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Churches on a Hill

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Before I get into Wsard Churchill and the dangers of narrative, let me put in a good word for Plato here.  And Aristotle.  And all the rest of the Greek writers, philosophers or otherwise.

It’s not true that it never occurred to Plato to question slavery–he did, and so did most other Greek thinkers, just not in the way, or to the extent, we want them to.

At the time of Plato and Aristotle, every literate society that had ever existed on earth had had slaves.  Every one of them.  Nobody writing at that time could imagine a world without slaves, and the basic underpinnings of an anti-slavery conviction would arise only in Christian Europe and not until at least the seventeenth century.

For one thing, unlike the enslavement of  Africans in later eras, slavery in the classical world was not based on the idea that some people are by nature inferior to others.   Slaves in Greece and Rome were slaves because they’d been caught on the losing side of wars or kidnapped by pirates–in other words, as a result of chance and circumstance, much in the way we might not get rich if we won the lottery.

The classical world was far more fatalistic about chance than we are, but both Plato and  Aristotle were very uncomfortable about the institution of slavery, because they believed that the definition of the good life could be reached by reason, and they found justifying slavery impossible in reason.

Aristotle’s most famous comment about slavery–that some men were born with the soul of slave-was not part of a defense of slavery as it existed, but a protest against it.  Some men were born with the souls of slaves, but too many slaves were men born with the souls of freemen, and that Aristotle found indefensible.

It’s a longer step than you think between “no man should be a slave if he has the soul of a freeman” and “every man has the soul of a freeman,” but the important point here is that the  Greeks were not only the first society to question the moral validity of slavery, they were the only one.  No society that has not descended from the Greek has ever done so.

And it was a society–the British–that not only descended from the Greek but that trained its upper middle class in Greek and Latin literature before sending them out to administrate the nation and then the empire.  To this day, societies that are truly and thoroughly non-Western do not accept the idea that slavery is absolutely unacceptable, and slavery has been making a comeback (mostly in the Muslim-dominated nations of Africa) in the last fifty years.

That’s one of the fruits of multiculturalism that drives Keith Windschuttle so crazy–if all cultures are equally valid, who is the West to tell the rest that they can’t have slaves?

But let’s get to Ward  Churchill, since I promised.

First, let me say that I do not think that Churchill should have been fired from his job at the University of  Colorado for saying what he said after 9/11.  Part of the point of tenure–the good part, as far as  I’m concerned–is that it protects professors from being fired for speaking their minds when their opinions clash with those of administrators and the public.  And we hire these guys to speak their minds.  

The really interesting thing about Ward  Churchill isn’t the content of the nonsense he was spouting about Little Eichmanns, but the stuff that should have gotten him fired–his pretense to an ehtnicity he did not have, his fudged and plagarized research, his incredibly weak educational preparation for the post he held at the institution where he taught.

A lot of us are, shall we say, a bit elderly here, and some of us remember when the bottom of the heap in college admissions was the state university.  That’s long gone.  In the four-tier system set up by  US News and World Report, virtually all the land grant universities are at least in the second tier, and meny of them are in the first.  The same is true of non-land grand flagship campuses of other statue universities.

A job at the University of  Colorado is a big deal in academia these days, not something low rent, and its student body is far above the kind of students I teach in  preparation and ability.

That means that it normally takes a pretty good  CV to get hired at this place.   To say Ward Churchill didn’t have one is putting it mildly.   At Colorado/Boulder, even most adjuncts will have PhDs.  To get hired for an actual, full-time tenure-track job, you’d have to have a PhD from somplace really good, plus a record of published research.

Churchill had bachelor’s and master’s drgrees from what was then called “Sangamon State University”–a secondary campus way down the prestige totem pole in the Illinois public university system.  His bachelor’s degree was in something called “technological communications.”  His master’s was in somethin called “communications theory.”   He had no PhD, and it’s’ unclear that he had any academically relevant research publications.  It’s unclear because, after all this blew up, it turned out he seemed to have invented most of his resume.

But what Churchill did have was a story, and it was the perfect story, the narrative everybody had already bought into and was looking to locate in a real-life flesh and bloodd embodiement.

