The historical profession's greatest modern scandal, two decades later

Michael Bellesiles resigned in the midst of a political firestorm. He still stands by his work.

Arming America.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Screenshot, javarman3/iStock)

Historians just can't seem to win. On the one hand, they are accused of being narrow-minded eggheads who won't come down from the ivory tower and engage with the public. They are "isolated in professional cocoons," writes The Economist, "spending more time fiddling with their footnotes rather than bringing the past to light for a broader audience." Malcolm Gladwell has said the "problem" with history "is that it is written by historians," whose hyper-specialization renders their work illegible to the common folk.

However, when historians do engage with the public, they are told they are doing it wrong. The Chronicle of Higher Education has bemoaned the "twitterization of the academic mind" and the "rise of the pedantic professor," as scholars chase likes and retweets by firing off one-liners and going toe-to-toe with Dinesh D'Souza. The argument that historians are debasing themselves on social media is related to another argument: that they are playing fast and loose with the facts. This accusation has been lodged by conservative critics of The New York Times' "1619 Project," especially because of its reliance on the "new history of capitalism" school (NHC). The NHC, which includes books like Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told and Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams, emphasizes slavery's role in the origins of modern capitalism; it has also been criticizied by many scholars for what they deem weak argumentation and sloppy math. As conservatives see it, historians embrace the NHC because they like its "anti-capitalist" politics and then dismiss any criticism of the NHC as right-wing trolling.

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