Blogs > Cliopatria > The Historical Profession and the Churchill Controversy

Mar 16, 2005 12:35 pm

The Historical Profession and the Churchill Controversy

The AHA has recently issued a revised Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. It was approved by the Professional Division, December 9, 2004 and adopted by Council, January 6, 2005.

Part of the statement reads:
In contesting each other’s interpretations, professional historians recognize that the resulting disagreements can deepen and enrich historical understanding by generating new questions, new arguments, and new lines of investigation. This crucial insight underpins some of the most important shared values that define the professional conduct of historians. They believe in vigorous debate, but they also believe in civility. [Emphasis supplied]They rely on their own perspectives as they probe the past for meaning, but they also subject those perspectives to critical scrutiny by testing them against the views of others.

Historians celebrate intellectual communities governed by mutual respect and constructive criticism. The preeminent value of such communities is reasoned discourse--­the continuous colloquy among historians holding diverse points of view who learn from each other as they pursue topics of mutual interest. A commitment to such discourse--balancing fair and honest criticism with tolerance and openness to different ideas--­makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge.

This being the case, it is worth repeating that a great many dilemmas associated with the professional practice of history can be resolved by returning to the core values that the preceding paragraphs have sought to sketch. Historians should practice their craft with integrity. They should honor the historical record. They should document their sources. They should acknowledge their debts to the work of other scholars. They should respect and welcome divergent points of view even as they argue and subject those views to critical scrutiny. They should remember that our collective enterprise depends on mutual trust. And they should never betray that trust.
Much of the statement appears to have been written in response to the Joe Ellis controversy and certain famous episiodes of plagiarism, and the statement may need to be revised a bit in light of the Ward Churchill controversy. Even so, the phrases I have bold-faced do seem to speak to aspects of our espoused professional culture that seem relevant to the Ward Churchill matter.

I want to suggest, however, that it is hard to find much evidence to support the idea that prior to the Hamilton College flap in January 2005, any historians, much less enough to be representative of the profession, took issue with Churchill's essay, "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" or with its final version which was published last year by AK Press in Oakland, Calif. as On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. The online essay was written before it was known who had struck the Twin Towers and Pentagon on 9/11. The final version, although published three years later, barely takes into account the wealth of info on Al Qaeda and its motivations that had come to light by then, nor does it improve significantly in documenting its contention that the World Trade Center"technocrats" were engaged--knowingly, he wants to argue--in genocidal projects.

I got some flak from the political right for trying to take Churchill's essay seriously, if only to confirm what lousy scholarship it really semed to be. I am now trying to take seriously the idea that academic speech must also be responsible speech, that while we must respect free speech we have an obligation as a profession to distance ourselves from those who present slipshod scholarship wearing the mantle of a professional historian.

I do not believe we as a profession need a formal rule on this matter. I believe we can be a very scary bunch of people when we want to be. I have seen for years the way in which our informal professional culture has intimidated:
  • historians who wish to write popular history
  • historians who wish to work in subjects deemed"traditional"
  • historians who spend"too much time" getting the next book done
  • historians who investigate the potential of new media--conceptual" cutting edge" good; technological" cutting edge" bad
I could multiply examples. I will give only one more, which is that since a post that focused on"the role of academicians in helping to create the [Churchill]controversy in the first place," I have received not just public support (and some criticism), but also private email from historians who are--get this!--afraid to speak out publicly on this issue because they are untenured and are afraid it would jeopardize their careers.

If we can exert a chilling effect on the historians above, we can certainly exert a chilling effect on"historians" who undercut the standing of our profession, and undermine the credibility of those who do engage in responsible dialogue.

Most of us, however, simply won't do it. As I said in the earlier post,"Confronted with a piece of shoddy scholarship, the response of most academics is simply to ignore it. We don't discuss it, don't condemn it. We just evaluate it as unworthy of engagement."

In certain instances, however, that is not an adequate response. The refusal to speak out against bad history is bad for the profession. Most historians seem to think that the politicians in Colorado are wrong to be gunning for Churchill's job. That may be so. But it is hard to see how this profession--which does not hesitate to make judgments re student grades, graduate admissions, job hiring, tenure, promotion, etc.--has done much of anything to suggest that it has the interest or will to police its own profession.

I yield to no one in my belief that a) you can express any idea you want; and b) historians should be engaged in public conversations as well as academic ones. But if we expect to be taken seriously as a profession we have a responsibility to confront the Ward Churchills not about their ideas--Churchill's actual critique is merely warmed-over Noam Chomsky, and Chomsky does it so much better--but about the quality of their presentations.

I invite you to join me in a conversation on this matter.
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More Comments:

Mark Grimsley - 3/17/2005

The link takes the reader to an exchange between you and me, but I wonder what others think. As for what I'm driving at, I'm talking about changing the informal culture of the academy so that the default is not to ignore these controversies but to take action, either to write letters to the editor distinguishing between, say, what Churchill does by way of history and what we do--to make our professional standards clear--or to write the leaders of the AHA and OAH and pressure them to make public statements that, again, clarify our standards so that our public image isn't so much the hostage of the right.

As for massive change, I think the profession can get there over time, but it will get there by its individual members changing their own behavior now, in the place and space they happen to occupy. This includes not just blogging but extending the conversation to include one's non-blogging colleagues, which is what I have begun to do at Ohio State.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/16/2005

We've already really had this discussion here and I'm not inclined to start over from scratch. You're talking about changes to our professional practice with which I am entirely sympathetic but which would necessitate either massive investments of new time and energy or dramatic revision of the standards for professional achievement and activities (which would need to be implemented not just by historians, but by tenure/promotion committees throughout the academy). I'm not, as I've said elsewhere, interested in inertia for inertia's sake, but I'd like some hint of how this is supposed to work. Or are you really addressing this question, ultimately, to our non-blogging, non-public-addressing colleagues?

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/16/2005

I agree, Ralph. Actually that was where my thoughts were headed (though I did not finish them). From a relatively objective standpoint, there were major problems with his being hired. How that happened should be scrutinized. If poeple noticed it at the time and did not speak up, we need to know why.

From the standpoint of people who sympathize with his perspective, his hiring has damaged them, too. It would be particularly ironic if he was hired because of that perspective. This was my primary concern in my last post.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/16/2005

Oscar, It isn't necessary here to go back through or adjudicate here a long list of accusations about Churchill, his self-representation, his art, his background, or his published work. Enough is known to know that CU, a major research university, hired and tenured a remarkably weak candidate for a faculty position. He's specialized in calling political attention to himself. No one did that to him. As it turned out, he's not someone who can bare that kind of scrutiny. Don't you think some of the anger at a system that made the kind of mistakes in judgment that CU made is, in some ways, justified? If not, at what levels are calls for accountability justified? And, if we can't make judgments about the quality of a faculty member's work, without bowing and scraping to the "it's political" defense, then I suspect that we've lost all capacity at self-policing.

William L Ramsey - 3/16/2005

Churchill is merely the first target of opportunity, in my view. Most historians have no idea that there is a broad subculture of conservative Americans who view the Academy as a conspiratorial bastion of "pagan" activism and misinformation. My experiences in Idaho bring me into contact with these people on a regular basis, and it is difficult to explain to my colleagues how important it is to engage them in direct public conversation rather than relying on the prestige of the profession. The field of history, moreover, has become one of the main battlefields for conservative activists, not just in the area of slavery but also the American Revolution, etc. Professional historians have an opportunity (and are imminently qualified) to engage a broad sector of the populace in one of the most important debates of our time. Yet most scholars are either unaware of the challenge or, worse, consider themselves above such things.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/16/2005


You're right. It's unfair. Deeply so. I suspect that for the forseeable future we are going to have to deal with a badly slanted playing field.

That makes it all the more important to make sure that the strongest critics are extremely good and well trusted. Oddly enough, many people in the public listen to people who clearly have integrity. Consider the late Paul Welstone and Russ Feingold from my part of the country as political examples.

That reputation can, to some extent, cut against the grain of the media power structure. If, after his 9/11 statement had been made public, further review had found Churchill honest and his scholarship strong, this might not have simply disappeared. Instead some people who had not heard of him might have begun to consider his points more carefully.

Louis N Proyect - 3/16/2005

I am no doctor, just a computer programmer who likes to keep track of the culture wars.

Let me repeat. When a Doris Kearns Goodwin plagiarizes, she barely gets a slap on the wrist. When Ward Churchill plagiarizes, they howl that he be fired. All other things being equal, you have to assume that it is because Churchill is "anti-American" while Goodwin is a bland "Presidential Historian" who is a frequent guest on Don Imus's radio show, the epitome of inside-the-beltway acceptance. The message is clear. You can get away with unprofessionalism if you keep your mouth shut about US imperialism.

