Tuesday, February 08, 2005

How not to make your point, or the universality of Godwin's Law

I had the flu last week, and didn't think it terribly wise to blog with a fever, so let me post this rather belatedly (though the topic seems like it will stay in the news for a bit).

For those who haven't heard of this, Ward Churchill, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has stirred up a bit of a fuss lately. There's probably a couple hundred real news stories out there on the web, in addition to the usual blog blatherings (like this one); you might as well start here. I gather that his fundamental point is that 9/11 is an outcome of US foreign policy that could have been predicted. I'm not so interested in his points, though, because there's something he has to say early on in his writing that I just can't get past, and that is the topic of this comment. In his writing, he compares the folks working in the World Trade Center to "little Eichmanns"; in his later "explanations", he makes Eichmann sound like a minor logistics officer. As you might guess, this has engendered some public comment, plus the usual speech cancellations and death threats.

I think this shows the applicability of Godwin's Law beyond usenet newsgroups. (For those who know only about the web and not usenet, I'll borrow a quote from "The Princess Bride": "When I was your age, the web was called usenet".) One of the "corollaries" of Godwin's Law is "if you mention Hitler or Nazis in a post, you've automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in". In this case, Churchill has pretty much guaranteed that nobody will pay attention to anything else he has to say, not only now, but quite likely ever. It doesn't matter how profound or worthy of discussion any of his other writings are; he has killed off any rational discussion of his views. This is probably not what he intended.

So, now people in Colorado (probably most) want to run him out of town on a rail. While I personally can't get past his invocation of Godwin's Law, I can quote Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." One of the reasons university faculty are granted tenure is so that they can be free to pursue their interests and express their views without fear of retribution (well, that's overstating things a bit: the administration can always reassign you to an office that used to be a broom closet; they just can't fire you). And, lest we decide that Churchill has stepped over the bounds that must exist, keep in mind what Isaac Asimov said: "Politically popular speech has always been protected, even the Jews were free to say 'Heil Hitler'."

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