The Witch Hunt Against Ward Churchill
“We’re a tolerant society here, but some things cannot be tolerated.”— Bill O’Reilly, Fox News discussing University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, February 11 2005
An intense battle is being fought out right now over whether anyone will be allowed to express ideas that challenge the U.S. empire, its operations, its motives and its official history. With growing insistence, rightwing “cultural warriors” have demanded that college campuses be purged. And now this whole campaign has been kicked onto the national political stage. Fox News is on the case, and two Republican governors have demanded that radical professors be fired. The focus of this moment has been Ward Churchill, a long-time political activist and author. Churchill is a professor at University of Colorado (UC) and head of the Ethnic Studies Department there. He is a Native American who has worked closely with the Colorado American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. He has written, edited and co-authored many books, including Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement and A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas: 1492 to Present. Last fall, Churchill accepted an invitation to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York on February 2, 2005,. The topic was prisons and Native American rights. The sponsor was Hamilton’s Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture and their “Class in Context” speakers series. Churchill combines his scholarly knowledge with a radical perspective and an often shocking style of delivery. And for exactly those reasons, he has been in demand, speaking at dozens of colleges over the last few years. His professional focus is exposing the genocide and current oppression of Native American peoples. This time, however, a highly organized ideological and political assault broke out–demanding that he be prevented from speaking. In the method of all witch hunts, the target quickly widened, surrounded by rumors and crude distortion: Who invited him and why? Who in high places has allowed such things to go on? What other professors, on other campuses, share his radical views? Active in the attack on Ward Churchill from the beginning was David Horowitz, the notorious intellectual hitman for the right wing–who has formed a network of campus brownshirts (perversely called “Students for Academic Freedom”) to target progressive professors, disrupt their classes, record their remarks, and use the conservative mass media to brand them as “America haters” This campaign is aimed at every prominent academic voice who criticizes the U.S. system and policies. And it is aimed at the very idea of academic ferment and dissent, which is despised by the rightwing forces as an incubator of critical thinking, radicalism, and challenges to the status quo in every sphere of intellectual endeavor and society. The stakes here are extremely high. And this is not yet well understood by many forces who need to be intensely engaged in this battle.
Up Against the Witch Hunt
- “We need to train our students to listen, think critically and speak up at these hard questions. We don’t need to protect them from things that they might disagree with.”
- “You have the right to free speech, As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”
Professor Nancy Rabinowitz was already on the rightwing watch-list when she invited Ward Churchill to Hamilton College. In 2004, her Kirkland Project invited Susan Rosenberg to teach a one-month course on writing memoirs. Rosenberg is a former political prisoner who served time for supporting the activities of the Weather underground. Rightwing forces screamed bloody murder over this appointment, and Susan Rosenberg backed out. Then, on December 14, 2004, the Kirkland Project announced that their speakers for 2005 included Professor Churchill. And immediately a self-appointed rightwing attack group on campus dug into his background and writings. Their attention focussed on an essay Churchill wrote after 9/11, called “Some People Push Back–On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” In that essay, Churchill argues that the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center could not be separated from what the U.S. had been doing in the world. In particular, he talks about the horrors of the U.S.-enforced embargo against Iraq that caused the death of 500,000 children. In a now-famous passage, Churchill likens many who died in 9/11 to the “good Germans” who kept silent in Nazi times. He argues that many 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. Recourse to `ignorance’–a derivative, after all, of the word `ignore’–counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite.” And in a now famous passage, Churchill describes these technocrats as “the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers.” (This is a reference to Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi responsible for organizing the death camps during World War 2.) Clutching this three-year-old essay, Theodore Eismeier, a government professor at Hamilton, rushed to threaten the