Day By Day

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Academic Left Revisited

Professor Ward Churchill of Colorado University tries to clarify his situation and his own words damn him.

He writes [excerpts]:

* My point is that we cannot allow the U.S. government, acting in our name, to engage in massive violations of international law and fundamental human rights and not expect to reap the consequences.

* I am not a "defender"of the September 11 attacks, but simply pointing out that if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned. I have never said that people "should" engage in armed attacks on the United States, but that such attacks are a natural and unavoidable consequence of unlawful U.S. policy.

* I mourn the victims of the September 11 attacks, just as I mourn the deaths of those Iraqi children, the more than 3 million people killed in the war in Indochina, those who died in the U.S. invasions of Grenada, Panama and elsewhere in Central America, the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, and the indigenous peoples still subjected to genocidal policies. If we respond with callous disregard to the deaths of others, we can only expect equal callousness to American deaths.

* I have never characterized all the September 11 victims as "Nazis." What I said was that the "technocrats of empire" working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of "little Eichmanns."

* It should be emphasized that I applied the "little Eichmanns" characterization only
to those described as "technicians." Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9-1-1 attack.

* The bottom line of my argument is that the best and perhaps only way to prevent 9-1-1-style attacks on the U.S. is for American citizens to compel their government to comply with the rule of law. The lesson of Nuremberg is that this is not only our right, but our obligation. To the extent we shirk this responsibility, we, like the "Good Germans" of the 1930s and '40s, are complicit in its actions and have no legitimate basis for complaint when we suffer the consequences.

These excerpts fairly, I think, represent Professor Churchill's thinking. To be fair to him you should follow this link and read the whole thing.

You can now judge the Professor's own words, not just what has been written about him. By all means do so. He thinks he's been unfairly characterized. I don't.

I am not surprised if people in many parts of the globe would respond callously or even gleefully to the 9/11 attacks. I certainly would not expect an American who holds a position of responsibility to do so. Of course, he reminds us, he never actually said that the American people "should" rise up to overthrow their government, but if they serve the government he sees them as "little Eichmanns," and if they don't as "good Germans," who deserve any violence directed against them.

I omitted the part some might find most offensive: where he invokes the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy to justify his position.


The professor will be holding a news conference this evening. FOX plans to cover it.


Here is a fuller exposition of Professor Churchill's views. This purportedly is the talk he planned to deliver at Hamilton College.


Robert K. C. Johnson has a nicely balanced post on this subject on Cliopatria over at History News Network. He makes an important point regarding academic irresponsibility and ineptitude when he writes concerning the threat of politicians to intrude on the internal affairs of Colorado University: borrow one of Professor Churchill’s phrases, this is in some ways a case of the chickens coming home to roost. It’s clear that large segments of the political class in Colorado lost confidence some time back with the ability of the Colorado administration to handle educational matters—on issues ranging from the football recruiting scandal to what seemed to be a willful blindness to a lack of intellectual diversity on campus. An administration that had performed more competently in the past might have been given greater leeway to handle this matter quietly.


Jonathan Dresner said...

You've posted here much more than most people have read of Churchill's writings. Which is to say that, while his ideas in this regard may be contemptible (and I think they are more defensible than you do, clearly), but that most people who have condemned him (or, as it turns out, threatened him with murder) did so on the basis of much less information, which is to say, unfairly.

So yes, I think he has been unfairly condemned (and very badly treated) by some, though not by everyone.

D. B. Light said...

Dear Jonathan,

I agree with you that much of the excitement attending the Churchill controversy has been poorly-informed and unfair. I am particularly appalled by attempts to have him fired. And I am outraged by Newt Gingrich's suggestion, just made about half an hour ago, that the general public should be able to censor academic discourse. Presumably that would involve suspension of tenure.

I would also point out that the Professor, even though tenured, is not a totally free agent. When he speaks and attaches a title to his pronouncements, he is acting as a representative of his school and his profession. To the extent that he acts or speaks irresponsibly in the public arena, he brings opprobrium upon them. We have all lamented the marginalization of academia and academic history in particular. I fear that people like Professor Churchill are a big part of the problem.

Ahistoricality said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jonathan Dresner said...

I very much agree that political actors should stay out of academic affairs (lack of standing, I think they call it in legal terms), but that seems to conflict with your argument about us being representatives of our institutions.

Our scholarship belongs to us, not our institution; our position is earned, and is supposed to be merit-based and an indicator, in some sense, of our progress in our field; there has always been a more porous relationship in academia between professional activities within and without the academy.

Forcing us to disclaim our ties in any public setting would be imposing, at the very least, extracontractual job requirements on tenured faculty. Nothing I can do about it if they decide to muzzle me, though.

D. B. Light said...

Dear Jonathan,

Of course political actors should stay out of academic affairs, but as a practical matter, noninvolvement is not and cannot be a one way street. If academics involve themselves in politics they have become political actors themselves and invite responses from other political actors. If they do so as individuals, that is all fine and dandy. However, if they claim a special authority to pronounce on political matters based on their academic rank or credentials, then they can expect those sources of authority to come under attack.

Let's tone down the rhetoric a bit. Nobody is "forcing" anyone to disclaim their academic affiliations. I would never advocate any coercive actions in that regard. I am simply pointing out that the increasing marginalization of academia and its decline in authority is, in large part, a natural consequence of irresponsible actions and statements of academics who claim special authority on the basis of their academic credentials. There are consequences to being a "public intellectual," and the individual is not the only one to feel their impact.

Who is this nebulous "they" who might "muzzle" you? Let me know if they come for you. I'll help you fight them.

To the barricades!

Jonathan Dresner said...

Nobody has really tried to "muzzle" me yet, except on matters of internal discussion where discretion really was the better part of valor. Self-censorship, in the grand tradition. You notice how few of these cases deal with untenured faculty? Nobody questions the right of administrations to fire them, there's always a "good reason": it's only tenure that matters, as though free speech were something you earned through peer-review.

I would point out, by the way, that I actually have no idea if Churchill's talk was advertised with his academic affiliation or his book titles; I don't know if his publications come with identifiers, or disclaimers. Everyone is acting as though everything he does reflects on his position, and as though his position required him to apply his analysis only to "academic" subjects.

I'm sorry if I sound elitist, but I do think that people who spend their time studying and thinking about public affairs, society and its patterns, politics and its analysis, money and economics, etc., DO have special standing in public discourse. Not an absolute one: one that varies with distance from expertise. But credentials do matter, and Churchill's credentials are earned. I don't think we should disavow them, as long as we're reasonably clear about what they do and don't mean.

Again, an area of agreement: I think that academics, scholars, etc., do have a civilizing role to play in public discourse, as well as a challenging one, and I've argued many a time for greater dignity and care in public presentation, as long as it doesn't also amount to self-censorship. I think it's possible to say almost anything you want to say publicly in a clear and civil manner, and that is the way most likely to bring your arguments to those who need to hear them most: the other side. So I'm not a fan of Churchill's tactics or style.