Blogs > Cliopatria > Reinterpreting 9/11

Jan 29, 2005 11:14 pm

Reinterpreting 9/11

Interesting controversy developing at Hamilton College, which invited Ward Churchill, chairman of Colorado's Ethnic Studies Department, to lead off the spring lecture series of the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture's spring lecture series. The Kirkland Project touts its commitment to"intellectual inquiry and social justice," seeking"to build a community respectful of difference" so that students can"live and work in an increasingly complex multiracial and multinational world," all while initiating" connections between the Hamilton community and the surrounding area, around the mission of the Project."

The Churchill talk is fostering connections between the Hamilton community and the surrounding area, though perhaps not quite of the type that the"Kirkland Project" folks wanted. Churchill, it turns out, has described the Al-Qaeda perpetrators of the WTC and Pentagon attacks as" combat teams," not terrorists, since"they finally responded in kind to some of what this country has dispensed to their people as a matter of course." The civilians killed inside the Pentagon, Churchill notes, were really"military targets." And"as for 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." A better way of describing the victims, he reasons, is to term them"little Eichmanns."

In addition to making me wonder what kind of education students receive in Colorado's Ethnic Studies Department--which, in what could be a caricature of quotas, boasts that its 60 majors and minors are"evenly divided between white students and students of color, male and female students"--the most newsworthy aspect of this affair comes in Hamilton's response. The office of Hamilton president Joan Hinde Stewart issued a statement affirming that Hamilton is committed to"the free exchange of ideas," and to invite those who disagree with Churchill (the father of one of the leaders of the student protest was killed in the WTC attack) to attend the talk.

This response reminds me of the approach followed by Duke after the North Carolina campus hosted a fall 2004 conference of the rabidly anti-Israel Palestine Solidarity Movement. Duke President Richard H. Brodhead claimed that Duke hosted the PSM conference because of the university's commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

In both the PSM Conference and the Churchill speech, however, administrative bodies of the university went out of their way to invite speakers with certain messages. If one of their administrative units invited David Duke to campus to discuss his views on racial progress in the 21st century, it's hard to imagine either Brodhead or the Hamilton administration issuing bland statements celebrating Duke's arrival on their campus as evidence of their commitment to academic freedom. Inviting outside speakers involves the use of college or university resources. It seems perfectly reasonable that trustees at Hamilton or Duke might want to ask whether the institutions could have employed their resources more productively than by inviting Churchill to speak or by hosting the PSM. If Brodhead or Stewart can't find better ways to spend their budgets, perhaps the trustees might want to find more creative chief executives?

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greg beaudry - 2/7/2005

Hamilton College does bring a diverse group of speakers. Several programs on campus balance each other out in this regard. Look at Hamilton in its entirety and you will a wide range. The Kirkland Project is really the only program, however, that brings speakers on these issues. Without it the college's speakers would be mostly right-wing. The Kirkland Project itself provides an important balance.

greg beaudry - 2/7/2005

Reprehensible and repugnant have been the two words used most often by people when talking about Churchill's comments. Even by those who claim to defend his right to speak.

However, there is a way in which Churchill's meta-analysis of the U.S.'s global positioning is most responsible.

If we fail to see why we were targeted on that day, we will fail to make the changes necessary to prevent it again. That is the bottom line of his analysis.

I don't find that reprehensible or repugnant at all.

greg beaudry - 2/7/2005

You need to do more research before you make a claim that the Kirkland Project specializes in terrorists. Your comments are ill informed and irresponsible.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/3/2005

Ralph & Jason --
I think that you both make some valid points.

I'd tread lightly, Jason, on the taxpayer aspect of higher education. Most universities get a lot less of their money from the state than you would think -- a university like Colorado probably gets less than 20% of its operating revenues from the state. The rest comes from student fees (in other words, students can vote with their feet not to take his classes) as well as from endowments, investments, etc. The resort to an argument about the use of state funds seems to open up a lot of doors and closes few. Whenever i see someone use that line of reasoning, it is akin to noting who first invokes Hitler against someone else's ideas -- it serves as a pretty good indication of who is losing. I do not think you necessarily were, but that is a really weak and not all that relevant argument.

