnam War, invented a whole past for himself in which he not only served in battle in Southeast Asia but became an antiwar and civil-rights activist upon his return. How does an otherwise brilliant and responsible historian hallucinate himself into such situations? Wiener, who (understandably, I guess) cares about the ethics of Ellis' case more than anything else, dismisses the “psychologizing” of those who attempt to ask such questions, but to me they're far more interesting than whether Ellis should have been fired or merely put on unpaid leave for a year.

Wiener's book is superb on its own terms. But Historians in Trouble is also pretty great raw material for a book of fictional portraits on academic weirdness that I'd love to read even more—call it Twelve Stories in Search of a Less Responsible Author.


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