Raise Your Voice but Keep Your Head Down
I first met Ward Churchill when I was working at South End Press twenty five years ago and Ward submitted his first book which was about Marxism and Native Americans. It was a collection of essays which revealed why indigenous people distrust Marxists’ cultural politics and community norms. I found Churchill’s insights very compelling and became friends with him. I haven’t seen Ward for years, but every so often we publish a piece by him on ZNet, where I now work. I offer all this in case anyone might feel our ties bias my viewpoint. I think the current controversy about Ward Churchill is a manipulative attack on free speech aimed at the whole left. I remember when Ward’s post 9/11 essay came out. My reaction was to wish he hadn’t written it. Ward took clear and cogent insights about the causes of international hostility to U.S. policies and weighed them down with not so clear and not so cogent non insights about the general population of the U.S. This kind of mix is always a problem, not least because astute but reactionary readers will try to dismiss the good by pointing to the bad. It doesn’t matter that that is like trying to dismiss Newton’s positive contributions about gravity on grounds that he believed in alchemy. When attacked with manipulative skill, tangential flaws can be used to undercut important truths. On a larger scale, that’s what people are now trying to do to Ward himself, as well: dismiss him in toto, as a person and as an employee of a university, over a single essay some key parts of which were, I would agree, worthy of criticism. There are two problems that should not be confused with one another. One problem is that no person should be seen as only the tangential worst that he or she does, even if there is a complete consensus about the failings, unlike in this case. Ward Churchill, for example, over the years, has contributed a great deal to the comprehension of cultural concerns and possibilities as well as to revealing the dynamics of repression and international relations. Ward is a prodigious writer and an effective speaker and organizer who has fought for just causes over and over. I don’t agree with Ward’s views on some health issues, on population issues, and on certain particular cultural matters, much less on the efficacy of what we might call political trash talk about strategies of struggle. But none of that has interfered with my liking Ward the person and feeling positive about his many contributions. Ward Churchill should not be judged solely on a single essay written the day after a gargantuan calamity, whatever anyone may think of that piece. Parts ought to be criticized, yes, but not the person who wrote it. It is the difference between ad hominem and substantive argument. But second, and in this case more important, there is the little matter of free speech. Criticizing what someone says is not the same as writing them death threats and trying to terminate their career. The right-wing thugs who are after Ward Churchill are stalking horses for more astute and sober folks in the rear. The troops in the field are Ward’s proximate problem, but the powers that be–at the University of Colorado, in the Colorado state government, in major media from Fox to The Wall Street Journal and from ABC and the New York Times, through to the halls of Washington DC–are ultimately far more important. Are reactionary elites going to coercively remove Ward Churchill from U.S. academia? That needs to be prevented by all of us, including people annoyed at having to wage the free speech fight over words they do not like. Raise your voice. Why is it so hard for people, often on both sides of the left/right divide, to understand that what free speech means, if it means anything at all, is freedom to speak what others do not like or even cannot stand to hear? Tolerating what you like is hardly a major achievement. Hitler tolerated what he liked. So did Stalin. Idi Amin did too. So did Genghis Khan, the Shah, and Henry Kissinger. Free speech only becomes an issue when someone says what others don’t want to hear. Ward Churchill did that and so free speech is now an issue. If the wrong side wins, the precedent will be dangerous. This dynamic is not new but it is growing bolder. A recent report in the New York Times relayed how teachers in many states and counties in the U.S. are avoiding evolution by natural selection as a topic in their public school classes. The teachers fear fallout from fundamentalist parents, scared school board members, and even politically cowed principals. Ward’s fight and the fight of these teachers are logically of one cloth. The difference is that so far Ward has more guts. Ward used to tell me, after a visit, “Keep your head down.” He had seen war at home and abroad and he knew what he was talking about. Now Ward is in another kind of war. I doubt any of these right-wing thugs will come after him bodily. But the harm they can do institutionally is bad enough. Keep your head down. Why Ward Churchill? I think Ward would probably say it is because what he is doing is very effective. Ward may even see the attacks on his essay as evidence that the essay had great dissident merit. I think Ward would be wrong in that. Ward is being attacked not because he is the strongest possible target, but because he is one of the weakest possible targets. His essay is featured not because it was seriously threatening, but because it is easily ridiculed. Ward