February 13, 2005

A Ward Churchill post for Mom

I got an email from my mom today. "Why haven't you blogged about Ward Churchill?"

The answer, of course, is that I cannot blog about everything. So many others, from Brian Leiter to Prof. Bainbridge and Eugene Volokh have already said what needs saying. Which is, of course, that Churchill should not be fired because of his "little Eichmanns" article.

Sometimes, though, the better part of wisdom is simply not to argue with your mother. So I'll say three things about Ward Churchill:

1. Dave Kopel's column for the Rocky Mountain News (via Volokh) purports to evaluate the Colorado news media's coverage of the Churchill story. But by what criteria? He never tells us, but it's obvious from his column that for Kopel, "good Churchill coverage" pretty much equals "reporting about various bad things that Churchill may have done at any time in his life, whether it's related to the current controversy or not."

2. Despite his nods to the value of open discourse, Anthony Rickey doesn't seem to really understand it. For Anthony, it seems, the test of the value of discourse is not, in the end, its openness, but rather its acceptability to the majority:

After all, if the ostensible purpose for academic freedom is that it benefits the public, isn't there some interest in convincing the public that they're receiving value?

Here, of course, lies the rub. Whatever the intrinsic value of knowledge, most of those who support universities focus upon their instrumental benefits: college education helps in getting a job, providing for doctors and other skilled professionals, or developing nifty new bits of technology. These goals aren't particularly furthered through subsidies towards those who would demonize the dead. Indeed, humanities departments--which tend to be much more politically polarized--do not always inspire such universal good feeling.

I agree with Anthony that the reason we ought to defend academic freedom is that we believe that it will benefit the public. I disagree with Anthony's belief that the best test for what constitutes a public benefit is always a plebiscite.

Sometimes, majorities can be horribly and catastrophically wrong. Academic freedom is valuable because it insulates dissenting voices, which are sometimes necessary to protect the majority from themselves, or to protect minorities. We decide ex ante that professorial opining will be protected in order to spare ourselves the impossible task of identifying, without the benefit of hindsight or omniscience, which dissenting voices will turn out to be helpful and which will not.

3. I never voted for Bill Owens. I probably never will.

Posted by Carey at February 13, 2005 09:25 PM

I disagree with Anthony's belief that the best test for what constitutes a public benefit is always a plebiscite.


I'm afraid I must have misstated my argument, as so many people have gotten the wrong end of the stick of what I was saying with that passage. What you've quoted above is a rather practical argument: that, irrespective of whether a majority can be horribly and catastrophically wrong, it isn't always, while it does always pay for public academic institutions. And that--whether you think the public is deluded or not--is generally decided by plebicite.

If there were a very real possibility that Churchill ranting about "little Eichmanns" was going to lead to public benefit, someone would be making that claim. However, the most common response even of his defenders is, "We don't agree with how he said something, but think it's important to realize he should be able to argue what he said."

Now, that's one line to draw, what I've been calling the "absolutist" view of academic freedom. The other is to say that a line can be drawn between what is said--the substantive argument that 9/11 was a reaction to poor U.S. foreign policy, which may or may not have merit--and how it was said. It's a rare defender of Churchill who is happy to take up his tone rather than his substance.

My argument is that by stating that whatever one's positions, some behaviors--defaming the dead, who obviously cannot respond, in a highly overbroad manner--are beyond the pale and beyond "academic freedom," one can support academia by reducing its marginalization. Because the majority that is providing the purse may very well decide that any group who can't determine that Churchill is behaving abominably whatever his position may not be worth supporting on the public weal.

Or, to take your statement:
We decide ex ante that professorial opining will be protected
I am proposing that a better and less absolutist line may well need to be drawn, because the "we" who is deciding may very well shrink to the point that "we" do not decide it any longer.

Of course, in this I may be wrong, but the point of reference would not be the Dean's office, but the future budget allocations for the University of Colorado.

Posted by: A. Rickey at February 13, 2005 11:50 PM


Thanks for your thoughtful response. If I'm understanding you correctly, the argument you make is much more attractive than the one I thought you were making.

I think we still might disagree about what the proper response to Ward Churchill is, but I agree with you that the academy isn't going to benefit when the public associates it with statements like Churchill's.

My only point is, I think that the firing-Ward Churchill-cure is worse than the offensive-statement disease, from the point of view of the academy. But that's something about which reasonable people can differ.

Posted by: Carey at February 14, 2005 01:11 PM

I have little connection to Colorado, so I don't know much about Bill Owens or what there is to dislike about him (and his politics). The association I do have for him is good: he was the first governor to veto a "State DMCA" when it came to his desk (which was a big blow to the MPAA's state-by-state campaign).

I wonder what your reaction would be to learning this. I suspect it might be like mine when read in the Globe that Mitt Romney was actually closing tax loopholes, instead of just talking about it (as is typical for politicians). Still plenty of reasons to detest him (and I can't imagine any circumstances in which I would vote for him), but it is simultaneously reassuring and disconcerting that he can do something good once in a while.

Posted by: Ravi at February 15, 2005 07:50 PM

Hmm. I hadn't heard that about Owens. Or that about Romney either. I suspect these moves are playing to the local base; Colorado doesn't have a big entertainment industry (apart from skiing), and Massachusetts, well... everyone in Massachusetts loves taxes, right?

Posted by: Carey at February 16, 2005 08:27 AM

If there were a very real possibility that Churchill ranting about "little Eichmanns" was going to lead to public benefit, someone would be making that claim.

Actually, I've heard people make that claim, and I'd make it myself, but almost no one would listen because, A) most people can't see through their fear/anger/hate to consider the possibility, and B) it's much easier and much more acceptible to shift the discussion to a question of free speech rather than really considering the substance of what's being said.

It's hard to learn from tragedy and horror if we can't even talk about it.

Posted by: ambimb at February 18, 2005 09:45 PM


I think again you mistake the point I'm making. To the extent that Churchill had a point, no one is discussing it simply because it's (a) been made by other authors, usually in better form, and (b) Churchill's rhetoric distracts from such discussion.

If you want to say that "we should look into the causes of 9/11" (what, in a rough nutshell, was Churchill's point, when stripped of "little Eichmann" language), then the idea that it isn't being discussed is faintly ludicrous: Churchill's diatribe tracks Chomsky's 9/11 in a lot of points, and is hardly unique. The debate is raging, and we are talking about it.

One the other hand, very few people--and not even you, I don't think--are supporting the idea that those who worked in the Twin Towers, even as securities brokers, were somehow to a man complicit in what was being ranted about. Let me quote:

If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.

I've not encountered anyone stating that public benefit is flowing bountifully from that rant. You're welcome, however, to contradict me.

In the end, the problem with Churchill is that he chose a style that obscures his message. This doesn't make it "hard to learn from tragedy and horror." It just means that as an author, he chose a pitiful way to try to contribute to it.

Essentially, we're talking about the free-speech/academic freedom elements of his arguments because if you seriously wish to discuss the substance beneath them, you can find better authors saying the same thing elsewhere, authors who have the reasonable distinction of not frothing at the mouth when they speak.

Posted by: A. Rickey at February 21, 2005 12:56 PM

I'm glad you blogged about Churchill as I don't read those "other blogs". Just my son's!

Posted by: Mom at February 23, 2005 07:36 PM