Well, this has been exciting. My post on Nancy MacLean’s new book (Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America)—what a friend of mine has dubbed “the libertarian kerfuffle”—has brought new readers to this normally quiet space, for which I’m grateful. I’ve been dubbed “not particularly compelling” by Jonathan H. Adler at the Washington Post! As wonderful as that is (I’m thinking of making it the new tagline for my blog) I feel we ended up spinning our wheels in the comments. So, I’ll try again here and perhaps we can make better headway.
To defend Buchanan, and to defend themselves as inheritors of his intellectual program, many have reacted with accusations that MacLean is a bad scholar, that her citation practices are shoddy, and that she should be sued for libel. It is all very exciting. Well, as exciting as academic arguments get anyway. I’m not saying this is Game 7 of the World Series or anything.
Let’s pick up the argument with the accusation that MacLean imagined a link between southern writer Donald Davidson and James. N. Buchanan.
I’m focusing on a rather small claim in the book and will go through it in some (I hope not-too-painful) detail. My reasons for this are because, as Andy Seal has argued, critics of the book have largely ignored the over-arching focus of the book, which is not Buchanan but Koch and what MacLean sees as his attacks on democracy. Seal concluded: “The silence surrounding her attack on Koch might be because by now such attacks are expected, or it might reflect some of the underlying divisions among libertarians—not all think that Koch has been good for the cause.” As a result, the attacks on the book have focused on MacLean’s treatment of Buchanan and very specific claims about his career.
Phillip Magness in his review of Democracy in Chains at the History News Network argues:
If you read…MacLean’s new book…you will probably come away thinking that the late economist James M. Buchanan believed himself to be something of an intellectual heir to the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930s. According to MacLean, these now-obscure southern literary figures were a main reason Buchanan wanted to go to Vanderbilt University.
Even though Buchanan’s family ultimately could not afford to send him to the prestigious university, MacLean claims that Buchanan owed these men a direct intellectual debt. They allegedly “stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.” One of the Agrarians in particular, she claims, had a “decisive” influence on “Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system” – the poet Donald Davidson.
MacLean has a very specific reason for making this claim, and she returns to it at multiple points in her book. The Agrarians, in addition to spawning a southern literary revival (the novelist Robert Penn Warren was one of their members), were also segregationists. By connecting them to Buchanan, she bolsters one of the primary charges of her book: an attempt to link Buchanan’s economic theories to a claimed resentment over Brown v. Board and the subsequent defeat of racial segregation in 1960s Virginia.
MacLean’s argument presents a challenge. Buchanan wrote very little on Brown or the ensuing school desegregation, and the archival evidence she presents from his papers is both thin and far short of the smoking gun she implies it to be. Instead, she sets out to strengthen her portrayal of Buchanan as a segregationist by tying him to other known segregationists. The Agrarians, and specifically Davidson, serve this purpose in her narrative by becoming formative intellectual influences on Buchanan.
However, Magness claims that MacLean’s claim “appears to be completely made up” because “her footnotes to the passages on the Agrarians don’t actually check out, and the Davidson link in particular appears to be a figment of her own imagination.” Magness claims that, having checked her footnotes and finding no support for these claims, the link between the Agrarians and Buchanan is an “invented connection.” He concluded this after he “walked through the sources in detail.”
Magness’s claim about MacLean’s imagination has been repeated in other, less able, critiques. Magness has made a rather extraordinary claim here: he is not saying that MacLean has made a poorly substantiated argument. He is not saying that her case is weak. He is not saying that MacLean has overstated her evidence. He is not saying that the link between the evidence for her claim is attenuated. He is saying that she “made it up.” He is saying that she “invented” this link between Davidson and Buchanan. There is no way, he is saying, that her claim is supported by the evidence she has provided. He is, to put the matter bluntly, calling her either a liar or deluded. If there is another way to read his evaluation of MacLean, I would love to hear it.
To help us sort this out, I’d like to use a distinction nicely drawn by Allan Megill between recounting and justification:
- Recounting: What is the case? This is a descriptive task: has MacLean accurately described the influence Davidson had on Buchanan? Further, has Magness accurately described MacLean’s view of that influence?
- Justification: What evidence is there? What is the evidence provided by MacLean to support her claim for Davidson influenced on Buchanan? What is the evidence that Magness has that MacLean “made up” he whole thing?
Recounting: Davidson’s Influence on Buchanan
Magness quotes the offending passage in his review. The key sentence is:
“The Nashville writer who seemed most decisive in Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system was Donald Davidson, the Agrarians’ ringleader, who portrayed the growth of the federal government since the Progressive Era as a move toward ‘the totalitarian state’ that was destroying regional folkways” (p. 33).
Note the differences between MacLean’s claim and Magness’s formulation of it. MacLean is hedging by saying Davidson seemed most decisive; Magness omits the qualifier. In so doing, he raises the bar for the evidence required to prove the claim by making the claim stronger than she did. Moreover, it is not clear that Davidson was the “most decisive” writer because Buchanan was the most enamored of him or because he was the “Agrarians’ ringleader.”
It is important to remember who the “Jim Buchanan” MacLean is referring to here: it is not the Nobel prize winner who wrote “20 volumes” of papers, it was the 18-year old Jim Buchanan, straight out of high school and looking to college. Buchanan was a brilliant young man from Tennessee; it is reasonable that he would have read Tennessee’s most celebrated authors and they would have an influence on his emerging intellectual system, if not his mature one.
My reasonable supposition is that the Agrarian’s vision had some kind of influence on Buchanan. But a reasonable supposition does not evidence make. So lets turn to the evidence for why MacLean might think a young man might be influenced by famous writers from his home state. Why does it seem to MacLean that Davidson influenced Buchanan?
Not only does Magness misread the strength of MacLean’s claim (by omitting the qualifier) but he also misses the context in which she is offering the claim. He argues that “MacLean has a very specific reason for making this claim, and she returns to it at multiple points in her book”, the reason for doing so being to link Buchanan to massive resistance to the Brown decision in Virginia politics. This is simply wrong because this is not the context in which MacLean is linking the Agrarians to Buchanan.
Despite Magness’s claim that MacLean’s entire mission is to paint Buchanan as a racist, she explicitly denies this is the case. MacLean is quite explicit that racism alone cannot explain the white south’s reaction to Brown:
It is true that many observers at the time, and scholars since, have reduced the conflict to one of racial attitudes alone, disposing too easily of the political-economic fears and philosophical commitments that stiffened many whites’ will to fight. So a ‘both/and’ construction would be reasonable. (p. 69)
Following her logic, it is not necessarily Davidson’s undisputed commitment to white supremacy that might have attracted the young Buchanan but something else about his writing. When leading us into the discussion of the Agrarians, MacLean explains, “Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan–one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.” (p. 33, my emphasis). What aspects of this cultural project could she be talking about?
Magness is off to a bad start in trying to discover what aspects of Davidson might have attracted Buchanan. He claims, “MacLean’s purpose here is to identify Davidson as the font for one of Buchanan’s most frequently enlisted concepts from his academic work—the all-powerful Leviathan state”—but notes that Buchanan cites Hobbes, not Davidson, in his work. Hobbes was the originator of the term “Leviathan” for the state, and Magness notes that even MacLean “begrudgingly concedes” that is the case. (Not to go too far afield, but Magness is engaging a bit of poisoning the well here: the idea that MacLean “begrudgingly concedes” this point rather than merely straightforwardly tracing of the term’s origin.) This misses MacLean’s main point, which was that Buchanan found Davidson’s regional conception of the Leviathan attractive, not the concept itself. Davidson pointed, not to a theoretical concept of “Leviathan,” but to the specific Leviathan found in Washington D.C. which was running roughshod over Davidson’s beloved southland. As we will see, this American context is important for MacLean’s argument.
In summary: Magness removes an important qualifier from MacLean’s claim to make it stronger than it she did and he misunderstands the important American context of Davidson’s concern about the northern Leviathan in the American context.
Justification: What Evidence Does MacLean Supply?
For Magness, the idea that Davidson influenced Buchanan is disproven by a search of Buchanan’s papers “does not yield a single hit for the name.” Thus, Magness concludes, MacLean must have “made it all up.” But why would Buchanan’s earliest influences necessarily turn up in his later work? I’m no scholar of Buchanan’s stature, obviously, but one of my earliest influences as an undergraduate was philosopher Stephen Toulmin, someone I don’t think I’ve ever quoted or possibly ever referred to in my published work. Magness obviously knows this too (about the young Buchanan, not about Toulmin and me) and thus he examines her references. He then concludes, “Her footnotes to the passages on the Agrarians don’t actually check out, and the Davidson link in particular appears to be a figment of her own imagination.” I’m not sure what Magness means by “check out” here. True, nothing MacLean cites is a quotation from Buchanan saying: “I read Davidson when I was trying to get into Vanderbilt and I’ve dedicated my whole career to enacting his vision because, like him, I believe in white supremacy! Gosh, I hope no one ever finds out!” In this regard, the point goes to Magness.
