Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2005

Swarthmore Professor gives Ward Churchill failing grade

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 6, 2005

I don’t know anything about Timothy Burke except that he teaches at Swarthmore, maintains a blog (http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/tburke1/) like many academics nowadays (this gives the opportunity to mouth off without having to put up with the sort of rough-and-tumble you get on listservs), and has published an attack on Ward Churchill that reflects the party line of the soft left. I found out about it, as one might expect, on Marc Cooper’s blog. Cooper is rapidly turning into the American Norm Geras. You can count on him for the latest official position of the liberal imperialist (limp) left.

The party line on Ward Churchill is that he should not be fired, but also that he has no business in academia. When I read the abuse heaped on Ward from characters like Burke and the execrable Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, I am reminded of how Dumbo was greeted by the other elephants: “What makes him think that he’s one of us?” There’s a division of labor. The morons on Fox TV demand that he be fired and the Timothy Burkes are content to ostracize him.

Burke writes about Churchill as if he were reviewing a bad movie:

“Churchill is prolific in the manner of many careerist academics, meaning, he’s written the same thing in a great many formats again and again. He’s got a very long c.v., but the length misleads. Almost everything he’s written is part of one long metapublication. And what he’s written is highly formulaic kind of identity-based scholarship that expounds unthoughtfully on some of the characteristic themes and ideas of one very particular segment of the left, with particular application to Native American issues and questions.”

I always get a kick out of how these academics who rake Ward over the coals for not being scholarly enough can write such shitty prose. If Burke knew how to write, he’d use the word “thoughtlessly” rather than “unthoughtfully” (highlighted in red by the MS spell checker), but who am I– a mere computer programmer–to tell a Swarthmore prof how to write.

Burke argues that Churchill must be wrong about how evil capitalism is, since it has provided him with a cushy job:

“Churchill, like others, constructs the hegemony of global capitalism and Western domination as being near-total. The unmitigated and simplistic totalizing that suffuses Churchill’s writing makes it impossible to explain his own existence and professional success or anyone like him. He is incarnated impossibility of his own analysis. The only contradiction Western domination faces is produced, according to his oeuvre, by the dedicated and militant resistance of its subjects. But how is it possible that a totalizing system of domination permits such an uncompromising practicioner [sic] of resistance to publish over 11 books and occupy a tenured position at a university?”

Okay, let me reduce this glob of inflated prose to its essence. Burke is saying that since Churchill is employed by the University of Colorado, his critique of the capitalist system lacks credibility. I myself have heard this kind of nonsense in the past, but it usually goes something like this. “Louis, how can you be a Marxist when you live on the Upper East Side, enjoy fine wine and have a $3000 stereo?” This is an argument not worth answering, since it does not involve politics.

If Burke were serious about Churchill’s politics, he would have to actually say something about “Little Matter of Genocide,” but this would be too inconvenient. It would require a working knowledge of Deborah Lipstadt, American Indian history and other subjects too tedious for our blogger to get into. Instead, he is content to dismiss Churchill with a wave of his hand: “The thing of it, there are very thoughtful people who take some or all of these positions. Churchill isn’t: he’s prolific but he’s also something of a hack.” Clearly, Ward Churchill should start from scratch and aspire to the example of Timothy Burke, whose monumental study “Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Body, Commodity, Text: Studies of Objectifying Practice)” is ranked 375,445 at amazon.com. Perhaps Ward Churchill prefers doing what he prefers rather than what academia prefers. After all, his “Little Matter of Genocide” is ranked 2,265. Nobody ever took the trouble to write a reader’s review of Burke’s Modern Language Association special, while Ward’s book elicited the following:

“A meticulously written book by Ward Churchill. This book has quickly become one of my favorite books. The amount of information and detailed descriptions with piles and piles of sourced materials. He did a superb job on this book and he highlighted the truths concerning a destructive and damning part of United States and early Colonial History. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to learn of this book and read it. It makes me proud of my fellow Coloradoan! He is an asset to the University of Colorado (I am sure) and thank you for putting such effort into a book to share with all of us the atrocities delivered on the Native Americans.”

When people read Ward Churchill, they actually might go out and get involved with indigenous rights. When they read Professor Burke, they might fall asleep.

Since Burke doesn’t actually take the trouble to quote Ward Churchill or even engage with the issues that he is associated with, what we are left with is a kind of pique directed at somebody who has the effrontery to write for the unwashed masses rather than for MLA conferences:

“In that context, it becomes awfully hard to defend the comfortably ensconsed position of someone like Churchill within academic discourse, and equally hard to explain an invitation to him to speak anywhere. There’s nothing in his work to suggest a thoughtful regard for evidence, an appreciation of complexity, a taste for dialogue with unlike minds, a proportionality, a meaningful working out of his own contradictions, a civil ability to engage in dialogue with his colleagues and peers in his own fields of specialization. He stands for the reduction of scholarship to nothing more than mouth-frothing polemic.”

All this can be reduced to a demand that Ward Churchill conform to the standards established by Timothy Burke himself. Write obscure books that rank in the high 300 thousands on amazon.com, make a yearly showing at some academic conference where papers on “objectifying practice” are eagerly awaited, and maintain a blog in the hope that a redbaiter like Marc Cooper can advertise the fact that you exist. I don’t blame Ward for staying the course. Our job is to make sure that he does.

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.