Blogs > Cliopatria > Writing as if the malevolent read.

Feb 3, 2005 6:26 pm

Writing as if the malevolent read.

The “Churchill incident” raises some “interesting” (as in, “may you live in interesting times”) questions for bloggers and academics alike. If you believe in the centrality of free speech to academic life, hell, to American life, the backlash against Ward Churchill has become far more offensive and frightening then anything he did or said.

I know that was not the intent of some of his critics. (See K.C.’s post below.) Yet we are living in the world in which major media institutions are trolling the web, not looking for the truth but looking for riots to incite. The critics of Ward Churchill, perhaps by highlighting misleading passages (see Jon Dresner’s comment on K.C.’s post), made him visible in both conventional media and in blogs). Some in the mass media saw this, pounced and the rest, for the moment, is McCarthyism.

I may be wrong, but I do not think that I have used “McCarthy” or “McCarthyism” to describe recent events until this moment. I shy away from such terms because they have been used too much and too facilely. But the combined actions of death threats, other illegal harassments, shrill and superficial media, and a Colorado legislature which does not think that subsidizing a university means subsidizing free speech fit the McCarthy era pattern far too well.

We often forget that much of the damage done in the McCarthy era was not due to government mandates or House and Senate hearings. It resulted from a frightened culture that rewarded fearmongering, pandering and grandstanding by politicians, by media, and by businesses. The people of that culture rewarded it in part by accepting suppression as an unavoidable part of their times.

Some also did harm by blaming the victims for being foolish enough to use their rights. A good example is what K.C. did in his comment below, when he followed his condemnation of the Colorado governor’s calling for Churchill’s firing by this statement:
“Nonetheless, to borrow one of Professor Churchill’s phrases, this is in some ways a case of the chickens coming home to roost.”

I know you will object to my characterization, K.C. And I do not know if it is what you intended. But one cannot defend free speech in a halfway manner, particularly in times like these. If he has the right to free speech, he has the right, and legislators, of all people, should be held to the fire on that. Instead, you partially justify their actions.

This incident also raises the question of blogging. With the media trolling for the sensational, a comment can have striking consequences. Unfortunately, blogs have far less power to correct a news story than they have to create one. That is particularly true if the correction is subtle, as seems to be the case with the selective quoting done here.

Does that mean we should shut up? No. But maybe we all need to be a little slower to repeat what we hear and a little more willing to double-check first. We are read, but some of the people who read us will lie for a buck.

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Jonas A Pell - 2/28/2005

So his fraud, dishonesty, lack of credentials and plagiarism are not impediments to his academic leadership? What ever happened to character? Now I guess this fraud and armchair rebel can start affresh as a martyr.

Jonas A Pell - 2/28/2005

Oh really now, quite the hysterical over-reaction. It's not like he was some distinguished academic who made a careless remark. His whole career is fraud: He plagiarized artwork, wrote a damming indictment of the US Armies attempt to wipe out the Mandan Indians with smallpox that was a total lie, repeatedly denounced America and encouraged violence, never even earned a Doctorate, lied about his Indian heritage and managed to get away with that for years. His politics matched the politics of the University culture in his field and that was his entree. So claiming that the Churchill case was overblown by some evil conservatives who want to trash tenure is quite disingenuous. If you want to defend this fraud and armchair rebel, please don't use the image of some detached scholarship as a smokescreen. Claiming that the victims of 9/11 are little Eichmann's because of our responsiblity is an example of the dishonest mendacity of his rotten character. A real scholar might want to examine the role of Saddam Hussein and the UN who let him cheat the sanctions and rob the people of the funds that would have kept them healthy. For instance, the Kurds operated under the same sanctions and suffered none of what Saddam's people did. A real scholar would at least acknowledge this and temper his complaint. Ward Churchill is just a cheap political hack of no character and scholarship in a field that welcomes diatribes and rants over scholarship and truth.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/4/2005

Tim's point strikes me as a particularly important one--and, more so than any other, it's why I first commented on the Churchill case. What criteria did the Kirkland Project use to select Churchill, of all the professors who profess interest in social justice in the country, as one of the handful of outsiders they would invite for an academic year? Apart from the extreme nature of his political views, there seems to be little else remarkable about him--yet he was, theoretically, being invited for his academic expertise. Certainly it's reasonable for the Hamilton president to ask some hard questions on this point once the dust has settled.

I think that this issue ties into the statement I linked to this morning by Brown president Ruth Simmons, which strikes me as a watershed development. That the president of Brown--which has a reputation for not being a terribly open campus to diverse viewpoints--has conceded a problem suggests that perhaps we're moving into a different stage of the debate, where the issue becomes more how best can universities achieve and maintain intellectual diversity, rather than (as it's been over the last few years), whether intellectual diversity is a good idea.

