Thursday, June 01, 2006

Actions, Not Words

Let’s take the following two propositions as givens: first, Ward Churchill’s comments about the victims of 9/11 were idiotic and appalling, and second, that he committed a number of intellectual sins regarding his scholarship.

Now, let’s look at
Mark Hyman’s commentary on the issue. He begins by rehashing Churchill’s comments, then summarizes the findings of a University of Colorado faculty investigation of Churchill’s scholarship that found intellectual sloppiness and misconduct in a variety of specific cases.

What’s troubling is the easy transition makes from criticizing Churchill’s public comments about 9/11 and his call for his dismissal. It’s essential that we make a distinction between Churchill’s views and his academic practices. While it’s fine, and indeed proper, to take issue with Churchill’s rhetoric and to chastise him for it in the public sphere, it is dangerous to suggest that his views constitute a reason for his dismissal, and that’s what Hyman’s editorial does.

I’m afraid that Hyman is simply one of many people who don’t have any problem with targeting Churchill for particular scrutiny because of his views. Perhaps problems in Churchill’s scholarship would have raised red flags on their own. But it’s chilling to think that because people voices unpopular views, their employer might be pressured into finding a reason to fire them. This would be true in any profession, but particularly academia, where the freedom to voice controversial views is an intrinsic part of the job. Even if Churchill’s intellectual crimes are deserving of his dismissal, this wouldn’t make it ethical for him to be targeted for the fine-tooth comb treatment simply because his public statements in other arenas and on other topics were objectionable. The ends don’t justify the means.

But Hyman’s editorial uncomfortably juxtaposes a critique of Churchill’s views with an attack on his scholarly methods (or lack thereof), suggesting that both are evidence of the man’s unfitness to teach. And that’s dead wrong. Perhaps we’ll never know if Churchill was targeted for intellectual destruction because of what he said about 9/11, but the fact that plenty of people out there, including Hyman, seem to think it would be fine if he was is scary enough.

I don’t know all the details of the committee’s report on Churchill, but from what I know, I certainly believe strong disciplinary action (up to and including termination) is likely proper. But let’s be absolutely clear on why he’s being punished: it’s his actions, not his ideas.

Come to think of it, the same can be said of Hyman himself. As appalling as the content of his ideas are, simply voicing risible political opinions is not his primary sin. Rather, it’s his utter lack of honesty, his systematic distortions, his failure to practice basic journalistic ethics, and his abuse of the local airwaves to present one-sided and unanswered political screeds rather than allowing for their public use that makes him such an affront to public discourse.

Both Hyman and Churchill have the right to hold and express whatever vulgar ideas they have; it’s when they abuse their position and violate the basic ethical codes of their respective professions that they deserve to be shown the door.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 4.60


At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez, Hymie is still up in arms about Ward Churchill!

I guess propagandists need their bogeymen.

If Markie has to continue to chomp on such stale bread, it only goes to show how little he really has to complain about. But THAT doesn't stop him!

I'm a little surprised that Our Pal Markie hasn't gone after Dr. Remington again. After all, he doesn't agree with Markie either.

At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Bradley said...


I'm kind of torn on the Ward Churchill issue myself. I’m inclined to disagree with you when you say, “Perhaps we’ll never know if Churchill was targeted for intellectual destruction because of what he said about 9/11.” I’m pretty sure that most of us know, deep down, that Churchill found himself under the microscope precisely because of his essay and subsequent book. Having one of their professors become a "celebrity pinhead" on The O'Reilly Factor isn't something that any university would be proud of (particularly any state university in a place like Colorado), and I feel certain that the controversy surrounding the man and his ideas motivated this investigation.

With that said, it is true that the committee has found him guilty of some pretty serious infractions that warrant some type of penalty. Whether the investigation was politically-motivated or not, the fact is that, apparently, Churchill is guilty of academic dishonesty. I tend to think that professors who are discovered to be plagiarists or fraudulant researchers deserve to be fired from their posts; academic dishonesty usually leads to a failing grade or even expulsion for the student, and professors should be held to a much higher standard.

Having said that, I’m not sure that my opinion is the majority opinion, at least in the academy. The truth is, as The Chronicle of Higher Education has noted (if you have a subscription, you can go to their online edition and read the "Professor Copycat" articles from December of 2004), plagiarism among the professoriate is not unheard of. I won't say it happens frequently, but it happens often enough that people have begun writing and talking about it in the Chroncle. And the thing is, in most of the cases profiled in these articles, suspension and termination are not the usual outcomes. The professor is punished for the transgression, certainly, but-- from what I've read-- the punishments are not nearly as draconian as the ones being discussed in Churchill's case.

As I said, I think academic dishonesty among professional scholars seriously harms both individual fields and the academy as a whole, and I would be in favor of employing harsher punishments to deal with plagiarists and other types of academic frauds. But I don't think Ward Churchill should be punished more severely than his colleagues who commit similar "crimes" just because his essay and subsequent book (neither of which, apparently, appear on his c.v.) upset people, which is what I suspect is happening in this case.

Last week Inside Higher Ed published an essay by John K. Wilson that seems relevant to this discussion:

I found the following passage particularly interesting:

“No one has ever accused Churchill of fabricating data (such as making up historical sources). He is accused of making broad claims, without adequate evidence, which are probably wrong. That is lousy historical research, but it’s not research misconduct by any stretch of the imagination.

“There is some evidence to find Churchill guilty on other charges of ghostwriting and plagiarism. But using footnotes as an excuse to fire Churchill makes the entire committee’s findings look like political expediency to remove an embarrassment to the University of Colorado. By turning every case of bad research into research misconduct, the Colorado committee threatens to expose the entire academic system to a political witch hunt. In an era when the right-wing is already targeting college professors for their extramural statements and political comments in class, this radical revision of research standards could mark the next step in the war on academic freedom.”

And speaking of Churchill... Does anyone besides me think that Churchill's greatest "sin" might just be that he's a really bad writer? I've followed his case from the very beginning, and I've often found myself persuaded by some of his arguments... after he explained and clarified what he meant with his essay and his book. As I understand it from subsequent essays and interviews, his main point was not that people in the World Trade Center deserved to die, but that Americans don't understand how they are perceived by certain groups of people in other parts of the world. It's vital that we as Americans try to understand these foreign points-of-view if we want to feel safe again.

So, okay, I can agree with that, when it's phrased like that. But Churchill had to gild the lily by invoking the Holocaust and by employing a self-satisfied, sarcastic diction that was sure to alienate anyone who was not already inclined to agree with his assessment and ideas. Which, as anyone who's taken freshman composition with a competent instructor knows, is not a way to win over a hostile audience, or even a neutral one. The arrogance and crudeness in the essay (and later book) seemed to ensure that no one would ever find Churchill's prose persuasive. So, if he wasn't looking to persuade, why bother writing the piece in the first place?


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