Truthiness v. Scholarship: Ward Churchill’s Day in Court
Postmodernist epistemology battled empiricism in a Denver courtroom over the past month, and both came away bloodied. The University of Colorado fired Ward Churchill in 2007 for committing repeated acts of research misconduct, including plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, and self-citing articles he’d ghostwritten under other names. Churchill retaliated with a lawsuit, alleging that CU violated his free speech rights by firing him. The court case culminated last week with the jury finding for Churchill, and awarding him one dollar in damages.
CU fired Churchill after three separate faculty committees all unanimously found him guilty of misconduct for fabricating details in his charge of smallpox blanket genocide against the US Army (as well as committing plagiarism and various other research misconduct offenses).
In a story developed across at least six different essays, Churchill claimed that Army officers called a meeting with the Mandan Indians at Fort Clark in 1837, and gave them smallpox blankets taken from an Army smallpox infirmary in St. Louis. When the first Indians became ill, Churchill says that Army doctors told them to “scatter”, and “run for the hills”.
None of Churchill’s sources corroborate his story, and no historian who has studied this episode has ever even mentioned an Army presence within eight hundred miles of Fort Clark – which was a fur trading depot, not a military installation.
Churchill has since abandoned all of the fabricated aspects of his story, while simultaneously claming that he did not fabricate it, because he still feels in his gut that the story is correct.
- Churchill now says that when he indicted “Army officers” for passing out smallpox blankets to the Mandans, he meant to refer to the local Indian agent instead.
- Churchill now admits that he has no evidence that any blankets came from an Army smallpox infirmary in St. Louis. His new story is that genocidal blankets were brought from Baltimore by a disgruntled fur trader.
- Churchill now says that when he indicted “Army doctors” at Fort Clark for violating quarantine in order to deliberately infect more Indians, he meant to refer to fur traders doing so.
- Churchill now holds that when he said that the Mandan tribe had been deliberately infected, he used the word “Mandan” not to refer to the actual Mandan tribe, but instead to refer to all Indian tribes in the Northern Plains, extending across the border into Canada.
In other words, Churchill no longer defends his original indictment of the Army, given that there is absolutely no evidence of Army presence anywhere in the vicinity for hundreds of miles. But he still refuses to concede that his tale of Army genocide is fabricated. Churchill holds that because he had heard stories about the Army giving smallpox blankets to Indians, he is justified in holding the Army accountable for this specific outbreak, and justified in inventing details of blanket distribution by the Army – details that he now admits he cannot substantiate. Churchill’s story still feels right to him, even though he has no evidence whatsoever of Army presence, much less Army involvement.
According to TV’s satirical pundit Stephen Colbert, “truthiness” is something you feel to be correct, regardless of inconvenient facts or reason. Colbert, speaking out of character, says of truthiness:
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. […] Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.
Churchill built his case against CU on the epistemology of truthiness. He argues that the function of Indian Studies is to challenge “the Master Narrative” of standard history. This permits Churchill to view history as a white conspiracy against Indians. Churchill explains away the lack of any evidence demonstrating an Army smallpox blanket genocide by imagining a conspiracy to cover up the crime. More problematic for Churchill’s claim is the complete lack of any genocidal motive on the part of either the Army, or the fur traders who Churchill indicts in his more recent versions of his conspiracy theory.
Churchill’s oppositional stance towards the Master Narrative also gives him license to use data in any way he pleases. For example, he has variously claimed that the 1837 epidemic killed 125,000 and 400,000 Indians. None of the sources that Churchill cites give these estimates. In trial testimony, Churchill argued that he is justified to use either figure, depending on his mood that particular day. Churchill also argued that his sources “suggest” these numbers to him, and that he is therefore justified in citing sources that disagree with him in order to validate his own estimate.
Churchill and one of his witnesses – Michael Yellow Bird, a social work professor at University of Kansas – also claim the right to invent data when it is convenient. They complain that conventional histories of the 1837 epidemic blame Indians. There were two theories advanced by eyewitnesses. One said that an Indian swam aboard the steamboat and stole a blanket from a sick passenger. Another held that three sick Arikara women were passengers, and that they infected their tribe when they disembarked. Churchill and Yellow Bird transform the blanket thief into an “Indian Chief”, and transform the three Arikara women into “prostitutes”. However, none of the primary sources identify the blanket thief as a chief. Nor do they identify the three sick women as prostitutes.
Thus Churchill and Yellow Bird feel no shame in falsifying the Master Narrative in order to condemn it. Yellow Bird even argued that that a "fabricated, made-up account promotes truth." Another Churchill witness, Derrick Bell, pointed to his fictional tale of space aliens capturing African Americans as an example of the enlightening qualities of fabrication.
Perhaps. However, an honest scholar is expected to distinguish his fictions from his facts, and to disclose which is which to his readers. Churchill was fired for presenting his fictions as conclusive, “documentable” facts – even though the sources he cites contradict his assertions.
Eric Cheyfitz, a Cornell English professor, is another Churchill defender who is willing to falsify his sources to mean what he wishes they meant. Cheyfitz relies on Richard Posner’s conception of plagiarism, in order to excuse Churchill. Cheyfitz quotes the following passage from Posner:
The reader has to care about being deceived about authorial identity in order for the deceit to cross the line to fraud and thus constitute plagiarism.
Cheyfitz then says: “If I follow Posner here, in order for the reader ‘to care about being deceived by authorial identity’, the reader must feel that there has been intent to deceive with ‘intent’ implying for gain.” But of course Posner says nothing whatsoever about the author’s intent to profit. For Posner:
Plagiarism is a species of intellectual fraud. It consists of unauthorized copying that the copier claims (whether deliberately or carelessly) is original with him and the claim causes the copier’s audience to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth.
Cheyfitz feels free to imagine that Posner defined plagiary in terms of the author’s intent to gain. But Posner makes plain that he defines plagiary in terms of the reader’s reaction to being deceived. The CU faculty made plain that they objected to Churchill’s deceit, but Cheyfitz dismisses their concerns.
Cheyfitz then falsely states that none of Churchill’s plagiarized essays “were written for the purpose of building an academic career.” In fact, Churchill listed them on his CV, and on his annual faculty report, and sold them in edited collections to his students out of his office.
It would seem from the examples of Yellow Bird and Cheyfitz that unabashed intellectual dishonesty is a prerequisite for supporting Churchill’s claim to innocence. Yellow Bird says that fabrication is acceptable. Cheyfitz says that plagiarism is acceptable so long as you don’t intend to profit – and falsifies his own source in the process.
For Churchill and his postmodernist defenders, facts simply do not matter. Instead, truthiness is the new standard.
"Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie … if you believe it."--George Costanza
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art eckstein - 4/12/2009
Most of my colleagues in my own department of history are on the Left.
I absolutely deny Proyect's sophomoric cynicism: if my colleagues' work was subjected to detailed scrutiny, I deny that we would find (1) false footnotes, (2) rife plagiarism or (3) the simple making up of history (as with Churchill's insane and provably historically false version of the Mandan smallpox epidemic).
My colleagues are on the left; they are not frauds.
Churchill is a fraud. That's the difference. Of course, he's also an ideological writer, and that helped the fraud. That he reached the rank of full professor, and chair of a dept, is a scandal for U of Colorado. By falsely claiming to be an Indian, he was the benficiary of "affirmative action" from a cowardly U of C administration.
Thomas Ford Brown - 4/10/2009
Conspiracy theories, ad hominem and tu quoque arguments seem to be all that Churchill defenders can muster. Why is that, Louis?
Louis Nelson Proyect - 4/9/2009
I imagine that if all other professors' writings were subjected to the same scrutiny as Ward Churchill's, they too would be fired--starting with Thomas Brown, who has some kind of sick obsession with Ward Churchill.
Randll Reese Besch - 4/7/2009
I agree if that is indeed correct in all counts or just those where he or others are found wanting in that particular area of historical scholarship.
Thomas Ford Brown - 4/6/2009
You're alluding to the fuzzy line between speculation and fabrication. The way to stay clear of crossing that line is to disclose when you're speculating, to give an honest mention to other scholars who disagree with you, to honestly represent what they say, and to not invent scenarios and pretend that there is evidence to substantiate your invention.
Churchill violates all of those rules. Nearly everything he writes violates at least one fundamental norm of honest scholarship.
Randll Reese Besch - 4/6/2009
We will be lost in a maelstrom of anti-intellectualism that will destroy the need for a neo-cortex and all that will be left is an idiocracy. Except that history is so complex and convoluted and subject to space limitations and attention deficits and perception restrictions. So we need more than one take on any part of history to do it. However it would help if they hew to a certain mark of scholarship that gives the most reliable means of seeing that history. So in a fashion history is fungible to a point of view. We must keep striving to get it right and complete as possible despite our predilections and points of view.
Benjamin Murphy - 4/6/2009
If only my room had a window, I would be able to see the Pacific Entrance to the Panama Canal through it. My building is in the shadow of the Bridge of the Americas. I can tell you, the Canal is being widened and new locks are being built. Was the Canal finished in 1914? Its still under construction!
Larry DeWitt - 4/6/2009
I think you are absolutely right here in pointing out that Ward Churchill is an example of the postmodern attitude to truth in historical scholarship. This is, indirectly, a similar point to the ones I am making in my essay--although I do not suggest this implies you will agree with my take on this sad saga.
In any case, excellent essay.