What people seem to forget is that Rousseau’s Noble Savage was Noble not in spite of being a savage, but because he was one.  The theory was that man was born good, but corrupted by civilization.  Civilization was the culprit.   Civilization was what had to be rejected.   Rousseau didn’t say “Western Civilization,” but that was only because the Western was the only one he knew.

Ward Churchill had a narrative–he was supposed to be Native American, and therefore one of the oppressed, come to the campus to deliver the “authentic voice” of his oppressed people.  And that “authentic voice” just happened to say what all the white middle class revolutionaries on campus expected it to say:  that the United States was vile, corrupt and racist; that our entire history and our entire purpose was genocide and exploitation of oppressed peoples; and all the usual stuff.

This was not a small thing either, because most Native Americans who make it to university campuses do not talk like this.  Like most of their fellow students they major in business, think the military is a good idea (and sometimes join it), and generally think and behave in the way usually considered the “red man’s equaivalent of Oreo cookies.”

It’s a difficult thing, finding that the people you are trying to save don’t much want the saving, but Ward Churchill provided living, breathing proof that “real” “authrentic” “uncorrupted” “Native Americans” actually existed, and for that he got a whole hell of a lot of mileage.

He started out working at  Colorado as an affirmative action compliance officer.  He ended up a tensured professor and chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department.

You’ll note, by the way, that he never was trained as or employed as a Humanist.  He knew no more about the Humanities than I know about the internal combustion engine.   Possibly less.

The Little Eichmann’s article was the kind of thing to be expected from Ward Churchill–the kind of thing he had to say–if he was to maintain the integrity of the narrative, which was all he really had to sell.  That, and the fact that he seems, from all accounts, to be a highly charismatic man.

Charismatic or not, though, he was virtually unknown outside a very small circle in academia until his “Little Eichmanns” article was dragged into the limelight by the US right-wing press–Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Drudge and the rest were the first to report on him outside the state of  Colorado.  The New York Times and company only started to give him ink when he had already become a controversial issue on the Internet.

And, of course, once the investigations started, they ended up uncovering an entire, festering mess that had nothing to do with Churchills views on 9/11 per se. 

American Indian representatives denied that Churchill was Native American at all.  It’s unclear if this was just a lie Churchill told or one of those family things–it’s common, in the American West and  Southwest, for families to pride themselves on having “Indian blood.”  Some of them have more pride than blood.

But even the ethnic issue is minor compared to the academic ones.  As more and more people began to pick apart Churchill’s research, more and more of that research seemed to be either invented, plagarized, or deliberately misrepresentative. 

And for that–not for his views on 9/11–the University of Colorado tried to fire him in 2007.

A court reversed their decision in 2009, and the reasonin is worth looking at.

The chances are good that if there had been no public uproar over Churchill’s Little  Eichmanns article, and no calls in the Colorado state legislature to fire him because of that article, the court would have let the University’s action stand.   The University did, after all, have good and academically sound reasons for firing him, all of them allowed even under the tenure rules.  You’re really not allowed to make up your research. 

The court, however, understandably worried that no matter how legitimate those charges might be, the University would never have moved against Churchill if it had not been for his political speech and for pressure from the state legislature.  And the court took the  protection of freedom of speech as a more important issue than that of academic malfeasance or lack of it.

I pointed out, a while back, that what worried me most was lack of respect for the Humanities within the university.

I think people misunderstood what I meant by respect.

Had the University of Colorado had respect for the liberal arts (natural sciences, social sciences, and  Humanities), it would never have hired Churchill to begin with, and if it had it would never have renewed his first contract.   It was able to behave the way it did only because it assumed that standards in anything but the natural sciences are illusory, that there is no real content in any of these fields, that it’s all subjective and a matter of taste anyway. 

Had Ward Churchill behaved the way he behavedin the chemistry department, he would have been unceremoniously out on his ear in an instant. But then, the University of  Colorado does respect the natural sciences. 

When I say that the university should “respect” the Humanities (and the social sciences, too, which is what Ethnic  Studies would probably come under), I don’t mean that it should show them deference.

I mean that it should uphold standards, the strictest and most uncompromising standards. 

I mean it should take these fields seriously enough to hold them to the same kind of standards it expects from the Department of Physics–and the Department of Engineering.

