fter the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture at Hamilton College extended an invitation to Ward Churchill to speak on February 3rd about American Indians and the prison system, Hamilton political science professor Theodore Eismeier googled "Ward Churchill" and discovered that he had referred to some 9/11 victims as "little Eichmanns." This led to a controversy that has not yet been resolved. It should come as no surprise that the case has highlighted differences across the American political spectrum that can be seen on a range of issues, from the war in Iraq to the genocide against the American Indian.
The Kirkland Project was a lightning rod for the ultra right even before an invitation had been extended to Ward Churchill,
as is evidenced by the case of Susan Rosenberg. Rosenberg was a 1960s radical who had spent 16 years in prison for her role in Brinks armored car hijacking that left two cops dead. In prison, Rosenberg became a respected prisoner-rights activist and writer.
In 2001, President Clinton granted her clemency just before leaving office. After she was released from prison, Rosenberg was hired by the Kirkland Project to teach a one-month course on memoir writing. After rightwing elements on and off campus began protesting her hiring, she backed out, citing "the atmosphere of such organized right-wing intimidation from a small group of students and faculty." So the campus was primed like a stick of dynamite for Ward Churchill's appearance.
After Eismeier alerted a student named Ian Mandel about the "little Eichmanns" article, he began an email campaign that caught fire. Supposedly, Mandel (a Young Democrat, for what that's worth) was already worked up over Rosenberg 's hiring because Nyack, his home town, was home to the two cops killed in the Brinks hijacking. Nyack was a convenient excuse for hounding Ward Churchill as well. Why? Mandel told the Rocky Mountain News, a paper that has been in the forefront of the movement to get Ward Churchill fired, "I grew up 18 miles away from the city and I could smell the burning buildings from my home." As a Manhattan resident myself, I actually found much of Churchill's article to be of some value, despite questionable formulations--more about which in a moment.
Another casualty of the rightwing vendetta was Kirkland Project director Nancy Rabinowitz, a Hamilton professor who is the daughter-in-law of legendary leftist attorney Victor Rabinowitz. She resigned about a week after the furor began over Ward Churchill.
Even after the school caved into pressure and cancelled Ward Churchill's appearance, the rightwing's appetite was not whetted. They were out for blood. News of the controversy spilled over into cable TV and AM radio talk shows--the preferred outlet for conservatives--as well as the network of blogs that feed off of material from David Horowitz's FrontPage website. Politicians got into the act as well. NY governor George Pataki stated that ''There's a difference between freedom of speech and inviting a bigoted terrorist supporter.'' Colorado 's governor Bill Owens upped the ante and demanded that Churchill resign from his tenured post.
Bill Owens is no ordinary Republican governor. He is a leader of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an outfit launched by Lynn Cheney, the vice-president's wife. The NY Times reported on November 24, 2001 that ACTA had compiled a list of 117 "anti-American" statements heard on college campuses after 9/11. Jesse Jackson was included for telling a Harvard Law School audience that America should "build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls." Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Stanford University was also included for stating that "If Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity." Wasima Alikhan of the Islamic Academy of Las Vegas was on the list for uttering the inflammatory words: "Ignorance breeds hate." If you could get on ACTA's list for saying things like this, you can imagine the pent-up fury that Bill Owens was ready to direct against Ward Churchill.
If rightwingers were focused on questions of loyalty and treason, the liberal establishment has deigned to attack Ward Churchill's ideas and his scholarly credentials while paying lip service (with some exceptions) to his free speech rights. Since their attacks on Ward Churchill can barely be distinguished from the howls emerging from cable TV and AM radio talk shows, one wonders if they would be better off just keeping their mouths shut.
One egregious example is Marc Cooper, a Nation Magazine contributor who has been shifting sharply to the right since 9/11. Although he has not gone as fully into the enemy camp as his colleague Christopher Hitchens, the movement is there. Cooper gives his rightwing impulses free rein on his blog (marccooper.com). Shortly after the Ward Churchill controversy began to dominate the usual venues such as the O'Reilly factor, Cooper chimed in on his blog.
On February 4, Cooper wrote, "Move over, Mumia. The Left has a new cause celebre that's a guaranteed loser: Ward Churchill. The Colorado University professor and Native American activist is in a tub of hot water for the staggeringly outrageous remarks he wrote on the morrow of 9/11." (Cooper believes that the left should not associate itself with Mumia, who he has likened to Charles Manson.) If conservatives like Rush Limbaugh raise a ruckus over Ward Churchill, "they damn well should." Cooper was also "damned if student funds from somewhere else should be used to host him as some sort of guest speaker." He also generously defended "Churchill's right to be a vocal asshole" on a free speech basis. By the evidence, Cooper is as supremely qualified to judge who is an asshole, as José Canseco is qualified to speak about who uses steroids in baseball.
