Thursday, February 10, 2005

Ward Churchill

I know you're all sick of this whole Ward Churchill thing, but I don't care. I'm going to say something anyway. Controversies in cognitive psychology rarely create a political fervor. Sure, there is one debate that has taken on a life of its own, and nearly cost one very good researcher her career, but for the most part, "academic freedom" isn't much of an issue for those of us who are publishing the bulk of our work in empirical psychology journals (there are ethical issues, and while the debates over those may be politically charged, I think the issues themselves generally fall outside of the purview of "academic freedom"). Still, I feel strongly about academic freedom, and I think anyone who believes in critical thinking should. Sometimes good ideas are unpopular, and if we don't give academics a great deal of leeway, we will inevitably silence some of the voices that might be expressing those good but unpopular ideas.

Naturally, there are cases in which academic freedom can not be used to excuse the expression of ideas. For instance, if a university professor intentionally writes so as to intentionally incite unjustified violence against an individual or group, academic freedom should not be used in his or her defense. Even in this extreme case, though, things are more subtle than they at first appear. If a professor writes a paper detailing a case for going to war, he or she has certainly written to incite violence, but is the violence justified? It is virtually impossible to say when considering hypotheticals, and ultimately each case has to be evaluated individually.

Fortunately for all of us, that is what the University of Colorado appears to be doing, by allowing Ward Churchill to defend what he wrote about the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Ultimately, I think Gerald Dworkin is right when he writes:
While some of the language is disgusting (little Eichmanns for those killed in the WTC) and some of the claims are bizarre (were the secretaries, janitors, fireman, waiters in the restaurants, stock clerks, etc. also part of the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire"?) the main theses represent moral, political, and empirical claims about the cause of the attack, and its moral character. No faculty member should be dismissed because of such claims. Whether someone who has, and publishes, such views should continue to be retained in an administrative post is a more difficult question.
What Churchill is guilty of is a terrible analogy. It seems more consistent with his position to compare some (certainly not all) of the World Trade Center victims with the German people under Hitler, not with Eichmann or others who directly participated in the Genocide. If he had used a better analogy, some of his claims might not have seemed as absurd (which is not to say that I agree with them, just that they could at least be transformed in a way that would make them more rational). For instance, of the WTC victims Churchill writes:
They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly.
One can't help but wonder in what sense Churchill means "willing and knowingly" here. His comparison to Eichmann suggests an answer, but it's an absurd one. Surely he doesn't believe that most of the WTC victims have ever considered themselves as members of the "technocratic corps" of which Churchill speaks, and even those who have probably did not consider their role in it. Most of them were likely completely ignorant of the political and economic dynamics of which Churchill wrote in that article, as most who still participate in Churchill's "technocratic corps" still are. However, if Churchill had used a more fitting analogy, he might have stated his case in a way that, while it wouldn't have gotten the attention it has now (I'm not sure that wasn't his aim), would have at least been more intellectually sound. He could have said that, much like many of the German people under Hitler in the 1930s and 40s, the people in the World Trade Center, and people throughout the U.S., have (mostly) unconsciously ignored the signs that the system of which they are a part is unethical. He might then have written:
They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and their willful ignorance of this situation is no excuse.
That still might be wrong, but it's certainly more empirically viable, and avoids the hyperbole that turns his claims into inflammatory nonsense.

I would argue, then, that what Churchill is guilty of is sloppy scholarship, in the form of exaggeration and terrible use of analogy. He hasn't violated any scholarly ethics that I can think of. He hasn't falsified evidence, for instance. He's merely uttered what, in the form that he wrote them, are extremely unpopular ideas (the idea that corporate or capitalist interests drive the "military dimension of U.S. policy," which has, and still is, being used unethically, is certainly not new, or entirely unpopular among many academics). This is hardly a reason to fire a tenured faculty member, no matter how offensive we find his ideas. Instead of calling for him to resign or be fired, any academic who disagrees with him, liberal or conservative, should be sitting in front of a computer working on a paper with arguments that counter Churchill's. That's how academia is supposed to work.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It does seem though that he's angered a lot of people who will now look for anything by which they can fire him. (i.e. his claims of being an Indian) 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

by The Southern Avenger
9 February 2005


Over the last few days, much has been said about University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who suggested in an essay that the victims of 9-11 were responsible for their own fate. Everyone from Bill O'Reilly to the governor of Colorado has taken this guy to task, and while the Southern Avenger considers Ward Churchill to be a first class A-hole, I'm going to take a little different approach and address what he actually said.

