In Defense of Ward Churchill
February 12, 2005
Ward Churchill is under attack.
But it’s not about him.
It’s about free speech and academic freedom.
And it’s about the ability to criticize U.S. foreign policy in the context of 9/11.
As you’ve probably heard, Ward Churchill is a professor at the University of Colorado who wrote some regrettable words in an essay after 9/11, comparing what he called “the technicians” in the World Trade Center to “Little Eichmanns.” That unfortunate comparison was outrageous and insensitive, and I wish he hadn’t made it.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have the right to make it.
He has the right that all Americans have: the right of free speech.
And he has the right that all tenured faculty have: the right to express themselves and their ideas freely so that in the free exchange of ideas, truth will eventually win out.
Now, more than three years after his essay, the snarlers and growlers of the right have come after Churchill, led by Bill O’Reilly and the editors of The Wall Street Journal.
Churchill has received many death threats, his car has been vandalized with swastikas, a Denver talk show host said he should be executed for treason, and now Churchill’s job is on the line.
The Board of Regents is undertaking a 30-day review of all of Churchill’s writings and statements.
The governor of Colorado has called for his dismissal. “No one wants to infringe on Mr. Churchill’s right to express himself,” Governor Bill Owens wrote on February 1 in an Orwellian throat-clearing. But then he got the muzzle out. “We are not compelled to accept his pro-terrorist views at state taxpayer subsidy nor under the banner of the University of Colorado. Ward Churchill besmirches the university. . . . Mr. Churchill’s views are not simply anti-American. They are at odds with simple decency, and antagonistic to the beliefs and conduct of civilized people around the world.”
The Colorado House of Representatives on February 2 said his essay “strikes an evil and inflammatory blow against America’s healing process.”
I have read Churchill’s offending essay, “ ‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” (To read it and Ward Churchill’s response to the controversy, go to www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/s11/churchill.html.)
And there is much in there that offends me: his indelicate and imprudent and historically inaccurate comparisons to Nazi Germany, his callousness to those who lost their lives on 9/11, his romanticized treatment of the terrorists and their motives on 9/11, his lack of appreciation for the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and his disdain for pacifists.
But my strong disagreements with Churchill are beside the point. As are Bill O’Reilly’s or the editors’ of the Wall Street Journal or the regents’ of the University of Colorado or Governor Owens’s.
Ward Churchill has the right to express himself freely.
And his method of writing and speaking and teaching is to shake people up, to provoke a reaction, so that people will reexamine their beliefs. This provocative style may have the opposite effect, sparking emotional reactions and stiffening psychological defenses, but he’s entitled to his speaking and teaching style.
“I go for the gut,” he explained to the Boulder Weekly on February 10. “That’s my speaking strategy. I go for the gut to provoke a response.”
He’s succeeded this time.
And now he’s in trouble for it.
He rightly identifies the attack on him “explicitly as political repression,” adding: “This is a book-burning exercise. It’s a stifling of political discourse.” And he believes he is but the first of many. “I’m the kick-off. . . . It’s the opening round of a general purge of the academy of people who say things they find to be politically unacceptable.”
We’ve been down this ugly road before.
We need to defend Ward Churchill.
We need to defend free speech.
We need to defend academic freedom.
And we need to defend the right to criticize the U.S. empire.
For the attack on Churchill is an attack also on anyone who dares to question the myth of American imperial innocence.
That was at the very heart of Churchill’s essay. And he is right about the American people’s unblissful, immoral ignorance of, or complicity with, the crimes that our government has committed since its very founding, crimes that have killed innocent people in the tens of millions. Churchill, a Native American professor, knows a thing or two about those crimes.
Churchill delineates those crimes and puts 9/11 on the scale with those crimes. And there is nothing wrong with that, though the Governor of Colorado assailed him as “anti-American” for doing so.
And Churchill warned in his essay that if the United States doesn’t change its policies, it can expect more attacks. The age of impunity is over, he said. And Americans don’t want to hear that.
“The bottom line of my argument is that the best and perhaps only way to prevent 9/11-style attacks on the U.S. is for American citizens to compel their government to comply with the rule of law,” Churchill wrote on January 31.
Everyone who values free speech, everyone who respects academic freedom, everyone who wants U.S. foreign policy to finally obey international law must come to the defense of Ward Churchill.