Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Sensitive and Serious Consideration

Well, my fine gentlemen, let the trumpets sound! Let's see whether meanness and mediocrity have the power to gag a man who wants to clean up society!
-- Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People

Thank heavens for The Leiter Reports. Having so very little time to do my own research these days, Brian Leiter's site has been my portal into the progess of the great Ward Churchill "Little Eichmans" essay flap.

Churchill's claims need to be assessed and challenged without equivocation - without fingers pinching noses, without mealy mouths garbling invocations of the first amendment or academic freedom no matter the requisite feelings of revulsion.

This entry from Leiter, which among other things, references Ibsen's observations concerning majority opinion, shows how. Here is an excerpt:

Yet it is equally clear that Gerald Dworkin (Philosophy, UC Davis) was absolutely correct to say the following:
[T]he main theses [of the essay] represent moral, political, and empirical claims about the cause of the attack, and its moral character. No faculty member should be dismissed because of such claims.

It is easy enough to reconstruct something like the crux of Churchill's argument which shows it to bear out Professor Dworkin's characterization. Churchill is making three claims:
(1) The success and profitiability of American capitalism depends on U.S. imperialism, and, in particular, on U.S. actions that have brought death and misery to millions around the globe. (This is an empirical claim.)

(2) Those who (actively? intimately?) participate in the power centers of capitalism (and thus profit from it) are morally implicated in the aforementioned death and misery. (A moral claim about responsibility or, as Churchill says, "collective guilt".)

(3) These same people are, therefore, legitimate targets of retaliatory violence. (A moral claim about desert.)
This omits stuff, obviously--for example, the empirical claims Churchill apparently shares with the Pentagon about why the U.S. was targetted.

The empirical claim in (1) is plainly a topic of legitimate scholarly discussion. Academic freedom obviously protects one's right to affirm it or deny it outright, or to take some view anywhere inbetween.

The moral claim in (2) raises a whole host of important issues about the moral responsibility of institutional actors, issues which are also plainly legitimate topics of scholarly discussion. Churchill plainly has no systematic or even clear view about what level of involvement confers moral responsibility. Nonetheless, it would be extraordinary if academic freedom did not protect the right of a professor to make moral claims about how participation in an institution imports responsibility for the actions of the institution. ((2) is also the claim, I take it, that gives rise to the inflammatory Eichmann comparison: Eichmann was a functionary within a system that brought death and misery to millions, and thus bore moral responsibility for those wrongs. That there are disanaologies, obvious and otherwise, between Eichmann and, e.g., investment bankers [as actors within the "capitalist system"] that bear on moral culpability is the real reason for thinking the analogy inapt, and thus gratuitously insulting. Yet a bad analogy, in the course of making a claim about collective responsibility, can not possibly be grounds for termination in a society which protects academic freedom.)

The real candidate for a claim that is "morally depraved" is thesis (3), but it too is a moral claim, however shocking, that is related to the kinds of issues that are discussed all the time in connection with the moral legitimacy of war and the killing of civilians. When I have called the various academic war-mongers (none of whom have had their jobs threatened, to my knowledge) "morally depraved," it is for the same reason people are calling Churchill's (3) a "morally depraved" view. I think it is morally depraved to countenance the intentional or foreseeable killing of civilians, whether in the World Trade Center or in Iraq, and I do not see any plausible way of explicating claims (2) and (3) (about responsibility and desert) such that one's conclusion ought to be otherwise in these cases. (Some, including Churchill himself, have suggested that the point is not to endorse the justice of retaliatory violence against responsible institutional actors, but simply to make the ironic point that such a principle follows naturally from the standard U.S./Pentagon attitude towards civilian casualties in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the essay as originally written does not, I think, support that interpretation: vide its last line, for example.)

For what it's worth, I think I can illuminate at leastone of the disanalogies attendant on the Eichmann reference this way: Adolf Eichmann was a something of a case study. The nominative subject of Hannah Arendt's book: Eichamann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. He was as Leiter says, a functionary in a deathly pernicious system - a cog with a peculiar talent for organization. More than that, he was, I think, for Arendt, an exemplar of the character of modern evil - trivialization. Eichmann was a trivial man, with a small soul, easily fobbed off with warm comforts and lazy rationalizations - cordoned off in his restaraunts, his automobiles and his offices and apartments - disconected, incapable of suffering and constitutionally unsympathetic.

But Eichmann himself was standing - in his plexiglass casing - before the bar, in high relief under the lights. His story was played out. Given that, he became for Arendt a symbol of what was at the time a barely perceived condition. He is the index. He was not himself the condition. And those who died in New York on September 11, 2001 will not simply, just like that, become, en masse, symbols of a symbol - exemplars of Eichmann.

Some who died that day may very well have been trivializers too. But how are we to know? Who's to tell us so?

This open letter to Churchill, from the brother of a victim, which I also accessed through the Leiter Reports, Says much the same thing, and much more, and much better ... Deserves serious consideration.


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