Editorial Responsibility

Thought I would share a few comments that I left on the last post surrounding the exchange in Reviews In American History between Professors McDaniel and Stauffer.  First, I am in no way attempting to alleviate Stauffer of his having to take responsibility for his outrageous charge of homophobia.  Stauffer must now take ownership of what is a well-documented pattern of behavior when it comes to working out professional differences with fellow historians.

That said, I have to wonder whether the editors at RiAH dropped the ball on this one.  Why didn’t they approach Stauffer about his response to McDaniel?  Did they approach Stauffer about it?  Both the charge of homophobia made against McDaniel and the commentary regarding the website page on how to manage large reading loads have absolutely nothing at all to do with the substance of his critical review.  It’s just the kind of review that I assume the editors at the journal are looking for.  I would love to know why they believed it was appropriate to print Stauffer’s review in its entirety.  As I pointed out in a comment, isn’t there a danger of the journal losing the opportunity to work with certain historians who might now justifiably be worried about being treated in a similar manner?  This whole incident could have been so easily avoided.

What do you think?

 

John Stauffer Strikes Again

I have written over 75 book reviews in the last ten years that have appeared in both popular magazines and academic journals.  Anyone who has bridged both arenas knows that the focus, length, and style differ depending on the audience.  When I write for a popular magazine I lean more toward sharing the overall narrative and a bit of critical assessment if time permits.  Writing for a journal, however, demands much more of an analytical edge.  Readers are looking for analysis and assessment of the author’s thesis as well as an understanding of how the book fits into the broader historiography.  The former can be fun while the latter can at times be daunting.  Regardless of publication I’ve never felt a need to attack an author on a personal level since it has nothing to do with the content contained in the book.  Most of you out there will no doubt agree with this.

With that you can imagine my surprise and disappointment as I made my way through a section of the latest issue of Reviews in American History.  I do not subscribe to this journal and I thank one of my readers for passing it along.  The journal allows reviewers the opportunity to write extensive critiques of books that include responses by the authors themselves.  They can be very informative and incredibly entertaining as both reviewer and author do their best to defend their respective turf.  The most recent issue [March 2010] includes two reviews of John Stauffer’s book Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008), one by John Ernest and the other by W. Caleb McDaniel.  [I should point out that I have not read Giants, but I have read most of his previous study, The Black Hearts of Men.]

First, a bit of background.  Many of you will remember the inappropriate accusations leveled on this site at Prof. Vikki Bynum by Prof. Stauffer as a result of her critique of his new book on the State of Jones.  Prof. McDaniel teaches at Rice University and is the former blogger at Mode For Caleb, which is in my mind still one of the best written history blogs.

McDaniel’s review of Giants is thorough and at times highly critical.  He challenges specific claims made by Stauffer as well as his analysis that assumes a close relationship framed around friendship and an understanding of the two as “self made men.”  McDaniel also offers commentary on the structure of the book and points to sections that seem irrelevant to the broader argument:

Some chapters also veer into subjects whose relevance to the main narrative is unclear. In a lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, who is introduced as “the love of his life,” Stauffer defends C. A. Tripp’s controversial thesis that Lincoln and Speed, who shared a bed as young men, were more than platonic friends (p. 108). Those unconvinced by Tripp will probably find little here to change their minds. More importantly, Stauffer leaves unclear this section’s connection to his main argument about the “parallel lives” of Lincoln and Douglass, except for the sotto voce implication that both men endured marriages strained by love for another—in Lincoln’s case, Speed, and in Douglass’s case, Ottilie Assling and Julia Griffiths. (p. 171)

While the review is highly critical there is nothing inappropriate about this review, which I encourage you to read for yourself.  Unfortunately, Stauffer’s response to McDaniel is anything but professional.  Consider his response to the above passage:

Of course, he also hates my “lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed.” My main points in the six pages I devote to the subject are that Speed helped “civilize” Lincoln, contributing to his self-making; and that in light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed’s and Lincoln’s friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren’t physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as Mcdaniel wants to do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective. (p. 180)

Now, as far as I am concerned there is nothing inappropriate about Stauffer’s response up until that last sentence.  It is unfortunate that the editors at Reviews didn’t point this out to Stauffer as problematic.  It undercuts his entire argument because it colors the response as defensive.  Where is the professionalism?  But wait, it gets even better.  Stauffer concludes his response by referencing a webpage that McDaniel created to help his students manage the immense amount of reading that they must complete.  I find it hard to believe that Stauffer didn’t understand how this was being used:

Perhaps one reason for Mcdaniel’s animosity toward GIANTS stems from our different approaches to reading history. Mcdaniel calls for “active skimming,” as he says in his essay, “How to read for History.” do not read in a linear fashion, he tells students. Instead, jump directly from the intro to the conclusion, then from the first to last page of each chapter. “Don’t read every paragraph line by line” and “do not get hung up on things you do not under- stand.” In the second go-round, “decide which sections of the book are most important to read” in the traditional mode. The goal is simply to understand the author’s argument, ignoring the niceties of form, style, figures of speech, ambiguities, and things suggested or evoked. I confess that I was taught to read linearly, from beginning to end. and I still do! I love surprises and ambiguities and consider form and content, manner and matter, virtually inseparable. To me, the idea of jumping from opening to ending seems almost sacrilegious, destroying the subtleties and nuances of the narrative. Had I written GIANTS with Mcdaniel’s “history reader” in mind, I would have modeled it on a prosecutor’s brief or how-to guide, with lots of bullet points and bold-faced type. fortunately, most people read in the old-fashioned way, if the book’s sales, reviews, and awards are any indication. They like to look for “the stories hinted at between the lines,” to use ernest’s felicitous phrase. (p. 180)

It is unfortunate that McDaniel had to devote time to dealing with personal attacks rather than a more refined and professional response:

In reply, however, Stauffer draws several generalizations about me. He attributes my analysis to animosity and intolerance of ambiguity, suggests I was not taught how to read properly, and groundlessly insinuates that homophobic assumptions clouded my judgment. I cannot respond to all these charges here, nor is this the place to do so. The most personal charges are only answerable by my life and by those who best know me and my work….

Stauffer concludes by speculating that an unrelated teaching tool he found on my website explains how I read books for a scholarly review. I wrote “How to read for History” to help undergraduates read effectively for a semester-long history course, and notwithstanding Stauffer’s highly selective excerpts, the essay encourages students to read books carefully, more than once, constantly adjusting their judgments as they reread. I, too, gave Giants a careful reading, and I encourage interested readers to judge the book for themselves. (pp. 181-82)

I sense a pattern here.

 

More Liberal Lies About America

I decided to take a few minutes to follow up on yesterday’s post concerning the so-called “Liberal Lies” about American history that can be found in most college history textbooks.  While we didn’t find any evidence yesterday to confirm the FOX News piece perhaps we will have better luck today.  Let’s look at Schweikart’s claim that comes at 3:10 in the video:

Harry Truman ordered the Atomic bombing of Japan to intimidate the Soviets with “Atomic Diplomacy”.

Schweikart goes on to say that there is no evidence in the newly opened Japanese archives (not sure what he is referring to here) to confirm that Japan intended to do anything other than fight to the death. Rather than head straight to the textbooks, however, let’s take a look at the 1988 DBQ that focused specifically on the decision to drop the Atomic Bomb in 1945.  Here is the prompt and question:

The United States decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a diplomatic measure calculated to intimidate the Soviet Union in the post-Second World-War era rather than a strictly military measure designed to force Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Evaluate this statement using the documents and your knowledge of the military and diplomatic history of the years 1939 through 1947.

We all know that the College Board is a bastion of left wing ideology and that a committee of history professors and history teachers formulate the DBQs so we should be able to find the kind of bias that Hannity and Schweikart, and Richard Williams are trying to protect us from.  Check it out for yourself.  You will notice that the documents force students to acknowledge that the decision to drop the bomb must be understood from multiple perspectives.  Students must weigh the specific sources, along with their background knowledge and come up with a solid thesis statement.  I’ve used this DBQ every year that I’ve taught the AP course and every year my students disagree.  A student can earn a score of 9 for any number of positions.  The 9, however, almost always includes a concession paragraph that acknowledges that the question is complex and can be answered in more than one way.  It is the responsibility of the student to justify why he/she has taken a specific approach.  Is there something wrong with this question?  Are we teaching our students to hate America because we ask them to weigh evidence rather than see American history in black or white?  Where is the “Lie”?

I went and took a quick look at the same textbooks that I referenced yesterday as well a few more and not one offered the simplistic explanation that Schweikart believes is pervasive in college classrooms throughout the country.  In fact, I was pretty impressed with the amount of attention given to this question.  Most give equal weight to the goals of ending the war swiftly to minimize the loss of American life, the role of domestic and international politics, and a host of other factors.

This report is disturbing on so many different levels.  It’s difficult to see how this is “fair and balanced” in any way shape or form.  If a student handed this in as an example of investigative journalism I would give it a grade of F.  There may, in fact, be a liberal conspiracy at work in our history classrooms, but you need to provide real evidence if you hope to convince folks beyond those that already believe that this must be the case.  The quality of this piece and the decision of at least one blogger to post it without any explanation reflects something much more disturbing than anything about the so-called liberal bias in history textbooks.