Alastair Mackay - 3/16/2005

Dr. Proyect,

Your thoughts on Dr. Grimsley's post are provocative. Though, since the subject is Churchill, I don't know that bringing in the misdeeds of Dershowitz or Goodwin is compelling. Perhaps Bernie Ebbers would complain about the lax treatment that Martha Stewart received, or vice versa?

More generally, I think most reasonable people would hope that "the system" would deal effectively and fairly with alleged misconduct within the (your) profession. What system? As a working definition, "the system" would be the institutions that universities and academic professions have set up to evaluate performance, and identify and sanction misconduct. These would include the College Administration, the College Faculty, promotion and tenure-granting procedures, protocols for complaints, disciplinary and appeal mechanisms, formal peer-reviewers and editors of publications, informal peer review, and professional societies.

To the extent the facts of his case are known (see Dave Kopel's posts at Volokh Conspiracy), Ward Churchill is a canary in the coal mine. He is evidence, to outsiders, that "the system" as it is constituted is unable to deal with blatant, varied, egregious, and long-standing patterns of misconduct.

What makes Churchill's case even more notable is that he and his supporters have, thus far, not made a case that his professional accomplishments are commensurate with his high position. Aside from teaching his courses, his famous outside speaking engagements, and a few publications from the '90s in boutique (not scholarly or peer-reviewed) presses, what does his c.v. advertise? I assume the answer is 'not much,' but would be interested to know if he does have a record of credible scholarly achievement. Google is not all-seeing.

So it seems quite apropos for the general public--including taxpayers, students, and tuition-paying parents-of-students--to ask, "what went wrong?"

For CU to fire Churchill is not to answer this question, but to punt. I would much rather see FOIA requests made to the Dean's Office to fill in the blanks on the hiring, promotion, and tenure-granting process. I would like to know whether Churchill is a one-of-a-kind aberration, or if there is a class of Churchills, at CU and elsewhere, who are effectively exempt from what "the system" advertises to the Academy and the general public as being the hiring/promotion/tenure process.

Does that last sentence make me a neo-McCarthyite? I hope not.

The point I am making (or echoing) is that members of the general public are asking these questions because members of "the system," notably the self-governing faculty, have not been doing so. Judging from news stories of the past few weeks, that widespread reluctance to energize existing measures, or reform them, appears unshaken.

I'll probably be unable to post for the remainder of the week, but will follow the thread from public terminals. I look forward to your response, if you have the time and inclination.

Louis N Proyect - 3/16/2005

But this is really not about scholarship, but politics. After Rupert Murdoch and company made a stink about Ward Churchill's post-9/11 ruminations, it opened the door for opportunists like Thomas Brown and others (here, included) to jump on the bandwagon.

One has to laugh about the latest charges of plagiarism. Harvard University has two highly visible plagiarists. One is an historian named Doris Kearns Goodwin; the other is Alan Dershowitz (;ar=1). In addition to being a plagiarist, Dershowitz is an open defender of torture. One imagines that if the same standards were applied to Dershowitz as Churchill, the cable tv shows would be abuzz constantly. But the same standards do not apply.

The crusade against Ward Churchill in many ways reflects the dominant politics in the USA. The ultraright takes the offensive and the liberals go along for the ride. Bush lies about WMD's and liberal politicians vote for his war just to show that they are not anti-American.

This entire business about Ward Churchill here on Cliopatria is more than a little bit sickening. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of how somebody like Ward could receive tenure, you should really be trying to figure out why HNN published filth from Guenter Lewy that is about on a par with David Irving.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/16/2005

I'm still thinking! (And trying to finish work on an edited book manuscript.)

Mark Grimsley - 3/16/2005

I will get things rolling myself by pointing out that the post speaks to creating a culture that confronts bad public commentary when it is cloaked in the mantle of academic scholarship. Some may object that we can't possibly ride herd on all of this. As Rod Serling once put it, when a reporter noted the similarities between a an airplane hijacking and one of his television plots: "I can't be held responsible for every nut-so that crawls out of the woodwork."

Even so, we can let the public arena itself identify the bad commentary from which, arguably, we as a profession should distance ourselves. The Churchill controversy has snowballed not because of Churchill's statements alone but because they are held up to reflect a larger pathology within the American academy. Our current culture wants to think this stuff will blow over in the same way John Kerry thought the Swift Boat Veterans' attack would just blow over. I suggest that we revisit our assumption that the American public just somehow knows we're good, conscientious professionals. I suggest we had better become more proactive--as a profession, not just as a few isolated voices.

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