In Case You Missed It
Boulderganic Fall 2009
Student Guide 2009
Boulder Weekly Sweet 16 Anniversary
Summer Scene 2009
Best of Boulder 2009
Annual Manual 2009
Newspaper of the Future
Kids Camp Guide 2009
Wedding Marketplace 09
Student Guide 2008
Best of Boulder 2008
Annual Manual 2008
Join Our Mailing List
|May 7-13, 2009
• See Letters page
• Jim Hightower
An American heart of darkness
by Prof. Francis A. Beer and Prof. Joseph B. Juhász
Ward Churchill dared to speak the unspeakable. He had been a tenured professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1991. In 2001, he said that many of the victims of 9/11 were hardly innocent; they were instead “little Eichmanns.” Like Adolph Eichmann — who had followed his orders and used the most modern technology running the trains to the efficient German death camps — many of the workers in the Twin Towers were part of “a cadre of faceless bureaucrats and technical experts” who were simply following the directions of higher authority. Working at New York’s Twin Towers, they “had willingly (and profitably) harnessed themselves to the task [of] making America’s genocidal world order hum with maximal efficiency.”
Churchill drew upon his understanding of the Native American Holocaust to paint a dark picture of the United States, involving genocide at home and abroad. He boldly said that that the 9/11 attack was resistance to longstanding arrogant and criminal United States imperial policy. Modern Americans, not Native Americans, were the real savages. Not only the leaders, but also the followers were war neo-Nazi criminals.
America was an occupied country, populated by the real savages, though with technology even more modern than their predecessors. It was vicious and sociopathological at home and abroad, focused on a narrow self and a shallow self-interest, regardless of the human cost. The United States was a murderous, expansionist, totalitarian nation; an evil empire with evil citizens.
It had earned what it got. Whatever the merits of his argument, he had crossed the line of polite conversation. At the center of American narcissism was an American heart of darkness. As an old friend of ours was fond of saying, if you mess with the bull, you’re going to get the horn.
Churchill wrote these thoughts in his book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Consequences of American Conquest and Carnage and elsewhere. His words received little attention when they were first published. After a long delay, they eventually came to public notice in 2005. General braying ensued. The Colorado governor, legislators, regents, professors and the public were like Athenian citizens confronting Socrates, outraged that he was corrupting the youth. One university president was fired after suggesting the onset of a new McCarthyism. Another president, a former Republican senator, was appointed. The new president’s mission was clear.
Churchill was thoroughly investigated; the examination included his background, hiring, scholarship, service, teaching, tenure and bloodlines. Was he a real Native American? Thereafter, a special faculty committee was formed to look at his scholarship alone; it duly found that he was lacking. Upon the new president’s recommendation, the University of Colorado Regents fired Churchill in 2007. Churchill sued. A jury of six found in 2009 that he had been terminated not, as alleged, for his scholarship, but for constitutionally protected free speech. They awarded him $1 in damages. The judge is currently deciding what to do next. Where are the Marx brothers when we need them?
When Churchill spoke, he was using his Constitutional rights of free speech. Yet, in spite of guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment, the Constitution is an invitation to continuing political struggle. American practice allows no free hits and no free lunch. It may protect the speech, but it does not protect the speaker.
Churchill’s offensive speech was not politically free. It was constrained by other powerful actors in the larger political system. While politics is about the struggle for meaning, and Churchill could initially give voice to the forbidden, he had also committed political pornography that violated community standards. A ferocious political tsunami followed. Strong, well-protected swimmers like Noam Chomsky, with the right backgrounds in the right institutions, might survive; but more ordinary mortals who might wish to follow Churchill into the water were warned away from the riptides.