Still, lets “check out” those sources ourselves. First on our list is MacLean’s citation to Buchanan’s autobiography. Writes Magness,
The page appears below and consists of a single passing reference to the Southern Agrarians having been influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s famous concept of the yeoman farmer. [It contains] no references to Donald Davidson. No segregationist visions, or pining over the Confederacy. No claims about wanting to study with the Agrarians at Vanderbilt. No intellectual nods to them at all, aside from a brief factual statement that they espoused a well known Jeffersonian argument about the agricultural lifestyle.
If you follow the link provided by Magness, you don’t actually find a page, you find part of a paragraph. Putting that selection into the context of the larger essay reveals a lot. The essay is entitled “Country Aesthetic” in which Buchanan recounts the pleasure he has in retreating from the tumultuous events of the 1960s and taking refuge in the simple, country life afforded him by a home in the Virginia mountains. Unlike the poet Davidson, Buchanan wrote like an economist, even when he was attempting to relate his personal joy at country living, or how it revealed to him the dangers of modernity:
As I reckon the counters in my own game, I am led to generalize by calling into question the wisdom of policies that, either in some explicit furtherance of collectively chosen objectives or in acquiescence before evolutionary drift, have allowed participants in modern societies to become overly dependent on institutional structures that are dangerously vulnerable to disruption. Modern man and woman, singly or in a family unit, have little or no residual ability to survive the shocks to ordered routine that might emerge from so many different sources. (pp.124-5)
While the prose is not apt to stir the soul, the meaning is clear: Buchanan is waxing nostalgic for a simpler lifestyle, yes, that of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, particularly as portrayed by the southern Agrarians he cites. And the specific Agrarian who comes closest to this vision was Donald Davidson.
We know it was Davidson who came closest because of the work MacLean cited in her footnote 12, but there is little evidence in his review that Magness read that work since he dismisses it as a “fairly boilerplate list of secondary literature on 20th-century racism and its links to the Agrarians.” It seems a bit rude to dismiss entire books as “boilerplate” especially since one makes clear the similarities between Buchanan’s views of the “country aesthetic” and Davidson’s views of the south: the very thing Magness claims does not appear in MacLean’s book.
Magness is quite right that Buchanan, unlike Davidson, did not celebrate the Confederacy or segregationist visions. Nor does MacLean make that claim. What she does claim is that Davidson and Buchanan shared a cultural preference for the “country aesthetic” particularly as found in the American south. She claims that this manifested itself in a hostility toward the federal government and northern culture more generally. Thus, when Buchanan leaves the south for New York in 1941, he saw the city “through lenses wholly crafted Donald Davidson” (p. 34). I think “wholly” is an exaggeration here; the Tennessee boy probably had a lot of reasons to dislike the big city and how he was treated there. But there is a difference between exaggeration and imaginary.
The key work cited by MacLean is Paul V. Murphy’s book, The Rebuke of History: Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought. Murphy writes: “Over the course of the 1930s, Davidson articulated a variant of Agrarianism that he closely linked to the particularities of region and community” (pp. 92-3). “New York City came to represent all that he disliked about America and bore the brunt of his accumulated resentments as a regional literary figure.” writes Murphy of Davidson. “‘I felt I was in enemy territory,'” MacLean quotes Buchanan as saying about his time in New York, “‘I was subjected to overt discrimination based on favoritism for products of eastern establishment universities'” (p. 34). It is this parallel to which MacLean is pointing when she notes Buchanan’s “Davidson-like” language when he encountered discrimination against himself as a southerner in the Northeast. And, like Davidson, she points out that he was especially attuned to prejudice against southerners like himself without a similar empathy regarding discrimination toward “Catholics, Jews, Mexican Americans, working class white man, and, above all, African Americans” (p. 35).
Against the evils of the metropolis, Davidson championed the “yeoman agrarian [who, for example] ran a two-hundred-acre farm and rejected modern conveniences in favor of homemade crafts” (Murphy, p. 102). In “Country Aesthetic,” Buchanan too celebrated his life “without necessary dependence on an electricity distribution system. In my country setting I require neither water, fuel, nor power from external suppliers… (p. 123) before concluding, “my own experience over two decades has impressed upon me the valuational content in Jefferson’s ideal polity of yeoman farmers, latterly put forth by the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s” (p. 126). And while many of the Southern Agrarians championed those yeoman farmers, the one who most closely matched Buchanan’s vision seemed to be Donald Davidson.
It is Magness, not MacLean, who has misrepresented his subject. He offers a strawman argument about the relationship she claims between Davidson and Buchanan. He ignores the context in which Buchanan notes his debt to the southern Agrarians. He doesn’t seem to have read the sources she cites in support of her argument before dismissing them as useless boilerplate.
In conclusion, it is unimportant if Magness, or you,, dear reader, find MacLean’s argument (or my reconstruction of it here) persuasive. It is unimportant if you find it weak or tenuous. I don’t really care if you find it convincing. What is important is that it is a reasonable argument, even if it fails to win you over. Because Magness did not claim that MacLean made a suspect argument linking the two, he claimed “the Davidson link in particular appears to be a figment of her own imagination” and “simply made up an inflammatory association and tacked it onto Buchanan in an effort to paint him as a racist.” He did not claim her evidence was suspect he claimed “there is none;” that “she has no actual evidence” to support it. Unlike MacLean, who made a carefully qualified claim and then argued for it, Magness made extraordinarily strong claims about a fellow scholar’s research, methods, and ethical choices by claiming she fabricated the whole thing. He should either apologize for his review or offer some evidence that Maclean “made it up.” Because we know how picky he is about evidence.
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I obviously can speak only for myself, but I read MacLean’s book before all this kerfuffle blew up. When I read that Davidson “seemed most decisive” on the young Buchanan, I (to the best of my memory) interpreted it as MacLean having good, solid archival/documentary evidence that the Southern Agrarians were important to Buchanan, and that it “seemed” to her that Davidson was the most important.
When I read Magness’s article afterwards and found out that MacLean had no real evidence except some (very tenuous imho) parallels between Buchanan and Davidson, I felt that MacLean had “pulled a fast one”. Maybe I’m just out of touch with what’s considered best practices in intellectual history. Could you cite an example of someone else in the field making such a leap without alerting the reader?
Here’s an example. On p. 46 MacLean discusses how Buchanan founded the Jefferson Center in Virginia in 1957 in part to deal with the “problems of equalitarianism” which she says is “archaic way of speaking of egalitarianism.”
Actually it was not: “equalitarianism” was a word much in vogue in the American south in the 1950s. In my book, SCIENCE FOR SEGREGATION I trace its popularity to a book, THE CULT OF EQUALITY published in 1945 written by Stuart Omer Landry. I argue that the figures of my study, who used the exact strange word and Landry’s conspiracy rhetoric may well have borrowed their ideas from Landry even though I could never find one quoting him directly or citing him. My suggestion is that he influenced them even though I only argued it was likey, rather than absolutely shown by the evidence I had. The parallels were just too strong for me not to mention it.
I see MacLean doing roughly the same thing: Davidson was “most decisive” not because his influence was necessarily huge on Buchanan’s thought, but because the parallels between the two lines of thought meant it was probably him, not the other Agrarians, that influenced Buchanan. And because she describes him as the “ringleader” meaning he was most famous, I suppose.
Not a super-strong case, but hardly outside the bounds of normal historical practice. Unlike charging her with “making up” any connection at all, which is outside the bounds of normal critique.
1) O.K., but you let the reader know when you thought you were going out on a limb, right?
2) Not to sidetrack the conversation, but ‘equalitarianism’ was a “strange word” that traces to Landry in 1945?? Then why was Gunnar Myrdal using it in ‘An American Dilemma’ in 1944? https://books.google.com/books?id=2cygAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA1453
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Geez, dude, I don’t remember. My book was published in 2005 and I did most of the research in 2000. I remember looking the word up in the OED and it is an archaic term, as MacLean said. My point was that its popularity, not its origin, owed to Landry. I surmised.
Whether or not you think MacLean sufficiently warned her readers that she was “out on a limb” really isn’t the point. The point is that there is sufficient evidence to show that she didn’t “make it up” as Magness said.
“Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state. The university was home to the Southern Agrarians, the literary men who in 1930 published a manifesto for southern rural life, I’ll Take My Stand.” – MacLean, p. 33
1. Does MacLean give any evidence that the Agrarians specifically attracted Buchanan to Vanderbilt? No.
2. Does MacLean give any evidence that the Agrarians specifically influenced what he thought about society & state? No.
3. Does MacLean leave a “seemed” in this passage to allow her defenders to weasel their way around a strict reading of her text and its direct implications for her argument? Also no.
MacLean made it all up.
1. Does MacLean claim that the Agrarians attracted B. to Vanderbilt? No. Did Phil make up that claim so he could change the grounds of the debate? Yes. Does B. in his autobiography say that he was bound for Vandy until finances prevented it? Yes (p. 2). Is this exactly what MacLean says in her book? Yes.
2. Does MacLean point to parallels between the Agrarians thought and B’s thought? Yes. Are these parallels denied by Phil or anyone else? Not yet. Does MacLean cite B.’s own words that his views are similar to that of Agrarians? Yes. Does anyone deny that B. showed appreciation for the Agrarians in his autobiography? No Is it outrageous to claim that they influenced B. and thus require an extraordinary level of proof that they did so? No.
3. Does a responsible scholar qualify the strength of a claim based on the evidence at hand? Yes. Is misrepresenting the strength of a claim in order to score a cheap debating point a sign of responsible scholar? No.
Does Phil know the difference between “making it up” and making an inference based on the evidence at hand? Apparently not.
John – Your stretched credulity for MacLean is entering the territory of the willfully obtuse. In the passage I provided – a passage you also acknowledged as being a description of Buchanan’s relationship to the Agrarians in your original post – says exactly what you now deny: that the Agrarians “attracted” Buchanan to Vanderbilt, and that they directly shaped his views of society, justice etc:
“Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state. The university was home to the Southern Agrarians, the literary men who in 1930 published a manifesto for southern rural life, I’ll Take My Stand.” – MacLean, p. 33
There is no “seemed” to parse on this one. It’s a direct statement of influence by MacLean. And yes, it’s a fabrication – a lie.
Do they not teach diagramming sentences any more? Sister Everita would not be pleased! (Yes, that was her name). Look at the grammar of the sentence: What attracted James: The cultural project. Does it clearly say that is what attracted him to Vandy? No.
He was attracted to Vandy for the reasons of the previous sentence:
“What no one questioned, including Buchanan himself, was that he had an unusually keen mind, and a hunger for a future beyond farming. Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, loomed large in the family’s vision for Jim’s future, its stature as the state’s top private university was no doubt a draw.”
I read the “also” in the next sentence as an additional feature of Vandy. You read it as an additional reason he was drawn to it. I suppose either reading is possible. What, exactly hangs on this?
Do you also dispute that he was attracted to Vandy because it was the “state’s private university?” Is that too an imaginary argument? Does it shock and horrify you as well?
Let’s try one more time, John:
“Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan”
Q: What was the “cultural project” being referred to in this part of the sentence?
A: The Agrarians, as identified in the next sentence.
“- one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.”
Q: What was it that “stamped his vision…” of the good society etc?
A: The cultural project, as referred to in the first half of the sentence.
It takes a special kind of obtuse to miss something that obvious.
In addition to the things that drew him to Vandy, it was ALSO the home of this cultural project. So, she gave us a list of the draws, and then ALSO it was home to this. As, “In addition to the things that drew him there, it was ALSO this.”
“The thing that drew me to the chocolate sundae was the hot fudge. It ALSO had a cherry on top!”
But, you know what? Who cares? Fine. I’m obtuse. But at least it is a *special kind* of obtuse!
Meanwhile, I refuse to play any more grammar games (what in my debate days we called ‘topicality arguments’) until you to actually engage the argument itself rather than this one sentence. I still wait for you to:
1. Engage with her actual argument.
2. Show how your own writing meets your rigorous standards of historical argument.
“In addition to the things that drew him to Vandy, it was ALSO the home of this cultural project.”
Vandy is the least of the problems with her claim, John. You need to be able to answer these two questions. They are not difficult and they involve no “grammar games.”
1. What was the specific “cultural project” being referred to in the first part of the sentence?
2. What was it that specifically “stamped his vision…” of the good society etc, as referenced in the second part of the sentence?
If you can’t answer those basic simple and entirely reasonable questions, I’m going to go ahead and conclude that it “seems” like you do not like the answers or their unavoidable implications for your earlier interpretation of this passage. In that case, I’ll also conclude that it “seems” like you misrepresented me in your post yesterday…which means it “seems” like you owe me the retraction and/or apology that I requested.
So the argument is, “she has no evidence, I have no evidence, but it’s not implausible that it’s true because there are vague similarities in outlook between the two men?” That fits the “she made it up” category to me, and a student who submitted a paper to me using such “proof” would get a big fat F.
Oh yeah? Well, if you were my student who responded to a brilliant and incisive piece with whinging about “vague similarities” I’d give YOU an even bigger, fatter F! How do you like them apples? Stings, doesn’t it!
There, now that we’ve both failed each other’s classes, perhaps you could spend a little more time and point out flaws with my argument and the parallels I’ve drawn. And perhaps you could report back from Murphy’s book and point out how it does not support my position. And perhaps you could outline the kind of historical evidence you require support a historical claim. Or, you know, you are free to continue to just issue lazy statements like this one because someone has challenged your poor understanding of historical argument in general and your understanding of your particular economic outlook. You’ll be welcome here either way!
My conclusion from all this is that the problem is that seem to have been most influenced by Andrew Jackson. After all, you are both named “Jackson,” and someone like yourself who decided to write about history would surely have, at least by high school age, decided to read up on Andrew Jackson, the only American president named Jackson. The anti-corporate streak you have, in particular, traces itself to Jackson’s opposition the National Bank, along with his general suspicion of Northeastern financial elites. Prove me wrong!
This also explains my genocidal tendencies! And my nickname, “Young Hickory!” And that time I imposed martial law in New Orleans (they still don’t welcome me back there).
Wait, Now I’ve seen what you’ve done! You’ve used my own argumentative tactics against me! You are too clever for us naughty fellows!
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You have as much connection to Andrew Jackson as MacLean has documented Buchanan has to the southern agrarians, Davidson in particular.
I believe you already said that..
I’d point out that your initial impression of MacLean’s meaning appears to have been similar to mine. When you commented on the IHE article you wrote in response to Magness:
“1. MacLean’s source the first time she mentions Davidson’s influence is to Murphy’s REBUKE OF HISTORY. I don’t have the book but are you saying that Murphy does not make this claim or that Murphy disavows any influence?”
You cite Murphy in your blogpost above, so you now know that Murphy does not mention Buchanan at all, let alone make any link him to Davidson. But you still don’t feel MacLean was misleading?
No, I don’t. I thought when Magness said that the sources didn’t support the claim that Murphy MIGHT have contradicted the claim. I was asking for a clarification–which I never got perhaps because Magness never looked at Murphy.
The inference connecting Buchanan and Davidson is MacLean’s, not Murphy’s. She is using Murphy to get a clear picture of Davidson which SHE then connects to Buchanan. What Magness, and Bernstein in this thread, seem to argue is that this inference is illegitimate; that unless someone before has published the connection, it is wrong to cite Murphy for this purpose unless Murphy also made the connection. This is strange because it short-circuits historical work: Unless you are merely repeating something someone has already said, you can’t say it. Seems like that rule stalls historical inquiry altogether. The discipline would be reduced to merely finding ideas that have already been said.
On the contrary, John. I take no specific issue with Murphy’s work. I’m objecting to MacLean’s practice of passing off an unsubstantiated conjecture as both a strongly implied (or “seemed”) connection and a directly stated connection.
Murphy serves her purposes by providing details about Agrarianism and padding for a footnote that actually contains no evidence of her implied and directly stated claim about Buchanan.
Can you discern the difference between an “unsubstantiated conjecture” and an inference?
Can you appreciate a scholar making a connection between A and B by showing the parallels between the two in relevant ways? Especially when B says, “My way of thinking about this is just like what A said about it.” Why does that count for NOTHING in your view?
Hi John –
This is a long and dissembling post, and I’m slightly pressed for time at the moment even as I want to do it full justice. That said, I can note quite simply that you’ve misrepresented me. You state:
“Note the differences between MacLean’s claim and Magness’s formulation of it. MacLean is hedging by saying Davidson seemed most decisive; Magness omits the qualifier.”
The qualifier, of course, raises a separate question of why MacLean felt the need to insert what is tantamount to a weasel word in the first place to forge her connection to Davidson. If your best defense of the passage is to note that she made a rhetorical sleight of hand that allows her to poison Buchanan’s well by tossing in a casual segregationist while pleading innocence of the same, then all I can say is that your case is remarkably weak.
