Along with the able help of his legion of Civil War buff commenters, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes down Walter Williams:

Williams is not debating with James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom. He does not confront historian Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation. He is not interested in Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning. Instead Williams offers up—unchallenged, uncorroborated and wholly accepted—primary testimony from 150 years ago, along with two works of history both more than seventy-five years old.

In this instance, it must be said that Williams is practicing history in the manner of a phrenologist practicing brain surgery—with similarly ghastly results. In raising primary sources to the level of indisputable fact, Williams employs a methodology which does not merely argue for the existence of black Confederate legions, but for UFOs, orcs, the Dover Demon, elves and magic.

Here we have a perfect encapsulation of reasons for pessimism and reasons for optimism about the future of the historical profession. On the one hand, Walter Williams is an economics professor (granted that he’s essentially on the payroll of the John M. Olin Foundation), but apparently can’t be bothered to read a work or two of history before expatiating on the subject. On the other hand, plenty of people outside the academy apparently do read scholarly history — check out TNC’s comments section. I’m tempted, here, to link to David Frum’s silly review of a new history of the 1970s and ’80s, in which Frum essentially asked, “Who needs books like this anymore now that we’ve got the Internet?” Somehow it seems relevant.

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