In a follow-up entry on Churchill, Cooper offered up a think-piece from Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke's blog. Burke questions whether Churchill has any business being employed by the U. of Colorado , while of course giving pro forma recognition to the free speech issues, which have a bearing but "in a highly limited way." On the question of whether Churchill should continue to make a living as a professor, Burke is fairly brutal:
"In that context, it becomes awfully hard to defend the comfortably ensconsed [sic] position of someone like Churchill within academic discourse, and equally hard to explain an invitation to him to speak anywhere. There's nothing in his work to suggest a thoughtful regard for evidence, an appreciation of complexity, a taste for dialogue with unlike minds, a proportionality, a meaningful working out of his own contradictions, a civil ability to engage in dialogue with his colleagues and peers in his own fields of specialization. He stands for the reduction of scholarship to nothing more than mouth-frothing polemic." [http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/tburke1/perma20205.html]
Even then, Cooper was not finished with Ward Churchill. Despite his rather hollow verbal commitment to his free speech rights, his next blog entry featured an attack by Lamar professor Thomas Brown that not only dismissed these rights, but suggested that Churchill be thrown in jail for perjury. (After I called attention to Brown's outrageous stand on the perjury question on my own blog, he decided to make a retraction.)
Brown's attack on Churchill revolves around a claim made in a legal defense stemming from arrests on Columbus Day in 1992 that civil disobedience was justified by the history of genocide in the USA . In a copiously detailed and documented brief presented to a Denver court, Churchill made the mistake of including a charge that the US army deliberately gave smallpox infected blankets to the Mandan Indians in 1837. This failure prompts Brown to conclude that "Churchill has fabricated a genocide that never happened."
Brown got his name splashed across the corporate media shortly after his article began circulating on the Internet. In a February 12th LA Times hatchet-job on Churchill, Brown was quoted: "From my perspective, it's academic fraud and it's a firing offense. There is probably more here than I found, but this is a fraud sustained over several essays."
One wonders what Brown thinks about the charge of genocide in general. One suspects that Brown leans in the direction of Guenter Lewy, who wrote an article in the rightwing Commentary magazine that was the first to refer to Churchill and the Mandan incident. Lewy makes no bones about whether American Indians were the victims of genocide. They were not, as Lewy calmly reassures his readers:
"As for the charge that the U.S. government should itself be held responsible for the demographic disaster that overtook the American-Indian population, it is unsupported by evidence or legitimate argument. The United States did not wage biological warfare against the Indians; neither can the large number of deaths as a result of disease be considered the result of a genocidal design."
He also wants to assure the readers of Commentary that "No matter how difficult the conditions under which the Indians labored - obligatory work, often inadequate food and medical care, corporal punishment -- their experience bore no comparison with the fate of the Jews in the ghettos." [http://hnn.us/articles/7302.html]
This really gets to the heart of the matter, since Ward Churchill's chief scholarly contribution over the past twenty years or so has been to elevate the history of the American Indian to the same level as the holocaust, something that has been resisted by Zionists of the sort clustered around Commentary Magazine and their allies in the Christian fundamentalist right--in other words, exactly the elements mobilized around this most recent controversy.
Churchill wrote "A Little Matter of Genocide" after another clash with rightwingers in upstate NY. When he was a visiting professor at Alfred University during the fall of 1990, local journalists asked him for his opinion on Columbus Day. When he compared Columbus to Himmler, it set off shockwaves on and off campus. Two angry letters in particular unsettled him to such a degree that he decided to write his book. One was from a member of the Jewish Defense League who claimed that such a comparison diminished respect for the suffering of the Jews. The other was from a colleague at Alfred University who was an exchange faculty member from Germany and a social democrat. He argued that Himmler was following a deliberate policy of extermination, while Columbus was merely a sailor who set off a chain of events whose trajectory he never could have anticipated, like the "butterfly wings" in chaos theory.
Since Churchill is widely read in the literature of genocide, he surmised that it would be possible to appropriate the methodology of those scholars who have challenged the Jewish holocaust deniers for use against the American Indian holocaust deniers. After all, the problem facing the American Indian was similar.
The problem in the United States , however, is that minimization or denial of the American Indian holocaust is the official position. There are two ways in which the lie gets put forward. Firstly, there are attempts to undercount the original population of indigenous peoples. Secondly, there are attempts to represent their demise as "inadvertent," particularly blamed on the spread of diseases to which Indians were tragically not immune.
Clearly, this outlook framed Ward Churchill's reaction to 9/11. The reference to Eichmann, although impolitic, was undoubtedly triggered by his deep-rooted anger at the hypocrisy of government officials, the mass media and the academy. When the USA has the blood of millions on its hands, both in foreign lands and within its borders, it seems disingenuous to view 9/11 as some kind of unprovoked and irrational attack on innocent civilians.
It would have been far better if Churchill had underlined the truly tragic aspect of 9/11, which cost the lives of many people who were not sympathetic to US imperialism. Some of them were humble immigrants who worked in the Twin Towers . Others were decent people who had liberal or leftist sympathies but ended up working for a predatory brokerage firm because no other job was available. Unfortunately, it is not easy to find a "clean" job in the American capitalist system.
Whatever mistakes Ward Churchill made in his analysis of 9/11, he was surely correct to take a stand with those who are under attack from the US war machine, whether they are in Iraq or Afghanistan . With the enormous pressure on American society to support the occupation of Iraq , which has been accentuated with the "success" of the demonstration elections, it is all the more necessary to think and act globally. Whatever Ward Churchill's failings, he clearly understands this.