Saturday, February 12, 2005

Noxious academics

One of the most striking right-wing witchhunts of recent vintage is the campaign against University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who had the temerity to question the conventional American wisdom about the Sept. 11 attacks by arguing that we had it coming.

A number of prominent right-wing bloggers and their various hangers-on have been howling for Churchill's head, demanding the university fire him for making these statements. Few of them, it seems, have any respect for free speech, let alone the precepts of academic freedom.

Most of all, they also are putting their grotesque hypocrisy on display.

Now, the central thrust of Churchill's remarks -- that the American imposition of its aggressive self-interest in the Middle East has played a major role in fomenting terrorism there, and more of the same will not ameliorate that milieu, but rather worsen it -- probably should not be controversial, except that it runs smack into the popular post-9/11 mythology of America as Innocent Victim. Even more pointedly, his comparison of America's current aggression to its historical treatment of American Indians is one that has been made here too, as well as by such noted Indian spokesmen as Tim Giago. None of those raised any eyebrows at the time (though it may be simply that no one has gotten around to crucifying us yet).

Most of all, Churchill's remarks are important insofar as they point out the gross discrepancy in American perceptions of the actual misery they are inflicting upon the Iraqi people. With some estimates of civilian deaths nearing 100,000 in Iraq, we are rapidly approaching the point of having killed as many innocent Iraqis in a few years as Saddam did throughout his reign. The consequences of this suffering will rebound against us for many years to come. Yet most Americans remain blithely self-blinded to it; the only number that matters to them is the number of American soldiers killed there.

Nonetheless, there are real and significant problems with Churchill's thesis. It is not only devoid of any compassion for the victims of 9/11, it is profoundly wrong-headed in the nature of key arguments it makes about those attacks. I think Anthony Lappe put it best at Common Dreams:
Churchill, no matter how he later tried to spin it, was clearly trying to do something more than "shock the yuppies." He was pinning a target on the backs of a very specific group of people, the "technocrats," and saying they deserved what they got that clear September morning. It was a vicious, sloppy polemic that he deserves to be called out on. To argue that a commodities trader (which many WTC victims were) deserves to pay with his life for buying pork bellies low and selling them high is simplistic, unprogressive, and I dare say, fascist -- even if, as he later tried to argue, he was merely applying America's standards back on itself.

It's one thing to criticize Churchill, and he richly deserves much of it. It's quite another to foment for his removal from his university seat and to likewise threaten anyone willing to give him a forum for his views. One is well within our rich tradition of free speech; the other runs counter not only to free speech but to academic freedom.

Because Ward Churchill is hardly the only academic in America with genuinely repulsive views that deserve renunciation. Indeed, there are a number of right-wing professors who could face similar academic firing squads if the punditocracy chose to raise their cudgels against them.

For instance:

-- James Everett Kibler, a University of Georgia English professor. A founder of the secessionist and white-supremacist League of the South, Kibler is mostly noted for his outspoken admiration for defenders of slavery and white upper-class rule.

-- Thomas DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, who promotes a historical view of Abraham Lincoln as a wicked man "secretly intent on destroying states' rights and building a massive federal government."

-- Clyde Wilson, a University of South Carolina history professor. Wilson is another League of the South founder, and remains an unapologetic neo-Confederate. He says the only thing wrong with The Birth of a Nation is that it was too sympathetic to Lincoln.

-- Donald Livingston, a philosophy professor at Emory University. He has recently been focusing his work on "the philosophical meaning of secession." According to the SPLC, at a 2003 "Lincoln Reconsidered" conference, "he said that 'evil is habit-forming' and no habit is as evil as believing that Lincoln acted out of good motives."

And that's just the currently active neo-Confederates working in Southern universities. Some of those no longer active in academia include Grady McWhiney, now retired as a University of Alabama professor;

Outside the South, there are a number of problematic professors of various kinds, notably eugenics sympathizers and Holocaust deniers.

These include Kevin MacDonald, a Cal State-Long Beach evolutionary psychologist who testified on behalf of David Irving at his libel trial in London. MacDonald has argued "that anti-Semitism can be understood as a natural byproduct of a Darwinian strategy for Jewish survival," and insists that "Jewish behavior must be part of any adequate explanation of the recurrent persecution of Jews."

Then there was Glayde Whitney, a Florida State University psychology professor who liked to teach his students the basic precepts of white supremacy, i.e., that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. Whitney also was a subscriber to Holocaust-denial and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Most notably, he was closely aligned with David Duke, the notorious white supremacist, and wrote the foreword to one of his racist screeds. Whitney died in 2002, much to chagrin of right-wing extremists everywhere.

Now, most of these so-called conservatives who are attacking Ward Churchill -- who is indeed Native American -- are quick to deny that there is any racist component to their attacks on him (even though one could use the popular right-wing logic labeling as "racist" Democrats who questioned Alberto Gonzalez and Condoleezza Rice to suggest otherwise). Indeed, they piously invoke their feelings of repulsion towards racism whenever it seems to suit their purposes to do so.

So why are they not every bit as eager to expel these radical academics from our midst? Their silence has been longstanding; if anything, you'll find so-called mainstream conservatives actually defending thinkers like this (see, e.g., the long-running right-wing apologia for Charles Murray's repulsive theories about race.)

Personally, I think the principles of academic freedom are paramount in all these cases. But then, I'm not a right-winger.

[For more on the history and nature of right-wing extremism in academia, be sure to check out the rest of the material available at the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism.]

No comments: