Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Witchhunt 2005

There are many intelligent and important individuals alive today who represent the best of left wing political thought. Ward Churchill is not one of these people. Yet, he is now frequently held up as an example of modern leftist academia. As the controversy surrounding his radical views reached a fever pitch, and as calls for his resignation/termination began resonating across the conservative echo chamber, he has also become the poster boy for advocates of academic freedom. Churchill himself revels in the spotlight, having garnered more attention in this moment then he has in his entire career. Whether or not he retains his post at the University of Colorado matters, I suspect, very little to this man. Unfortunately, though, the repercussions of this controversy will matter to the rest of us -- and in some ways that I think are not immediately apparent.


The process by which Ward Churchill came to the attention of the mainstream media is a fairly typical tale for such things (Kevin Drum connects the dots for us). But, for our purposes, what's important is how it began.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Churchill published Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. In this article he argues that the attacks of 9/11 were a predictable response to American cultural, economic, and military intrusions into the Middle East. However, he also attempts to discredit the notion that the victims of the attacks were purely innocent.
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… 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.
While it took a few years for these comments to reach the ears of the general public, once they did the result was predictable. Blaming the victim rarely makes you popular and in this instance you had to take a number to join the lynch mob.


As his views became widely circulated, and as the public became aware of his position as a tenured professor, calls for his termination began to grow. The combination of his radical opinions and the fact that his salary was paid at least in part by public tax dollars was too much for many to bear. He simply had to go.

It was then that a small cadre of defenders began to emerge. While they universally detested his controversial views, they were unwilling to accept his termination based upon them. In their view, the removal of a tenured professor based upon the unpopularity of his ideas would undermine the principle of academic freedom. And on this point, they are exactly right.

While it might seem odd to those of us who toil away as "at-will" employees, the principle of tenure is a crucial component to intellectual progression in academia. A newly hired professor is expected to spend the first few years of his career demonstrating his value to the host institution. Each institution measures value in its own idiosyncratic way, be it through teaching excellence, research and publishing, or the like. At the completion of this period, if the candidate has met the institution's expectations, he is granted tenure and cannot be terminated for anything less than academic fraud or gross misconduct. With these protections in hand, our newly tenured professor can venture out in any direction that captures his attention. Nothing is off limits.

This freedom allows academics to explore controversial issues in ways that would otherwise not be possible. They are expected to leave conventional wisdom behind and to embark into uncharted territory. Ideas are ultimately judged on their merits, but without the freedom that tenure provides the vibrancy of debate would be greatly diminished. The "marketplace of ideas" would be transformed into the "Wal-Mart of comfortable notions."

Thus, allowing Churchill's views to be the basis of his termination would set a precedent that would threaten the entire system. Academics everywhere would begin to self-censor their investigations, closing off any topic that might potentially draw popular criticism. Universities would rapidly become institutions proficient only at indoctrination and would leave behind a long tradition of intellectual inquiry.

So it would seem that, despite his views, Churchill's termination would have to be fought.


If you're going to be in the business of defending the freedom of expression in this country, you inevitably are going to be rubbing shoulders with some fairly unsavory characters. It's simply the nature of the beast. And as this case demonstrates, defending academic freedom often places you in the same company. The problem with dealing with such individuals is that they tend to behave in a rather unscrupulous ways.

This appears to be the case with Ward Churchill.

Thomas Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at Lamar University, recently published an essay that strongly challenged claims made by Churchill regarding the 1837 smallpox epidemic. According to Churchill, this epidemic was a biowarfare event perpetrated by the United States Army. Brown's essay dismisses this assertion and concludes the following:
Situating Churchill’s rendition of the epidemic in a broader historiographical analysis, one must reluctantly conclude that Churchill fabricated the most crucial details of his genocide story. Churchill radically misrepresented the sources he cites in support of his genocide charges, sources which say essentially the opposite of what Churchill attributes to them.

One of Churchill's primary sources regarding the smallpox epidemic is Russell Thornton, a professor of anthropology at UCLA. Inside Higher Ed addressed this directly.

Thornton, who is a Cherokee, has written extensively about the horrors of U.S. treatment of Indians. But his study of the Mandan concluded that the epidemic was not intentional.

Thornton said in an interview last night that Brown's essay was correct. He said that people have periodically told him over the years that Churchill has "misrepresented my work."