provided right wingers fodder they could manipulatively use. The right wingers are hoping that Ward has sufficiently irritated those who would otherwise defend him so that he is left without defenders. We can’t allow that. The right is a long way from going after stronger targets. Everyone on the left has to be sure no targets they do go after are vulnerable. Since 9/11 at public talks I often compare George Bush and Osama bin Laden. I note that if you could have been a fly on the wall of the inner circle meeting rooms of the U.S. government leading up to the bombing of Afghanistan, I believe you would have heard no discussion, not even a minutes worth, taking into account the well being of the Afghan people in the face of possible massive starvation induced by our assault. Mass media at the time reported (on back pages only) that bombing Afghanistan could lead to five million deaths. No mainstream paper had a headline “U.S. contemplates killing millions to prove we are tough,” though all knew it was true. I also indicate in the public talks that if I were to now have the opportunity to ask bin Laden how he could possibly have chosen to undertake the assault on the Twin Towers, despicable as this act was, I think he would probably understand the question and would reply, roughly, that he thought the gains (in trying to propel the U.S. into reactions that would provoke fundamentalism throughout the Mideast) were worth the price in human loss. Bin Laden, as evil as his designs surely were and are, would understand, that is, that there was something untoward that occurred on 9/11, piles of corpses, and that the negative deaths had to be weighed against what he saw as positive political gains. Sane people will reject his moral calculus, of course, but I am guessing that at least he had one. On the other hand, I say in these talks that if I were to now have the opportunity to ask Bush and Cheney how they could possibly have chosen to undertake the bombing of Afghanistan, I think they would not even understand the question. They would not see any need to weigh off benefits against costs because they saw no costs. For them the general estimates made by all responsible parties that literally millions of Afghans might suffer starvation if bombing were to commence counted for naught. For them, Afghans are like bugs outside our front door are for the rest of us. To Bush and Cheney Afghans are expendable. Bush and Cheney have no moral calculus. They reduce humans to the status of fleas. And then I say in these talks, if there is a deep hell for sinners surely Osama bin Laden is headed for at least its seventh floor down, but George Bush and Dick Cheney are going to ride an elevator even further down to a deeper basement. Everyone at talks like this given in the U.S. understands these images and few have any problem with the harsh tone. When I have given talks like this in Europe, however, I have been asked why I am alive. I was confused the first time I heard this question in France, and then in Belgium and Italy, and then I realized what they meant. “If the U.S. is as bad as it seems, why don’t Bush and Co. eradicate people as radical and militant as you? That’s what our really bad guys did here in Europe, after all.” Well, the answer is that things in the U.S. are not that bad. Our fundamentalists can only pick on targets that are relatively weak and effectively repress them in states that are relatively congenial to right wing thuggery, and even then they can do so only in relatively limited ways, at least so far. But if we let our fundamentalists get away with that much, which is already more than bad enough, then it will be just an opening act. If they succeed at first, their efforts will expand. So why do O’Reilly and the Wall Street Journal pick on Ward? I think it’s because his words can be made to seem indiscriminate, and indeed arguably were indiscriminate, and because as a result they felt he would have a hard time fighting back. Pick Ward off, then work on all those teachers still having the gall to tell students that Darwin knew what he was talking about, and then move on from there. I don’t want to rally around Ward Churchill’s specific words. They aren’t my cup of freedom. I want to rally around Ward Churchill’s right to write whatever words he chooses. More, I want to fight for our need to have institutions and social conventions that respect and support dissidence rather than institutions and social conventions that try to extinguish dissidence at every opportunity. Indeed, when we attain that level of free and supported speech, we might have reason to claim a degree of civilization. P.S. There are plenty of historical instances of individuals being judged for more than one dimension of their lives and writing, even when one dimension had no redeeming logic at all. Here is another comment from W. Churchill (compliments of Mickey Z): “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” Whoops, that wasn’t Ward Churchill, it was Sir Winston Churchill, the man U.S. News and World Report called “The Last Hero.” Sir Winston also said: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes,” and asked British scientists to cook up “a new kind of weather” for the citizens of Dresden. I wouldn’t recommend taking Winston Churchill out of the library, but I would recommend strongly criticizing his vile words that had far fewer redeeming features than the worst things Ward Churchill has ever even fantasized saying.