Churchill wrote that the victims of 9-11 were responsible for their own deaths because they supported a government that participated in “repressive policies around the world.” The professor then went on to demonstrate his point with some silly Nazi analogy that isn't even worth repeating, so I won't. Churchill is not the first person to suggest that overreaching American foreign policy might have triggered anti-American sentiment abroad. And as surprising as it might be, neither is Churchill the first educator to suggest that the terrorists are the good guys either.

Robert Jensen, a University of Texas professor, completely agrees with Churchill and believes terrorists aren't really terrorists at all, but “resistance fighters.” Two other professors have co written a book that blatantly calls America the world's “most terrorist state,” while insinuating that the Founding Fathers were terrorists themselves. And far from condemning their colleague's views, one group of professors have even nominated the book containing Churchill's outrageous 9-11 essay for a so-called “civil-rights” award.

Now who in the hell thinks like this, you might ask? College professors, that's who. Our universities are filled with people with too much education and too little common sense, people who spend more time reading Karl Marx than paying attention to the real world, and who see life not as a precious gift from God, but a continuous struggle of class warfare. In typical, socialist fashion, these people lump all of humanity into groups and proceed to teach accordingly. Just look at the course schools are offering these days - feminist history, gay economics and Churchill himself was the head of the “ethnic studies” department at his own university.

For decades, academic professionals have made careers out of blaming every example of oppression on earth on the most powerful country on it – America. Churchill himself has said “I want the U.S. off the planet. Out of existence.” And I guess it's only natural that people who hate America this much are going to hate the Americans who define it – even the innocent victims of 9-11.

The question in regard to Ward Churchill is not, “how can they let this man keep his job?” but “how did this man get a teaching job in the first place?” Hell, he even received tenure and was appointed the head of an entire department.

Far from being diverse, modern universities have become incubators for anti-American and anti-Western propaganda with no one to question them or hold them accountable. The truth is Churchill is just one more old-ass hippy amongst a sea of old-ass hippies who think just like him, as author David Horowitz has pointed out, “it isn't like this guy was suddenly exposed... this is a guy who has been out in the open for thirty years and was promoted.”

As bad as it was, I believe the fact that American higher education provides a safe haven for lunatics like Ward Churchill is scarier than anything he actually said. And it's amazing to think of how many people go to college chasing the American dream - only to be taught by those who despise it.

Ann Onymous said...

I have another view on the "american dream." It seems to me Churchill's challenging me/us to WAKE UP. Yes, his analogy wasn't perfect. I choose not to plug my ears to the entire argument however. He challenges me to look at myself as an american through the eyes of victims of my governments actions if not my own. He doesn't encourage me to despise my country, but to honor and love it and myself and others by not lying to myself about it. I am grateful to him for that. I am made stronger by his discourse. We need more open discourse in this land today, not less. What are we so afraid of?

whosear said...

Churchill's appointment is rightfully being examined through the efforts of the hosts, Capris & Silverman, who are obtaining docuements through the Freedom of Information Act. His authenticity as an Indian has been challenged from numerous sources, geneological, historical, biographical, etc.

It may be that he did not meet the criteria to be classified as Indian (ironic that he used the system in a mamner that he deplores in his writings) The two hosts who are attorneys assert that the position was for an American Indian, 11 applicants were identified as such, three were interviewed. Ward was given the position.

The manner of his appointment is coming into question. An email states that the process had to be expedited as Churchill had an offer for a full professorship at Cal State-Northridge. It as stated that two departements, Poly Sci & Sociology, declined to house him on their roster despite the fact that their funding would not be affected. Communications was the third department.

I encourage you to go to KNOW-630 Denver and investigate the source documents.

whosear said...

Further analysis of the original post is disturbing. It seems that Churchill is accused of sloppy scholarship, but the main evidence of his whole arguement, The Mandan epidemic, is false. Since in his essay he uses this as evidence, I am presuming that this is his best shot at providing substance to his claims, I have to question the validity of his whole essay.

How is it possible to defend sloppy scholarship of a tenured professor? Would a PhD candidate "pass muster" with similar scholarship?

Andrew Scott said...

I think you are right on the money. I think your psychological argument is point on. The "technocrats" are not consciously defending an unjust and destructive system. Are you familiar with system justification theory (Jost and Banaji 1994). I just wrote blog about Ward yesterday, the school is still trying to fire him and they are presently engaged in the deliberations. We must try and get this story back online. Pressure should be put on the school to keep an outstanding and prolific professor. Check out my blog if you are interested in a former students perspective. Thanks. Andrew Scott www.yellowjumpsuits.blogspot.com

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