Stealth Attack on Liberal Scholar?

Historian alleges coordinated criticism of her latest book, which is critical of radical right, from many who have received Koch funding.

July 12, 2017
 

Collusion, alternative facts, shadowy billionaires: the words sound ripped from the political headlines, but they also describe the controversy surrounding Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Viking). And story keeps unfolding, with MacLean’s critics alleging inaccuracies and other problems with her book, MacLean in turn alleging a coordinated attack against her by libertarian scholars with ties to dark money, and others still accusing MacLean of trying to dishonestly promote favorable online book reviews.

MacLean declined comment on the matter through her publisher, which said it hopes discussions will soon return to the content of the book. Her named critics, meanwhile, deny any coordination in their takedowns of her work.

“The allegations she raised are fanciful and potentially libelous,” said David Bernstein, University Professor of law at George Mason University, who recently wrote unflatteringly about MacLean’s book in a post on a blog at The Washington Post. No one “urged me, asked me, beseeched me, paid me or otherwise tried to influence me to blog about the book.”

Some nevertheless say they worry that swarm-style attacks on progressive scholars’ works -- especially in an era of online harassment of professors and plummeting public trust in academe -- could become a new normal. MacLean, they say, is the victim of just such an effort.

There’s “absolutely no question that left-wing scholars and scholarly ideas are under attack,” said Jacob Remes, an historian and clinical assistant professor at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Citing a recent pattern of threats against liberal professors, Remes said cases involving even more vulnerable faculty members “show how we need to defend scholarly norms and insist that debates over scholarship remain that -- scholarly debates -- and not become Fox News-like partisan free-for-alls.”

Referring to MacLean’s case in particular -- in which she's asked supporters to police websites for seemingly inauthentic comments about her book, and supporters have called out her critics for not disclosing their ties to anti-regulation, libertarian philanthropist Charles Koch -- Remes added, “Voting down one-star reviews from people who clearly haven't read a book, or asking that beneficiaries of Koch largesse identify themselves as such in reviews, seems a small way of doing that.”

A Book for the Times

MacLean, the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke, released her new book last month to immediate praise. Democracy in Chains traces the roots of capitalist libertarianism -- the kind today embodied and funded by the Koch and his brother, David -- back to the late Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan, who taught at George Mason. Her thesis is that Buchanan was the architect of a long-term plan to take libertarianism mainstream, raze democratic institutions and keep power in the hands of the wealthy, white few.

Unsurprisingly, the book resonated with many critics, who tended to describe it as a book for our time (one NPR review called it "2017 Bingo"). But others began to take issue with MacLean’s scholarship, describing it as another symptom of an alternative facts-driven era. One of the first negative reviews, by Russell Roberts, the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, accused MacLean of deliberating taking out of context the work of Tyler Cowen, the director of the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason. (Roberts has taught economics at George Mason, a favored campus of the Charles Koch Foundation, whose growing financial influence in academe is well-documented; George Mason accepted nearly $48 million from Koch from 2011 to 2014 alone, according to a 2016 Associated Press report. The university's law school also was last year renamed after the late, conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as part of a $30 million deal involving funds from Koch and an anonymous donor.)

“She ignores anything in Cowen’s essay that conflicts with her portrayal of Cowen as a sinister enemy of American institutions and democracy,” Roberts wrote, explaining that MacLean had, for example, suggested that Cowen had once written that the free market would be better off with fewer democratic checks and balances. In fact, Cowen had written that while such a change could lead to good outcomes, it could also lead to “very bad” ones.

MacLean responded to Roberts, accusing him of selectively quoting and misrepresenting statements from her own book (and questioning if he actually read it). Ultimately, she asked, “Is it true that Koch-subsidized libertarian scholars, including Buchanan and Cowen, have posed democracy as a problem for their arch version of capitalism?”

Soon, though, the criticism came rapid-fire, with a number of academic reviewers with either past or present ties to the Koch Foundation making similar claims against MacLean: misleading quotations; questionable links between people, events and ideas; and a misunderstanding of some of the economic theory underpinning her arguments. Jonathan Adler, the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University and a graduate of George Mason’s law school and one-time visiting professor there, published a running account of the allegations in a Washington Post blog post on the same day Bernstein published his piece in the Post. Soon even MacLean’s Duke colleague Michael C. Munger, a professor of political science, economics and public policy, called her out.

In an article for the Independent Institute, Munger said MacLean had crafted a well-written but merely speculative history, such as by including imagined conversations between historical figures that come across as real.

The problem with history, of course, is that many narratives about a few cherry-picked events and documents are ‘plausible,’” he wrote. “The task of the historian is to try to distinguish among plausible accounts ‘through careful sifting of evidence and respectful encounters with opposing points of view.’ There is none of that here. Even a casual familiarity with the basic facts of James Buchanan’s life and scholarship, and of the growth and success of the public choice movement, reveal far simpler, and more plausible, explanations.”

Many of MacLean's supporters question the critics, however, who they argue are offended by a tough look at libertarian heroes.

Ideological Comment War

Apart from the academic reviews, MacLean and others said, anonymous critics were trolling her online, posting uninformed, biased reviews of Democracy in Chains on Amazon. In a social media post that MacLean did not authenticate to Inside Higher Ed, but which has been widely shared online by her supporters, she allegedly asked friends and colleagues to help defend her book against an apparent coordinated attack.

“I really, really need your help,” MacLean is said to have written. “This will sound nutty, I know, but it’s actually happening: the Koch operatives and the riders of their academic ‘gravy train,’ as James Buchanan called it, are working very hard to kill Democracy in Chains -- and to destroy my reputation (as they have done to climate change scientists and others bearing inconvenient truth).”