"Issues like Ward Churchill cast aspersions on legitimate Indian scholars," Thornton said. Of U.S. treatment of Native Americans, Thornton said, "The history is bad enough -- there's no need to embellish it."

That doesn't seem to be the end of Churchill's deceptions. For much of his career he has presented himself as a Native American. This has played no small role in establishing his credibility with respect to his field of inquiry. Yet, according to the American Indian Movement:

…Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement, a situation that has lifted him into the position of a lecturer on Indian activism.

…Ward Churchill has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband. He waves around an honorary membership card that at one time was issued to anyone by the Keetoowah Tribe of Oklahoma. Former President Bill Clinton and many others received these cards, but these cards do not qualify the holder a member of any tribe. He has deceitfully and treacherously fooled innocent and naïve Indian community members in Denver, Colorado, as well as many other people worldwide.

Indian Country Today is also critical of his claims of native heritage.

Churchill's claim [of Native American heritage] is so seriously in question…that it offends some as much as the galling insults and the opportunistic political reactions. Churchill, it would now seem, is neither claimed by sensible liberal scholars nor by any of the American Indian tribes, including Cherokee and Creek, to which he has claimed affiliation.

These deceptions, academic and otherwise, serve to undermine any principled defense of Churchill's position. As much as we might like to defend his right to freely express his admittedly inflammatory opinion, his dishonesty in and of itself justifies his removal from the University of Colorado. And, as it now stands, it can be done without threatening the tradition of academic freedom.


Actually, I'd like to take back that last sentence.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, commenter Louis Proyect noted:

…Churchill's sins [with respect to academic fraud] pale in comparison to what I have seen around me since my undergraduate days.

This raises a troubling issue. What if, despite aspirations, Churchill's level of academic fraud is more common than we had initially been led to believe? What if his poor scholarship fails to completely distinguish him from his peers?

Now, consider that question alongside the following David Neiwert observation.

…Ward Churchill is hardly the only academic in America with genuinely repulsive views that deserve renunciation. Indeed, there are a number of right-wing professors who could face similar academic firing squads if the punditocracy chose to raise their cudgels against them…

So why are they not every bit as eager to expel [conservative] radical academics from our midst? Their silence has been longstanding; if anything, you'll find so-called mainstream conservatives actually defending thinkers like this (see, e.g., the long-running right-wing apologia for Charles Murray's repulsive theories about race.)

In this country, drug use rates are virtually identical in the Caucasian and African American communities. However, despite comprising a mere 11% of the population, African-Americans represent a majority of those imprisoned on drug offenses. While many factors contribute to this phenomenon, one of the most important is the fact that drug prohibition criminalizes activity engaged in by a wide segment of the population. Since law enforcement lacks the resources that would be required to universally prosecute drug offenses, selective enforcement is the result. Inevitably this enforcement falls primarily on minority communities, who tend to be poor, easy to prosecute, and generally undesirable. In such an environment, it is their membership in an undesirable community rather than their criminal activity that determines their eligibility for prosecution.

And this is the situation with Ward Churchill. He may be a sloppy academic and that may justify his termination. But we shouldn't ignore the reality that it was his views that brought these ancillary issues to light. Fraudulent scholarship was a rationale developed ex post facto and most likely would never have been unearthed were it not for the withering scrutiny that Churchill endured. In truth, few of those calling for his dismissal have any stake at all in preserving the integrity of academia. That isn't what this is about.

Irrespective of the current rationale, the effect of his termination will be indistinguishable from a termination based upon his controversial views. In the future, academics will have to carefully consider whether or not their personal and professional history can withstand intense media focus before they venture beyond popular conventions. Many will choose to err on the side of caution. Invaluable contrarian view points will vanish from the public sphere, and our intellectual palette will be restricted to the ideas that comfort the majority. And we shall be poorer for it.

Ultimately, I don't like Ward Churchill or what he stands for. His views are poorly justified and, frankly, rather pedantic. I hardly think that his contributions to academia would be missed. Moreover, as things stand, the fraudulent quality of his research limits his claim to the protections of academic freedom. At the same time, we shouldn't kid ourselves. This was a witch hunt, plain and simple. And as he burns at the stake, many others tremble in fear, knowing that the forces brought to bear against Churchill are easily redirected.

Update: there's a fairly interesting dialogue developing in the comments section, so be sure to check it out.

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by