But since you’re accusing me now of omitting the qualifier, I’d simply urge any of your readers to return to my original post and ascertain if that is true or not. I note you excerpt part of the text above, but what you did not do is include the block quotes I provided from MacLean’s text – including the offending passage in full (see here: http://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153952 and in case you missed it, it’s not only blockquoted in the text but reprinted in captioned in full with the title of the article). I’d also invite anyone who wishes to confirm as much to read my longer review of MacLean’s book for a journal (see here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3004029) in which I make the same point regarding Davidson: “But MacLean’s argument is not rooted in any actual evidence. She claims that the Agrarian poet Donald Davidson was “the Nashville writer who seemed most decisive in Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system” (p. 33)” (located on page 4 of the review).
Alas, no omission after all. Nice try though.
I see you continue to press the point that you were making on your last post about MacLean’s attempt to tie in Donaldson in the absence of evidence, and accordingly note “it is reasonable that [Buchanan] would have read Tennessee’s most celebrated authors and they would have an influence on his emerging intellectual system, if not his mature one.”
Is it though? And is this really MacLean’s claim – that Buchanan *might* have read a book by a celebrated Tennessee author as an 18 year old? On the first question – reasonableness – I’d simply note that your claim here is still in the territory of pure unfounded speculation. It’s a strange speculation too – one that assumes without any further evidence that a teenager from an impoverished rural family simply must have bought and consumed an obscure book on political theory on account of it being published by an author who lived in the same state during his sophomore year of high school. You go to some length to try to demonstrate a couple of casual parallels between Buchanan and Davidson, as if to show that this gets MacLean off the hook. There’s a touch of Argumentum ad Magic Decoder Ring to the way you portray it – they both talked about yeoman farmers and the country life, which I suppose in MacLean’s mind is sufficient to sustain her own wild and unsourced speculation of a link. Occam’s razor gives us a more likely explanation: the Jeffersonian concept that both men refer to is a famous theme in American history, and a topic that literally tens of thousands of people have written about over the past two centuries. Buchanan himself also came from a family of farmers and – unsurprisingly – mused philosophically about life on the farm (although he must not have loved it too much, seeing as he titled his autobiography ‘Better than Ploughing’). That’s an awfully broad and weak link on which to stake a highly specific speculative claim. It also collides with the little matter that there’s a substantial tension between the specifics of Davidson’s worldview and Buchanan. I’ll let Jeffrey Tucker elaborate on the problems that poses (see here https://fee.org/articles/this-confused-conspiracy-theory-gets-the-agrarians-all-wrong/).
On the second point though, even if we were to grant your contention that an innocent commonality exists between Buchanan and Davidson/the Agrarians, that’s not actually how MacLean characterized their relationship. She didn’t just stop with the speculation of “seemed” as you imply. Rather, she went into a lengthy digression about how Donaldson’s use of the term “Leviathan” allegedly transformed its meaning to describe an overreaching federal government and implies that this use of the term must have also influenced Buchanan’s own use.
As you acknowledge, this particular twist also enlists Thomas Hobbes to the argument and prompts you to take issue with my description of MacLean’s own begrudging reference. This too is interesting, because it reveals that (a) you’ve entirely missed the point of my argument here and (b) don’t really understand Buchanan. Why? Because Hobbes is in fact the key to it all. The issue with MacLean’s begrudging reference to Hobbes is that it’s the only reference she makes to Hobbes in the entire book. For an alleged intellectual history of James M. Buchanan, that’s a major problem because Hobbes was a central figure in his own set of intellectual influences. He’s one of the most frequently referenced authors in all of Buchanan’s works, and the explicitly identified source of Buchanan’s own use of the Leviathan metaphor to describe one of his more famous economic concepts. Thus by breezing past Hobbes’ name as an aside to Davidson – never to mention Hobbes again at any other place in the text – MacLean unwittingly reveals that she’s completely missed a crucial and central figure to understanding Buchanan’s thought. For an “intellectual historian” working on Buchanan, this isn’t simply an oversight – it’s a demonstration of outright incompetence with her subject matter.
Now, let’s return to the matter of “seemed” for a moment since you are hedging yourself on it as an “out” to MacLean’s fabrications. It’s already a stretch of an argument to excuse MacLean on a weaselly modifier to give herself an out for what is, at is core, a completely unsourced claim. A problem emerges though because the line containing the modifier “seemed” is not in fact the only or even the strongest example of MacLean’s false attributions. That actually takes place earlier on the same page (p. 33) when she states the following, with no modifier or weasel words attached to save herself:
“Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.”
And who might she be referring to here? Who does she affirmatively credit with having a direct influence upon Buchanan’s “vision” of society and state? The Vanderbilt Agrarians. And again, she does so with no sources to substantiate the claim.
I await your apology and/or retraction.
I don’t know why this comment didn’t show up right way like your other comments. It waited overnight in moderation. I apologize for that. Clearly, I have wordpress issues. I want to thank you for the time you have spent interacting with me about this book. I have found our exchanges very useful to sharpen my own thinking.
First, it is clear that we have a fundamental disagreement about the use of qualifiers when making a claim. In my view, a qualifier is important to signal how strongly the arguer intends the claim and to indicate the strength of the evidence needed to support it. Thus, if MacLean uses “seemingly” she is telling the reader exactly how strong her claim is: she thinks she has a reasonable inference but not a sure thing. Thus, the reader should expect the strength of the evidence to match the strength of the claim.
You, on the other hand, call the qualifier a “weasel word” as somehow a mark AGAINST her rather than a sign of her responsible argumentation. Even if you show the blockquote, your argument effectively ignores the qualifier as unimportant. Consequently, you demand a level of evidence to support a much stronger claim. You demand evidence as if she wrote, “There is no doubt that Davidson was THE ONLY AND MOST IMPORTANT INFLUENCE on Buchanan!!” Which is not her position, and raises the bar for the evidence required to prove it.
Unlike MacLean’s carefully qualified claim, you made the claim that there was “no evidence” and that “she made it all up.” Those are very strong claims. I will simply note that you then spend a lot of time, both here and on your original post critiquing the evidence she offers. How, if there was “no evidence” can you critique it at all? How, if she “made it up” can you spend so much time picking it apart? The obvious answer is that she DOES have evidence, it is NOT a figment of her imagination. You are unconvinced of it, well and good. But, and this is the point I was trying to make, you have zero evidence that she “made it up.” Your own writing shows this because it shows you disbelieve the inference she is drawing from the evidence she is offering, not that the evidence is imaginary.
Do you hold yourself to the standards you are holding MacLean to? You, and others, demand a “smoking gun” from her. Let’s take your own post on Hutt:
Now, I realize you wrote is a blog post rather than a book, but I would like to use it as an illustration. You claim there that Buchanan’s sponsorship of Hutt shows that B. was willing to attack segregation rather than silently submit to it, as MacLean (and I) claim. But, according to your standards, you have no evidence that shows that. Sure, Hutt spoke out against apartheid and compared it segregation. But that is not a smoking gun. Unless you have some writing from Buchanan that says something like: “I want you to come to Virginia and speak out against segregation because I hate segregation and want to undermine it” you have not proven your case, right? According to the standards of evidence you are putting onto MacLean?
On the previous thread, when you brought this up, I tried to undermine your position in various ways and you defended it. At no time did I accuse you of making anything up. At no time did I say that your idea that Hutt’s visit undermining MacLean was “imaginary.” I tried to engage with your position and show why I disagreed with it. Which, I submit, is exactly what you are doing with MacLean. BUT your claims of making things up are unsupportable and, unnecessary.
“Argumentum ad Magic Decoder Ring” is a wonderful phrase, I wish I’d said it (“don’t worry, you will” Oscar Wilde).
You suggest that the yeoman farmer thing is a common trope so that B. could have employed it regardless of the Agraians. Obviously the yeoman farmer thing is overdetermined: lots and lots of causes go into his employment of the trope: his own rural upbringing, other writers who use it, etc. Yes to all of that. But, that doesn’t disprove the fact that B. himself acknowledged the Agrarians. You write about how the quotation is in “MacLean’s mind is sufficient to sustain her own wild and unsourced speculation of a link.” But… but….but…. it isn’t an “unsourced speculation.” Buchanan notes it in his own autobiography! It is sourced! Are you just pretending he didn’t say it himself? Maybe that is why you think her evidence is imaginary, you just ignore things you don’t want to hear? This is what I’ve been trying to get you to admit: there is a difference between saying “the evidence is inadequate” and “there is no evidence.”
