Thursday, June 09, 2005

In Defense — and Criticism — of Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is in the news again. Shortly after 9/11, Churchill wrote an essay entitled "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," in which he used the phrase "little Eichmanns" to describe some of the people working for finance industry titans in the World Trade Center.

Who was Adolf Eichmann? During World War II, Eichmann was a bureaucrat who worked to increase the efficiency of the Nazi death camps. Although Eichmann himself never personally shot or gassed any of the prisoners, he streamlined the process by which they were sent to their deaths.

What was Ward Churchill talking about in calling the WTC financiers "little Eichmanns"? The best source I can find for this is Churchill's interview on Real Time with Bill Maher on March 4, 2005. (Have I mentioned that I love my TiVo?) With considerable help from Bill Maher, the point Churchill made was that the financiers blithely pursued pure profit with inadequate regard to the suffering and death in other countries caused by that pursuit of profit. If an American investor gets rich from sweat-shop labor in a third world country, or from building a factory that props up a brutal dictator, it is an obvious and natural consequence that people in those countries resent America. America as a nation has unclean hands, from the death of tens of millions of African slaves to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians in the two Gulf Wars, and from the sweatshops of southeast Asia to the oil fields of Nigeria and Iraq.

America as a nation needs to address the harms, as well as the benefits, wrought by our economic activities in the world — not just the actions of the government, but also of corporations and even individuals. We need to seek more "win-win" solutions instead of exploitative opportunities, even if our own profits decline slightly. That is what I see as the valid point behind Churchill's essay.

Where I fault Ward Churchill is in his style of communicating the point. He has a degree in communications, but evidently doesn't apply those studies very well to his current work. The comparison of a person working at a brokerage in the WTC, a person whose economic activities include some creation of misery in the third world, to Eichmann, a man who intentionally designed a system with no purpose other than killing innocent human beings, is so far beyond reason as to be obscene. Even on Bill Maher, Churchill hunkered down into a combative stance worthy of a Bush Administration toadie, rather than explain the real point lost behind his inflammatory rhetoric.