The Tragedy of Ward Churchill
March 4, 2005
I saw Ward Churchill speak on March 1 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which bravely (and that shouldn’t need to be said in America) let him come, despite denunciations by the rightwing and by members of the Wisconsin state legislature.
The school’s chancellor, Jack Miller, showed real backbone.
"It is still my belief that the academy is at its best when it functions as a place for the free exchange of ideas," he said on stage before Churchill spoke. "I do not share the fear of words apparently becoming more prevalent in our society."
Churchill spoke for more than an hour, and at the end, he got a partial standing ovation.
And that’s pretty much how I felt. Half of what he said I wholeheartedly supported, and the other half I vehemently opposed.
His critique of U.S. foreign policy and of the bloodied roots of this country—slavery and the genocide of Native Americans—was right on target.
His insistence that every person, whether a U.S. citizen or someone in the Third World, deserves equal treatment and respect was obviously unassailable, as was his claim that the United States should not be able to kill with impunity.
He shook people up and made them look at the world from a different perspective, and that’s all to the good.
But the tragedy of Ward Churchill is that he tarnished his message with inflammatory language, shoddy arguments, and slippery prescriptions.
And so he makes an easy target for those in this country who want to attack the left, and who disdain free speech, and who disrespect academic freedom.
II. Churchill’s opening
Churchill came on, and after about five minutes of drumming with five other men, he walked up to the microphone and quickly ridiculed the media for the controversy he’s become embroiled in.
"Isn’t this amazing?" he said, referring to all the media in attendance. "I do 40 gigs a year" about how Native peoples have been brutalized in the United States, and the media doesn’t care about that, he said. But now there is a "circus," he said, all because of that "famous phrase": the little Eichmanns.
He defended not only his own First Amendment rights, but those of the students, as well.
"When they deny me the right to speak, they deny you the right to hear," he said. "It’s your academic freedom" that’s at stake.
He denounced "the Bill O’Reillys of the world," and he said that the attack against him is politically motivated, part of an agenda set by Newt Gringrich and Lynne Cheney, and that agenda is to restrict points of view that are available to the public.
Then he launched into a defense of his essay " ‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," focusing on his critique of U.S. history and foreign policy.
He said his article was an "attempt to explain what had happened" on 9/11. The media were instantly spinning the attack as senseless, he noted, "but it occurred to me that this was not happening by accident."
Writing just hours after the attack, Churchill said he believed, as Malcolm X had said right after JFK was assassinated, that the "chickens were coming home to roost," that the ghosts of U.S. policies had come back to haunt America.
And in his speech he listed those ghosts, beginning with the 500,000 Iraqi children killed by economic sanctions in Iraq, which Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN, said was worth the price. He then mentioned the Palestinians, who have had their land taken by the Israelis and who have had to live under degrading and destructive occupation for three decades.
"It occurred to me that someone might be upset about that," he said. And he added that these first two items on his list were mentioned by Al Qaeda itself.
"If you treat any people the way the Iraqis or the Palestinians were treated . . . to the point of absolute dehumanization," he said, people are "going to lash out in violent terrorism."
Then he returned to his list, citing:the Panamanians buried to death when George Sr. invaded there;
U.S. interventions in Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador;
the quarter million Mayans killed in Guatemala by a government the US put in power there;
the 3.2 million Indochinese the United States killed during the Vietnam War;
the innocent Koreans killed at No Gun Ri;
the 180,000 Japanese civilians incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the thousands more in the firebombing of Tokyo;
the 600,000 to 1.5 million killed in the Philippines by the Americans after they seized the colony from Spain;
all the victims of slavery in America;
and the genocide of the Native Americans.
Churchill talked of how white volunteers in colonial New York went on a mission to slaughter Indians. They succeeded so well that they brought heads back to New Amsterdam, where people "celebrated with a game of kickball and used the heads of the Indians as the ball."
"Now that’s the legacy that I thought might have been attending" on 9/11, he said.
The ghosts of all these victims of U.S. policy were coming back to haunt us, he said. It was a kind of bad karma, he said (though oddly in the question and answer period later he denied using the word "karma," saying it belonged to another cultural tradition).