Timothy James Burke - 2/4/2005

I agree that once someone has it, there's no grounds in the current system for hassling him to revoke it. Just as I think that once you invite someone to speak, you are perfectly justified in standing your ground behind the invitation.

But once the dust settles and speech is protected, it's still worth asking questions like, "What exactly was it that made someone think this was a person worth inviting?" and "What makes this a person worthy of the presumptions that are embodied in tenure?" and "Why does this scholar generally get slavishly positive reviews?" and "What are the underlying systems of intellectual valuation that produce a market for his writings within the academy?" and so on. And all those questions seem to me to produce systemic issues, not individual ones. (e.g., individual ones would just be saying "Particular individuals in particular places made particular errors." To my mind, there is something more here than that.

David Timothy Beito - 2/4/2005

How often is the system "abused?" The Churchill case has generated so much discussion because it was exceptional. The most common abuse of tenure by faculty is failure to use their tenure to speak out against such abuses as speech codes, grade inflation, etc. Sad to say, many tenured faculty have failed in their moral (but not legal) obligation to use their tenure to improve the university.

You have a point, however. I doubt I would have voted to give Churchill tenure. His qualifications (including the lack of a doctorate) don't seem to merit it.....but, like it or not, he has it. This seems to be a good example of the old dictum "hard cases make bad law." We need to bite the bullet.

Timothy James Burke - 2/3/2005

It's not about tenure per se. It is about owning up to the carelessness with which tenure, speaking engagements, hirings and so on are actually bestowed in many cases, about the assertion of selectivity on one hand and the Lady Macbeth hand-washing on the other when careless decisions bear bitter fruit (and equally, when the system is abused in the opposite direction, to license and defend narrowness of thought).

David Timothy Beito - 2/3/2005

The coalition against tenure and *for* posttenure review is an odd one indeed which ranges from rock-ribbed conservatives to highly PC administrators.

In theory the untenured have equal protection but, as you konw, the reality is often quite different. I would not be speaking out in the way I do if I didn't have tenure. I suspect many others can say the same.

John H. Lederer - 2/3/2005

I concur with Mr. Catsam. Freedom of speech and thought ought be a near absolute in the University setting.

However, condemnation of someone, or preferably of their speech, is not a denial of freedom of speech -- Firing someone or punishing them is.

There is admittedly a grey area. If a Chair of the History Department begins to teach that Calvin Coolidge was an agent of the Venusian Imperial Intelligence Corps, there is a problem. All should acknowledge the problem, but should also acknowledge that it is at the top of a long slippery slope with a bad bottom.

What bothers me is a climate at a university that makes it wrong, or at least a career killer, to state something that almost anyone who has studied the area knows to be true (Sommers statement about the increased variance in intelligence of men compared to women comes to mind), or to make certain areas of enquiry taboo.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/3/2005

Absolutely. It is administrators that form the core supporters of organizations like the AAC&U, and would undoubtedly use the end of tenure to redefine the faculty in an even more ideologically intolerant direction.

Abolishing tenure, moreover, wouldn't be an appropriate response to the Churchill issue anyway. The untenured are just as much protected by the 1st amendment and have just as much a right to academic freedom as the tenured.

John H. Lederer - 2/3/2005

Actually it appears that Churchill may be in much greater danger from having falsely represented himself to be Indian:
Indian Country Today, 02/03/05:

" Although the national furor struck with the unpredictable suddenness of a Great Lakes storm, Churchill has long been a divisive and somewhat feared figure in Indian country, especially among his former colleagues in the American Indian Movement. Some prominent activists involved in earlier confrontations have devoted a great deal of energy to investigating his claim to be an American Indian himself and have found no evidence to support it.

At various times, according to press reports, Churchill has described himself as Cherokee, Keetoowah Cherokee, Muskogee, Creek and most recently Meti. In a note in the online magazine Socialism and Democracy he wrote, ''Although I'm best known by my colonial name, Ward Churchill, the name I prefer is Kenis, an Ojibwe name bestowed by my wife's uncle.'' In biographical blurbs, he is identified as an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. But a senior member of the band with access to tribal enrollment records told Indian Country Today that Churchill is not listed. George Mauldin, tribal clerk in Tahlequah, Okla., told the Rocky Mountain News, ''He's not in the data base at all.''

According to Jodi Rave, a well-known Native journalist and member of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Three Affiliated Tribes, Churchill was enrolled as an ''associate member'' of the Keetoowah by a former chairman who was later impeached. The one other known member of the same program, since discontinued, was President Bill Clinton. Rave said that she made this discovery as a student in a journalism class at the University of Colorado. She was also in a class taught by Churchill. When her article came out, she said, he dropped her grade from an A to a C minus.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a columnist for ICT who has tracked Churchill's career, said that aside from the in-laws of his late Indian wife, he has not been able to produce any relatives from any Indian tribe."

