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Your Cheatin’ Heart

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It is Monday morning, and I will admit that what I thought I was going to be doing here in the cold wet drizzle that is a New England December is writing about  how the Obamacare website ran on the first day after its deadline.

As it turns out, I have heard no Obamacare news at all.

Sometime yesterday, a Metro-North train on its way from Poughkeepsie to New York City derailed in the Brox, killing four people and injuring 67 others, including fourteen who ended up in critical condition.

Metro-North is the principle commuter rail system for NYC and its suburbs.  If the crash had occurred during the commuter hours on a week day, there would have been a truly impressive body count.

As it is, things are bad enough, and the newspapers and major news outlets–all but one of which is based in NYC–are a bit distracted from the usual political fray.

So let me write about something else, something I sort of darkly alluded to yesterday–the reason why this book I’m reading took me so long to get into.

The book is called Deadly Force, with a subtitle I’m blanking on completely this morning.  It’s written by a man named Chris MacNab, who is described in his author bio as “based in the UK.”

The book was also originally published in the UK by Osprey, and later distributed here by Random House. 

The UK-ness of all this is important, because it may be the reason I have to excuse the man for his introduction and first half of first chapter. 

It’s also important to note that the copy I have is what’s called a “bound galley” or an “uncorrected proof,” which is exactly what it sounds like.  These are raw galley pages stuck between covers and sent out as advance copies to reviewers and librarians and people who might blurb so all that can be coordinated with the actual launch date.

Since this is an uncorrected proof, it’s necessary to give this book the benefit of the doubt.  It’s always possible that the problem I’m about to outline was caught before publication and fixed.

But I doubt it.

Because this isn’t a matter of a few words misspelled or a few acronyms misidentified.  (Although there are plenty of those–it takes him to the last quarter of the book to stop called the ATF the BATF.)

The problem is that Mr. MacNab based his introduction and most of his first chapter on the Belleisle study, including his contention that in talking about gun violence in the US, he doesn’t have to deal with conditions from the colonial period to the Civil War, since in that period most Americans didn’t have guns anyway.

If it seems a little odd to you that a largely frontier society still vulnerable to Indian raids and where most families relied for meat in the winter on game they shot themselves–even most families in cities like Boston and New Haven–well, it seemed odd to a lot of people when the Belleisle study came out, because that is what the Belleisle study claimed to prove.

Michael Belleisle was a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, and he’d actually been writing quite a few well-received academic papers on this very theme over the course of several years.

He might have spent a long career “proving” a lot of things that weren’t true, except he decided to up the ante.  He published his “findings” as a book, called Arming America.  The book was published by Knopf, probably the most intellectually prestigious house in the US, in 2002.

And at first, things went just swimmingly.  In fact, they went better than swimmingly.  The book received almost universal acclaim and turned into a best seller.  Belleisle was awarded the Bancroft Prize, as good as it gets in history.  He had a lecture schedule that was the envy of academia.

The first complaint to come in came from Charleton Heston, then president of the NRA, and Belleisle and the people who loved his book brushed it off without much thought. 

Arming America was a book that threatened to debunk everything gun rights advocates contended about the atmosphere surrounding the adoption of the Second Amendment.  Of course such advocates would claim there was something wrong with the research.  Heston wasn’t a scholar or an expert, after all.

Belleisle managed to maintain an atmosphere of “nobody objects to this research but gun rights activists with an axe to grind,” and several of the actual scholars who next stepped up to complain about the books research and premises were indeed gun rights supporters as well as actual historians.

But they were actual historians, and the more they complained, the more other historians who had initially supported the book started to get…hinky.

And hinky they should have gotten.

It’s not that Belleisle fudged his research.  He did enough of that, taking quotes from people like George Washington out of context and cooking his statistics.

The problem was that he’d also made a lot of it up. 

A lot of it.

Whole whacking hunks of it.

He claimed, for instance, that some of his statistic had come from his review of the records of San Francisco in the years before the Civil War.  The problem is that no such records exist.  What records there were were all destroyed in the great San Francisco fire that followed the earthquake of 1906.

He also claimed to have analyzed the probate records of 150 who had died in Providence, Rhode Island in the last days of the colonies and the first of the new Republic.  It turned out most of those didn’t exist, either, as most of the men on the list had died intestate and left no probate records of any kind.

There was more, but you see what I mean.  The book wasn’t just a sieve.  It was a fairy castle in the air.

And it turns out that real historians, even committed left-liberal ones, don’t have much patience with fairy castles in the air.

It took two years, but in the end Belleisle was forced to resign from Emory.  Knopf cancelled his book contract and ceased publishing the book.  Columbia University rescinded the Bancroft Prize.

The man’s career was, to all intents and purposes, over.  (The book is still published by a small independent press, so you can get it if you want it.)

Now, a few things.

The first is that the writer of Deadly Force, Chris MacNab, lives and works in Britain, and it’s possible he never heard about any of this. Maybe he went to his local library and it hadn’t heard about any of it either, and there was the book, and he read it and found it interesting, and assumed he could trust it.

That’s sloppy, but not criminal.  It’s happened before, and it will almost certainly happen again.

But under the circumstances, it would be very sloppy indeed.  The episode was not small.  It resulted in a major and very public dust up and significant recriminations against the writer, and deserved recriminations at that. 

At the very least, MacNab should have done what I’m always telling my students to do: Google the damned thing and make sure you don’t get any surprises.