I want to note that you have not really addressed the main parallels MacLean drew between the two. You claim she went on a “lengthy digression” about Davidson (not Donaldson as you write) and the Leviathan. But compare that single paragraph to the *two pages* after it where she is really comparing the two: in their disgust at the Eastern establishment, their regional pride, and the similarity of their disinterest in the oppression of anyone except white southerners. This last evidenced by her quotation of B’s blaming African Americans for their own oppression: “The thirst for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed” (p. 35). You have responded to none of that, preferring to discuss Hobbes “the key to it all.” No, actually Hobbes has nothing to do with these issues, even if he is the key to B.’s published works.
“Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.” You are mixing up several things here: 1. B. wanted to go to Vandy. This is not disputed (Better than Plowing, p.2). 1. Vandy was the site of the Agrarians. Also not disputed. 3. The Agrarians’cultural project attracted B. And there we are in dispute. I will simply note that you have not addressed the pages MacLean devotes to their similarities, and chosen to deny/ignore the fact that B. himself acknowledges their influence. I will also note that pointing to placed they differed does not disprove the similarities. Nor does the piece Tucker wrote. Your argument seems to be like saying: “In baseball it takes three outs to end an inning in cricket it takes 11 outs. Thus, it is untrue that both games use bats.”
Finally, I want you to consider the difference between claiming: “MacLean has made a weak argument that is under-evidenced and should be rejected” with “she made it up.” I think you believe the first and think you should withdraw the second.
You’re being downright obtuse in your handling of MacLean’s own words, John. Buchanan says he was attracted to Vanderbilt because of its intellectual prestige and his family’s desire to send him off to become a lawyer. MacLean writes the Agrarians into that decision with ZERO evidence to support the claim. She simply projects it onto him and writes it in, as the passage on p. 33 indicates.
You note that MacLean presents evidence of parallels between Buchanan and the Agrarians as if this somehow salvages your case. Except it doesn’t. In addition to the piece I referred you to by Tucker documenting at length how Buchanan’s worldview clashed with Davidson’s, I’d urge you to take a closer look at Buchanan’s own words.
MacLean portrays him as leaving Tennessee with a Davidsonian worldview – of seeing New York through that lens. All she proves in doing so is her own failure to read Buchanan’s own words. Here’s how Buchanan describes the same events of his youth:
“As chapter 2 should have made clear, my early life could scarcely have produced in me some romanticized yearning for the drudgery of the yeoman farmer. And, through the middle decades of my life I felt no yearning to return to the soil, to seek out my roots, to engage with nature directly in some continuing struggle to transform the wild into the fruitful. Nor did I lapse into the opposing green absurdity, the abstracted longing for some return to nature, even if red in tooth and claw.”
When he develops the concept of a rural aesthetic later in the book, he makes it absolutely clear that it was the exact opposite of how MacLean portrays it: the rural life was literally his retirement project – a point to return to late in life after he explicitly rejected it in his youth and avoided it for his entire working career. When he references the appeal of the rural aesthetic, he does so as an elderly man in his 80s who left the hurry of a career to settle down on a farm and take in the scenery.
Since MacLean extensively references the autobiography to support her contrived and nonsensical Agrarian thesis, she cannot plead ignorance of this passage or numerous others like it. I can’t speak to your own familiarity with the same source, but you should investigate it if you haven’t because it tells a diametrically opposite story to the one that MacLean weaves together. I’m fearful though that you’re far too credulous – even fawning – in your approach to her though to ever admit that she could conceivably be wrong.
In fact, a strong case could be made that MacLean inverted the *entire* narrative of “Better than Plowing” to shoehorn it into her Agrarian motif.
Chapter 2 is Buchanan’s lengthy recollection of the grueling nature of rural Tennessee life in a time before electricity and central heating. It’s about waking up early to work the fields before school, about sleeping in unheated rooms through the thick of winter, and about hoping for rain because it meant a reprieve from milking cows and tending to crops. It’s a story of how he escaped that life of hardship to do something else that was – literally – better than plowing.
Chapter 8 is a story of his retirement. It’s how he slowed down from decades of a career spent in the midst of modernity and – much to his surprise – rediscovered an aesthetic in his long-abandoned rural youth. It’s about how, as a man at the end of his career and much to his own surprise, he started to see an appreciation in the country aesthetic. It’s about how Gordon Tullock talked him into buying some land out in the country, how he started spending his summers there, and how he ended up making it his retirement project when a few years prior such a notion would have been unthinkable to him. The country life was something he had long since moved beyond, and the passages that MacLean enlists as “proof” of her contrived theory about his youth are actually the reflections of a 70+ year old man as he rediscovered the country while looking for a place to retire.
The most charitable reading one could plausibly give to MacLean’s interpretation of “Better than Plowing” is outright incompetence with the material. Yes – she inverts its entire meaning that badly so as to present it as the opposite of what it actually says and what it meant to Buchanan as he saw himself. And of course the less charitable reading – though one that I believe is more than amply sustained by her own misuse of quotations, her own fabrication of unsupported claims, and her overarching ideological lens that she employs throughout the entire book – is that her treatment of this material is yet another instance of willfully misusing evidence.
sigh…. Will you EVER address the issue? Here’s my original post above:
“Magness is quite right that Buchanan, unlike Davidson, did not celebrate the Confederacy or segregationist visions. Nor does MacLean make that claim. What she does claim is that Davidson and Buchanan shared a cultural preference for the “country aesthetic” particularly as found in the American south. She claims that this manifested itself in a hostility toward the federal government and northern culture more generally. Thus, when Buchanan leaves the south for New York in 1941, he saw the city “through lenses wholly crafted Donald Davidson” (p. 34). I think “wholly” is an exaggeration here; the Tennessee boy probably had a lot of reasons to dislike the big city and how he was treated there. But there is a difference between exaggeration and imaginary.”
To quote my own response to you, also above:
“I want to note that you have not really addressed the main parallels MacLean drew between the two. You claim she went on a “lengthy digression” about Davidson (not Donaldson as you write) and the Leviathan. But compare that single paragraph to the *two pages* after it where she is really comparing the two: in their disgust at the Eastern establishment, their regional pride, and the similarity of their disinterest in the oppression of anyone except white southerners. This last evidenced by her quotation of B’s blaming African Americans for their own oppression: “The thirst for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed” (p. 35). You have responded to none of that, preferring to discuss Hobbes “the key to it all.” No, actually Hobbes has nothing to do with these issues, even if he is the key to B.’s published works.”
The differences noted by Tucker are completely irrelevant to the similarities MacLean is pointing to. With quotations from the autobiography. Regardless of the damn yeoman farmer or the industrialized south, B. spoke of his hatred of the northeastern establishment with a “Davidson-like framing.” If you want to dispute that it was not such a framing, please do so and quit bringing up completely irrelevant differences, which do exist but do not speak to the issue at hand.
Most importantly for MacLean, and obviously least important to you since you have written several thousand words about this and have NEVER addressed it is that B., like Davidson, was attuned to prejudice against white southerners without ever recognizing discrimination against much more vulnerable groups. Which is very Davidson-like. She even gives you a quotation where B. repeats a Davidson-like racist trope that basically argues that African Americans are unfit for self-governance. NOTHING you have argued addresses any of this, which is the argument she is making. No wonder you think she “made it all up” since you seem unable to even see the argument she is making and you hope, that by bringing up a lot of differences between the two you can disprove her point without ever really coming to grips with it.
Her concluding sentence to this brief section is:
“It was a breathtaking ignorant claim, a sign of a willful failure to see what his paradigm would not allow him to. Both Koch and Buchanan would make similarly blind and insulting claims about others who did not do well in the labor market these men chose to believe was free and fair.”
You are “blind” to the argument she makes. Again, and I promise for the last time, I am not trying to convince you she is right. I am trying to get you to LITERALLY SEE what she is saying. That you persist in the claim that she “made this up” can only have a “willful failure to see.” Maybe you truly are a rightful heir to Buchanan’s thinking.
On whether the qualifier “seems to” is a wesel word to give credence to unfounded speculation or not, let me ask the following. Take the below fictional exchange and tell me if you think there is anything problematic about it:
John: Tennis player Andy Murray seems to really love the band One Direction.”
Tess: Huh? Why do you say that? Do you have any reason to think he really loves One Direction?
John: Well, they are both of the same generation and they’re both from Scotland. And One Direction was a really popular band. So, like I said, Andy Murray seems to really love them.”
Any problems with John’s statement?
“MacLean is hedging by saying Davidson seemed most decisive; Magness omits the qualifier. In so doing, he raises the bar for the evidence required to prove the claim by making the claim stronger than she did.”