college administration with a public relations scandal. Nancy Rabinowitz said that when the college president came to ask her opinion, Nancy responded, “Let’s take a strong stand for freedom of speech.” Hamilton College refused to cancel the invitation to Churchill. They decided to have Churchill appear on a broader panel, together with opposing, conservative speakers. The right wing was furious over this idea of engaging in opendebate. Standing reality on its head, Eismeier denounced the panel idea saying: “It seems akin to inviting a representative of the KKK to speak and then asking a member of the NAACP to respond.” And public attacks started–first in the local Syracuse newspaper (on January 26), and then on the internet’s influential rightwing blog-sites, like “Little Green Footballs” and “Free Republic.” Two days later, Fox News’ commentator Bill O’Reilly denounced Hamilton College and labeled Ward Churchill “insane.” He called on his listeners to target Hamilton College. A spokeswoman for Hamilton College said, “When the segment stopped, the phone just started ringing.” Hamilton was flooded with over 8,000 e-mail messages (many ugly, some supportive). Within days of O’Reilly’s rants on Fox, Churchill had received over 100 violent threats. (O’Reilly’s coverage included extended clips of Ward Churchill speaking–which prompted one Hamilton professor to point out that O’Reilly believed Churchill’s words shouldn’t be heard in reasoned campus discussion, but should be heard in hysterical TV broadcasts.) In the firestorm that broke out, Ward Churchill, his writings and politics have been taken completely out of context and reduced to a one-liner: “He compared the victims of 9/11 to Nazis.” Churchill fought to be understood (Counterpunch.org, February 3): “I am not a `defender’ of the September 11 attacks, but simply pointing out that if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned. I have never said that people “should” engage in armed attacks on the United States, but that such attacks are a natural and unavoidable consequence of unlawful U.S. policy. To the extent we shirk this responsibility, we, like the “Good Germans” of the 1930s and `40s, are complicit in its actions and have no legitimate basis for complaint when we suffer the consequences.” But in the roar of the rightwing offensive, and in the absence of organized resistance, such clarifications have rarely been heard. Churchill’s views are being portrayed as “pro-terrorist hate speech” and then declared outside the bounds of legitimate public debate. The argument has been, quite simply, that someone (anyone!) who had ever written such things should never again be allowed to speak on any subject–not even in the context of an open debate of opposing views. The broader mass media “picked up this story”–meaning: they adopted and broadcast (almost word for word) all the distortions, overheated outrage and fascistic demands emerging from the rabid rightwing forces. And it must be said, unfortunately, there was not the necessary timely counter-offensive by progressive forces–to defend those under attack, to defend the right of professors generally to hold radical views, to defend the right of students to judge different political analyses for themselves, to counter the incredible allegations being spread, and to expose the crude fascist agenda behind this campaign!
Public Persecution for Open Discussion
What followed was the painful public breaking of Hamilton College and its resolve. At first, college president Joan Hinde Stewart tried to take a clear and principled stand in favor of free speech and academic freedom. On January 26, she wrote: “Hamilton, like any institution committed to the free exchange of ideas, invites to its campus people of diverse opinions, often controversial. The opportunity to encounter and respond to people from outside the college community in their intensity and their immediacy is among the key attributes of a liberal education. The views of speakers are their own. We expect, as a matter of civil discourse, that the members of this academic community, as well as visitors, respect the dignity of reasoned and principled debate. It is in this setting that the substance and credibility of a speaker’s views are established as being worthy of support, or not. We expect that many of those who strongly disagree with Mr. Churchill’s comments will attend his talk and make their views known. This is the process of both academic freedom and freedom of speech.” On January 30, as the full force of the rightwing campaign hit, President Stewart wrote: “There have been calls for me to rescind the Kirkland Project’s invitation to Ward Churchill and cancel the event. But there is a principle at stake, for once the invitation was extended by the Kirkland Project and accepted by Ward Churchill, it became a matter of free speech.. On Thursday [when the panel discussion was to take place] we will have the chance to demonstrate the power of democracy.” What followed demonstrated that the so-called democracy in the U.S. is based on a dictatorship–that is more and more rearing its ugly head in academic and intellectual life. On January 