I agree that what Churchill said was reprehensible. If students or others were to protest him, boycott his classes, say, that would be within their rights. But be wary of calling for someone's dismissal because you disagree with his views no matter how vehemently. If he advocated actual violence, that might enter the realm of words versus deeds. But keep in mind -- if the assertion is true that humanities departments are overwhelmingly liberal, then does it not seem a dangerous precedent to have ideological litmus tests predicated on speech? If within departments, liberals have the majority of bodies, then could they not abuse that power against speech they oppose? In the Columbia Mideast Studies situation this seems dangerously close to what has happened (though the department in question should not be categorized as liberal so much as radical -- there is a huge difference for those of us who are liberal) and I would hate to see it replicated. Your allowance for firing folks based on speech you do not like means that you could be punished by people who can wield over over you for speech they do not like. Imagine a student being punished with a grade by a professor (who probably pays more in taxes than you do) who disagreed with what you said on HNN, or not allowed into grad school because you supported the war, or whatever.

Loathe the speech. But let it happen.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2005

Mr. Nelson, Professor Churchill is tenured. His "termination" would threaten the security of his faculty colleagues from the sort of lynch mob psychology that Governor Owens is promoting. You'll have more respect from me when you know that it is important to defend the rights of the people with whom you disagree -- however profoundly the disagreement may be.

Jason Nelson - 2/2/2005

Mr. Luker,
When you learn the truth you will be sorry.

PS, I will admit, I use his first name as a sign of disrespect, much different from how I address you, Mr. Luker. Ward is a vile, reprehensible, violent, revolutionary who was the same first amendment right as you and I have, but the taxpayers of Colorado do not have to be forced to subsidize the spreading of sedition in his classroom. I am not encouraging his prosecution, only his termination of employment. This is not a first ammendment issue.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2005

I don't know Professor Churchill or his work well enough to refer to him on a first name basis, but I value American first amendment rights enough to suggest that you ought to read the corpus of Churchill's published work in context and quit taking your cues from Bill O'Reilly and Bill Owens.

Jason Nelson - 2/2/2005

Mr. Luker,
I denounce any threats of violence against Ward. However, you have lost the moral high ground to say such a thing if you support Ward. He has called for "armed struggle" against the government here in the U.S. Im no lawyer, but that is also illeagal, violent, and boarders upon seditious. Im going to give you the benifit of the doubt and assume that you do not have a full understanding of Wade's complete body of work, and you are simply defending another professer, closing ranks as it were.

Van L. Hayhow - 2/2/2005

One of the Denver newspapers has a link to the entire article. While still objectionable, the whole is much more rational then the excerpts led me to suspect.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2005

Mr. Nelson, I am afraid that you don't see the lynching atmospher building up, even as you and Governor Owens fan the fevered emotions. I hope that you, Governor Owens and others would back down from the grandstanding and refuse to take part in any precipitous action. There have, apparently, been threats against Churchill's life. Do you really want to ally yourself with lawless actions?

Jason Nelson - 2/2/2005

Mr. Luker-

I live in Colorado. The AM dial is filled with information and disscussion about Ward Chuchill. I would be very cautious in defending him. He has a CD out of a lecture he gave in California where he specifically advocates and encourages violence against America, even telling one of the students that considering what further acts could be done to "follow up" 9-11 should be his "homework assignment". Further, he has a beef with Native American groups, one who has disowned him, claiming that he is not an American Indian. This is a huge deal in Colorado, Governer Owens tonight says that if the Regents do not fire him in a scheduled meeting on Thursday, he will do everything in his power to see to it that pressure is brought to bear on the University to fire him. He will be fired at some point, you heard it hear first.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/1/2005

Actually, what he said was even less objectionable than that, in my opinion, but has been highly oversimplified in journalistic reporting (including KC's comments). Here's some slightly longer excerpts from a Churchill-hostile but reasonably responsible source.