Written by janeh

May 25th, 2009 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'Churches on a Hill'

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  1. nique, cheryl, conscription means everyone’s name goes into a barrel and some get pulled out at random. I agree that it doesn’t yield good soldiers. I was thinking along the lines of the Roman Republic where men who wanted to make a career in politics had to start with military service.

    Or perhaps Israel, where everyone serves and there is no random chance involved.

    Jane, thanks for the run down on Ward Churchill. It soounds as if he should never have been hired. The free speech and tenure problem bother me because he was at a public university. His attitude seems to be “I demand that you pay me for spitting in your face.” And that annoys me.


    25 May 09 at 4:30 pm

  2. As I understand it, Churchill’s claim to hereditary victimhood came from purchasing an “associate membership” for, I believe, $50 from some hard-up tribe which is now trying to refund the money and get him off the rolls.
    I also found the court’s reasoning interesting. First, of course, it suggests that if one is a fraud, the best strategy is to be the loudest most obnoxious left-wing fraud one can be. Second, the same matter of appearances which concerned the court in one way ought to have concerned the court in another way. It surprised no one in some quarters that the court dismissed legitimate complaints when brought against a darling of the academic left, on grounds having nothing to do with the facts of his fraud. That sort of behavior does nothing for the reputation of the judicial system.

    Oh! jd and Co: Conscription can and has yielded excellent results. “Conscription” doesn’t mean “random.” It means the soldiers aren’t volunteers. The Israeli Defense Force uses conscription. So did Classical Athens and Rome, and France in the First Repbulic and the United States in the World Wars.
    If you want a bad army, go for conscription with exemptions. Remove the property-owning family, students, the literate and what have you. The more meritocratic a society, the more you’ve removed the clever end of the distribution curve. A little corruption helps, too.


    25 May 09 at 6:11 pm

  3. Last I looked, Israel had a problem that could reasonably be interpreted as “in extremis”. Australia had conscription in World War II and Vietnam. (Moves to impose conscription were defeated in two separate referenda in WWI.)

    No modern economy could possibly support universal conscription. It must go hand in hand with civilian manpower regulations that amount to civil conscription too. This invites corruption as people compete for safe civilian occupations in protected industries essential for the war effort. It also means that the military will almost inevitably be left with the bad army Robert describes in his last paragraph.

    The other compelling counter-argument (to me) is that it means that a disproportionate number of personnel need to be diverted into a bloated training effort and that there will usually be too little meaningful work available for the end product. I can’t recall hearing a single senior military supporter of conscription during or after Vietnam.


    25 May 09 at 8:06 pm

  4. Well, in place of all military service after the basic education, why not a term of universal “public service?” The economy should benefit, not suffer, if actual useful work were done by the service members, and service would be available for people regardless of mental or physical ability. Coming up with some kinds of of public projects shouldn’t be too hard, our infrastructure here is in woeful shape. We also could institute a kind of apprenticeship program where approved employers could take on and train a couple of serving young people with a stipend to offset the salary.

    People with a military bent could still elect the military. Those who want to explore other careers would still be performing service. And get a couple of years of good solid real-world training too, while getting a wage to recycle back into the economy.

    Serving one’s country as a start to one’s working life isn’t a bad idea, even if it’s at the stupid end of a shovel. Might bring back a little respect for good hard work.


    25 May 09 at 8:36 pm

  5. Lymaree, that sounds like it would run into the same problems with corruption Mique points out, in competition for good spots, and the ability of the more wealthy and influential to set up sinecures for their children. I also don’t like the idea of required volunteer community service (as now practiced in some K-12 schools), which this sounds like. Making it compulsory kind of misses the whole point.

    Apprenticeship programs and truly volunteer efforts to work on suitable projects are all good, but I don’t see making them compulsory as being beneficial.

    What’s really needed is the creation and propagation of a suitable national myth, beginning much earlier in school, or before school, in which the desired values (in this case, of voluntarily serving one’s country) are modeled and demonstrated in books and in classroom celebrations of people and events. Popular movies and music would be good places to promote this, too. Of course, this sort of approach is bound to be seen as manipulative, but I think it stands a better chance of success than requiring young adults to do something that is not only mandatory (although we want them to want to support their country and help their fellow-citizens) but might not be based on a common culture.