31, George Pataki, governor of New York State publicly denounced Hamilton College for inviting Ward Churchill. In fluent double-speak, he said: “There is a difference between freedom of speech and inviting a bigoted terrorist supporter.” On February 1, President Stewart announced that Churchill would not be allowed to speak. Stewart said Hamilton College had tried to ” protect what we hold most dear, the right to speak, think and study freely” but that the threat of physical attack made this impossible. Churchill had privately said that he would be willing to risk his life to go through with the discussion. Even cancellation was not enough to satisfy the raging reactionaries. And attacks piled in from many sides on Professor Rabinowitz. For example, on February 3, a classic smear–in the manner of infamous communist hunters J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy–appeared on Horowitz’s Frontpage website. In a long rambling dossier-like piece, Frontpage writer Thomas Ryan attacked Hamilton’s Professor Nancy Rabinowitz–documenting that her father-in-law Victor Rabinowitz had been accused of being a communist (during the early 1960s witch hunts conducted by U.S. Congressional committees!) and connecting him with the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ryan wrote that Victor Rabinowitz had served as defense lawyer for Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground. In other words, the basic charge here is that Nancy Rabinowitz is related to Victor Rabinowitz, a lawyer who is charged with defending his clients!–i.e., accused of representing “radical individuals and groups seeking to destroy the U.S. Constitution.” On February 5, David Horowitz denounced Nancy Rabinowitz on his personal blog for supposedly creating a “Terrorist Nexus at Hamilton College.” On February 11, it was announced that Nancy Rabinowitz had been forced out of her position as head of the Kirkland Project. It was not enough that Churchill should be dis-invited. Those who invited him had to be publicly humiliated. A college had to betray its own belief in open debate. Nancy Rabinowitz asked a good question: “How many people can stomach what we’ve been through?”
The Storm in Colorado
Day by day, a parallel campaign raged in Colorado. Colorado Republicans took time out from their permanent assault on gay marriage to focus on Ward Churchill and the suspect political climate in the state’s university towns. Bill Owens, Governor of Colorado, went on the O’Reilly Factor and called on the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents to fire Professor Churchill. Owens said, “I’ve called for him to actually be terminated, because of his words and his actions, which I think are inconsistent with what we stand for in Colorado and at the University of Colorado.” It is worth taking a second to think about what he is saying: Quite simply, it is that someone should not be allowed to teach at a college in Colorado unless they conform to the highly conservative governor’s political standards of “what we stand for.” Apparently he thinks he is the dictator of what the state’s college professors are allowed to think or say. This is the kind of “academic freedom” that the Horowitzians are calling for and, if such views carry the day, the impact on political and intellectual life would be chilling. Republicans in the Colorado House of Representatives introduced a resolution denouncing Churchill. Bowing to this political pressure, university authorities set to work concocting some way to punish Churchill. First he was stripped of his department post: On February 2 (the same day that Hamilton College cancelled the panel event) Ward Churchill resigned as head of the Ethnic Studies Department at University of Colorado. At the same time, Ward Churchill is a tenured professor–which means that he cannot be fired unless he has committed major violations of ethics (like scholarly fraud). The American Association of University Professors weighed in (“Statement on Professor Ward Churchill Controversy,” February 2): “Freedom of faculty members to express views, however unpopular or distasteful, is an essential condition of an institution of higher learning that is truly free. We deplore threats of violence heaped upon Professor Churchill, and we reject the notion that some viewpoints are so offensive or disturbing that the academic community should not allow them to be heard and debated. Also reprehensible are inflammatory statements by public officials that interfere in the decisions of the academic community.” Meanwhile, the chancellor at UC initiated a 30-day investigation into Churchill’s writings and statements supposedly looking for firing offenses, saying Churchill “may have overstepped his bounds.” Enter stage right: A certain Thomas Brown, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, popped up on cue. On Horowitz’s Frontpage website, Brown published a long polemic challenging some details in the way Ward Churchill once (ten years ago in a legal document) described the use of “small pox blankets” to kill Indians. Brown writes. “Churchill’s tale of genocide by means of biological warfare is shocking. It is