This Academic Life
  Revolt of the Primitives
Dean Acheson was the U.S. Secretary of State around the time when Joe McCarthy started whipping up his anti-Communist campaign. Acheson, along with President Truman, and Acheson's former boss George Marshall (of The Marshall Plan (tm), only the most effective piece of anti-Communist foreign policy in history), was a prominent target of McCarthy and his cronies allies, and was regularly vilified as being a closet Communist sympathizer, un-American, and so forth. In his memoirs, Acheson memorably refers to the McCarthy interlude as "the revolt of the primitives," a term I find altogether apt.

What was "primitive" about McCarthy? Contrary to what various right-wing wackos might claim, Acheson's objections to McCarthy do not involve any supposedly archaic character of values like patriotism and the need to defend the integrity of the American Way of Life (tm; I probably owe royalties to someone -- hasn't the RNC applied for a copyright on these words? -- for using the phrase, but unless and until they sue me I should be safe). Acheson was a patriot, a firm believer in the inherent rightness of American (and Western, and liberal) values; hence his accusation of "primitivism" can't apply to the content of the McCarthyite charge. Rather, I think that Acheson was objecting to the form of the campaign: its hysterical tone, its deliberate oversimplification of complex issues, its bold-faced nativism. In short, the narrowness of the accusations and the manichaean character of the proposed solutions: yes or no, right or wrong, loyal American or committed enemy of all that is good.

Welcome back to the 1950s. The new primitives -- we might call them techno-primitives, since they work via the 'Net and the vast swirling morass of Talk Radio -- are apparently in full swing, targeting Ward Churchill for excommunication from the body politic. According to an article in The Washington Post [free subscription required], the Chancellor of the University of Colorado has launched an investigation into Churchill's "lectures and publications" which is is "the first step…in the legal process required to fire a tenured professor." At issue are comments that Churchill made right after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 2001, in which he said, among other things:

As to those in the World Trade Center…Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. 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. Recourse to "ignorance" – a derivative, after all, of the word "ignore" – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. 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.
Harsh words. And offered as part of a harsh essay demanding that Americans examine the record of their own country in committing war crimes, murdering civilians, inflicting harm on others -- and that they do so before blithely condemning the terrorist attacks as uncivilized acts that justify any and all methods of reprisal, as though the United States had never perpetrated acts just as violent.

But it is important to note that Churchill's point is not "fuck America, go terrorists!" but instead "America brought this on itself by acting in similar ways at various times in history." His tone is acid, accusatory, deliberately provocative and designed to piss people off; his rhetoric is overblown, his analogies are slippery [Eichmann was a bureaucrat participating in an enterprise the declared intention of which was a Judenrein Europe; arguably, there's a significant difference between the culpability of such a person and the culpability of a person who accepts the unintended consequences of their day-to-day actions], and his overall moral calculus relating guilt and reprisal is questionable. And this is the point of the exercise, I think: to provoke complacent readers and listeners to re-examine their own firmly-held assumptions about, well, everything. [And is it really any more extreme than identifying a group of countries as constituting an "axis of evil"?]

Churchill's writings are designed to provoke debate, discussion, conflict. He is up-ending the apple cart, and trying to cast some doubt on the self-confident narrative of America in which we are the divinely blessed Good Guys who can do no wrong as long as we follow our Manifest Destiny to bring light to the nations, by force if necessary. In this way, he's a moral philosopher, fulfilling that essentially Socratic function of serving as a stinging horsefly on the ass of state. Don't like what he's saying? Argue back. Debate with him. Give good grounds for maintaining that the United States didn't deserve what it got, that terrorism should be an unacceptable mode of warfare, that the subsequent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were justified. If you are so confident that you are correct, you should have no problem adducing such reasons.

By characterizing Churchill as a moral philosopher I am deliberately withholding the label of "social science" from his oeuvre. That is because I do not think that his work (and admittedly, I have read comparatively little of it, so I might be entirely wrong about this) seeks to apply an ideal-typical analytic to a set of empirical data in a rigorous manner so as to produce "objective" (in the Weberian sense) facts. Rather, he makes use of empirics to illustrate his broader practical-moral claims, which is what any good moral philosopher or cultural critic does. He's not a scientist -- I don't think that he wants to be -- and so it would be inappropriate to evaluate his work on such grounds. Rather, like a law professor asked to reflect on a Supreme Court decision or a business ethicist asked for a reasoned stance on the acceptability of certain accounting practices, Churchill is contributing to a public debate by forwarding a stance -- one among others -- that responsible citizens should confront.

Except that the 2005 primitives are seeking to fire him instead.

I find the idea of an investigation into Churchill's lectures and publications somewhat ludicrous. What are they planning to investigate? Last time I checked, a tenured professor can't be fired for making claims with which people (especially powerful people, or a majority faction of the people) disagree. I don't know precisely how scholarship is evaluated within American Indian Studies, but my sense is that the field deliberately tries to relax or erode the politik/wissenschaft boundary that is constitutive of the social sciences. So going after Churchill for being political won't wash (unless there is some hidden clause of his contract that prevents such activity; when I was an adjunct professor at a University In New York City some years ago, a condition of employment was the signing of a small white card that was basically a loyalty oath committing me not to speak against the Constitution of the United States or against the Constitution of the State of New York…and this was in 1997(!)), and going after him for not adhering to the standards of his field won't either. So all they could be investigating is whether he is saying things with which they agree, which is very scary shit indeed.

We too often forget that the point of university education is to promote thinking: critical, creative, independent. The precondition for doing so might be a damning critique of what is held sacred, so that the mind can widen a bit beyond the simple repetition of stock phrases from childhood. Churchill can be read as raising extremely "uncomfortable facts" with which Americans generally should have to grapple; in this way he contributes to the overall process of education. [Parenthetically, if his classes were premised on his students coming to agree with his point of view, that would in my opinion be a violation of his academic vocation; promoting thinking and creating disciples are different enterprises. What he does outside of the classroom, or outside of his professional interactions with students, is a different matter entirely…as long as we're willing to accept moral philosophy and cultural criticism as valid scholarly enterprises, which is a whole different issue. For now I'll just assert that the socially surplus character of higher education allows it to support such initiatives, and point out that if it didn't, radically dissenting voices would in all likelihood be completely silenced, and our public discourse would be poorer for it.] Shutting him up is a profoundly primitive response: see fire, fire hot, run away or smother quick. But under no circumstances should you try to learn from the thing that makes you profoundly uncomfortable; no, that requires entirely too much flexibility of mind, too much appreciation of subtlety and ambiguity, too much questioning of the comfortable narrative of moral superiority that legitimates your actions.

I am not saying that Churchill is correct. I am saying that Churchill should be debated with. The primitive response, although simpler and cleaner, could only be justified if its central claim to moral superiority were true -- and how would we know that if the debate was not allowed to take place?

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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