Ward Churchill, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the latest target of right-wingers trying to force American universities to better serve conservative and corporate interests. Churchill’s characteristically undiplomatic language in an essay he wrote shortly after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center makes it easy for his critics to win public support for clamping down not just on this professor’s radical activism but on every other left-oriented academic. The supposed focus on Churchill himself — his specific word choices, his academic credentials, his personal background — masks the right’s broader effort to rid higher education of anyone who rejects mainstream conventionalisms.
My interest in this issue has a personal component. I began teaching at Sangamon State University in Illinois in 1988, where Ward Churchill received his BA and MA degrees in communication more than a decade earlier. Critics searching the Web for whatever dirt they could find or manufacture about Churchill soon found an article I wrote with fellow professor Ron Sakolsky. “From ‘Radical University’ to Handmaiden of the Corporate State” described the forced transition from SSU’s early years as an exciting alternative to traditional higher education to the corporate-friendly University of Illinois at Springfield it has now become. That article — now linked to by enough conservative bloggers to make it the first Google hit when searching for Sangamon State — brought thousands of visitors to my site in February. The 1,847 site visits on February 10 numbered four or five times my site’s more usual tranquil pace.
The article on my site is the third version. The first version I wrote in 1994 for RadPsyNews, a newsletter of the Radical Psychology Network, which I co-founded a year earlier (“‘Radical University’ Celebrates 25th Year and Dies”). Ron and I later expanded that version for the magazine Radical Teacher. We updated the piece again in 2000 for Teachers for a Democratic Culture, which itself came about in response to earlier right-wing attacks on academia. TDC and RadPsyNet both seem to be stagnating a bit, but Radical Teacher remains a valuable resource for teachers who want not only to find classroom resources but to help fight the kind of assault now aimed at Ward Churchill.
Churchill’s primary linguistic excess was the mention of Eichmann, in the middle of his long essay, when he referred to some of the World Trade Center victims:
They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. … 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. 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.
Robert Jensen offers the best analysis I’ve read, agreeing with Churchill’s main argument about America’s long murderous history while offering a critique-in-solidarity of some of Churchill’s specifics:
Let me be clear: … I am not asking Churchill to back down. Nor am I suggesting he should let go of his anger, an aspect of his intellectual and political profile that I have long admired. When Churchill sees injustice in the world, he does not react as a cold, dispassionate scholar hidden away in a protected office but as a human being outraged by the injustice who wants it to end. There are too few scholars like Churchill, who dedicate their work and lives to ending the suffering that injustice brings. His 9/11 essay conveys that anger, and whatever the differences in interpretation I’ve outlined here, I cannot disagree with, nor discount, his anger. I remember feeling a similar anger that day, mixed with the shock and sadness. And the more I learn about the world, the more I feel it. None of us should let go of that anger just because others are scared of it.
The more personal right-wing attacks on Churchill seem silly to me. Whether his SSU master’s degree qualified him to be chair of the Colorado Ethnic Studies Department was a matter for his academic peers and university administrators to decide. Calls for the state legislature to rewrite the rules of tenure and promotion are little more than subterfuge, seeking to eliminate not just Ward Churchill but every other present and future professor who speaks out against American Empire. Similarly beside the point is all the blogging about whether Churchill is really an American Indian or only masquerading as one. Even if Churchill exaggerates his Indianness — I have no way of knowing, and beyond the level of gossip I don’t really care — harping on that possibility serves only to deflect attention from what he actually has to say.
And what he has to say is worth understanding as we move further into the American Century. Over the years I’ve used some of Churchill’s books and articles in my own teaching. His work documents and makes real centuries of oppression and repression, not just of the Native Americans whose cause he identifies with but of indigenous people around the world. The main point of Churchill’s essay, after all, was not the aside about Eichmann but the link between American actions and terrorist response. That link is worth exploring, despite the blinders on those who insist America does no wrong . Churchill’s real sin is trying to remove those blinders, as painful as that can sometimes be.