Loose constructionists

Culture | In today's academic climate, don't trust what you read

Issue: "Target: Taiwan," May 5, 2001

In today's colleges and universities, the word truth is routinely surrounded by quotation marks. According to the prevailing wisdom, every truth claim is really just an ideological construction designed to advance the agenda of some group seeking power. Keep that in mind when evaluating today's liberal scholarship.

In Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Michael Bellesiles, a professor at Emory University, argues that individual gun ownership was not common in early American history. The image of the early settlers with their muskets in their hands, he says, is a myth.

Mr. Bellesiles bases his findings on sources such as travel narratives that do not mention firearms and on probate records, detailed lists of property handed down after the execution of a will. By studying probate lists from 1765 to 1790, he calculated that only 14.7 percent of adult American men owned guns, and most of those were described as old or broken. Widespread individual gun ownership, he says, came much later, after the Civil War, with the marketing campaigns of new gun manufacturers such as Colt and the growing myth of the wild West.

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He says the Founders never envisioned that individuals would own weapons in any significant number. The Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms, therefore, was not intended to apply to individual ownership of firearms, just to the institution of local militias with their own locked-up armories. Mr. Bellesiles's research, according to Wall Street Journal editor Kimberley Strassel, was "a bombshell" in the current debates about gun control. A blurb on the book's back cover called him "the NRA's worst nightmare."

But after the book's positive reviews and academic acclaim, some scholars started checking his sources. James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern, and Justin Heather, one of his students, looked at the probate records themselves. They found lots of guns. By their count, 54 percent of the men and 18 percent of the women owned functioning firearms.

Joyce Lee Malcolm, history professor at Bentley College, looked at his travel narratives. Contrary to Mr. Bellesiles's selective quotations, they do mention gun ownership. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh checked his footnotes, finding that the sources he cites do not support what he says they do.

Despite this evidence of questionable scholarship, Mr. Bellesiles will still receive this year's prestigious Bancroft Prize, given by Columbia University for outstanding books in the field of history.

Bogus liberal scholarship looms large in the current academic landscape. According to "Afro-centric" historians, everything valuable in our civilization comes from Africa. For example, they point out that the true intellectual and cultural center of the ancient world was Alexandria, in Egypt. Though ancient Greece is generally given the

credit for the foundational achievements of Western Civilization, the Greek mathematicians, scientists, and great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle actually took their ideas-some say, "stole" their ideas-from Alexandria.

Alexandria was founded by and named after Alexander the Great, as part of his project to spread Greek civilization throughout the world that he had conquered. Alexander's father, wanting the best for his prodigious son, arranged for him to be homeschooled by the greatest intellect of his time, Aristotle, who had been a student of Plato, who had been a student of Socrates. The point is, the great minds of Greece could not have stolen their ideas from Alexandria because it didn't exist yet.

Feminists too are constructing their own histories and their own mythologies. According to feminist cosmology, the most ancient people lived in matriarchal societies, with women ruling, living in harmony and worshipping a goddess. Later, patriarchal tribes invaded, subjecting women, bringing violence and oppression, all at the behest of their male gods.

Never mind that there is no evidence for this feminist Eden. Never mind that matriarchal tribes-in which the lineage is calculated through the line of the mother rather than the father-do not treat women particularly well. Nor do tribes that worship goddesses-their worship of fertility generally means that women are valued for their child-bearing capacity and not much else. Ancient paganism was polytheistic, with a plethora of gods and goddesses. Improvement in the treatment of women came with Christianity, not any of the pagan religions. Nevertheless, feminist theologians persist in attacking Christianity and promoting goddess worship as a way to recover an "ancient female spirituality" that they themselves have made up.

Many scholars are well aware that much of Afro-centric and feminist history is bogus, but they say nothing lest they be accused of racism and sexism. They may even defend these alternative histories as a way to enhance the self-esteem of groups that society has marginalized.


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