As many others here have, I also find this unconvincing. It sounds like you are very close to saying that if I want to make a connection between x and y but don’t have solid evidence, I can just say “x seems to y” and be excused from any burden of showing how I got there.
And it’s worse than that, because MacLean doesn’t just say – as you suggested – that Buchanan must have been familiar with Davidson, but that Davidson appears to have been “most decisive” in forming Buchanan’s early intellectual landscape. So, one has to do a lot more than, as you do, suppose that as someone in the south at the time, Buchanan was probably familiar with Davidson; one has to show that it was likely that Davidson was quite formative to Buchanan’s thought, and it’s hard to imagine that evidence is not required of that.
Are you really saying, as you seem to be, that if you had a student writing a paper, and said something like “The Ku Klux Klan seem to have been heavily influenced by Plato,” and if you called them on that, their answer of “Well, Plato is a very popular philosopher, so he MUST have had an infuence on the KKK,” would be fine with you? Because that is how your defense of MacLean sounds.
It not even a matter of “seems”. MacLean writes “Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan–one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.” There’s not even a hint that she’s making a guess.
You might read the first half of John’s blog post again, becasue “seems” as qualifier is precisely the issue there. John says, “Note the differences between MacLean’s claim and Magness’s formulation of it. MacLean is hedging by saying Davidson seemed most decisive; Magness omits the qualifier. In so doing, he raises the bar for the evidence required to prove the claim by making the claim stronger than she did.”
So, quite literally, John’s main point in this part of the post is that Phil is wrong to demand proof that Buchanan actually was influenced by Davidson because MacLean only says that he “seems to” have been influenced by Davidson.
No, I am not saying that “Phil was wrong to demand proof.” See the long reply to Phil up above.
I am saying the qualifier lowers the bar for the evidence required. Had she issued a stronger claim, the requirements for evidence would be higher. A qualified claim is the sign of a responsible arguer therefore since it signals how strongly the arguer wants the recipient to take the argument. My point is that by ignoring the qualifier people are demanding more evidence than MacLean needs to supply.
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Nobody’s ignoring the qualifier, John. I am calling your particular spin on it weaselly though. It’s hard to see how that improves MacLean’s position either. “Ah ha! But I left myself an out for my ridiculous unsubstantiated and unsourced claim by slipping in a weasel-word here and there!” isn’t exactly a mark of a high quality scholar.
Furthermore, MacLean evidently wasn’t nearly as clever as you believe she was. Although you’ve been trying mightily to spin it away too, there are no similar qualifiers in the passage from the earlier paragraph where she says the Agrarian cultural project at Vanderbilt “stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.”
Not “seemed to stamp” but flat out “stamped.”
So: the only claims a scholar should make are: “I am absolutely sure of X,Y. and Z!” and the only evidence sufficient to prove the claim is something that says EXACTLY “X,YZ” in that order.
You seem to think that history is a scholastic enterprise in which our only task is to deduce the words of The Philosopher from the Revealed Word of God. Good to know.
Do you own claims about Hutt match those standards? I’m still waiting for that evidence that says exactly, precisely what you claim Hutt’s presence meant. After all, you wouldn’t want to “weasel” out of it, would you? You clearly said that Hutt’s visit absolutely, precisely 100% falsified any notion that B. was a segregationist. So, you obviously have a statement or something from B. to that effect. Otherwise, you know, you are making an INFERENCE that is not deductively valid, which is, I guess, the only kind of reasoning you allow.
I can provide multiple sources that demonstrate (a) Buchanan brought Hutt to UVA in 1965 and (b) Hutt lectured extensively while there against Apartheid and southern segregation.
What sources does MacLean have showing that Donaldson specifically has any connection to Buchanan whatsoever?
Sorry, you are making this all up. You are required, by your own standards of evidence, to show that B. brought Hutt to UVA FOR THE PURPOSE OF attacking segregation. You are completely making up that inference. I need actual words, from Buchanan, that this was the reason he brought Hutt to UVA. Sorry, but these are the requirements you are putting onto MacLean.
After all, Hutt was a union-buster, just like B. it is FAR more likely that B. put up with this apartheid nonsense in order to get more ammo against the unions. And, Hutt was probably a lot more effective union-busting than he was at ending segregation. So,you know, B. let him have his harmless fun with those segregation speeches as long as he did the REAL work of undermining worker’s rights.
So, Hutt’s presence in no way disproves anything about B.’s segregationist stance. It is a figment of your imagination. Ya got nothing.
Well, if you can find KKK literature that says, “Our thinking here is just like Plato’s thinking” then it seems no longer an outrageous thing to say. After all, B. says explicitly that his thinking about the yeoman farmer thing is just like the Agrarians. And MacLean (and I in the post) point out the obvious parallels between the two. Why do you find it so hard to believe?
Nope. I don’t need to find that document, according to your blog entry. All I’d need to do is establish that it’s reasonable that the KKK would be familiar with Plato. Remember, you say: Buchanan was a brilliant young man from Tennessee; it is reasonable that he would have read Tennessee’s most celebrated authors and they would have an influence on his emerging intellectual system, if not his mature one.” That is a really low standard of proof for making a statement, as MacLean did, about how Davidson appeared to be formative in Buchanan’s thought. She didnt just say “Buchanan seems to have been familiiar with Davidson.”
Um… that isn’t all I say, though. Indeed, the next paragraph I write: ” But a reasonable supposition does not evidence make. So lets turn to the evidence for why MacLean might think a young man might be influenced by famous writers from his home state. Why does it seem to MacLean that Davidson influenced Buchanan?”
And then follows a couple pages of argument. I invite you to read it.
Isn’t it strange that a man who you claim so loved and longed for a society of Jeffersonian gentlemen farmers titled his autobiography *Better Than Plowing*?
Probably not. As I’ve learned the last two weeks, good history seems to involve (see what I did there…) ignoring what people actually said, or didn’t say, and asserting without evidence that they believe things you think they must believe in order to support your priors.
So, the entire chapter he dedicates to the joy he has from being a gentleman farmer doesn’t exist because of the book title? Is that your position here? And, given that B. explicitly draws attention to the Agrarians in that chapter counts for nothing? and *I* am the one “ignoring what people actually said?”
Speaking of what people actually said: “As Chapter 2 should have made clear, my early life could scarcely have produced in me some romanticized yearning for the drudgery of the yeoman farmer. And, through the middle decades of my life I felt no yearning to return to the soil…”
But I thought the 18 year old Buchanan wanted to attend Vanderbilt because he was all about the Southern Agrarians…
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You thought that? Why? MacLean doesn’t say that nor do I. Here’s what she said:
“Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.” You are mixing up several things here: 1. B. wanted to go to Vandy. This is not disputed (Better than Plowing, p.2). 1. Vandy was the site of the Agrarians. Also not disputed. 3. The Agrarians’cultural project attracted B. And there we are in dispute. See the rest of my post or read the relevant pages of MacLean.
There are many reasons one would want to go to Vanderbilt besides the presence of the Agrarians. I knew plenty of people who wanted to go to Vanderbilt because it’s a fairly prestigious college. Again, this is like claiming that I attended Western Kentucky University because of the presence of Frank Steele or the presence of the Robert Penn Warren library there, both of which were irrelevant to a high school student looking for colleges where he could study molecular biology.
“(Not to go too far afield, but Magness is engaging a bit of poisoning the well here: the idea that MacLean “begrudgingly concedes” this point rather than merely straightforwardly tracing of the term’s origin.)”
Dude, if you think “begrudgingly” is well-poisoning, what about MacLean calling Buchanan “diabolical” (p.xxv) and an “evil genius” (p.42)?
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And there’s the Godwin’s Law violation on p.211 (you would scold an undergrad just for that lazy, citation-free “Goebbels is said to have remarked”).
Well, in most citation styles, when one spouts a cliche that is common circulation it doesn’t require a citation.
She didn’t call B. diabolical. She called one aspect of his plan diabolical. She didn’t call him an evil genius, she said he was a genius and said, *even* if you think it was evil, it was still genius.
But, OK, fine. In the course of a 300-page book, she engaged in over-the-top characterization from time to time. Phil did it in two pages. I dunno why this is a particularly important point.
I grew up in Kentucky. Now, by your logic, that means I’m very likely to have read a great deal of Robert Penn Warren, Wendell Berry, and Barbara Kingsolver. But to be honest, I’ve probably read more Duncan Hines (who is from Bowling Green, KY) baking instructions than all of these writers together. It’s not that I haven’t heard of them, but that I have other literary interests.