The same can be said for the editors at Osprey, who had an obligation to vet the thing when they published it. 

But then we come to the second thing, which is Random House.

Random House owns Knopf, the very publishing house that had been left with egg on its face and worse when it published Arming America to begin with.

I do understand that in most cases, distribution deals are just that–American House A agrees to use its distribution system to get UK House B into American bookstores, usually for a small consideration.  There’s no need for the people at American House A to even read the books they’re getting from UK House B.  After all, the book clearly states it’s published by “Osprey House” and not “Random House.”

Even so, the irony here is almost breathtaking. 

The parent of the publishing house that had to spend considerable time and effort to rescue its reputation from the mess Belleisle made of it in the first place is issuing yet another book making yet the same claims based on yet the same fabricated “evidence.”

Shouldn’t somebody, somewhere, have been paying attention?

I tried looking up some reviews of the MacNab book, but couldn’t find any that pointed out the problem with the use of the Belleisle study.  I have no idea if that means that the Belleisle references were removed before publication, of if none of the reviewers had heard of it either.

And the reason can’t be that MacNab is telling his readers what they want to hear, because in spite of the awed tone of a Brit dealing with American gun stats, MacNab’s books is VERY pro-cop.  The pro-cop people don’t want to hear that there’s something wrong with the Second Amendment.  They want to hear that there’s something right with it.

The impression I get is not of a bunch of anti-gun ideologues latching on to what they want to hear, but an overall sloppiness that makes me a lot more nervous about the research in the rest of the book than I would have been with actual bias.

I can correct for actual bias.  Sloppiness is an invitation to the fate of Sisyphus.

And it’s too bad.  Because on many levels, MacNab’s book is very, very interesting.

Written by janeh

December 2nd, 2013 at 10:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Your Cheatin’ Heart'

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  1. I’m more sad than surprised, I’m afraid. Poor McNab was reading a general history to get a starting point, and there it was–published by a respectable publisher, properly footnoted and by a real academic. It probably never occurred to him to check for reports of fakery.

    Just for fun, I ran a check on David C. Hamilton-Williams WATERLOO: NEW PERSPECTIVES on Amazon. This one also was very well received, until people working archives started reporting back that his archival citations were plausible-sounding nonsense, and his footnotes to published sources often went to a source which did not support and sometimes contradicted his point. It’s still running about 3 1/2 stars, though, and you have to dig through the reviews to find people pointing out that the book is a fantasy. (H-W gave himself five stars, by the way, and is rated a very helpful review.)

    I found it more interesting that the editors at Osprey seem to have missed the reference. Osprey is HUGE in military history–so much so that I’ve seen foreign-language uniform books referred to by reviewers as being in “Osprey format.” They even have a series which is the history of individual weapons–the US Browning .50 cal machine gun, for instance–with color plates. It’s very hard to believe they hadn’t heard of the Belelisle business.

    Thinking of which: notice that the anti-Second Amendment scholars were quite happy to accept the book until the pro-Second Amendment scholars kicked up a fuss. The lesson seems to be that if you keep that sort of troublemaker out of the university, and write what your own sort of people want to hear, you can get away with murder.

    Or maybe the lesson is just that good editors are getting thin on the ground.


    2 Dec 13 at 3:53 pm

  2. Down here, at least, it’s a feature, not a bug, particularly of left-wing academia (but I repeat myself). Keith Windschuttle, the author of “The Killing of History” and the current editor of Quadrant, the conservative literary magazine, is the bane of the revisionist historians down here because he has the annoying habit of checking their references. In Volume I of his still unfinished series “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History” he took on Henry Reynolds, perhaps the leading historian in that niche, and left his reputation in tatters, along with considerable collateral damage to Reynolds’s acolytes. Nevermind, the clan gathered around Reynolds and it was Windschuttle who was savaged in the media and Reynolds sails on virtually unscathed.

    In a world where blatant lies, and not just reasonable differences of opinion, are embraced by thoroughly corrupt media and true believers everywhere, it will be surprising if our children don’t need everyone of their guns merely to survive the next 100 years or so. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” will probably have fallen well short of the worst atrocities likely to eventuate in a world where nobody will be able to trust anyone else, let alone our institutions.


    2 Dec 13 at 8:09 pm

  3. Mique

    7 Dec 13 at 7:37 pm

  4. Completely unbelievable but it happened. Some heads should roll but civil service being what it is, probably nothing will happen besides yelling in the press.


    8 Dec 13 at 1:44 pm

  5. I found the most frightening line to be the last:

    “Barbara Hewson is a barrister in London with experience of forced C-section cases.”

    This is not the sort of thing the lawyers of a free country should have experience of.


    8 Dec 13 at 3:28 pm

  6. Good point Robert but it would be interesting to know if the experience is 2 cases or 100 cases.

    And I’m struck by the lack of input from pro-abortion
    supporters who insist that a woman’s body is her own property.


    8 Dec 13 at 4:53 pm

  7. jd

    8 Dec 13 at 5:47 pm

  8. A good article, JD. In view of the illustration,is it cheating to put in a good word for DREDD? It deserved, I thought, better reviews and more viewers than it got, and it wasn’t without some understanding of both the need for law and the difference between law and justice.

    Even though Joe Dredd IS the Law.

    Jane, if you don’t want us to do this, you have to give us a fresh post.


    8 Dec 13 at 6:53 pm

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