    All this is sounding very old-fashioned – the Victorian idea of educating children to fit into society instead of developing them as individuals, the Canadian and US older ideas of assimilating immigrants and natives to better both them and society…but I think the idea has some value, as long as it doesn’t lean over into jingoism. Balance between extremes – I think that’s the way to go!

    As an aside – in Canada, no politician in his right mind would propose anything like conscription (unless we were really in the last ditch fighting off an armed attack). It’s an issue that hits right to the heart of the French/English divide, and has done so since WW I. We *have* had, off and on, various government programs to help young people travel to and learn about other parts of the country. I went on one or two myself, and enjoyed them. They tend to be more on self-improvement (learning French, visiting museums and farms and typical industries etc) than helping others, though.


    26 May 09 at 5:46 am

  6. Michael.Fisher

    26 May 09 at 2:58 pm

  7. Michael.Fisher

    26 May 09 at 3:15 pm

  8. Define “good spot,” Cheryl, please?

    Remember, I’m not advocating forcing everyone into military service. There is no obligation for everyone to serve in the military, and thus no danger to avoid. Only those who would otherwise choose the military would serve there.

    I’m thinking that if a person cannot find an approved apprenticeship spot in a place they’d prefer to serve, then one will be found for them, even if it’s digging ditches or washing dishes. The concept here would be that employers who otherwise would be understaffed due to lack of funds for wages would be able to operate at full capacity, improving their profitability, creating wealth, and paying more taxes on earned money.

    There would be many public service projects as well to employ people. I’ve seen the good that can be done by such projects. Stay in the Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood sometime. It was a WPA project and it is glorious. Charities always need workers, likewise the Peace Corps and other overseas Good Works.

    I have no problem with the wealthy doing their term of service in a place of their choosing, and I’d expect some checks to ensure that actual work was being done. Perhaps something like “if your banking firm wants to apprentice your nephew for his ToS, fine, but also apprentice an underprivileged young person as well. And make sure they both work and learn equally.”

    But all of this would depend on a serious retrenchment of our mind-set, one that would value universal service to the country rather than a full-on thundering to maximum money-making momentum, powered by that 18-22 Age of College thing.

    That’s the hard part.


    26 May 09 at 4:02 pm

  9. cheryl wrote about the need to create a national myth. Its really a need to re-create one. Such a myth existed in the 1950s – it was destroyed in the 1960s.

    Personally, I considered myself a liberal in the 50s. It was the opposition to the Vietnam war that turned me conservative.

    Along that line, people might enjoy http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,626346,00.html

    (with thanks to Arts and Letters Daily)


    26 May 09 at 4:17 pm

  10. Lymaree said: “Define “good spot,” Cheryl, please?”

    Like your bank manager. Or the alleged situation involving the second President Bush’s National Guard Service. The rich or influential will find a nice pleasant spot for their relatives and friends, whether it’s in a bank’s head office or flirting with the customers at Uncle Joe’s fast food place while the real workers clean the floors. And if you’re going to provide a lot of checks on this – for every person of that age in the country – you’re talking about creating a massive expensive bureaucracy to enable people to work without pay for organizations which, in some cases, might prefer to have the money used to fund the bureaucracy and volunteers who actually want to be there.

    It’s the compulsory aspect that bothers me. Sure, there’s lots of valuable work done right now by volunteers, and lots more that could be done if more people volunteered. And trading work for a small salary (aka ‘make-work projects’ here) or for spending money and a chance to contribute to society can work well (or not, remembering some ‘make-work projects’). But as soon as you say ‘Everyone MUST participate voluntarily’, you’re guaranteeing that all the people who would much rather be holding down a regular paying job to support themselves or their families, or spending a ‘gap year’ in Europe or heading straight off to University or, well, almost anything really, will be looking for a way out of it, or for someone who can get them through the year with as little actual contribution as possible. And no volunteer organization needs that kind of person clogging up the works.

    I also strongly suspect that a business that can’t afford to hire new staff wouldn’t benefit all that much from getting an unskilled volunteer for a year or so.


    27 May 09 at 6:41 am

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