Thursday, September 02, 2004

Historians' Committee for Fairness

Via The Vololkh Conspiracy I came across this letter that Eric Muller of Is that Legal? signed up to, regarding Michelle Malkin's book, "In Defence of Internment" that is causing quite a stir.

This letter really, really, really, irritated me, as someone who was dead-set on studying history since the age of 6, who read history at university, and who continues to spend a fair about of my budget on history books and an even greater amount of my time on reading them. I've copied out the entire letter below, the bits in bold are the bits I object to, the reasons will come after.

We represent the Historians' Committee for Fairness, an organization of scholars and professional researchers. Michelle Malkin's appearance on numerous television and radio shows and her comments during these appearances regarding her book IN DEFENSE OF INTERNMENT represent a blatant violation of professional standards of objectivity and fairness. Malkin is not a historian, and she states that she relied almost exclusively on research conducted or collected by others. Her book, which purports to defend the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, did not go through peer review before publication. This work presents a version of history that is contradicted by several decades of scholarly research, including works by the official historian of the United States Army and an official U.S. government commission. In fact, the author's presentation of events is so distorted and historically inaccurate that, when challenged by reputable historians, she has herself conceded that her main thesis in incorrect, namely that the MAGIC intercepts of prewar Japanese diplomatic cable traffic, explain and justify the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. As Malkin states, her critics have noted that "once the decision was made to evacuate ethnic Japanese from the West Coast, many ancillary decisions were made--and MAGIC doesn't explain all or even most of them. True...." (see her website, www.michellemalkin.com, August 6, 2004)

It is irresponsible of your producers to permit Michelle Malkin’s biased presentation of events to go unchallenged as a factual historical presentation. We therefore respectfully demand that you formally apologize to the Japanese Americans who have been slandered by Ms. Malkin's reckless presentation and invite a reputable historian to present a more even-handed view of the evidence.

Now, you'll note that my objections are almost entirely in the personal attacks in the first part of the letter. Here's more or less why:

"professional standards of objectivity and fairness" At this phrase I was tempted to laugh. Reams of biased and prejudice history is written day in, day out in academia. Last year I read a book by one certain Arthur M Schlesinger Jr. It was "The Age of Jackson". It is a very interesting book to read. Dated now, but good. It also happens to be horrendously biased. The author has a point to make, and is telling the tale in a prejudiced way to make it. These days historians tend to be less open in their biases, are better at disguising them, but remain just as biased. They also happen, however, to add dishonesty to the list. Hello pot here's kettle, in other words.

"relied almost exclusively on research conducted or collected by others" And how precisely is this different from just about every history I have read, where it is plain from a quick glance at a bibliography, that they rely mostly on the research and writings of others?

"did not go through peer review before publication" Plenty of history books that do go through peer-review are biased and prejudiced and lack objectivity. All peer-review really is about is getting to approval of those like-minded.

"a version of history that is contradicted by several decades of scholarly research" Since when did any amount of scholarly research, over any length of time, mean that that research should not be tested and attacked? 'Sorry Galileo, you're version of the planets contradicts centuries of scholarly disputation' - ok, ridiculous analogy, but that seems to me to be the logic of that argument.

"official historian of the United States Army and an official U.S. government commission" Since when did 'official' mean sacrosanct? Official historias are, in any case, suspect sources since they are bound to tell things from just one side, in a way that side wants. They can be quite useful, not least because they can let you know what that side wants you to think. But somehow therefore to be placed on a plinth and not attacked and tested? Hardly.

From this point on the letter gets into the meat of the issue, and makes what sounds like a very good point of criticism. However, despite all that there is one bit in the first half that I simply cannot abide.

"Malkin is not a historian"

How on earth can these people think this is a reasonable criticism. It's not that hard to be a historian. You just have to start asking questions about the past. Now, if they said something like 'Malkin is a poor historian' there is no argument from me. But face it, anyone can be a historian if they want to be. Those idiots who signed up to the letter ought to get out of their ivory tower pdq before it collapses under the weight of its own hubris. I spent four years of my life to professional historians. You're just ordinary people, for heaven's sake. In this one sentance I pretty much loose all respect for the signatories. Am I reacting too harshly? Probably - I do flip my top every so often, but so what. It's currently how I feel.

Oh, and as a final note Committee for Fairness? Please. That is so lame.

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