"The American people have a sense of divine entitlement, of absolute impunity: It’s done to them but how dare they do that to us?"
That someone attacked the United States was "natural and inevitable," like a glacier or a tornado, he said.
And he predicted more to come.
"The machinery of carnage continues to consume ever more brown-skinned others, but for Americans, the other doesn’t count," he said. "If that’s your attitude, you’re going to generate a response, naturally, inevitably, and if nothing changes, permanently."
Or, as he put it later in his talk, "This is kick off on a long game."
To prevent another attack, he said, the United States should not follow Bush, who has put up "tiger cages in Guantanamo, licensed torture, invaded two countries, and repealed the rights of most Americans."
Instead, Churchill made "a really radical proposal." He said the United States should "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
While the historical accounting was nothing exceptional (Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn have done similar accounting), Churchill made the point forcefully.
And that the United States should stop killing innocent people there should be no doubt.
But the more I heard him talk, and the more I thought about the words of his essay, the more uncomfortable I became.
III. Justifying Terror, Then Denying It
In his speech, he strenuously denied that he justified the attacks of 9/11 in his essay.
"I never used the word ‘justify.’ I didn’t justify anything," he said.
But his essay did represent a kind of justification for the attacks. Hell, the very subtitle is "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens."
Take a look.
"The most that can honestly be said of those involved on September 11 is that they finally responded in kind to some of what this country has dispensed to their people as a matter of course," he wrote. "That they waited so long to do so is, notwithstanding the 1993 action at the WTC, more than anything a testament to their patience and restraint."
Now "restraint" is not a pleasant word to attach in this context.
Nor is it pleasant that he referred in his piece to "the gallant sacrifices of the combat teams" that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He ends the article first by quoting Lawrence Fishburn in The Cotton Club, saying, "You’ve got to learn that when you push people around, some people push back."
Then Churchill writes:"As they should.
"As they must.
"And as they undoubtedly will.
"There is justice in such symmetry."
Hard to deny that he is calling 9/11 justified.
By imputing grand motives to the attackers, Churchill woefully misidentified them in his piece.
"Nor were they ‘fanatics’ devoted to ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ " he wrote. ". . . It’s pretty obvious at this point that they were secular activists."
Osama bin Laden’s terrorists did not turn out to be the kind of avengers Churchill supposed. They were hardly secular. Try anti-democratic, theocratic, and misogynistic. Churchill failed to grasp that because he seemed so taken with the fact Americans were finally getting "a tiny dose of their own medicine," as he put it in his essay.
Toward the end, he wrote:"The desire to pummel the helpless runs rabid as ever.
"Only this time it’s different.
"[This] time the helpless aren’t, or at least are not so, helpless as they were.
"This time, somewhere, perhaps in an Afghani mountain cave, possibly in a Brooklyn basement, maybe another local altogether—but somewhere, all the same—there’s a grim-visaged (wo)man wearing a Clint Eastwood smile.
"‘Go ahead, punks,’ s/he’s saying, ‘Make my day.’
"And when they do, when they launch these airstrikes abroad—or maybe a little later; it will be at a time conforming to the ‘terrorists’ own schedule, and at a place of their choosing—the next more intensive dose of medicine administered here ‘at home.’
"Of what will it consist this time? Anthrax? Mustard gas? Sarin? A tactical nuclear device?
"That, too, is their choice to make."
Is any means they choose justifiable?
III. Ends and Means
Churchill has a serious ends/means problem.
And it reappeared in his Wisconsin talk.
Asked by one of the students in the audience at Whitewater about what citizens should do to change U.S. policy, Churchill said that people need to oppose the government "by whatever means ultimately are effective."
He did not seem to care whether the means are moral or not.
He said people need to force a "direct confrontation with power," and in a throwback to the mad militance of the late 1960s, he said, "the proliferation of swat teams is an answer itself."