Now, it seems like you or Nancy MacLean would claim that there is in fact a great deal of evidence that I was deeply influenced by Robert Penn Warren. The evidence is that he is from Kentucky and I grew up in Kentucky. Then, because of my obsession with Warren, I went to Western Kentucky University, home of the Robert Penn Warren Library. There it is! The smoking gun!
Except there’s no there there. To come to these conclusions, you would have to completely ignore the fact that I attended WKU to major in recombinant gene technology, and that I chose WKU because that was at the time one of the very few places in the U.S. where you could get such an undergraduate degree.
I later shifted gears, deciding to take some English classes in order to get accepted into a Master’s program in English. Now, I know what you’re thinking: aha! There’s the link! Having been exposed to Warren at WKU, I clearly shifted gears under his influence! And you would be wrong again. The first time I was exposed to Warren was in an American Novel class, which I took after deciding to go to grad school in English It was only then that I read “All the King’s Men.” It was okay, but I’ve never gone back to it, and I’ve never read another word of Warren.
Honestly, if this is what is passing for history these days, the field is in a great deal of trouble. Apparently, wanting to see connections counts as “evidence”.
Now, if you wanted to write an expose about how I’m the secret leader of the “men’s movement,” I can actually provide you with a much better genealogy. I took two creative writing classes with Frank Steele, who knew and was influenced by Robert Bly. I also actually met Robert Bly when he was invited to give a talk, and I have written a “Bly-like” poem. I mean, there’s some real solid evidence right there. Two degrees of separation, or one, if you want to count him showing up on campus to do a reading. At the very least, one might say that that’s clear evidence of the influence of Bly on my poetry.
Except, it’s not. The truth is, I don’t like Bly’s poetry, and I have no use whatsoever for his “men’s movement.” Feminism works just fine for me. I really think Bly is a third-rate poet, and his translations are among the worst. I only wrote my “Bly-like” poem because it was assigned by my poetry professor prior to Bly’s appearance.
All of this suggests that these “historical methods” are really little more than a bunch of just-so stories, with about as much relation to facts as were the original collection–which at least had the decency to not to be presented by the author as authentic explanations of things.
I will reply to your substantive points tomorrow, but just let me pass my condolences for having to read Robert Bly. I used to work at his local bookstore way back in the 1980s and he came by quite often. He was just as pleasant a person, in my experience, as you’d expect him to be.
I could definitely have done without reading him. He made no contribution whatsoever to anything I’ve ever done, except that one poem (what’s funny is that the poem was wildly successful as a Bly-like poem, to such an extent the professor asked if she could send it to him; at the same time, when we workshopped the poem, everyone wanted to remove everything that made it sound like a Bly poem). Regarding niceness, I took classes with Frederick Barthelme when I attended USM. He was a complete jackass most of the time. But at least the man could write. His brother, also at USM, was much nicer, but nowhere near the artist.
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Well, if you had written an autobiography where you acknowledge how close your views were to Warren and then a historian came along and pointed out the parallels between your way of thinking to Warren’s then I think it is a reasonable inference to conclude you were influenced by Warren. That is the analogy to what MacLean is saying about B.
And no “smoking gun” is needed because there is no murder. She is not charging B. with anything particularly outlandish: the idea that a Tennessee boy would be attracted to Tennessee writers, that he acknowledged that attraction to them in his autobiography, that there are parallels she sketched between the two, is enough to put forward the inference. Folks are demanding some level of proof that is not necessary for the claim being made.
Except that Buchanan nowhere said in his autobiography that his thinking was remotely similar to those of Davidson. I am using the precise scenario you used, and now you’re moving the goal posts (strangely, into an area that is provably wrong).
I have known plenty of people attracted to Southern writers, but no one attracted specifically to Kentucky writers. I have an affinity for Faulkner, myself, And, although I am myself a poet (Buchanan wasn’t and as far as I know showed no interest in poetry), and although I grew up only about two hours north of Nashville, I had never heard of Donald Davidson (I had to look him up). Now, it would seem that someone who grew up only a short distance from Vanderbilt and someone who is a poet would be influenced by local poets, right? Except that’s not how it actually works–certainly not in the 20th century.
The level of proof being demanded is actually more than reasonable. Given the large number of people currently alive who knew the man, and given the current state of technology, she could have sent emails asking everyone if they had ever heard him mention Donald Davidson or noted a collection of Davidson’s poetry anywhere in his vicinity. You can ask questions in such a way that you don’t show your hand, and if she were any kind of competent historian, she could and would have done just that.
The mention of the Agrarians is in a short passage in which he compares their ideas to Thomas Jefferson. This seems the big smoking gun. But that reference could have easily come from someone happening to mention the Agrarians to him as having a similar world view to Jefferson while he was writing his autobiography, leading him to look them up to make sure what the person said was right, then make the reference in his book. I have literally as much evidence for this scenario as she has for hers.
Now, let’s take your scenario of my writing an autobiography and making mention of Warren. Is the job of the historian to take that mention and weave a scenario of how my world view is rooted in that of the Southern Agrarians, or is it to try to figure out the biography I laid out in my first posting? I would hope that a historian’s job would be to find out when I was actually exposed to Warren, to determine if and when he influenced me, and what if anything I read.
Worse, MacLean has–as has been repeatedly shown–taken quotes completely out of context, making Buchanan say the opposite of what he actually said, to support her thesis. Let me give another personal example.
I’m influenced by Nietzsche. Anyone who reads what I’ve written, if they’ve read enough, knows that. Now, if MacLean were to write a book about my ideas, I would at this point expect her to say that I believed that I believed I had a master spirit because I am influenced by Nietzsche, and I admit that “Nietzsche favors the master spirit over the slave spirit.” However, in the blog passage in which I make that statement–http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-politics-of-master-slave-and-higher.html–I actually say that:
“People mistakenly believe that this means Nietzsche favors the master spirit over the slave spirit. However, this does not hold up, given that Nietzsche argued that the master spirit resulted in externalization and made people stupid (GM I, 6-7), while the slave spirit resulted in internalization, depth, and creative culture (GM II, 16). It was the higher types, which paradoxically combined both spirit (creating internal conflict), which Nietzsche in fact favored (BGE 260). Higher types were not just the most creative, they were the great innovators.”
And because people love to associate Nietzsche with the Nazis, although he himself despised nationalism (particularly German nationalism), socialism, and anti-Semitism, it would be easy to claim I was a secret fascist because of my being influenced by Nietzsche. In fact, with enough cherry-picking of the things I’ve written, you could prove me a socialist and even a Marxist. Except that a good historian looks at all of the evidence, looks at all the person’s associations, and keeps everything in context. What they don’t do is find some vague reference and try to make a federal case of a massive conspiracy that contradicts everything the person actually stood for out of it.
The historian Corey Robin believes that the libertarian critiques of the book are sound. This, in part, drove me on a search for those critiques and responses, the latter of which lead me here.
Do you have a link to the Robin piece? He writes at a lot of different places and I can’t seem to find it. Thanks!
I sincerely apologize to Corey Robin. It was not/not Corey Robin who defended the libertarian critiques. I apologize for any damage to his professional reputation. The actual defense of the libertarians is from the historian Rick Perlstein on his Facebook post of July 14, 2017, at 1018 hours.
On that Facebook post, Perlstein wrote: “It pains me very deeply to say this, as Nancy Maclean is a friend whose past work I deeply admire, and whose broad political aims I share, but I totally endorse this article about her book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for Democracy.” Maclean really does, at times, distort quotes from the subject to claim they mean the opposite of what they actually mean. Yet more damningly, in my opinion, the foundation of the entire book is a conspiracy theory that suggests that if you understand THIS ONE SECRET PLAN, you understand the rise of the right in America in its entirety. Which suggests you don’t need to understand any of a score of other important tributaries, some of them not top-down conspiratorial at all but deeply, organically bottom up, which gave us the political order of battle we know now. That you don’t need to read anything else. Which is actively dangerous to historical understanding.” End Perlstein.
Again, I apologize for the mistake of naming Corey Robin. It was not my intention to damage his reputation by linking him to the defense of the libertarian critiques of MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains.
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‘Jacoby emphasized that debate about scholars’ historical methods is welcome. Yet the critiques of Democracy in Chains he’s read so far “have not grappled with these questions of historical method — perhaps not surprising, since almost all come from non-historians.” To say that MacLean’s selectively quotes from Buchanan’s writings, as Munger does, for example, “is a meaningless critique: all historians distill out key quotes from an otherwise vast body of documents. Similarly, Munger’s assertions that one has to exhibit ‘charity’ towards one’s subject and take their writings at face value would seem laughably naive to most historians.”’
