The Current Crisis

Charlatans’ Progress

Does the resignation of Professor Michael Bellesiles from Emory University in Atlanta signify a modification in university values?

By 10.30.02

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Washington -- Does the sudden resignation of Professor Michael Bellesiles from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, signify a modification in university values? Is the American university turning its back on change, on Progress?

Professor Bellesiles is the author of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Arguing that early Americans even on the frontier rarely possessed guns and that gun ownership today is based on a myth that guns were always a part of American life, the book was widely celebrated by progressives when published in October of 2000. It even won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for history from Columbia University. Shortly after publication scholars -- mainly, I presume, reactionaries -- began questioning the book's research.

They claimed that Professor Bellesiles simply made up probate records from the Eighteenth Century, supposedly showing that very few guns were bequeathed in the wills of early Americans -- and those that were in the wills were rusty old heirlooms, often inoperable. Professor Bellesiles' critics went on to claim that much of his other evidence was bogus or willfully misinterpreted. They called him a faker. Most of the probate records he cited had been destroyed in a 1906 flood. When he failed to produce the probate records and gave spurious explanations, the critics accused him of deception. Well, so what?

Progressives had leaped on the book as evidence, once again, that traditional ideas of America's past are hogwash. Said the learned Garry Wills in the New York Times Book Review, "Bellesiles deflates the myth of the self-reliant and self-armed virtuous yeoman of the Revolutionary militias." Said Edmund Morgan in the New York Review of Books, "He has the facts. [N]o one else has put them together in so compelling a refutation of the mythology of the gun."

Now an academic panel, composed of scholars from Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, has reviewed Arming America and accused Professor Bellesiles of "unprofessional and misleading work." The panel's report goes on to say Professor Bellesiles' failure to produce his research documents or to interpret those that do exist accurately "does move into the realm of falsification." Professor Bellesiles has responded by tendering his resignation to Emory, saying he "cannot continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment."

This is a very troubling development in the world of academe. American universities have for years been open to new ideas, new intellectual movements. Think of Cold War revisionism or Critical Legal Studies, and out in California was there not a Department of Literature propounding Nudism? Now Emory University, and scholars from three venerable universities are saying that the publication of "misleading work" and "falsification" are somehow reprehensible. Truth be known such practices are part of a new intellectual movement that dazzles -- the New Charlatans. It has rallied to its side some of the country's most renowned academics, all-stars in the Pulitzer Prize lineup, for instance, Harvard's Pulitzer Prize laureate, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Mount Holyoke's Pulitzer Prize laureate Joseph Ellis, along with the late Stephen Ambrose, Professor Louis W. Roberts, until recently chairman of the classics department at the State University at Albany in New York and David Brock.

Resorting to plagiarism, false documentation, and general prevarication, the New Charlatans build on what remains one of the jewels of academic thought, Deconstructionism, which argues that with the printed word there is no such thing as certainty or truth. No professor that I know of has been asked to leave a university because he was a Deconstructionist.

Yet things are not going well for the New Charlatans. Stephen Ambrose was castigated for lifting lines from other writers. Goodwin resigned from the Pulitzer Prize board after acknowledging that earlier published work included passages filched without attribution from another author. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis was suspended for a year for lying to his students about his service in the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and his high school football career. Professor Roberts resigned his position after accusations that he plagiarized from others scholars, representing more than fifty pages of Latin translations as his own. Call this, if you will, an academic reign of terror.

There is even talk that Professor Bellesiles may have his Bancroft Prize taken from him. On the other hand, Columbia University may stand by Bellesiles. It has thus far, and the evidence that Bellesiles is a New Charlatan has been in the public domain for well over a year. Moreover, the fact that so many distinguished scholars have been revealed as plagiarists and hoaxers suggests that throughout academe, especially in the humanities where so-called truth is so easily politicized, there are many New Charlatans at work. They may well represent the wave of the future. Columbia would not want to obstruct the future.

For my part I shall have nothing to do with this harassment of a significant intellectual movement. At The American Spectator I sit on the literary committee that gave Arming America the 2001 J. Gordon Coogler Award. We have no plans to rescind it. It is always given for the Worst Book of the Year. As things stand now, the Coogler Committee has a better record for respecting standards than the Pulitzer Committee.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.