9.2.05

ALLOCATING AWARENESS AMONG COMPETING ATROCITIES. Economics is everywhere, even in a discussion of the remarks Northern Illinois University's adjunct Professor Myron Kuropas made in his online column. I have had the opportunity to read the two columns, and agree with the position of the University. In neither column did Mr Kuropas exploit his stature as a faculty member or as a Littlejohn School teacher to advocate a position outside his area of expertise in those callings. The editorial board at the Northern Star comes to a sensible conclusion.

As uncomfortable as it is to confront, a public conversation on the issue is valuable. Discussion sheds light on how the Holocaust continues to be interpreted.

Inflammatory speech will always exist. It is society’s examination of it that determines if the speech is completely useless or if we can learn from it.

In an interview with the DeKalb Chronicle, Mr Kuropas observes,
"I regret this very much," he said of the media attention he's received. "I don't regret writing what I wrote. ... On occasion I can be a little strident. Perhaps some of my stridency should have been tempered."
Perhaps one would have reason for concern about the internal structure of any term papers students produced under Mr Kuropas's supervision based on the internal logic of his columns, but the conversation in which he is participating has an interesting twist.

Ukraine suffered in the 20th Century under the Soviet yoke and during the Nazi occupation. Ukrainian activists would like museums devoted to the Holocaust to pay more attention to other instances of mass death organized by government powers. In the earlier of the two columns, dated 5 September 1999, Mr Kuropas comments on Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life (details or compare prices), in which Mr Novick uses the phrase, "Jews were intent on permanent possession of the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics." The Amazon review goes on to note that Mr Novick asks the somewhat more pertinent question, why a national Holocaust memorial museum but as of yet no memorial to chattel slavery? So how does one allocate awareness among competing causes? Knowledge of the Holocaust is useful, as is knowledge of the Middle Passage and of the Famine? But How Much knowledge, and what else gets crowded out.

To me the most troubling part of Mr Kuropas's first column is his attempt to secure a stronger victim status for Ukrainians relative to Jews. That neither brings back the dead nor engages people in a conversation over the reasons for government-organized mass death, the real heart of the matter. There is neither Holocaust denial nor libel against Jews in the column.

The second column, dated 20 August 2000, comments on Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry (details or compare prices), a work that documents Israeli exploitation of the Holocaust as a way of keeping the United States allied after the Six Day War. What damages Mr Kuropas's commentary on the book is that the final seven sentences (the controversial "big money" passage) are non sequiturs. Had he stopped by calling out defenders of inaccurate if polemically appealing memoirs, one of Professor Finkelstein's lines of research, as besmirching the memory of all those killed by state action, his argument would have held more force.

In doing the research for this post, I found another opportunity cost argument in which an activist with a case for greater awareness of past atrocities raised the Holocaust-crowds-our-story-out argument. The activist: controversial Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill. Ace of Spades, who pointed to the story, notes that Professor Churchill's A Little Matter of Genocide (details only; he's PNGd at Price Compare) suggests Holocaust awareness crowds out the behavior of the European powers toward Native Americans as well as obscures Israel's behavior in the occupied territories.

Ultimately, then, is the debate over Mr Kuropas's policy advocacy, and Professor Churchill's policy advocacy, one of establishing some core principles for evaluating the behavior of governments that systematically kill off inconvenient residents, rather than over whether the behaviors existed? There appears to be no disagreement about the existence of specific policies aimed at eliminating Jews, Ukrainians, and Native Americans, or at enslaving Africans. That turns the debate into an economics problem: what is the equilibrium level of conceptual development -- a theory of atrocity, if you will -- and which examples make the most sense to include, and in what detail?

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