 

Liberal Lies About America

I know that FOX News and Sean Hannity are usually “fair and balanced” but it seems to me that this report about corrupt liberal elite academics and their biased textbooks is missing some important elements of investigative journalism – specifically, the investigative part.  I’ve never heard of Prof. Larry Schweikart or his new book about how liberals are destroying all that is good about American history.  I’m sure it’s filled with all kinds of examples, but what I find curious is that there is no attempt to confirm anything in this FOX report.  It should come as no surprise that I came across this video over at Richard Williams’s site.  It should also come as no surprise that Mr. Williams fails to include any commentary concerning the claims made in this video.  One must assume he believes the report to be an accurate reflection of the most popular history textbooks that are currently being used across America.  It certainly conforms to his own assumptions about higher education.

At one point Schweikart claims that most college textbooks claim that President Roosevelt and the federal government knew that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, but failed to act on that information.  Since the report fails to include one textbook reference it is impossible to connect the individual claims to a specific textbook.  I will start with my own left leaning textbook authored by Eric Foner.  We all know that Eric Foner is one of the most popular of the liberal academics out there so his book should be helpful.

To this day, conspiracy theories abound suggesting that FDR knew of the attack and did nothing to prevent it so as to bring the United States into the war.  No credible evidence supports this charge.  Indeed, with the country drawing ever closer to intervention in Europe, Roosevelt hoped to keep the peace in the Pacific. (p. 850 in Give Me Liberty!)

Perhaps such a claim can be found in Out Of Many: A History of the American People, which was banned in Texas because of its left wing bias:

Confrontation with Japan now looked likely.  U.S. intelligence had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, and the president knew that Japan was preparing for war against the western powers.  Roosevelt’s advisers expected an attack in the southern Pacific or British Malaya sometime after November: General Douglas MacArthur alerted his command in the Philippines. (p. 755)

How about a textbook that includes that other left leaning nut, Gary Nash?

Roosevelt had an advantage in the negotiations with Japan, for the United States had broken the Japanese secret diplomatic code.  But Japanese intentions were hard to decipher from the intercepted messages.  The American leaders knew that Japan planned to attack, but they didn’t know where.  In September 1941, the Japanese decided to strike sometime after November unless the United States offered real concessions.  The strike came not in the Philippines but at Pearl Harbor, the main American Pacific naval base, in Hawaii. (p. 810)

And finally, let’s consider what is arguably the most popular college-prep textbook of the past few decades:

Officials in Washington, having “cracked” the top-secret code of the Japanese, knew that Tokyo’s decision was for war.  But the United States, as a democracy committed to public debate and action by Congress, could not shoot first.  Roosevelt, misled by Japanese ship movements in the Far East, evidently expected the blow to fall on British Malaya or on the Philippines.  No one in high authority in Washington seems to have believed that the Japanese were either strong enough or foolhardy enough to strike Hawaii. (p. 871)

I have five additional textbooks on my shelf that fall into line with what I’ve already referenced.  Perhaps tomorrow I will check out one or two additional claims made by this individual.  Click here for a review of Schweikart’s own texbook.

 

Goodbye DISQUS

By now many of you have noticed that I’ve disabled the plugin for Disqus.  It is unlikely that I will activate again, but than again anything is possible.  Let me be clear that I actually think the service is very useful for moderating comments and promoting community and I appreciate the control it gives users over their comments throughout the blogosphere.  On top of that the customer service is first rate.  I highly recommend Disqus to those of you who are looking for advanced comment moderation features.  The one problem that persisted and that I could not get over is the problem that I have with all WordPress plugins: Plugins place the blogger in a dependency relationship with a third-party site.  I am willing to wager that the downtime with Disqus is no more frequent than with most plugins, but when it comes to comments I want an instant response.  Readers should not have to wonder whether a blog’s comment system is working properly on any given visit.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I have a suspicion that a bad experience or even a few bad experiences, will turn off a reader from commenting in the future.

The other change to the site is the inclusion of a widget for Civil War Memory’s Facebook page, which you can join if you are on FB.  Once in a while it acts up, but for now I am willing to deal with it.  I am using it to communicate with “fans” of the blog and to share information that will not make it to the blog.  I am pleased that the number of fans continues to grow.  Please feel free to post your own notes, which will then appear in the feed on my blog.  You can post news items, events, and even your own Civil War related blog posts if you so desire.  All I ask is that your links loosely relate to the content of my blog.  Of course, I reserve the right to control the feed as well as membership.