Of course, were he fired from teaching Native American Studies for having misrepresented himself at the time of employment one would have to grapple with the problem of why one's ethnicity is a predicate to being a professor.

David T. Beito - 2/3/2005

Many conservatives, on websites such as freerepublic, are using the Churchill case to lauch a crusade against tenure.

They should think twice. If the "fire Churchill" crowd has it its way, conservative professors and students who will suffer the most. The elimination of tenure will further empower professional administrators who are even less tolerant of dissent than leftist faculty and more likely to support politically correct crusades such as speech codes and diversity training. Without tenure to stop them, they will taken the opportunity to silence conservative voices.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/3/2005

I made this point elsehwre in another comment strand, but it is worth reterating -- this is a very fingible concept, punishing folks for speech. i loathe what Churchill said and most of what he seems to represent. But the idea of firing him because we ooathe his ideas strikes me as very dangerous. If we assume that the proposition is true that humanities faculties lean left, then imagine the ramifications of being able to punish people over whom we wield power because we disagree with them. We disagree with what this person says, let's fire him. OK -- I disagree with what this person says, lets prevent him from getting into grad school. Let's punish him with a bad grade. Lets punish her by giving her the worst possible teaching schedule. let's punish them by cutting their funding, let's punish them by denying them tenure . . . this has ugly potential ramifications.

If it is ok to slam people just because of their views, then it is ok universally. If it is not, it is not. I have a hard time following tortured logic of people who claim otherwise in some instances. I do not think that not liking someone's ideology is any more valid a reason for getting rid of someone than not liking someone for not liking them personally.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/3/2005

My "chickens coming home to roost" comment wasn't referring to anything Churchill said or did--it was referring to the University of Colorado administration. Had the university handled previous controversies better (the intellectual diversity debate, the football recruiting scandal), they might have been better positioned to head off the state legislature's actions.

Jonathan Rees - 2/3/2005

Since I cancelled my Denver Post subscription and am trying to barricade myself in my office to do some writing, I'm actually coming a little late into this story. I certainly don't know enough about Churchill's ideas to have an opinion of them and my understanding of this may be a little off, but I agree with Oscar that there seems to be much more at stake here than a debate about 9/11.

Tim Burke's post keeps making reference to Churchill's "remarks." Didn't the "little Eichmans" quote appear in an essay somewhere long ago? [I heard a tape of him on NPR defending it at a Seattle bookstore last year] Why else would Churchill be invited to Hamilton College to speak on this subject if his ideas weren't already known?

If this is true, then Ward Churchill was doing a perfectly adequate job of being Chairman of the CU Ethnic Studies Department last week, but since someone at Hamilton college told the press about his opinions he now has to go. In other words, some beliefs are not acceptable in the state of Colorado.

That should scare the daylights out of everyone whether they are a professor, a Coloradoan or just an American.


PS Yesterday I found out that Churchill is the reason my school's mascot is the Thunderwolves rather than whatever Native American term it was before. Sometimes you learn things for the strangest reasons.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/3/2005

John, Feel free to describe some experiments. But a danger to free speech from a uniform academic culture (which I assume is the point you are making) does not reduce or negate the danger to free speech from politicians who would like to fire someone for what he says.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/3/2005

Mr. Lederer, You no doubt have speech codes in mind. We've addressed the speech code problem here many times and several of us believe that speech codes _are_ a problem. Nonetheless, it is rare for the kinds of speech that are prohibited by speech codes to be enforced by death threats, as occurred at Hamilton. In order to make way for some of my colleagues here to speak up about some issues that concern them, I suppressed a post in which I expressed concern in re Churchill/Hamilton that the domestic terrorists might be taught by speech cancellations that they can have their way by making such threats. The Bush administration has rightly said that we must not let foreign terrorists win by cowering from our own action as a free people. I wish lesser Republican politicians saw that reacting to threats of domestic violence has the same effect.

John H. Lederer - 2/3/2005

I do not think that the proposition that the University is currently a place for free speech can be successfully defended. The problem is not the legislature but the faculty and administration.

Have any doubt? I can suggest experiments to try.....

John H. Lederer - 2/3/2005

I do not think that the proposition that the University is currently a place for free speech can be successfully defended. The problem is not the legislature but the faculty and administration.

Have any doubt? I can suggest experiments to try.....

Hugo Schwyzer - 2/3/2005

Thank you, Oscar, that's the best thing I've read on the Churchill controversy.

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