Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | July 7, 2010

Check yo’self

Ongoing scandal news, now!

Disgraced historian Michael A. Bellesiles recently published an article on the pitfalls of teaching military history to servicemen. Bellesiles is famous (enough to have a wiki entry) for falsifying some data and ignoring other data in Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The book won the Bancroft Prize in 2002, as well as some other awards, before people got wise about Bellesiles’s dubious methodology. In the wake of the scandal he resigned his post at Emory. I don’t know all the sordid details of the case, nor have I read the full report, but it seems from the outside like a textbook case of letting one’s thesis dictate the veracity and importance of evidence. The whole Bellesiles explosion is especially interesting given that the thesis he advances in the book–that guns were less important to our eighteenth-century forbears than is currently remembered–seems like it should have appealed to the cadre of academics who presided over Bellesiles’s downfall.

Now Megan McArdle at the Atlantic is just one of a number of bloggers and academics keeping tabs on Bellesiles. This seems like a good thing. Bellesiles demonstrated a willingness to play fast and loose with historical truth, and now readers are justifiably gun shy about his words. Makes sense.

But I can’t help but think about the fascinating case of Eliot Spitzer, the one-time governor of New York who fell hard in a prostitution scandal in 2008. (You guys totally remember this one.) At the time, I remember thinking that Spitzer’s sad case would end the way most of these scandals end: the disgraced politician would plead for privacy, then fade slowly into the obscurity of a 250-word wikipedia entry. But Spitzer hasn’t faded. In fact, he’s just this past month been asked to join a roundtable discussion show on CNN.

My question is this: why am I a priori so much more willing to forgive Spitzer his trespasses than Bellesiles? I have some ideas about why I think I think this way, but I’m curious about what you all think.



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