Sunday, May 22, 2005

A Base Line

A classic way to torpedo a historian’s reputation is to check the accuracy of the victim’s footnotes. When the procedure yields evidence of carelessness, the critic can argue a lack of professional standards. This technique would not pass muster in the sciences. Until and unless it could be established that the rate of error in the target’s work were greater than the average for his cohorts, the detected mistakes might as well be taken as evidence of the general sloppiness of historians rather than the particular incompetence of a single historian. As a matter of fact, since the reported background error rate in citations is on the order of 35 to 40%, you have to be a sorry researcher indeed to come in under the existing deplorable standard. Under the circumstances, one has to agree with Doctor House that full-body scans of patients are useless in making a diagnosis because they mostly just reveal that human bodies have lots of little suspicious lumps and shadows.

As my old boss Kay Chamberlain used to say, don’t tell me a number unless you’ve got another number to compare it to. And if that simple methodological maxim suffices for the book business, it ought to hold for historians, too, and perhaps other folks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. When politicians are attacked for their sexual quirks, for example, nobody ever stops to ask to what extent the quirks are quirks and the accused are damned not for violating norms but simply for getting caught. All these years after Kinsey, we’re still acting shocked that people routinely commit adultery, cross-dress, or engage in homosexual behavior. Of course in mass societies, the factor that determines whether you suffer for your offenses is not the offense, which, indeed, you may not even have committed, but the ability of your enemies to make a dog and pony show out of your supposed taste for dogs and ponies. On the evidence, Conservatives are at least as prone to what is commonly mislabeled as sexual irregularity as the supposedly lascivious liberals whose morals they relentlessly denounce even as they don their seamed nylons and size 11 fuck-me shoes.

I have this recurrent dream in which I’m falsely accused of some crime or other. I’m on the stand and the prosecutor is raking me over the coals for assorted personal foibles irrelevant to my purported crime. I finally respond, “If I known you were charging me with original sin, I would have plead guilty.”