David Lion Salmanson - 2/1/2005

It's a shame too, and a lesson in who really has power. The anti-PC guide to History sits attop best-seller lists and Churchill blows one analogy (he should have said, "many of these people were like the Germans during the Holocaust who did nothing while Jews were exterminated" a more accurate description of what he was getting at re: most Americans ongoing complicity with the destruction of Native America, but not as catchy either). And now everybody is in an uproar over the 9/11 piece and completely missing the ongoing Native American part.

Oh, and KC, apparently getting articles books published in refereed journals and presses counts as scholarly output, for measuring tenure, except when it doesn't? Churchill's path to academia may be unusual, but he is hardly the first non-PhD to hold an academic appointment. His scholarly output by your gold standard, however, does match up nicely with requirements for tenure and chairmanship.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/1/2005

Churchill has also resigned as chair of the ethnic studies department at his institution in order to limit collateral damage to his colleagues in the program there. The protest against his appearance at Hamilton seems to have gotten _way_ out of hand.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/1/2005

The radio (AP reports, I think) just reported that Churchill's talk was cancelled. Not because the college objects to his views, but because they couldn't guarantee his safety: he got multiple death threats.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/31/2005

Carl's point here is a good one, I think--it's hard to imagine that the Kirkland Project invited Churchill because of his lit crit writings.

On the comparison between the PSM and Duke, it seems to me the comparison is quite a valid one. One represents the anti-semitism of the far, far left; the other represents the anti-semitism and racism of the far, far right. It might be that colleges should expose students even to beliefs that are considered by many beyond the pale--although I'd get back to my original point, that colleges have limited funds, and so for every ward Churchill invited, someone else is not, and one wonders whether the students' learning experience is improved by the choice. But it seems to me hypocritical to argue that one type of anti-semitism is protected by academic freedom and another is not.

David Lion Salmanson - 1/31/2005

I have read a bit of Churchill's work. He has one very, very good article on "radioactive colonialism" that he has re-written several times including one version coauthored with Winona LaDuke. The piece uses geographic analytic tools to examine the preponderance of nuclear industry mining sites on Native American land in the American West.
His lit crit stuff that I have read is OK, I am not much for lit crit. I think the guy goes overboard in knocing Tony Hillerman but certainly is dead on when he goes after "White Shamanism" - folks who pretend to be Indian and charge folks to learn "tribal secrets." Not only does he name names, admitttedly somewhat journalistically, but his analysis of why these guys succeed in this moment (and make big bucks doing it) while most Native American religious figures remain impoverished and, despite AIRFA, have trouble practicing certain aspects of their religion is compelling stuff.

A poor man's Gerald Vizenor, for sure, but I would take that as a complement.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 1/31/2005

I kind of have to wonder what the college was trying to accomplish by inviting this particular speaker. I'm sure the controversy, increased turnout, and protests will bring more attention to the event, but will it actually promote learning? Will it increase dialogue, or will it just be an opportunity for dueling protest marches?

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/30/2005

The Weather Underground type I referred to above is Susan Rosenberg. Apparently, through the Kirkland Project, there is a terrorist-in-residence program at Hamiltom College. Rosenberg was caught with automatic weapons and 740 pounds of high explosives. She wasn't indicted in the Brinks robbery murder cases, since she had already been sentenced to 58 years. Who knew that Bill Clinton would commute her sentence, and the sentences of Puerto Rican terorists associated with the Fraunces Tavern murder bombings?

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/30/2005

The attempt to reduce the World Trade Center inhabitants to little Eichmann's is ghastly. One just can't get away from that. And if not simply a moment's idiocy--like Ralph, I've had those too--it's enough to consider not inviting him to a conference out of hand, regardless of his other accomplishments.

However, some of the other points raised by Churchill deserve at least a bit of consideration.

"Combat teams." That's not far from the self-image of the terrorists. Exploring the things they believe they are reacting to and defending is useful, and sympathetic observers like Churchill often open a better window than others.

"What this country has dispensed as a matter of course."
A friend of mine who is Stockbridge gave me a T-shirt for Christmas. It has an old picture of Apache warriors. Above the picture it says "Homeland Security." Below the picture it says, "Fighting Terrorism since 1492"

An oversimplification? Sure. But it's not too unreasonable for a Native American scholar to remind others that much of American history has been a history of conquest, and that Americans have often hidden the baser motives of their actions from themselves as well as from others in the rhetoric of civilization and freedom.

