Responding to Academic Criticism

I came across this article by James Downs today in the Oxford University Press Blog assessing Dr. J. David Hacker’s New York Times article from earlier this month that has been making the rounds on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and in classrooms, about his re-assessment of the death toll in the Civil War, increasing the estimate by some 200,000 people.

Downs’s criticism of Hacker is that by privileging the use of census records in compiling his revised mortality figures, he is “reproducing a 19th century problem,” because his new numbers don’t allow him to include the deaths of enslaved people as military deaths. Downs wants to argue, as he probably does in his upcoming work Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, that the deaths of enslaved people came as a result of both being shot at by Confederate and Union soldiers, and more importantly “from the outbreaks of pneumonia, yellow fever, and smallpox” that spread among the Union camps to which enslaved people fled, and so their deaths should be counted as military, not civilian. Thus, Downs argues that by not attempting to quantify the deaths of enslaved people, Hacker “ignores the fact that the Civil War, which was intended to liberate bondspeople from chattel slavery, led to widespread sickness, suffering, and death. It also implies that former slaves’ experience is not part of the nation’s history.”

Downs doesn’t provide a way to tabulate slave deaths during the Civil War due to epidemic disease and military conflict, besides saying that it can’t be done with census records. But wait! Dr. Hacker promptly responded to Downs’s blog post! This is the magic of the internet. Rather than having to attend a conference, or wait 3 months for his response in the next issue of a journal, we get to watch their debate play out in real time, in the comments section of the article!

And then Dr. Hacker completely let me down. Don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle with a lot of what he’s saying: his article addresses the fact that his sources don’t allow him to quantify death among the black population during the Civil War, but that he still finds it worth while to recalculate the numbers the census records do allow him to modify. Hacker’s tone in the response however, seems downright petty. This could have been a fantastic exchange between two scholars, that we get to watch in (basically) real time. His response is interspersed with the periodic “What?” and “Please.” that make him seem completely dismissive that Downs point has ANY merit to it at all, whatsoever.

Hacker states, “Downs doesn’t say it, but perhaps he is implying that slaves were valid targets under the rules of engagement?” in response to Downs’s criticism that by counting slave deaths as civilian deaths, we under-represent the direct impact the war, the actions of soldiers, and military occupation. Hacker responds indignantly by implying Downs believes soldier’s had the right to wantonly murder enslaved people. Nowhere in Downs’s blog post did that seem like it was remotely close to what he was saying. I don’t need to copy over the whole of Hacker’s response, but it always just seems like there is no need for that kind of language and tone in a response to an academic criticism. If Downs’s point is so totally lacking in merit, shouldn’t you be able to make him look foolish through the sheer brilliance of your own work, not through high-school appropriate dismissals? I thought I was going to see a “talk to the hand” thrown in there.

Downs, thankfully, didn’t take the bait, and responded by clearly re-iterating his bone of contention with Hacker’s initial article; given the dismissive nature of Hacker’s response, Downs looks all the better for it. And that’s the way these things always end up, if you ask me. This is what people hate about academia, and by engaging in it, we prove them right. Polite disagreement, anyone?