By using the Post blog posts, the note says, critics "make it appear to the ordinary web surfer that the [newspaper] itself is trashing my book when it’s really the Koch team of professors who don’t disclose their conflicts of interest and the operatives who work full-time for their project to shackle our democracy. The other side was getting top placement because their team was clicking and reclicking and sending embedded links, and the velocity of their activity drove up their links.” (It should be noted that the blogs in question are affiliated with the Post, but authors' views are solely their own.)

The note suggests that supporters can help by googling MacLean and her book and clicking on “real” listings to push them above allegedly paid returns, and promoting as "helpful" Amazon reviews that appear authentic. "The operatives are juking the Amazon stats so that their hit jobs (by people who in nearly every case never read the book) come up first by the number of 'helpful' votes," it says. MacLean also warned readers about a propaganda-style wiki page set up by someone with a pseudonym.

“People: this is real,” the post reads. “I won’t be the last they set out to get."

MacLean did not respond to a request for hard evidence of the Amazon review gaming. But there is an unusual preponderance of top five-star and bottom one-star scores for Democracy in Chains. Back-and-forth-style comments on the reviews abound, amounting to what Connor Gibson, a research associate for Greenpeace, called an "ideological comment war." MacLean’s Wikipedia page already includes much of the controversy surrounding her book.

"They want her publisher to fear promotion, and that's a real threat, since bookstores are also inclined to drop promo efforts if Amazon reviews are low," Gibson said.

Some academics on social media have said that they support MacLean but question asking supporters to police her online reviews. And it appears that the online review police don’t like it either: Fakespot and Trustwerthy, Amazon review authenticity analytics sites, downgraded the book’s rating, to a D and 1.5 stars, respectively.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine that such a close reading of her book by so many scholars with affiliations to Koch -- largely undisclosed in the critiques -- could be some kind of conspiracy.

Asked why he didn’t disclose the fact that he’s received Koch-funded grants within his review of MacLean’s book, Munger said he’s never hidden the relationship (the grants are included on his faculty webpage, for example). Moreover, he said, he wasn’t defending Koch within the piece, just Buchanan.

No Knowledge of Coordination

“I have no knowledge of any coordination” among MacLean’s critics, Munger said. “My interpretation is that MacLean's near total lack of knowledge of basic political science simply independently offended many different people.”

Phillip W. Magness,  a historian and former academic program director at the Koch-affiliated Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason, and another of MacLean’s public detractors, said History News Network invited her to respond to his critique at that site. (She hasn't.) Magness also said he knew of no coordinated attack, “only that Buchanan was a widely respected scholar who she has misrepresented to the point of caricature. It can't be surprising that his many former students, faculty colleagues and friends would scrutinize a book that makes bombastic and conspiratorial charges against him.”

Gibson, the research associate at Greenpeace, tracks Koch-funded higher education programs. The fact that scholars have not cited their ties to Koch while using their academic affiliations to respond to MacLean is a fundamental problem, he said. And given that Koch money is central to MacLean’s narrative, he added, disclosure would matter in any kind of response to the book.

“This is how these guys get away with a guise of independence when their research hits the public realm, or the policy maker's desk,” he said, noting that many of the critiques he’s read focus solely on MacLean's preface -- the least referenced, most dramatized section of the book.

“MacLean has plenty of her own disclaimers in the book, often at times, I think, voluntarily undercutting her own legitimacy as an expert in this subject matter, for the sake of making it clear when she resorted to speculation or educated guesses,” Gibson said. “The rest is strongly footnoted. About a third of the entire text is references at the end.”

Gibson said that MacLean calls into question the entire premise of public choice economics, Buchanan’s field, with which many of her critics are affiliated. So they’re fighting like their professional lives depend on it, he said, and they’re fighting dirty.

Culture War on Academe

“The criticism is actually an incredible case study in the very thing that MacLean is exposing -- these guys are getting called out on wrapping very unpopular policy lobbying with words that the masses are more likely to support, to the point of dishonesty,” Gibson said. Government needs to “stay evil,” and universities need to stay "too liberal" for critics to maintain their legitimacy.

L. D. Burnett, a teaching fellow in history of the University of Texas at Dallas who has defended MacLean on social media, referred requests for comment to a recent blog post addressing more attacks on the legitimacy of liberal academics more generally.

“The ‘culture war’ against higher education has been an astroturfed conflict, a well-funded propaganda campaign bankrolled for decades” by billionaires such as the Kochs, Burnett said. “‘Conservative’ figures from the business world (there is nothing conservative about unfettered capitalism that commodifies everything and makes ‘the market’ the arbiter of all moral questions) have funded a decades-long attempt to delegitimize higher education in the eyes of American citizens.”

Karl Jacoby, a professor of history at Columbia University who also has called public attention to MacLean’s case, said libertarians’ attacks on those who disagree with them are nothing new. But what makes MacLean’s case important “is the precedent that it sets,” he said via email. “If the current critiques end up undermining her book, it will embolden libertarian/conservatives to adopt similar tactics next time someone writes a history that calls into question some of the accepted tenets of their movement.”

As for questions some have raised about MacLean’s academic integrity in asking supporters to police online book reviews, Jacoby said authors try to “game” the Amazon review process all the time. It may be “something of a moral grey area,” he added, “but it is certainly not a major violation of ethics. It’s not as if she was interfering in the academic review process.”

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.”

Tony Forde, a spokesperson for Viking, said via email that both MacLean and the publisher were declining comment on attacks on her credibility, “in hopes that they remain in their respective spheres, and we can reassert focus on the book itself. … We’re hoping to keep the attention on the book itself and the history it reveals, rather than the attacks that have appeared online.”

 

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