And now for something totally different. We haven’t gotten much into the subject of guns at TPM – a subject that I’m very into.
My interest isn’t so much along the standard gun control politics lines. I’m more interested in way the debate is structured in contemporary American politics. Particularly, the way conservatives push a return to traditional values as the antidote to gun violence while these conservatives themselves come from the parts of the country with the highest murder rates. Where? Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina. Places like that.
Anyway, last year a history professor named Michael Bellesiles wrote a book about America’s gun culture in which he made the argument that the American obsession with guns really only goes back to the mid-19th century. The myth of a Colonial and Revolutionary America chock full of guns is just that – a myth. Anyway, that was his argument.
The book received generally good reviews within academia and often savage reviews outside academia.
Now today I picked up the February issue of Brill’s Content in which Michael Korda did what amounts to a review of the reviews of the Bellesiles book. Korda’s argument is basically this:
Elite editors and book reviews and media types have confirmed anti-firearm views. And thus they gave the Bellesiles book warmly positive reviews even though the book could be shown, and was shown, to be misleading and based on poor scholarship. The article is a morality tale about East Coast elitists who are biased against the gun culture of the country’s heartland. And so they got suckered in by Bellesiles book.
Now Brill’s is a magazine about media criticism – and thus about fact-checking, and making sure your authors know what they’re talking about, in addition to much more weighty issues of bias, credibility, professional integrity and so forth.
Anyway, Korda was allowed to write this article even though he obviously had no idea what he was talking about. I’m not just saying I disagree with him. He says things that show he simply has no idea what he’s talking about.
Let me give you an example.
Much of Bellesiles research is based upon a review of probate inventories from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These are the catalogs of what a person owned at death, taken for probate purposes. Bellesiles found that very few people actually had guns in their inventories.
Follow me so far?
For Korda, this is a key example of Bellesiles bogus research methods. “But this seems to me a dubious method,” writes Korda, “since in the 18th century it seems unlikely that Massachusetts or any other state would have tried to inventory the ownership of privately owned weapons, as opposed to those owned by or on loan to members of the militiaâ¦”
Really? It’s seem like a dubious method to Korda? Really? It so happens that I’ve read literally hundreds of probate inventories from 17th and 18th century New England. And, yes, they do routinely list weapons and other pieces of property far more menial and of far less value.
This method may have seemed like a dubious method to Korda. But that’s because he’s clearly never looked at the documents in question.
Now I know this is all getting a bit technical. But why did Brill’s let Korda write something that’s transparently ridiculous on its face to anyone who has the vaguest understanding of the topic? And why do authors with pro-gun views get such leeway to talk about things they obviously know so little about?