Thursday, June 22, 2006


Many deep thinkers, including me (shut up), have argued that Ward Churchill's academic fraud is not an isolated incident, but rather a representative example of the ideologically corrupted scholarship done by ethnic-studies faculty in general and accepted all too blithely by the academic community as a whole.

This can be found right in the Churchill committee's own investigative report (pdf), which employs extremely dubious historiography to criticize Churchill's now-famous claim that the U.S. Army gave smallpox-"infested" blankets to the Mandan Indians in 1837.

In making this claim, the committee said, Churchill misrepresented Mandan oral tradition. They were right about that, of course. Unfortunately, their explanations of how they themselves came to accept (sort of) real Mandan traditions about the epidemic use exactly the kind of assumptions Churchill uses to stoke his Rousseauian fantasies. Here, for example, is the committee's take on "truth" in history (p. 46):

The Committee recognizes the validity of many ways of knowing about the past. . . . Multiple perspectives, providing different vantage points about a given set of events, enhance our ability to understand the complexity of the past. Thus the oral traditon of a tribe involved in a previous event may force reconsideration of established acounts derived exclusively from written documentation. . . .The oral traditions of the Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, and Sioux peoples, those closest to the events at Fort Clark, likewise contain multiple and conflicting assessments. We believe that all kinds of sources have value; we privilege none.

How did the committee's belief that they could avoid "privileging" one truth over another work out in practice? Here they are accepting (sort of) "an apparently Mandan perspective" on the smallpox epidemic found in a speech

said to have been given by Chief Four Bears as he was dying of smallpox in 1837. The text of the speech was preserved together with [a racist jerk going under the name of] Chardon's journal and was later inserted into the appropriate chronological place by the editor of the published volume. Although the authenticity of the speech has been questioned, it seems possible that Four Bears did give such a speech (though perhaps not on the day of his death) and that Chardon was told about it by someone who spoke both Mandan and either French or English. While Four Bears' speech was certainly mediated--translated and transcribed by someone other than its nominal author--it may provide a generally accurate representation of his sentiments. A descendant of Four Bears recited his statement in full in a conversation around 2000 and accepted it as reliable.

Yep. Fake but accurate.

How should oral traditions be judged?

A visit to Wikipedia finds an apparently non-moronic historian going under the name Gilbert Garraghan setting forth minimum historiographical standards for oral traditions. The biggies:

The tradition should be supported by an unbroken series of witnesses, reaching from the immediate and first reporter of the fact to the living mediate witness from whom we take it up, or to the one who was the first to commit it to writing.

There should be several parallel and independent series of witnesses testifying to the fact in question.
Other requirements:
The tradition must report a public event of importance, such as would necessarily be known directly to a great number of persons.

The tradition must have been generally believed, at least for a definite period of time.

During that definite period it must have gone without protest, even from persons interested in denying it.

The tradition must be one of relatively limited duration. (Elsewhere, Garraghan suggests a maximum limit of 150 years, at least in cultures that excel in oral remembrance.)

The critical spirit must have been sufficiently developed while the tradition lasted, and the necessary means of critical investigation must have been at hand.

Critical-minded persons who would surely have challenged the tradition — had they considered it false — must have made no such challenge.
Clearly the committee's rationale for accepting the Mandan oral tradition falls short of several of these requirements: there's no unbroken chain of witnesses; the smallpox epidemic is well over 150 years old (and who can say whether the Mandan "excel in oral remembrance," anyway?); and the tradition has been contested by a number of "critical-minded" people. Still, that tradition must be given at least equal weight with all the other "truths" the committee says are knocking around Fort Clark.

An Aboriginal oral tradition

This almost uncritical acceptance of Mandan oral tradition wouldn't fly with Keith Windschuttle, the Australian historian whose examination of Aboriginal oral traditions has made him an extreme skeptic of all such traditions. Windschuttle, whose work should be better known in the U.S., had this to say on the subject in a paper piquantly titled "Doctored evidence and invented incidents in Aboriginal historiography," that he read at the new Australian National Museum of History in December, 2001:

I am well aware that there is often a postmodernist spin put on oral history and ethnic legends. This claims that traditional notions of history have been undermined by recent epistemological critiques, and that all cultures are authentic in their own terms, and that all legends are therefore true for their believers. The advocates of this view often apply it to such worthy cultures as those of ethnic and indigenous minorities, as well as other fashionable political interest groups. They rarely recognise that the same argument confers authenticity on the claims of cultures of which they might not approve, such as those of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Islamic jihadists and other species of political depravity. This rejection of traditional empirical history leads to cultural relativism in which the legends, myths and prejudices of any culture become legitimate. It is a philosophy of anything goes. . . .

Hilariously, Windschuttle proceeds to jump all over the devoutly multi-culti museum crowd, pointing out that the central exhibit in the Aboriginal section of the museum,

a photographic display of the so-called Bells Falls Gorge Massacre near Bathurst in the 1820s, gave credibility to a mythological event for which there was no contemporary evidence. Although it is now claimed as part of ancient Aboriginal tradition, Aboriginal activists only learnt of it from an article about local legends written by a white amateur historian in 1962.
With some exasperation, then, Windschuttle asks:
How many times do we need to learn the same lesson? Old legends and oral history, unless they are corroborated by original documents, are worthless as historical evidence whether told by blacks or whites. Historians who go down this road leave the search for truth behind.
Is it any wonder Australia's "black-armband" historians start twitching when they see Windschuttle shlubbing over the horizon? Their fear is so naked that at the annual confab of the Australian Historical Association in 2004, a motion specifically aimed at Windschuttle called for (as The Australian put it) "a code of ethics that would gag historians from criticising the integrity of their peers in public." Highly instructive. This country is long overdue for its own Windschuttle.

Update: Linked to the wrong CU committee report. Fixed now.

Update II: The Wikipedia historian's name is Garraghan, not Garragher as I had it. Fixed.

Update III: Churchill minion "Glo" makes a pathetic attempt to fisk my argument in the comments to this post at Pirate Ballerina. Worth reading to laugh at his (or her) typically shoddy methods and to watch, awestruck, as the Drunkablog employs a tiny piece of his massive brain to answer his (or her) arguments. Glo is right about one thing, though: I do seek to "undermine" ethnic studies in general.

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