Monday, April 18, 2005

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Ward Churchill and the War On Dissent

I posted the following piece in the early days of the Ward Churchill controversy. I t seems appropriate to post it here:

I have a degree of understanding for what Churchill is going through. For several years I was the public face of a local community group engaged in combating the Ku Klux Klan and other hate-groups in the deep south. As such, I was in position to become intimately aquainted with the tactics the fascist right employs to suppress opposition.

As many people now know, University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill has been targeted by Fox News media hit man, Bill O’Reilly for an essay written in the wake of 9/11 entitled “Some People Push Back: On theJustice of Roosting Chickens”. O’Reilly, who has been having PR problems of his own lately, resurrected this three year old publication to launch a campaign against Churchill’s impending appearance at Hamilton College, a small school of less than 2000 students located in central New York State. After savaging Churchill on his program , O’Reilly urged his audience to pressure Hamilton to withdraw its invitation to Churchill, being careful to cynically advise that they “ Be respectful.”

The predictable result was that Hamilton was besieged by a flood of abusive criticism, including threats of violence against Churchill. By the Monday following O’Reilly’s Friday broadcast, Hamilton had enough, canceling Churchill’s appearance citing its inability to insure his safety. With his usual crass self promotion, O’Reilly seized on this “victory” as proof of his own importance and influence. Meanwhile, Churchill found it expedient to resign his position as the Chair of U.C. Ethnic Studies Dept. He is now the subject of a board of Regents probe into whether he should be fired from his Professorship for his opinions.

I have a degree of understanding for what Churchill is going through. For several years I was the public face of a local community group engaged in combating the Ku Klux Klan and other hate-groups in the deep south. As such, I was in position to become intimately aquainted with the tactics the fascist right employs to suppress opposition. Death threats, delivered by mail and telephone. Attempts to get me fired from my job. Publishing my photograph and personal information in the white-supremacist press in a transparent effort to target me for the attentions of any of the numerous freelance lunatics who populate the far right. This is the preferred methodology of US Fascism now days, since it’s not practicable to simply round up a mob and liquidate opponents, yet.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience. So I have plenty sympathy for anyone who finds themselves on the receiving end of such tactics. There is a word for this method of intimidating free expression through the threat of violence whether overt or implied. It’s called terrorism.

Such assaults not withstanding, the group was able to do great deal of effective work and played an important role in blunting the efforts of the white-supremacists, neo-Nazis and authoritarian Theocrats in our region. One thing we never found it necessary to do was to call for the suppression of their speech. This was a distinction that helped us a great deal in our appeals to public sentiment.

This is a key point. The right to speak one’s mind, rightly or wrongly, is not contingent on the content of that speech. Ward Churchill and his opinions are not the issue. Freedom of Speech and expression is. One need not agree with anything that Churchill has said in order to defend his right to say it.

It’s a good thing for Churchill that this is so, since the essay in question doesn’t succeed either as analysis or as effective propaganda for his perspective. That is, if we understand propaganda as meaning convincing to those who do not already share the same opinion.

The section of Churchill’s essay that has generated the most spleen reads as follows:

“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 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. Recourse to "ignorance" – a derivative, after all, of the word "ignore" – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. 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.”

This followed a section titled “Politics of the Perpetrator Population” in which Churchill indicted all but an “infinitesimally small segment of the body politic” as complicit in the U.S. government’s brutal policies against Iraq and the holocaust inflicted on the Iraqi population as a result. This was after drawing an explicit parallel between the fate of the “Good Germans” of Nazi Germany and the “Good Americans” of the present. He followed up the “little Eichmanns” comparison by describing the 9/11 hijackers as “secular activists” and suggesting that they could be described as pursuing a “humanitarian strategy.”

Given the looseness of language used by Professor Churchill and the context, it’s easy to see how one would get the impression that he was saying that everyone at the twin towers got what they deserved. Indeed, if one believes in the notion of collective responsibility, that whole populations are equally responsible for the actions taken by their military and political elites and are therefore equally deserving of punishment, one could make that argument. It has a certain bloody-minded integrity.

However, Professor Churchill now says he was making no such argument. In a statement released by Churchill he makes the following points:

“Finally, I have never characterized all the September 11 victims as "Nazis." What I said was that the "technocrats of empire" working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of "little Eichmanns." Adolph Eichmann was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide. Similarly, German industrialists were legitimately targeted by the Allies.”

“It should be emphasized that I applied the "little Eichmanns" characterization only to those described as "technicians." Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9-1-1 attack. According to Pentagon logic, were simply part of the collateral damage. Ugly? Yes. Hurtful? Yes. And that's my point. It's no less ugly, painful or dehumanizing a description when applied to Iraqis, Palestinians, or anyone else. If we ourselves do not want to be treated in this fashion, we must refuse to allow others to be similarly devalued and dehumanized in our name.”

The trouble with this clarification is that nowhere in his original essay does Churchill make this distinction explicit. The entire structure of his argument militates against the reader reaching that conclusion independent from the Professor’s late breaking revision. Moreover, the “infrastructure” of the Nazi extermination extended well beyond a technocratic elite represented by Eichmann and included many middle and working class “good Germans” that Churchill previously referenced.

