Blogs > Cliopatria > Bingo

Sep 1, 2004 4:07 pm


Eugene Volokh responds to the Historians' Committee for Fairness and their statement on Michelle Malkin's work on Japanese internment, and pretty much hits a hole in one.

As a persuasive statement, it is inept--it essentially pins a target to its head and begs Malkin and whatever few defenders she might have to fire away at the giant bullseye. The ineptitude is typical, and the kind of thing that makes you want the AHA to hold a sort of boot camp to train people who might want to issue statements to the media.

As Volokh comments, all the historians really needed to do in this case was say,"This book is wildly and offensively incorrect on innumerable matters of fact" and suggest that any media outlet that wants to have Malkin on as a commentator get a qualified historian to balance out her presentation. Given that Malkin has so far tended to melt into a pile of goo when confronted with inconvenient things like"what actually happened" or"the ethical content of an argument", that seems to not only be a fair but likely efficacious request in checking the public influence of her work.

Instead, the Committee for Fairness got all bollixed up in criticizing Malkin for relying on secondary sources--something that we actually should hope writers and intellectuals will do when writing about the past--and in publishing something that wasn't peer reviewed. Do we really want to insist that everyone who wants to write or talk about history has to wait three years while august scholars check their work?

It's enough to say she's wrong--and perhaps direct people to a short but potent description of her errors compiled by scholars--and demand that anyone who wants to cover her work get a real expert in the picture to balance things out. All the rest of the appeal is not only unnecessary, but sounds like the classic caricature of the snob professioriate as domineering control freaks.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 9/1/2004

Right. I think that Volokh, Burke, you and I are all in agreement that, whatever the merit or lack of merit in Malkin's book, the historians did a poor job in drafting their letter of criticism.

Charles V. Mutschler - 9/1/2004

I think we are substantially in agreement. I've got a general skepticism toward the idea that imprisoning our own citizens was a positive response to the perceived problem. And, it is true, that the publishers rather than the authors have a lot to do with the way peer review is handled. If it is even conducted at all. Your point about Knopf is a good one. But, why did the Historians Committee For Fairness even bring up peer review? You've simply added another reason why they were not wise to introduce the subject in their treatment of this book. As you so aptly note, they criticized the wrong things, and did not suppoprt their argument that Malkin's work has errors of scholarship.

Always a pleasure reading your thoughtful comments.

Charles V. Mutschler

Ralph E. Luker - 9/1/2004

I would agree with you, except that the Historians' committee erred primarily in its focus. Malkin has no claim to being a historian or a scholar and people who are historians shouldn't be making claims about her work that are not the appropriate ones to make. I suspect that her work is riddled with errors. The historians' committee should have aimed at that problem and documented it. All the stuff about peer review, etc, is distraction. It doesn't enlighten the issue here very much to bring up the Bellesiles case, because Bellesiles's work was to be judged with the understanding that he was a scholar. Peer review in his case was a hit or miss proposition. A flawed peer review process took place on the early article in the JAH, but it appears likely that it had no significant peer review as a book manuscript from Knopf. Publishers of books, not the authors of books, determine whether peer review occurs.

Charles V. Mutschler - 9/1/2004

Not only does the Historians Committee For Fairness seem to have written an incredibly inept response to Malkin's book, but they seem to have overlooked a few other problems. The claim that the book should have undergone peer review would be more convincing if the Bellesile case and the almost religous faith in his work were not so recent. Peer review failed rather badly there. And then there is the claim that only historians should write history. Very good - how does the committee feel about Philp Nobile's work in the field of history? Would someone on the committee like to remind me of Mr. Nobile's training and credentials as a historian?

If Malkin's work is full of false statements, and other evidence of sloppy scholarship, that is something to criticize. And justly so. But that seems to be precisely what the committee did not do. I have no brief for either party in this sad affiar. But it sure seems to give people who want to criticize the profession a lot more evidence to work with.

Charles V. Mutschler

Ralph E. Luker - 9/1/2004

I was making my way back from the house of Volokh to the land of Cliopatria with this message earlier today, only to find that you had gotten here first and, as usual, said it more eloquently.