October 28, 2002

The Truth is Whatever We

The Truth is Whatever We Want it To Be, or
Surprised by Bellesiles? Umm, No.

The Bellesiles case has something for everyone involved in or critical of academia--sloppy, made up research, sloppy or non-existent peer review, lies, denials, political embarrassment, and resignation under duress. Practically the entire blogosphere has weighed in on this one, so I feel compelled to do the same, although hopefully from a different enough angle for it to be interesting.

I'd like to focus on this quote from Bellesiles (taken from a National Review article):
"All that remains in question are the few paragraphs and table on probate materials. On those paragraphs, Emory's committee of inquiry found no evidence of fabrication, though they do not charge evasion. I adamantly deny both charges. I have never fabricated evidence of any kind nor knowingly evaded my responsibilities as a scholar. I have never consciously misrepresented any data or evidence. I will continue to research and report on the probate materials while also working on my next book, but cannot continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment."

It is not surprising that Bellesiles would defend his work in order to salvage his scholarly reputation; however, I think that Bellesiles actually BELIEVES that he did nothing wrong, and that the current academic culture in the humanities nurtures such belief among all its adherents. At the heart of such self-delusion is the postmodern thought that pervades every campus.

When you arrive in a graduate program, particularly in humanities, your emphasis shifts from reader-response engagement and moves to critical theory. This is sensible--you spent four years coming to terms with the content of your major, and now you must engage not only the basic texts but the theories of those who are shaping the current debate. Enter post-modernism and moral equivalence. In anthropology and sociology, Clifford Geertz redefined the debate to make it impossible for a culture's observer to make any critical comment about that culture unless he or she is a part of it. In english lit., Derrida and deconstruction make it impossible to make a definitive statement about meaning of any kind. For a fun example, read this intro to the Derrida Online Website. Makes your head spin.

These theories cross-pollinate and their immediate result for the average student is the idea that not only can't you decide what certain texts mean, you can make up any meaning you want to as long as you quote a plausible theorist. In my case, I applied post-colonial theory to Faulkner, and was assured an A on every paper, because I overspread the underlying popular Fuck Whitey thought with a thin veneer of scholarship provided by Homi K Bhabha and Edward Said. Now, I knew good and well that Faulkner wasn't about any of this, but it didn't matter! I was basically encouraged to distort reality and for lack of a better phrase, make shit up. And I was rewarded for it! We were all doing it, and telling ourselves that playing fast and loose with what we knew was the truth of a text was okay, because we were "opening the text to exploration." It also came in handy when dismantling arguments we didn't like--our enemies couldn't argue against a point when the point itself kept shifting. Or, you could just skip the verbal sophistry and go straight to the "racist oppressor" argument--the one in which you claimed your opponent was a lemming-like product of the evil white man and thus was blind to other points of view. That one always worked. Eventually, anything you saw fit to pull from a text, no matter how out of context or patently absurd (my MA thesis is a great example of this: Medieval Passion Plays as sites of political struggle. Umm, no. But it got me the degree!) was a go. Reality was whatever you said it was, provided you could pull enough quotes out of context. And if your politics were correct, no one was going to look too closely at the research, source material, or thought process.

Now back to Bellesiles. He's guilty, and I'm not trying to exculpate him, but to me it seems like he was just continuing to do what he was trained to do by the system--look at a subject, determine the conclusion you want to reach, and manipulate the data accordingly. After all, he was just "opening the facts up to new interpretation and exploration." And it would have worked, too, if not for those pesky kids at the NRA! His politics were correct, thus no one reviewing his work looked at his research, source material, or thought processes. But here's the kicker: the fact that he continues to insist that he's going to keep researching probate materials when half of the ones he said he looked at DON'T EVEN EXIST! Bellesiles has completely surpassed me and my fellow students in shaping reality to his own ends. In the current academic envrionment, Mr. Bellesiles gets a gold star.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at October 28, 2002 11:15 AM