He does seem to have a fascination with violence of the vigilante variety. In his essay, he wrote that 9/11 could serve as "a kind of ‘reality therapy’ approach, designed to afford the American people a chance to finally ‘do the right thing’ on their own, without further coaxing. Were the opportunity acted upon in some reasonably good faith fashion—a sufficiently large number of Americans rising up and doing whatever is necessary to force an immediate lifting of the sanctions on Iraq, for instance, or maybe hanging a few of America’s abundant supply of major war criminals (Henry Kissinger comes quickly to mind, as do Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, and George the Elder)—there is every reason to expect that military operations against the US on its domestic front would be immediately suspended."
That is both foolishly naïve and utterly reprehensible.
IV. "Little Eichmanns"
In his speech, when he came, finally, to defending his "Little Eichmanns" phrase, Churchill was neither skillful nor comforting.
He took pains, at first, to distinguish between those he meant to single out as "Little Eichmanns" and those he did not mean to implicate. He never included "the janitors, food-service workers, random passersby, or the 18-month-old" who died on 9/11 as part of the "Little Eichmanns," he said.
His essay, however, does not draw explicit distinctions, though the very idea of drawing distinctions between those in the towers who Churchill claims were innocent civilians and those who were somehow legitimate targets is repulsive to me.
Here’s what he wrote: "As to those in the World Trade Center. . . . Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed the technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire."
In his essay, he seems to assume that everyone killed in the towers was part of "the technocratic corps."
And to compare this "technocratic corps" to Eichmann is outlandish and grotesque.
People working in the towers, even those in the suites who move vast sums of money around, were in no way comparable to Eichmann. They were not personally helping to mastermind and oversee mass slaughter. They did not make the economic sanctions policy on Iraq. Their responsibility for any deaths caused by immoral policies of the U.S. government is extremely remote, indirect, and attenuated, at best.
Here are the cold words from his essay, and notice the disdain he heaps upon the victims who have just been incinerated in the towers.
"To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in—and in many cases excelling at—it was because of their absolute refusal to see," he wrote. "More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind, and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the Twin Towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it."
The phrase "braying . . . into their cell phones," the sneer at their "power lunches," marks a very deep low on the depth chart of callousness.
And that Churchill saw no "other way" to punish the people in the towers commensurate with "their participation" in the crimes of U.S. policy comes awfully close again to justifying the attack.
Just as, in his article, he exaggerated the culpability of those in the Twin Towers, in his speech, he minimized the culpability of Eichmann.
"Eichmann, who the hell was Eichmann?" he asked the audience. He said he was using Eichmann the way Hannah Arendt did, to illustrate the "banality of evil."
Then he said, "Not that he killed anyone," especially not any Jews. "He sat in a bureau in Berlin." Eichmann arranged the train schedules so Jews would arrive on time at the concentration camps, Churchill said, and Eichmann made sure the deliveries of Zyklon B for the gas chambers got there, and that the trains returned full of the gold from the extracted teeth of the concentration camp inmates.
"He was a nondescript bureaucrat who performed his job proficiently," he said.
Now to say that Eichmann didn’t kill anyone (evidently, Churchill would need photos of Eichmann strangling Jews with his own bare hands or shoving them into ovens) when he was responsible for seeing that millions of Jews went to the camps where they would be killed is to give Eichmann an enormous pass.
Another defense Churchill tried was to stress the adjective "little" in the notorious phrase. He wasn’t calling the capitalists in the Twin Towers Eichmann; they weren’t as responsible as he was. They were "lesser Eichmanns, little Eichmanns." He compared them to the railway conductor who knew where the passengers on the trains were going and what was happening to them there and to the Zyclon B manufacturer, who knew the quantities he was producing could not be for regular industrial use.
Churchill claimed that Eichmann "didn’t even believe in the policy" of the Nazis. But according to the Colombia Encyclopedia, he was a zealous Nazi and was promoted in 1939 to be "chief of the Gestapo’s Jewish section. "Eichmann promoted the use of gas chambers for mass extermination of Jews in concentration camps, and he oversaw the maltreatment, deportation, and murder of millions of Jews in World War II," the encyclopedia says.
Churchill almost made Eichmann out to be a Renaissance man. "He knew Hebrew," said Churchill. "He knew more about Judaism than a lot of Jews."
That, too, is deeply offensive.
And it is obscene to minimize Eichmann’s culpability, no matter how "banal" his personality may have been.
