-->
Reviews

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael Bellesiles

Rebecca Onion

I would like nothing more than to believe that the criticism of the book stems from politics and not from any failing on Bellesiles' part. But the evidence against him is fairly damning.


Arming America

Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Length: 648
Subtitle: The Origins of a National Gun Culture
Price: $17.95
Author: Michael Bellesiles
US publication date: 2003-11
Amazon

This is the first time I've read a book that's been Officially Discredited. It's a strange and unsettling experience for somebody who, like me, trusts books as a matter of principle, and books by university historians as a matter of training. My copy of Arming America seemed to disintegrate a bit every time somebody glanced at the cover and said "Oh! Wasn't that guy a fraud?"

Michael Bellesiles (the "Fraud") was a highly regarded historian at Emory University in 2000, when he published the book in its first edition with Vintage. The work's basic thesis was that early Americans were far less dependent upon, skillful with, and inclined to use firearms than the NRA would have you believe. The book's evidence was thrown into question, the author shamed, and publication discontinued in 2003.

Soft Skull Press, ever-ready defenders of the downtrodden radical (they're most famous for publishing James Hatfield's George W. Bush expose, Fortunate Son), picked Bellesiles' book out of the gutter and reissued it. The press also gave us a 59-page pamphlet, Weighed in an Even Balance, in which Bellesiles responds to his critics.

The book, read without any kind of critical eye or awareness of the controversy around it, is quite convincing, if not all that fun to read (pages and pages about gun manufacturing processes read about as well as you'd expect). Bellesiles deconstructs the myth of the violent colonial world, firelock by blunderbuss.

He uses correspondence and records to disprove the myth of the valorous early militia. He describes the battle of Lexington as a disaster in which, out of 130 militia members, "Jonas Parker was the sole member of the militia to stand his ground and shoot …only six other Americans pulled their triggers while falling back." (I consider myself to be a well-educated person, but until I read Arming America, the words "Lexington and Concord" still conjured an image of the brave militiaman crouching behind a rock, picking off redcoats one by one with an expert eye. Invariably, my hero sported an outfit made entirely out of buckskin.)

Bellesiles discusses the young government's endless struggle to arm its armed forces. He cites probate records -- the lists kept by some counties of the possessions of deceased residents -- to show that few Americans owned their own guns.

The book was extremely well received, and won the Columbia University Bancroft History Prize. A few fellow academics wanted to see corroborating evidence for certain parts of the book that seemed counterintuitive to them -- especially the parts that were backed up by the aforementioned probate records. Bellesiles didn't seem to make matters any better for himself, changing his story about where and when he accessed the probate records. He still doesn't seem to have all of the data straight. In 2000, he told a fellow professor that he had seen some records at the National Archives center in Georgia -- which doesn't hold any probate records at all. In the pamphlet published by Soft Skull in conjunction with the reissuing of Arming America, he says "Nor did I tell anyone …at any time that the probate records are located at the National Archives." (You can still see his original e-mail, proving the contrary, on the Web. D'oh!)

In 2002 and 2003, two scholarly committees found serious problems with a table in the back of the book from which Bellesiles omitted several years' worth of probate records. Vintage discontinued publication of the book, Bellesiles resigned from the faculty of Emory, and Columbia took the Bancroft Prize back. (Adding insult to injury, the university also asked for the return of the attached $4,000 prize -- surely, at that point, the least of Bellesiles' problems.)

The scholarly controversy surrounding the book gave rise to much conservative ranting, as publications such as the National Review and the Weekly Standard leapt on the anti-Bellesiles bandwagon. The result is that it has become harder and harder for a person like myself, who is violently allergic to this kind of rhetoric, to avoid leaping to Bellesiles' defense with automatic fury. The demise of Bellesiles was viewed as a personal triumph for many conservatives. As one self-styled reviewer on Amazon.com, after gloating about the rescinding of the Bancroft Prize, wrote with typical anger and partisanship: "Fortunately, there are many Second Amendment scholars and gun enthusiasts in America, whose depth of knowledge, integrity and scholarship overwhelm even the dishonesty of the frauds, idiots and liars who comprise America's anti-gun lobby."

Gerard De Groot, a historian at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, gave the book a rave review pre-discrediting, and started receiving "angry emails from NRA activists, demanding a public apology for my slander of America's gun owners. One individual even wrote to my departmental colleagues questioning whether my review was 'the standard of scholarship to be expected from a professor of history and chairman on the Modern History Department at the University of St. Andrews.'"

De Groot, speaking in the bewildered tones of a foreigner who just can't understand how excited these Americans have gotten about the subject, points out in an article in The Scotsman that historical research is a very expensive proposition. "Who funded the historians who checked up on Bellesiles? I don't know. But I do know that the NRA is a wealthy organization." (The NRA, on the other hand, contends, "Of course, the NRA merely reported on the scathing criticism Bellesiles received from his peers, and had nothing to do with him losing his job, his prize, or his publisher.")

Bellesiles remains indignant and defensive about his mistakes, telling the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2004, "I did not realize it earlier, but apparently to question the American myth is to step outside of the mainstream. I should have paid closer attention to Alexis de Toqueville, who made this point 160 years ago."

Like most pro-gun-control readers, I would like nothing more than to believe that De Groot and Bellesiles are right, and that the criticism of the book stems from politics and not from any failing on Bellesiles' part. But the evidence against him is fairly damning, and the numbers just don't stack up. His defensiveness -- typical of his wounded stance, the title of the rebutting pamphlet comes from the Book of Job -- seems to have made the situation worse.

And that's too bad, because even if you were to tear the discredited sections out of your book before reading it, Arming would still a fascinating portrayal of seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century life. I found it reassuring, rather than threatening, to find that the early American pioneer class was more into literacy than guns-Bellesiles tells us that Lexington, Kentucky "proclaimed itself the Athens of the West in 1810, when it had four thousand people, two bookstores, three academies, and Transylvania University."

A people focused on cultural achievement instead of violence? It's a glint of hope, amidst a lot of muck and controversy. Let's focus on that, instead of letting the book dissolve away altogether.

Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image