Does this make our involvement in the Middle East wrong? In itself, no. And if Churchill's arguments boil down to "because we have done evil, we will always do evil," then they don't amount to much. But if he uses that perspective to point out facts that would otherwise be missed, then it may be worth listening to him, albeit with more than a grain of salt.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/30/2005

Hang with KC and the rest of us, Anthony. We'll agree and disagree at times and there's much to be learned in both.

Anthony Paul Smith - 1/30/2005

Oh my Lord, we agreed on something!

I have to take issue with Johnson's beef against Duke. There is a major difference between inviting David Duke to come speak on race and hosting a PSM conference. That difference being one actually has nothing to do with academic freedom and the other does. Academic freedom does not mean allowing Nazi's to teach courses, and if you think it should then there was a problem with the education your generation has recived concerning the meaning of freedom. That's just to say maybe you folks should worry about the education you recieved as "young adults" as well.

"Rabidly anti-Israel" and "rabidly anti-American" means very different things than "rabidly anti-black or anti-Jew." Any conflation of the two reckless. That being said some of the things Chuchill is reported as saying seem just as reckless, but not calling the attackers terrorists and equating their military operations with ones much like one's our own government engages in was not.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/30/2005

A couple of things might be noted here. Churchill is a native American. I sat on an NEH panel with a native American university professor once. He was painfully aware of how few other native Americans held such a position. The fact that Churchill is a native American might put the rather raucus mockery of his shoulder length hair among righty bloggers in the shameful light where it belongs. I do not think that being a native American or a college professor or having shoulder length hair is a reasonable excuse for saying foolish things. Yet, without even unreasonable excuse, I sometimes have said foolish things. They might not cause me to be invited as a guest speaker at Hamilton. I hope they would not prevent my being invited. We certainly do not need to protect college aged young people from the harm done by having heard a speaker who does not share the national mythos about 9/11.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/30/2005

A few months back, the kirkland project invited an ex-Weather Underground member, not too long out of prison, to be its writer-in-residence. I had made a crack some months back about the Weather Underground types not going to the mattresses these days, as they wouldn't want to risk their TIAA-CREF benefits. As I remember it, there are about a half dozen former Weather Underground types who have found a warm home in academia. In fact, it looks like they are precisely the type the kirkland project specializes in.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/30/2005

On the majors/minors point, it read to me that the department was saying, by design, there were 30 women and 30 men; 30 non-whites and 30 whites. That approach comes across as a quota system. If, on the other hand, they're just saying that representatives of all races and genders are ethnic studies majors, I'd agree that it's a positive statement of inclusiveness.

I've been trying to access the Kirkland Project's website all day, but have been unable to access any Hamilton website. From the descriptions I was able to read in cache, it didn't seem like an intellectually diverse group.

I still, though, would have doubts about an invite to Churchill. There are thousands of professors in the country whose research, in some way, deals with questions of social justice. Churchill's academic credentials are marginal--an M.A. degree from Sangamon State University is his highest degree. His list of publications consists of a series of books that seem to have the analytical quality of an extreme op-ed. Is Hamilton really saying that they couldn't get anyone more qualified to come in and kick off a lecture series?

Jonathan Dresner - 1/29/2005

My question, if I were a concerned trustee, etc., would be whether, given their stated committment to openness and dialogue, these were the only speakers on these topics invited with institutional resources, or if they were one of several or many diverse viewpoints. In the former case, there's a point to be made, but in the latter case the institutions seem to me to be on pretty firm ground.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/29/2005

It's a minor point, perhaps, but I disagree with the "evenly divided" thing as a caricature of quotas: it's a statement of inclusion, noting that the ethnic studies department does not simply serve ethnic constituencies. Unless majors and minors go through a screening process (there aren't a lot of majors or minors at any college that do) then it is not a quota issue, but an audience and participation issue.

If they were talking about the faculty, you might have grounds for concern, but I don't see it here.

And, unless I'm reading it wrong, it's about sixty each majors and minors, not sixty total.

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