Churchill seems to have some awareness of the equivocal nature of his position. In the same statement he describes the essay as being “stream of consciousness”, a term much abused in defense of sloppy writing. As a paid intellectual Churchill makes his living from writing and publishing. It might help his argument if he were
able to name one or two of the nameless “technicians” that he thinks got their just deserts, assuming that he knows any of their names. I find it hard to give him a pass on this. Fortunately, I don’t have to in order to defend his right to say and write what he pleases. His professional and personal reputation is his own concern.

I think it’s important to admit up front that Professor Churchill is a controversial figure even within radical circles. First, because it is a fact. Second, because it is clear that the attempt to demonize Churchill is part of a larger strategy of demonizing all dissent by pretending that his views are representative of the “left” as a whole.

I won’t rehearse the various criticisms of Churchill that have come from the “left” except to suggest that his critics on the right are likely aware of them already. I think it highly likely that they picked him, in part, for that very reason. All the easier to isolate and pick him off.

The reactionary media, led by Fox News and its camp followers in the press, on Cable, talk radio and the Blogosphere do not act at random. The current electronic lynching of Churchill is simply the opening salvo in the latest campaign to suppress dissent . An attempt, in the wake of Bush’s narrow electoral win , to reinstate the post 9/11 atmosphere of hysteria and intimidation. The same mob psychology that allowed the current regime in Washington to steamroll its way into Iraq over the broken bodies of thousands of US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis. Bill O’Reilly is doing his part to forward the agenda. Having feasted on Ward Churchill, he has already moved on to a new victim; M. Shalid Alam, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. Who’s next?

It should be understood that Churchill was not chosen at random. He was chosen specifically in hopes of provoking an uncritical defense that would allow the rightists to confuse the issue. In point of fact, Churchill’s writings, opinions and personal history are irrelevant to this fight. The enemies of free speech on the right would like nothing better than to see their opponents rally around Churchill, the tenured provocateur, rather than the principles of free expression. That was their goal in targeting Churchill in the first place. If the battle is fought on the basis of the content of Churchill’s essay, the cause of free dissent and freedom of speech will lose.

Unfortunately, it appears that some folks are more than willing to blunder into the trap that has been prepared for them. I recently saw a defense of Churchill that bore the headline “Genocide Continues Against Indigenous Dissenters.” As disgusting as the attacks on Churchill are, they hardly equate with atrocities such as the Sand Creek or Wounded Knee massacres, much less the centuries long, bloody extermination of indigenous peoplesthroughout the Americas. The comparison itself cheapens that history and insults its victims.

Besides, it appears that Churchill’s bona fides as an indigenous person are not as well established as some people seem to think. He’s long claimed membership in the Keetoowah Cherokee Band. Turns out his membership is associative, rather than full. A category which is purely honorary and has been extended to friends of the Band such as former President Bill Clinton, according to former Keetoowah leader John Ross who was quoted in the Rocky Mountain Times. According to Ross, the practice of giving such Associate memberships was discontinued in 1994 out of concern that it was being abused. Full membership in the Band requires proof of being 1/4
Cherokee. Churchill has reportedly claimed at various times to be either 3/16 and 1/16 Cherokee.

We ought to remember that “lynch law” isn’t wrong because it leads to the assassination of the of the innocent. It is wrong even if the victim were as guilty as sin. The real issue that should be addressed is not Ward Churchill‘s “ideas” but the role played by Bill O’Reilly who is in no position to be accusing anyone else of inciting terrorism. O’Reilly’s actions make him indistinguishable from the racist demagogues who, having whipped a mob into a murderous frenzy, made sure they were at a safe distance from the lynching tree when their victims were strung up.

Here is where a comparison to Adolph Eichmann would be truly appropriate.


At 2:29 PM, Blogger paulfrommpls said...

What you're missing here is this: Churchill is not a lone speaker of icoclastic ideas. He's a hero of the academic left. His views are not controversial on campus, they're worshipped. Or were, anyway.

Meaning, for one thing, that your good critique of Churchill's piece as not well-argued may well apply to a lot of what comes out of the academic left. If this is what they admire, what are his kin doing on their own?

So the revolt against Churchill is, yes, as you fear, a push-back against the increasingly-divorced-from-sanity academic left. Which is perfectly okay, and in no sense a sign of a turn to fascism. It's a sign of a lively country not afraid to point out any emperor at all who happens to be naked.

You seem to delight in calling the country fascist, so you probably don't agree. I understand; it really is fun to style oneself a rebel against evil.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger paulfrommpls said...

Public visibility and attendant crticism of your side of things does not equate to fascism. An academic is not allowed freedom from criticism; in fact for a guy like Chruchill, the public outrage at his writings themselves is like mother's milk, manna from Heaven.

And he would not be in danger of losing his job if he hadn't lied about his heritage and (evidently) been engaged in serial academic fraud.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger W.B. Reeves said...

What you're missing here is this: Churchill is not a lone speaker of icoclastic ideas. He's a hero of the academic left. His views are not controversial on campus, they're worshipped. Or were, anyway.

Paul, do you have anything to back this up with? On what basis do describe him as a hero of the academic left? Is that an elected position or was he appointed? I don't doubt that you could find instances where other academics may have said something approving about some of his writings but that hardly equates to generalized hero worship.

BTW, please do not falsify the argument. I never described the U.S. as fascist, so describing me as delighting in doing so is a non-sequitur built on fantasy. Unless, of course, you are equating the "fascist Right", as in the Klan, etc., with the U.S. as a whole. I'm sure you didn't intend that.


Post a Comment

<< Home