Friday, July 27, 2007

On Ward Churchill and Fat Friends

Two seemingly unrelated stories from academicland that can be connected in an interesting way. First is the news that Ward Churchill has been fired by the board of regents at the University of Colorado for plagiarism and other acts of scholarly misconduct. Second is a article in the New England Journal of Medicine that one's chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if someone close to you socially also becomes obese.

Ward Churchill is the scholar of Native American studies who came to national prominence when his comment that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were chicken coming home to roost and that those in the Twin Towers were "little Eichmanns." These comments served as red meat for conservatives who clamored for his dismissal. When first amendment and academic freedom concerns stood in the way, his academic research was combed for actionable incidents and enough were found to bring about the current result.

Are there actually serious incidents of plagiarism and misrepresentation of sources? No clue. But to say that Ward Churchill was not fired for his comments is like saying that Einstein did not receive the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity or that Socrates was executed for being an atheist. Those may be the official explanations and surely Einstein's work on quantum mechanics was impressive and Socrates' religious views were unorthodox, but let's be real.

The fact is that it was the Eichmann comment that was the truly operative causal factor here. Of course, it was completely misunderstood. Any German reference in contemporary American political discourse is instantly taken as an ad hominem attack. Calling someone a Nazi, Hitler, or Goebbels is meant as a rhetorical nuclear option -- it brands the other person as factually wrong, morally insufferable, insufficiently rational, and so hostile to open discussion that they cannot be taken seriously. These utterances are meant to end the conversation rather than contribute meaningfully to it.

And so when Churchill invoked the name Eichmann, Adolf Eichmann was a Nazi bureaucrat seized by Israeli special forces in Argentina and tried in Israel, the general interpretation of what he was saying was that the victims in New York were evil Nazis and deserved to die. And since they were just average citizens, it follows that Churchill is equating contemporary America with Nazi Germany and saying that all average Joes are morally equivalent to anti-Semitic mass murderers and therefore to be hated. He is a classic example of those darn liberals who hate America -- see, he thinks we're all Nazis.

Of course, that was not what he was saying at all. The reference was to Hannah Arendt's work Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which the German Jewish philosopher reported from the trial that her preconceptions of him were completely inaccurate. There was no raving anti-Semitic madman, there was no overt hatred or irrationality, not even a real attachment to National Socialist doctrine. Instead, there was just a normal guy looking for a promotion. She coined the term, "the banality of evil," for this sense that the system itself could become so incredibly morally bankrupt and evil can become so thoroughly ensconced into the fabric of daily life that one could live a plain life, be a middle manager just going to the office and doing your job pushing papers, holding the elevator for someone and the door for others, being polite, picking up the tab for lunch, and yet all the while be contributing to the most horrible of horrors. When those in power have created a corrupt system, doing evil doesn't require tying young women to train tracks while fondling your handlebar moustache and laughing maniacally; in fact, it is often observationally identical to just living day to day life. So much so, that you can isolate yourself in the minutia of your life and not pay attention to the larger project you are contributing to.

In the same way, Churchill contended, those in the Towers were just going about their lives, but their jobs contributed to a global economic system which entrenched unfairness in wealth and power. And, he was arguing, this imbalance was a factor in causing people to be desperate enough to embrace terrorism. Is the globalized economy morally equivalent to the final solution? Can the genocides in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sudan be linked to the distribution of wealth and power and then be compared to the death camps of WWII? Are the forced labor camps of the Nazi war effort commensurate with the sweat shops of the Marianas Islands and Asia or the forced labor of Chinese prisoners making goods for Western markets? Dunno, but the idea here is clearly to contribute to a debate and not shut it down by branding Americans as Nazis as held by those in the neo-McCarthyist camp of pre-Katrina America.

There is no doubt Churchill's head is a trophy of the conservative wall, but what he was doing was dangerous to conservatism in a much more subtle way than they realize. the danger he posed was in his argument for a systemic approach to social questions, instead of an atomistic one. Conservatives love "personal responsibility" rhetoric because it limits the scope of discourse in a fashion that removes social factors from the table. Instead of there being social problems that we need to address with policy solutions, instead, we just blame individuals, a few bad apples.

That is what is so interesting about the obesity report. Instead of looking at genetic predisposition, diet, exercise regimens or anything else that focuses on the atomic individual, the question became "how do environmental factors affect people?"

Their analysis was unique, Christakis said, because it moved beyond a simple analysis of one person and his or her social contacts, and instead examined an entire social network at once, looking at how a friend's friends' friends, or a spouse's siblings' friends, could have an influence on a person's weight. The effects, Christakis said, "highlight the importance of a spreading process, a kind of social contagion, that spreads through the network."
These researchers, like Churchill, are saying let's look at the interconnectedness if we really want to understand why unfortunate things like terrorist attacks and public health epidemics occur.

We must be careful not to fall into the trap of false dilemma and say effects are all individual or all sociological, it is not black and white. Individual choices are choices, but then again, they are deeply influenced by our environment. What we perceive as normal -- even if we are wrong about how normal something is -- has an incredible effect on what we belief, what we do, and how we react. We can choose to deviate from social norms, but it is true -- and this is the first axiom of advertising -- that there is an incredible pull from perceived normality, both internal and external. From the youngest ages, those who are different are picked on, there is incredible pressure to conform and this is internalized. When the environment around us changes, we absorb the change. Look at fashion, especially decades old fashion. you look at the pictures and think, "How could you possibly think it was a good idea to look like that?"

If we want to make this a better world, we need to take the social aspects seriously. But, of course, the fear is that it will only to lead to more "Churchillings":
It also might mean that the way to avoid becoming fat is to avoid having fat friends.

That is not the message they meant to convey, say the study investigators, Christakis and his colleague James Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego. You don't want to lose a friend who becomes obese, Christakis said. Friends are good for your overall health, he explains.

So why not make friends with a thin person, he suggests, and let the thin person's behavior influence you and your obese friend?

That answer does not satisfy obesity researchers like Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

"I think there's a great risk here in blaming obese people even more for things that are caused by a terrible environment," Brownell said.
Instead of understanding the role of the intense power of normalizing obesity, obese people will be picked out as "the cause" and deserving of blame for the unhealthiness of others. The danger is that we will again shrink down the scope of discussion to "personal responsibility" and miss the point. So there is a lesson to be taken away from these two episodes about how to think about complex problems. That being said, never ever refer to those suffering from obesity as "big fat Eichmanns." Trust me, the results ain't gonna be pretty.