You are essentially blaming Phil for behaving uncharitably toward her, when she’s shown no such charity toward Buchanan, and we’ve been told by historians that to insist on charitable readings is “laughably naive.”
Don’t you know, Rob? Nancy MacLean deserves charity – so much charity in fact that we’re even supposed to invent excuses for her when she alters quotations to change their plain meaning and when she stakes out inflammatory claims and innuendo-laden affiliations that have absolutely no basis in fact and no cited sources to back them.
Meanwhile, MacLean has free license to engage in such fundamentally uncharitable actions as labeling Buchanan a “diabolical” and “evil genius,” to tar him to the brushes of segregationism and Calhoun, and to accuse him of colluding with Pinochet.
Both of these contradictory tenets are apparently fundamental “methods” of a small group of people who call themselves “intellectual historians.” And if you question any of those methods (or, alternative, point out the absurd double standard they have adopted), it just means that you don’t “understand” the finer nuances of how they do what they purport to be “intellectual history.”
I’m not interested in defending Jacoby’s statements or try to discuss reading charitably or anything like that. One reason I chose this small portion of the book is to try to focus the discussion on a small level. I addressed segregation and Calhoun in my previous post and I’m not going near the Pinochet stuff as that is far from my area of expertise.
Perhaps I am wrong but I don’t think I’m asking Phil to behave more “charitably” toward’s MacLean. I am asking him to rethink this idea that she “made up” this connection between B. and the Agrarians. I am trying to get him to say something like: “She makes a weak argument here. The evidence she has does not support her position.” I think he is just wrong to say she “has no evidence” or that it is a “figment of her imagination.” To me this has little to do with charity and a lot to do with one’s own scholarly responsibility.
You see, no historian is likely to run into Jim Buchanan at a meeting of the OAH or the AHA, so there is no need to treat him charitably. MacLean, however, might well be in attendance.
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I’m slow on the uptake (I’m betting you aren’t disagreeing with that). I just realized that this comment is a dig at me. Apparently I’m mean to Buchanan and nice to MacLean because that is good for my career? Nah…. I’ve never met her. I’ve been to OAH once, about 15 years ago. I’ve never been to AHA at all. And, funnily enough, I’ve never seen her at the History of Science Society Meetings, or the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology Meetings. Or at any of the other places where I hobnob with my brother and sister wizards.
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I have a serious question: on what basis can one say that person X was influenced by person Y? What evidence, in general, suffices to make that claim? Let’s take some possible examples:
X writes in his autobiography “wow, Y was brilliant and she really influenced me a lot!” Obviously, good evidence.
X dies and we find a dog-eared heavily-annotated copy of Y’s Magnum Opus among X’s personal effects. Maybe good evidence, depending on other factors. I have a copy (somewhere) of a Marx reader, and it’s got a lot of comments in the margins, but mostly they’re comments like “this is absurd!” But it at least shows that X read Y and thought about what Y had to say.
X attended a school where Y taught and Y was one of X’s professors. There’s certainly a possibility of influence, but, alas, many teachers don’t influence their students a whit. It would be evidence, but I’d say it requires more.
X wanted to attend a school where Y taught but was unable to do so. When asked why he wanted to attend that school, Y’s presence is not listed as a factor. Not evidence at all.
Some of X’s statements bear a resemblances to things Y said, we know that X at least had an opportunity to read what Y wrote. Could be grounds for an inference, but I would suggest that it depends on how close the similarities are and how unusual and distinctive the thought. If somebody says “I like ice cream!” that hardly proves he’s been influenced by an epicure who believes ice cream is the perfect dessert, as love for ice cream is quite common.
On the Buchanan issue, there doesn’t seem to be any direct evidence. He wanted to go to Vanderbilt but didn’t? I tried to get into the University of Chicago Law School (and didn’t). Does that mean I was influenced by Cass Sunstein?
The fact that he turned to country life at the end of his life doesn’t seem to be a very strong connection. Lots of people do that, if they have the means. Living in the country is tranquil and pretty and quiet. You don’t have to be some sort of Southern Agrarian to notice that. I think it is valid to point out that he did this at the end of his life — after most of his life’s work was completed. And the passage you quote seems pretty generic. (Oddly, it sort of reminded me of Taleb’s “antifragile” stuff.).
I’m not an expert on either, but I’d like analysis of how Public Choice Theory leads to agrarianism, or agrarianism leads to Public Choice Theory. Maybe Magness overstated when he said it was made up, but absent some direct evidence of influence, it does seem to be a stretch.
Whether he was fair to say it was “made up” is not really the point. On the evidence I’ve seen adduced thus far, it really does seem like a stretch.
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Sorry about the editing glitch. Somebody called me on the phone and I repeated my final thought.
This is a very nice analysis of the various ways the argument could proceed. I’d like to add one more question: What is at stake in answering the question? What does MacLean conclude regarding Davidson’s influence on Buchanan? Her discussion of this ends on p. 35 (of 335-page book). She concludes that, because of D.’s influence B. was deeply suspicious of the northeastern establishment and was indifferent to the concerns of oppressed groups. That is the extent of the effects of the influence. In all this discussion no one has ever disputed that B. was suspicious of the establishment or that he cared deeply about minorities.
Therefore, if the critics are right and D. had no influence on B. What has been proven? Only that if we want to explain why B. held those beliefs, we need to look elsewhere. In other words, we still know he had those traits, but we no longer know why. So, an interesting question is: why do her critics spend SO MUCH energy on this Davidson thing when they should be concentrating on finding evidence that B. cared about minority rights? I suspect it is because they want to distract from the important aspects of MacLean’s argument and bog us down with a relatively unimportant issue. (I gotta admit it worked on me!)
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She also states that Buchanan (1) got his concept of Leviathan from Donaldson (or at least “seemed” to), and (2) that he shared in Donaldson’s agrarian preferences for the rural life.
As has been pointed out to you many times now, #1 is without any evidence and #2 is factually wrong, as Buchanan explicitly rejected the rural life when left Tennessee as a young man.
I don’t expect I’ll ever convince you on either point; you’re simply that obtuse. But for anyone interested, Buchanan’s autobiography contradicts MacLean’s narrative on these points.
Phil, for god’s sake…..You win nothing of importance in this debate. Take the evidence of the parallels she points to on pp.34-5: his “Davidson-like” framing of his hatred of the northeast establishment and his well-documented suspicion that African Americans lacked capacity for self-governance.
Tell you what: If I agree that he didnt’ get these ideas from Davidson, will you agree that he hated the northeastern establishment and that he thought African Americans had no “thirst for freedom and responsibility”?
That Buchanan didn’t care about Black people is a FAR more important point to MacLean than WHY he didn’t care about black people. I have no idea why you find the Davidson stuff so important.
I took a while to reply because I took the time to finish the book.
You argue that Davidson’s influence is irrelevant to her larger point about Buchanan. That is, even if he was no influence at all, it’s a very small brick in her larger argument, one that survives the removal of that brick. Is that a fair summation?
As a strictly logical matter, there is some validity to that analysis. The alleged link to Davidson is probably something that could go away and leave her larger argument pretty much untouched.
But a book like this is built largely on trust. Nobody is actually going to go around like second year law students on law review on cite-check her book. Even if the archival sources are generally available, who has time for that? We have to trust her to characterize the evidence in a fair way.
One thing I noticed — having finished the book now — is that there is a lot of what you might call “quotation salad” — two or three words in quotation marks surrounded by her paraphrasing. Nobody wants to read ginormous block quotes, but that style of argument really does depend on her to paraphrase accurately.
The Davidson/Agrarian stuff is largely relevant because it undermines trust in her judgment and objectivity. If she grossly distorted or exaggerated that particular piece of evidence, I have to wonder about what else she messed up. And you have to admit that link is pretty thin. He wanted to go to a school where these people taught — but didn’t. As an elderly guy he liked to sit in a rocking chair in the country. Really?
I admit that I knew very little about this whole Southern Agrarian intellectual movement before this whole thing came up — I had no idea they even existed, much less who Davidson was or his association with Vanderbilt. But a quick Google suggests they’re kind of like Tolkien with his love for the Shire — apparently they even thought that the replacement of domesticated animals with machines was problematic. And they certainly didn’t worship the free market. I can hardly think of a movement less likely to actually influence libertarians, who are all about markets, progress, finding new ways of doing things, efficiency, etc. Linking Buchanan and the Kochtopus to the Agrarians seems kind of goofy.
And the Davidson thing doesn’t stand alone, either. She also really mangled Tyler Cowen, taking a quotation out of context in a way that inverted its meaning.
At this point, it seems like one would have to read every source in her book to get a sense of whether she’s playing it straight — and who has time for that?
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