Part 31 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

by
Larry Pratt

The Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History met jointly recently in Washington DC for their annual meeting. So, it was with great interest that we went page-by-page through the 194-page program for this event.

Certainly, we thought, there would be a panel that would discuss, in some way, the controversy involving Emory Prof. Michael A. Bellesiles' book Arming America, one of the greatest -- perhaps the greatest -- publishing frauds in American history.

But, alas, this widely-publicized scandal was not on the radar of either the OAH or the NCPH. Nothing was listed about it in their program -- nada, zip, zero, zilch.

Now, this conspicuous omission is, to put it charitably, odd. And it is particularly odd considering some of the topics that were discussed at this get-together of historians. For example, there were panels on such subjects as: "The American Man: Changing Conceptions of Masculinity;" "The Black Panther Party In Historical Perspective;" "Fluid Bodies: Motherhood, Sexuality, And Metaphorical Readings Of The Body From The Gilded Age To The 1970s"; "Reconsidering The Histories Of Women Of Color: Past And Future;" "Politics To Pedagogy: Incorporating Radical And Women's History Into Classroom Praxis;" "Interpreting Sexuality At Historic House Museums;" and "State-Of-The-Art: Multicultural Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, And Queer Histories."

So, what's the story here? Why all the attention to the aforementioned esoteric, downright weird topics, but no attention paid at all to Bellesiles and his wretched book? Seeking an answer to this question, we spoke with John Dichtl, Deputy Executive Director of the Organization of American Historians. Here's what he told us:

"In general, the annual meeting is not used as a venue for topics that are considered in the news right now." Instead, the annual meeting is "really a reflection of the scholarship going on out there."

OK. Great. So, since the scandal swirling around Bellesiles and his book involves, in part, "scholarship going on out there," specifically what has been proven to be Bellesiles' shoddy scholarship, why not have a panel on this topic?

Well, Dichtl says the meeting program is planned two years in advance. Papers and topics are submitted to the Program Committee but this Committee does not solicit or put together its own topics. So, the program for the meeting was "probably set six months or a year ago." Serious criticism of Bellesiles' book has, of course, been going on for almost two years now.

When pressed, however, Dichtl says he is not saying it would have been impossible to empanel a discussion of Arming America. He says this could have been done. He also admits "we're a little slow in reacting to things."

In another interview, we ask the same question of Michigan State University History Professor Darlene Clark Hine, the outgoing President of the OAH. Why completely ignore Bellesiles, his book and all the scholarship that has thoroughly discredited it? She, too, says the Program Committee finishes its work a year in advance of their annual convention. Besides, she adds, the OAH Newsletter devoted a cover story to this whole issue. "So, we covered it," she says.

But, with all due respect, this assertion is absurd. In his reply in the OAH Newsletter (November, 2001), Bellesiles' response was, as usual, pathetic, answered nothing really and gave his critics even more ammunition to blow additional holes in the tattered remains of his incompetent scholarship. To say that what the OAH Newsletter printed "covered" this story is ludicrous.

Other panels at the OAH and NCPH meeting were on these topics: "Historians As Public Intellectuals;" "Larger Than Life: Confronting Popular Images Of Nineteenth-Century Americans;" "History Under Fire: Scholars, The Public, And The Memory Of The Civil War;" and "Pages From History: Teaching With Primary Sources." Some mention of Bellesiles and "Arming America" could have been a part of any of these discussion groups.

What we have here, in my judgment, is obvious. It's a cover-up plain and simple. Two of the major American history organizations have chosen to ignore what is arguably the hottest topic about U.S. history in modern times. This is a disgrace and they should be ashamed.

The longer these groups continue the Bellesiles cover-up, the more they impugn the integrity of their members.