Thursday, April 14, 2005

Separated at Birth

For some time now, Ward Churchill has been the poster child for the right-wing's distaste for the academy. No tirade against academic liberal bias would be complete until Churchill's name makes an appearance. No iteration of the academy's sins can conclude without prominent mention of this specific case in point. One is sometimes left wondering what conservatives would do on this issue without the house whipping boy. I'm sure that they would dig someone else up, but is doubtful that anyone else could provide them the mileage that Ward Churchill has. He is as important to the anti-academy movement as anyone -- even David Horowitz.

Funny thing, though. I've been noticing recently a surprising similarity between these two gentlemen. Now, they exist on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, so this isn't what I'm talking about. Instead, what I have realized is that when it comes to method and presentation, they are, without a doubt, brothers in arms. I'm sure that if either of them ever read that last sentence they would explode in rage and indignation (which would, as an aside, be fairly entertaining). But, the more I think about it, the more it rings true.

Let's take a look, shall we?

First off, both men are clearly ideologues. The investigations into their respective fields of inquiry are driven not so much out of a pure quest for knowledge, but as a springboard for change. While they both publicly present their findings, they most frequently do so in the service of their respective agendas.

Of course, that describes nearly every pundit, politician, and advocate in America, so that isn't the most insightful observation in the world. Where things get interesting is when you begin to investigate the quality of the data that they present. Now you're talking about some serious double vision.

As I pointed out in this post, Churchill has for many years been making claims that are, shall we say, poorly supported by his research. Most notably, he has claimed that an 1837 Native American smallpox epidemic was instigated by the United States Army despite compelling evidence that this is untrue. He has also made questionable claims regarding his own ancestry, frequently representing himself as Native American -- an affiliation denied by the nations in question. While these facts fail to impugn his character in its entirety, it does demonstrate a certain nonchalance with respect to accuracy.

However, Churchill isn't the only one with a casual relationship to the truth. In service of his assault on the academy, he has frequently circulated anecdotal evidence that has later been proven to be false. A recent example of this phenomenon was his claim that a student at the University of Northern Colorado was asked on a midterm exam to "explain why George Bush is a war criminal." As the story goes, she responded by instead explaining why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal. Her efforts were rewarded with a failing grade, thus demonstrating ideological discrimination on the part of her instructor.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not a student should receive a good grade for a non-responsive answer, is the story even true? As it turns out, not so much. Follow the preceding link to get the whole story, but the bottom line is that Horowitz failed to confirm the assertions of a complaining student, falsely claimed that the student had testified during legislative hearings, and, when the story started unraveling, essentially asserted that the gist of the story was correct even if certain particulars were mistaken. I guess that if you lie in service of a greater truth, it all comes out in the wash.

"Wait," you say. "That's just one example. Are there more?" Why, yes. I'm glad you asked.

In support of his claims regarding the 1837 smallpox epidemic, Churchill relied heavily upon the work of another historian. Russell Thornton, the Cherokee scholar and professor of anthropology at UCLA, had investigated andwritten about this same event. The problem was that he true radically different conclusions. Therefore, using Thornton's research as support for his claims is a little dishonest. But, more than that, it's pretty stupid. After all, the first person to check Churchill's references would uncover the deception (which is exactly what eventually happened). And if that hadn't tripped him up, there is always Thornton himself. When asked about Churchill's misrepresentations, Thorson replied, "Issues like Ward Churchill cast aspersions on legitimate Indian scholars. The history is bad enough -- there's no need to embellish it."

Horowitz also seems to have problems interpreting the work of others. The most recent example was on display a few short days ago. He had challenged Michael Bérubé to an online debate regarding Horowitz's new web site, Discover the Network, and the extent to which it attempts to blur the distinction between Roger Ebert and Osama bin Laden. This debate was to be published in its entirety at Horowitz's main storefront, FrontPage Magazine. And it was, except for one little thing. I'll let Michael take it from here.
[W]hen I went to the FrontPage site to check out the “debate,” I found that almost all my replies to David had been cut from the “conversation,” and that Glazov and Horowitz, after chopping all the stuff I’d written, slapped me upside the head for not replying to them…
Michael then proceeds to publicly bitch-slap Horowitz for both his dishonesty and his shocking stupidity. Afterwards, Horwitz claimed that he somehow had "missed" the responses in Bérubé’s last reply -- an honest mistake that anyone could make. He then posted the conclusion of the debate with the previously excised responses intact.

Whether or not this was an honest mistake is anyone's guess (although, the blogosphere is never short on opinions). However, that question aside, it shows the same slavish dedication to ideology as does the Churchill/Thornton example cited above. Surely it should have struck Horowitz as bizarre that Bérubé would have failed to respond to the points that he had raised. But the nonresponsiveness confirmed his pre-existing conclusions about liberal academics. It was the data point that he was looking for and, thus, he failed to approach it with an appropriate level of skepticism. Likewise, Churchill read Thornton's work and found what he was looking for, despite the fact that it wasn't there.

I'm sure that any exhaustive examination of these gentlemen would uncover more differences than similarities. I realize that my presentation is more of a rhetorical exercise than an honest inquiry. That said, the similarities that do exist are worth noting because of what they say about the conclusions that these men draw. Perhaps there are kernels of truth within their pontifications. Yet, any such truth is lost under an avalanche of dreck, impossible to distinguish from the morass of misinformation that engulfs it. Intellectual honesty matters because intellectual dishonesty cannot be contained. It infects the entirety of one's discourse. The fact that you may be speaking to a larger truth will not serve to fortify your position. Every brick of the foundation must be solid lest the entire structure collapse. That may impede the progress of an ideological assertion, but at least the progress achieved will be real.

So ends today's edition of "separated-at-birth." Tune in next week when we examine the link between Tom Friedman and Ann Coulter. You won't want to miss that.
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