The Epistemic Toxins of False Historical Claims

Allegations of racism carry a substantial social stigma in today’s intellectual climate. Provided that the allegation is valid, this may be a desirable effect. Racism is insidiously unethical as it fundamentally devalues the targeted person. This may make it worthy of not only condemnation, but the ostracizing that often follows a racist action. Knowledge that racism will be forthrightly condemned and socially penalized is a highly effective means of making racist beliefs and behaviors costly to maintain – and thereby discouraging their propagation.

For the same reason though, racism is not a charge to throw around lightly. Accusing an innocent person of racist beliefs or actions can destroy a reputation and unfairly subject its target to the derision and scorn we might legitimately direct at a genuine act of racism. To falsely charge someone with racism, or to even mislead others into making and believing that charge, is therefore an unethical act of another type.

This brings us back to the subject of Democracy in Chains, a 2017 book by Nancy MacLean about the academic career of the late economist James M. Buchanan. Although Democracy in Chains was published on a trade press that does not utilize peer review, its author has traded in on the currency of her own academic prestige to present it as a scholarly work. MacLean is the holder of a prestigious chair at Duke University, and has used the occasion of this book to lecture widely at universities across the United States. Her paying hosts include several Ivy League institutions and other top ranked history departments.

Democracy in Chains is a deeply problematic book though, and not simply because it never saw peer review. As I’ve discussed and documented extensively on this blog, its author also misuses and misrepresents historical evidence to portray Buchanan as a complicit figure in the segregationist “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board in the 1950s and 60s. The problem with MacLean’s analysis is that this charge – a central thesis of her book and by far its most bombastic claim – is a historical falsehood. MacLean’s cited documentation simply does not support her contention of complicity, and in fact counter-evidence that she overlooked, ignored, or omitted shows the exact opposite to be true. Buchanan had no interest in segregation, and in fact condemned it at multiple points across his long academic career, starting as early as his doctoral dissertation in 1948 (for a detailed analysis of these findings see the paper-length discussion here).

Unfortunately, MacLean’s false charges of segregationist complicity and other insinuations of racism have had a poisonous effect upon the academic discourse around Buchanan’s scholarly contributions. Relying upon MacLean’s own academic prestige, numerous other scholars have accepted her depictions of Buchanan at face value, believing them to be the product of meticulous archival research. In turn, they attach the social stigma of racism to Buchanan’s name. His scholarly contributions, it then follows, may be dismissed, discarded, and maligned.

In her more careful moments, MacLean stops just short of making the charge of racism herself (although numerous other less guarded moments also exist). A few of MacLean’s more tendentious defenders have claimed exoneration of her work on account of hedging its claims with allegedly nuanced and non-committal phrasing by way of qualifiers in her text. Call it the innuendo defense: “she didn’t actually call Buchanan a racist, she simply tricked her readers into believing he was a racist through word games,” as if that somehow makes it better.

What’s absolutely certain though is that the overwhelming majority of MacLean’s sympathetic readers reached the intended conclusion, and now casually toss around false and reckless claims of racism when discussing Buchanan’s work. The examples are numerous. Citing MacLean, political scientist Richard Saull recently deemed Buchanan “a supporter of Jim Crow.” Legal scholar Ariela Gross places him in league with overt segregationists in a mission “to preserve Jim Crow.” Historian Bethany Moreton, who also invokes the aforementioned innuendo defense of MacLean, nonetheless attributes Buchanan’s work on public choice theory to “racist roots.” Education scholars Eleni Schirmer and Michael W. Apple nonchalantly accuse Buchanan of advancing a “white supremacist” ideology cloaked in the “race-neutral language” of economics.

The most bombastic example to date comes from James Brewer Stewart, himself a distinguished historian of abolitionism. Citing MacLean’s discovery of what he alleges to be Buchanan’s “historical DNA,” Stewart repeats the charge of racist motivation and extends it in even more reckless directions than MacLean’s original work. The product not only tarnishes Buchanan with racism, but stops just short of placing him in the vicinity of Ku Klux Klan rallies and accusing him of wanting to revive a modern version of a pro-slavery political ideology:

“With sit-ins and Klan rallies erupting around him Buchanan, like the nullifiers, fastened his attention on the overreaching, grasping, oppressing government power over highly privileged whites, saying not a word about the menace of militant blacks. The DNA shared by alt-righters and fire eating slaveholders now begins to come into focus and what takes shape in our vision is two ideologies, born in the midst of racial crisis, both advancing the interests of ultra rich white people while never trafficking openly in white supremacy.”

While Stewart briefly invokes the innuendo defense himself by hedging on whether the evidence could establish the bombastic claims he just made – now extended to both Buchanan and the Koch Brothers. He then removes any doubt of where he personally stands though, asserting a “family likeness” between them and the racist alt-right of today. In a later passage he follows an extended digression into the radical pro-slavery “fire-eater” ideology of antebellum South Carolina by asserting “James M. Buchanan, one strongly suspects, likely would have approved.”

Stewart since has claimed some defense for his angry rhetoric by pointing to the op-ed format of his piece, yet ethical considerations still remain. Opinion writing certainly encompasses the art of provocation, but it is not a license to make reckless allegations, be they outright or through innuendo (and Stewart, like MacLean, does both).

Regardless of the medium, historians are still ethically obliged to faithfully represent the past even if they differ as to particulars of interpretation. History is an evidence-based craft. In the cases of Stewart and MacLean, we see instances of two highly regarded historians making claims that disregard their evidentiary obligations to the past and, instead, advance a politically motivated line of attack that aims to paint another recently-deceased scholar with unsubstantiated charges of racism. Note that the effect is the same, whether they make this charge directly or by heavy innuendo (and in MacLean’s case we’ve seen instances of both). The result is that Buchanan, a widely cited and influential contributor to the field of economics, is now casually associated with racist actions that he played no part in and that his accusers have utterly failed to substantiate. The result is epistemically destructive to the scholarly discourse and, sadly, much of that destruction appears to be intentional.