And it is obscene to make parallels between someone who consciously planned and eagerly implemented a policy of genocide on the one side, and on the other, investment bankers who had no direct role in planning or implementing U.S. policy, whether genocidal or not.
He said, in his speech, that the "technocrats" in the Twin Towers had "full knowledge of the mass immiseration and death of millions of others" that their work was causing. That’s even harsher than in his essay, where he said they may have been ignorant, but ignorance is no excuse.
V. Who Is Culpable?
Churchill has a bad habit of blurring colorations of culpability.
In response to questions at the end, Churchill in essence called all Americans killers. He said he was asked on Clear Channel recently whether he had ever killed anybody. And he said he responded, yes, he served in Vietnam and killed people there, and yes, he paid taxes, and "those tax dollars have translated into mass death abroad."
In the question period, a student rose and asked, "As an American citizen, what steps can I take . . . to change this karmic cycle and to stop this terrorism. What can I do?"
"If you want to end the hatred towards the US, stop killing other people’s babies," Churchill said.
"I’m not," the student responded.
"Yes, you are," Churchill answered. "We all are."
But to call everyone in America a killer is to put those who are directly responsible for immoral acts in the same dock with every lowly taxpayer. Here Churchill dives straight into the waters of collective punishment.
And what a hideous double conclusion to draw: Eichmann didn’t kill anybody, but we are all murderers.
The crudeness of Churchill’s arguments, the sloppiness of his language, the callousness of his presentation marred the essential truth he articulated: that "those brown babies over there count just as much as those white babies over here," and that, we have an obligation to demand that our government’s policies reflect this.
Both in his speech and in his essay, Churchill links this moral imperative to a security imperative: "When that becomes the sensibility in the classroom and the media, we will have a chance at preventing another 9/11," he told his Wisconsin audience.
That was his refrain.
While I agree that we would be a lot safer that way, I also recognize there are other dangerous forces that fuel terrorism, including irredentist fundamentalism and wounded nationalism. For Churchill, it’s all on us.
VI. Churchill as Tar Baby
Now Ward Churchill has become a tar baby of the right. His free speech rights and academic freedom are shamefully under fire. And not only his. The free speech rights and academic freedom of many dissenters are also on the line. (Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature introduced a bill calling on the university to cancel his speech and "to conduct a review of hiring and tenure procedures to determine if appropriate policies exist to prevent the hiring of and, if necessary, the timely dismissal of, faculty failing to meet honorable academic standards of conduct expected by students, parents, and taxpayers." This language was stricken from the final bill, which denounced his "anti-American" language.)
Churchill has had to deal with dozens of death threats and the vilest expressions of racism.
"Hey, Shitting Bull, how are you and squaw going to live through the night?" someone told him in a message recently, he said at his speech.
He said another person wrote: "Chivington should have finished the job."
Churchill asked people if they knew who Chivington was, and then he explained: Chivington was the cavalry colonel who led the massacre in November 1864 against Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado. His troops killed 600 Indians, two thirds of whom were women and children. Churchill reminded the audience that Chivington infamously told his troops, "Remember boys, kill all, big and little. Nits make lice."
Churchill properly called this a representative of the "absolute, drooling, exterminationalist mentality" that Native Americans have had to deal with for centuries here.
I worry about Ward Churchill’s safety.
I worry about his job.
I worry about free speech and academic freedom in today’s America.
And, after having a few days to reflect on Churchill’s speech and to reread his essay a couple of times, most of all I’m sad.
Sad that he used some of the words and the arguments that he did.
Sad that they get in the way of a serious critique of U.S. history and foreign policy.
Sad that they are used as a club to bloody the left with.
But maybe his rhetoric, and the controversy surrounding it, has made some Americans—especially students—question, perhaps for the first time, the role of the U.S. government abroad and our responsibilities as citizens at home to ensure that our officials obey the law and follow a moral course.
In any event, free speech means you should not be afraid of words.
Free speech means you can be provocative and offensive.
Free speech means you don’t have to back down when it’s the sensible or safe thing to do.
Free speech means you can say, as Ward Churchill did, toward the end of the speech, "I object to the rules."