Churchill’s speech was not professionally free. His academic colleagues from various fields sat on various committees that subsequently focused on his writings. They were not shy in executing their institutional duty to discipline and punish. They exhibited little familiarity with prior literature that supported his general argument, but instead parsed his footnotes for errors of commission and omission. They expressed their views of his defects, telling him how he should have done his work in the past and how he should do it in the future. Ignoring that Homer was called the father of lies, they accused Churchill of fabrication, plagiarism and fraud. They did not, however, collectively recommend his termination. They left that to the president and the regents of the university, none of whom possessed scholarly credentials, but who spoke of the university’s scholarly standards and integrity.
Churchill’s speech was not reputationally free. While Churchill became a minor celebrity, he is also now a marked man. Further, faculty who served on the evaluating committees and administrators who appointed them and approved their results were muddied by the controversy. Finally, the Colorado jury also painted a scarlet letter on The University of Colorado — as a political football and a violator of academic freedom.
Churchill’s speech was certainly not financially free. He lost his tenured position and his income. He incurred legal and personal expenses, to say nothing of his time and peace of mind. The university’s investigation probably cost in the $10 million range, if one accounts for the legal costs of all parties and the costs of faculty and administrative time.
Actually, in spite of the First Amendment, speech has never been free in the United States. The moment of exception has always been with us. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 made that clear from the beginning. Implications of the contemporary USA PATRIOT Act continue the ongoing theme. Academic freedom, in whose shade Churchill performed, exists very much in this political context. In spite of popular mythology, professors do not work in an ivory tower, separate from the society of which they are a part. Business elites, increasingly involved in university governance, are shaping modern knowledge corporations where professors are employees. They have little use for Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull. Churchill did not fit in.
Strong constraints on speech are alive and well outside and inside the university. Those who transgress the limits of popular political belief do so at their great peril. Beyond the borders of the permissible, lie the barren lands of forbidden speech about neo-Nazi, racist Americans committing war crimes abroad and Constitutional violations at home. Whistleblowing is not encouraged.
Churchill was the University of Colorado’s wooden Indian who spoke the unspeakable. His right to do so was validated to some extent by the jury that ruled in his favor. As we break out the freedom fries, however, we might also sprinkle them liberally with irony.
Oppressive regimes also know the rhetoric of freedom. As Churchill might have pointed out, the sign over the entrance to Auschwitz promised that work would create freedom. While Churchill might quietly dream the impossible dream and see himself as a mighty warrior against injustice, his position as a tenured professor did not make him free to speak unspeakable words in polite academic society.
A tale of two countries
When Churchill spoke, he challenged the dominant myth of American politics — the myth of the Good America taught in high school civics courses — that the United States is a virtuous society, motivated by peaceful intentions and democratic ideals, including free speech. He told another story, of the Bad America, familiar to Native and African Americans, as well as other minorities. He exposed in public a guilty secret, a truth that dared not speak its name: that Americans’ self-image was self-deception, hypocrisy, camouflage and rationalization; that the United States was basically brutal and repressive. Many people used obvious common sense to reject the speech and the speaker as ridiculous. Churchill was completely off the reservation.
Others saw the situation in another light, as a tale of two countries. Beyond the sacred laws and texts — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation — lay violent hearts and minds. They remembered the country’s bloody history. Contemporary scandals like Abu Ghraib, collateral damage and enhanced interrogation were part of a larger pattern.
They were unsure what was the exception and what the rule. Different events supported different narratives; different interpretations reflected different versions of a complex, mixed American identity.
Churchill spoke the story of Bad America. But, ironically, he acted in the spirit of the Good America, where speech was free and even the unspeakable could be spoken. The violent public reaction went in the other direction, ignoring the Good America and acting out the bad. The denial and repression of Churchill, like Churchill himself, spoke the unspeakable. It was evidence beyond speech, a public performance in plain sight that dramatically enacted his vision of a tribal, savage modern America. After watching the last few years of the “Ward Churchill in America” show, as Groucho asked, “Who are you going to believe — me or your own eyes?”
Francis A. Beer is a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Joseph B. Juhász is a professor of architecture and environmental design in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver.
back to top