Saturday, August 11, 2007

The case of Ward Churchill

In a way I think that the aim of attacking Ward Churchill, which was to pave the way for radical academics being dismissed, has not been accomplished. This is because Churchill was probably the only person out there who made his comments on 9/11 so explicit. But, there are two separate issues related to the brouhaha surrounding his case: one, the issue of academics being dismissed for political reasons, the other the actual facts about Ward Churchill. The facts about Churchill's academic career are distantly related but not directly related to the first issue; in fact the issue of dismissing people for political reasons would be more important than the second issue except if the second issue was so serious that it undercut the political reasons. So, if we can agree that dismissing someone because they say something that people take issue with is wrong, let's move onto the second issue.

I think that the people who organized the firing of Ward Churchill spent a lot of time picking their target. The 'Eichmans' article was written days after 9/11 and had been circulating for years before Fox News picked it up. In fact, an entire book, "The Justice of Roosting Chickens", was published as an extension of the essay. They probably looked into his career and found some inconsistencies and looked into the claim of Native ancestry, saw that it had problems, and decided to go with that too. I'll get to that in a second. What the press ignored though was the enormous amount of scholarship that Churchill has devoted to the history of government oppression of radical groups in the U.S. It's an irony that one of the subjects he's written about in an inspiring way, the orchestration of disinformation and of attempts to discredit radicals, should have been used against him himself. Or maybe it isn't that ironic. I'm trying not to sit in judgment here because I really have no right to, but to me at least the talks given by Churchill and the books he's written about government repression, along with the general notion of a Fourth World, an indigenous world that has different politics than the industrialized first world, along with the notion of the Nation-State in the New World as being a construct devoted to the furtherence of capitalism and colonial subjugation, is the most important part of his work.

But on the other hand there have been rumors and murmurs about Churchill's style itself. I know three people who either have known Churchill personally over the years or have had some interaction with him, all of these being either professional or kind of peripheral through being part of the same radical community in Colorado, and they've been kind of cold on the matter of Churchill. One person said that he knows people who have studied under Churchill and that they're good scholars, but had "no comment" on Churchill personally. Another person said that during the Nicaragua conflict in the eighties Churchill was involved with supporting the Miskito tribe against the Contras and that this brought him into collaboration with right-wing figures associated with the Reagan administration, who also were helping the Miskito tribe as part of their broader effort to undermine the socialist Sandinista government.

Then there's the main issue, besides the allegations of plagiarism, which aren't spurious but which certainly were investigated because of the "Eichmans" article, which is the Native American issues that Churchill writes about. It isn't so much that he lectures on Native American issues that made Churchill vulnerable as it was the way in which he lectures and writes. As people note, it's very angry and confrontational, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it trades an awful lot on the idea that there's a person with a rock-solid Native identity behind it. There's the weakness, on top of the "Eichmans" article, that people exploited: the tenuous nature of Ward Churchill's Native identity, which is based on family tradition, versus the type of rhetoric employed in his books.

So you have a politically vulnerable paper that's employed to start the fire of outrage, then you have a vulnerability further down the line in the person's trade and background, which is exploited. Then you have some issues regarding use of sources and attribution of articles that have come up before but haven't been seriously pursued, but now are. If you go to that oracle of truth Wikipedia and search for the Ward Churchill controversy you'll find a link to an extensive thirty page paper written by an academic, with lots of supporting evidence, that argues that particular historical incidents that Churchill talks about in Native history were fabricated. The article also outlines Churchill taking credit for a pamphlet on dams in Canada that was written by an NGO as well as putting his name on a paper written by someone else.

This is the third layer of vulnerability, with a layer possibly in between the second and third being the role of affirmative action in getting Churchill appointed as a professor based on Native ancestry, which is troubling but maybe doesn't mean what people think.

The impact of the three layers, the Eichmans article, the Native Ancestry issue, and the academic work issue, is spun in such a way as to suggest that Churchill is a con man and a liar and that he doesn't deserve an academic post, and that further he's a radical who has exploited the system and exploited liberal tolerance to be appointed as a heavy radical teaching vulnerable children and getting a voice that he otherwise wouldn't have.

I don't know what the truth is but I seriously doubt that the con man image is accurate; there probably is a more complex explanation for all of these things. Neither is the story that he mysteriously embodies all that conservatives fear about academics: a tenured radical, someone who has exploited minority status, someone who's issues regarding plagiarism and academic honesty were overlooked because of the topics he was writing about.

It makes for a perfect storm though, one that conservatives were very smart to exploit.

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