UW prof: Pastor ‘made a mistake’
As Wilson critics cry plagiarism, historian believes problems with citation not malevolent
University of Washington history professor Robert McKenzie says his criticism of a local pastor’s scholarship has been somewhat exaggerated. McKenzie, a Civil War scholar referred to on local Internet listservs as “Dr. _________,” unintentionally became snarled in an ongoing debate between some Moscow residents and Moscow Christ Church pastor Doug Wilson. McKenzie said his concerns about the content of “Southern Slavery: As It Was,” co-written by Wilson and Louisiana pastor Steve Wilkins, weren’t meant for public consumption. Nevertheless, McKenzie said his private correspondence with Wilson about unattributed passages in the controversial booklet ended up in the hands of Wilson’s harshest critics.
Retired University of Idaho professor Nick Gier wrote letters to local newspapers, accusing Wilson and Wilkins of plagiarizing “long passages” from “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery,” written by economists Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman.
Wilson refused to speak to the Daily News, but responded to recent attacks through his Web log, an online journal. “As some may recall, a booklet that I co-wrote with Steve Wilkins entitled Southern Slavery: As It Was was the center of some hubbub last February. What some may not realize is that Canon Press pulled the title from their inventory around the time of that controversy,” Wilson wrote. “This was not because we were embarrassed by the thesis of the booklet, but rather because someone had informed us that there were some real problems with the footnotes and citations. We pulled the booklet immediately, revised it, and it is now awaiting re-publication. . . I am posting this now because some of our local Banshees have got wind of all this and have raised the cry of plagiarism (between intermittent sobs of outrage).”
McKenzie agreed that Gier and other critics’ allegations against Wilson and Wilkins were a bit extreme. “I don’t know Doug Wilson. I raised these concerns out of prudence and judgment,” McKenzie said. “This has nothing to do with character. I’ve communicated with Doug Wilson privately to avoid this character attack. I don’t agree with these implications that Wilson is a thief or that this was malevolent.”
Engerman, a professor of economics at the University of Rochester in New York, said in a phone interview with the Daily News this morning that he has concerns about Wilson’s and Wilkins’ use of his book. “There are really two issues to be concerned about,” Engerman said. “First of all plagiarism is always an unfortunate thing in an academic setting. It’s something that is always disturbing. The other concern is often when people take quotations it is taken out of context than what it was meant to say. My co-author and I never intended this book to be a defense of slavery.” Engerman has received a number of e-mails from Moscow-area residents, highlighting the passages Wilson and Wilkins used from “Time on the Cross.” At first blush, Engerman said, it certainly appears his work was misused and taken out of context. “I’ll have to check with my co-author about this,” he said. “We will discuss what to do or if there is any action we can take from here.”
McKenzie said he wasn’t sure what to make of Wilson’s and Wilkins’ booklet when it was first brought to his attention in the late 1990s. “I would have to say I disagree with just about everything in it,” McKenzie said of the publication. “I teach 19th century history. I teach Civil War history. I’m also a Christian. I’m a member of a reformed church that happens to be of the same denomination as Christ Church. I actually, after some consideration, went to the elders in my church and asked them what I should do. I have to come to the defense of another Christian brother, and believe that he made a mistake.”
McKenzie said he first contacted Wilson by phone several years ago after reading “Southern Slavery: As It Was.” He had never read Wilson’s or Wilkins’ works before, but something seemed familiar about their brief synopsis of pre-Civil War slavery. “Although some masters were brutal, most were not. . .” Wilson and Wilkins wrote. “No plantation owner wanted sullen and discontented slaves who did just enough to keep them from getting whipped. They wanted devoted, hard working, responsible slaves who identified their fortunes with the fortunes of their masters.” Fogel and Engerman provided almost the exact argument, word-for-word, in their book more than 20 years ago.
McKenzie raised a number of concerns with Wilson’s and Wilkins’ scholarship. First, the authors based so much of their booklet on “Time on the Cross,” a work that has been harshly criticized as historically inaccurate. Second, Wilson and Wilkins failed to attribute several passages they took from Fogel and Engerman, McKenzie said. “The concerns I have raised go to the authors’ understanding of American history — concerns that a lay person is not going to be able to understand,” McKenzie said. “The implications made about plagiarism are very complicated. There actually are several sections that do have footnotes but no quotations. I do believe it is sloppy, but it wasn’t malevolent. A professional historian would be totally humiliated.”
McKenzie said Wilson was extremely embarrassed and readily admitted the mistake once McKenzie gave him the specific passages that were not attributed. “Wilson didn’t even write that part of the book, Wilkins did,” McKenzie said. “Wilson could have blamed the whole thing on his sloppy co-author, but he didn’t. I’ve read his responses to this on the Internet, and he absolutely is being square with everyone. I want to be above reproach on this.”
Wilson wrote on his Web journal that he was completely responsible for the errors in scholarship. “The circumstances of this recent blowup are such that I have to make a fundamental distinction in my responses. Out of the tumult of the last several years, this is the first issue where those attacking Christ Church have a substantive point,” Wilson wrote. “For all reasonable people who are watching this, it is important for all the surrounding controversy to have this for its context. There were some embarrassing and egregious errors in the citations of Southern Slavery, and the fear of God requires that all of them be openly acknowledged, with no spin control. And so there it is. The lumps on our head in this exchange are richly deserved.”
McKenzie said it wasn’t his intention to raise such a public discussion of the issue. “I think this is a messy situation. I’ve taught at a university for 16 years and nothing I’ve done has ever affected anyone outside the university, until now,” McKenzie said. “All of the sudden I’m the mysterious Dr. X. I have to say I’m somewhat amused by all this, despite the seriousness of the situation. Doug Wilson made a mistake. It’s really a tiny thing. Ultimately, any further debate should focus on the accurate history of slavery in the United States. Slavery still resonates in America. It is something that is profoundly important even today.”
Daily News staff writer Leila Summers contributed to this story.
Alexis Bacharach can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 234, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.