also entirely fraudulent.” This is a set-up for a political firing: the plan is to accuse Churchill of fraud, while really targeting him for his politics. A number of scholars quickly rose to his defense. Prof. Arturo Aldama, who works with Churchill at CU, told the press: “He’s impeccable on his sources and known for his empirical and archival-based methodologies.” Noam Chomsky, MIT professor of linguistics and prominent researcher into U.S. imperialism, said: “I’ve read a fair amount of his work, and a lot of it is excellent, penetrating and of high scholarly quality.” Meanwhile, the University of Colorado tried to suppress a campus rally in Churchill’s defense. On the morning of February 8 they announced that the event planned for that evening was canceled–citing “security concerns.” Students threatened a court suit, and the administration backed down. (Apparently: no real security danger, huh?) That evening over a thousand people crowded in to hear Ward Churchill speak, and over 250 stood outside trying to get in. As the audience cheered, colleagues and students spoke movingly in Churchill’s defense, and Churchill declared fiercely that he had no intention of retreating from his justified criticisms of U.S. atrocities around the world. Later, O’Reilly sneered on the air that Churchill had created a “cult of personality” on campus–and that it only showed how dangerous it was to allow students to hear radical views. Meanwhile at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, the school administration has courageously insisted that they will not cancel plans to have Ward Churchill speak on March 1. And, in a pattern that is both chilling and now typical, members of the Wisconsin legislature have announced that they would take steps to prevent Churchill from speaking in their state. This is where things now stand–as this sharp struggle continues.
A Call for Campus Purges
- “Given the prevailing political climate, and the power of institutions like Fox News to stir up mass hysteria, it won’t stop with Churchill, and it won’t stop with Hamilton College,”
- “The problem with this guy is that he sees the U.S.A. as a country that persecutes people, a bad country.”
- “Churchill is typical of the hate-America academic left–a fifth column every bit as much a threat to our survival as Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Sixties rioters are today’s professors.They’ve created universities that mirror their mindset. Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Hispanic Studies, ethnic studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies are excuses for neo-Marxist indoctrination (where race, gender, or sexuality substitute for “class”)..Should Ward Churchill be fired? The question is almost irrelevant. As the saying goes, Churchill is symptomatic of a raging disease–the academic Left (a redundancy, really) which loathes America, lionizes the killers of Americans, and longs for the demise of our republic. In a way, Professor Churchill serves an educational purpose for the American people. As the old World War II posters cautioned: Know your enemy.”
- “Ward Churchill literally and definitively called for the violent overthrow and destruction of the United States. By any even remotely objective standards, his statements can be construed as nothing else.. It is almost unconscionable that Churchill and his ilk are still allowed to engage in seditious behavior. Sedition is on the cusp of treason. Further, with his comments Churchill is providing `aid and comfort to the enemy.’ That is treason. Why do we, as a nation, no longer prosecute the Left for this high crime? Why is the Left consistently immune? Again, free speech includes neither sedition nor treason.even in the `academic’ community.”
These quotes show what the attackers are really up to. So much hinges on their portrayal of the U.S. as the global source of liberty and morality that they are driven to a FRENZY by anyone who describes or discusses the true nature of their empire. This situation is serious. And it is particularly intolerable that the defense of Churchill has been so scattered and half-hearted — and filled with tortured attempts to clarify differences with Churchill. Everyone needs to be clear on the stakes and the bigger picture. The powerful, well-organized, well-funded wolves attacking Churchill intend to politically purge the campuses, chill the political climate, silence dissent, and empower a system of thought police to enforce all this. These are the facts. This is a campaign filled with hatred of critical thinking and open debate. It is rooted in forces deeply hostile to the very idea of critical thought–powerful forces whose vision for our lives includes the enforcement of absolute truths and extreme conservative political and religious gospel. And, obviously, this is a crucial part of the larger cultural war– which has a whole vision of how they want this society to be. There is a need to step back–to see this larger picture–and then energetically step forward to mount a vigorous defense of Ward Churchill–and organize a much larger and powerful resistance to the whole fascist agenda that is on the move.