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Raise Your Voice But Keep Your Head Down
I first met Ward Churchill when I was working at South End Press 25 years ago and he submitted a collection of essays revealing why indigenous people distrust Marxists’ cultural politics. I found Churchill’s insights compelling and became friends with him. I haven’t seen Ward for years, but we often publish a piece by him on ZNet, where I now work. I offer this in case anyone might feel that 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 (“controversial”) 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 contributions about gravity on grounds that he believed in alchemy. When attacked with manipulative skill, tangential flaws can be used to under- cut important truths.
On a larger scale, that’s what people are now trying to do to Ward: dismiss him 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 conjoined. 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 has over the years contributed a great deal to the comprehension of cultural concerns and possibilities, as well as revealing the dynamics of repression and international relations. Ward is a prodigious writer and an effective speaker and organizer who has fought tirelessly for just causes.
I don’t agree with Ward’s views on some health and population issues much less on the efficacy of political trash talk about strategies of struggle. But none of that has interfered with my liking Ward and feeling positive about his 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, there is the little matter of free speech. Criticizing what someone says is not the same as writing them death threats and trying to end their career. The right-wing thugs now plaguing Ward Churchill are stalking horses for more astute 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, from ABC to the New York Times , and 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 a free speech fight over words they do not like. Raise your voice.
Why is it so hard for people on both sides of the left/right divide, to understand free speech means freedom to speak what others do not like and 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.
T his dynamic is not new, but it is growing bolder. A recent report in the New York Times relayed how teachers in many states in the U.S. are avoiding evolution as a topic in their public school classes. The teachers fear fallout from fundamentalist parents, scared school board members, and 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.
Ward Churchill? I think Ward would probably say it is because what
he is doing is effective. He may even see the attacks on his essay
as evidence that it had great dissident merit. I think Ward would
be wrong in that. He 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. Right wingers are hoping Ward
has so irritated those who would otherwise defend him that he is
left without defenders.
A fter 9/11, I would give public talks where I compared George Bush and Osama bin Laden. I note that if you could have been a fly on the wall of the inner circle meetings of the U.S. government leading up to the bombing of Afghanistan, I believe you wouldn’t have heard a minutes worth of discussion that took 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 these talks that if I were to have the opportunity to ask bin Laden how he could possibly have chosen to assault the Twin Towers, despicable as this act was, I think he would probably understand the question and would have replied, 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 were, understood 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 my 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 wouldn’t even understand the question. They would not see any need to weigh benefits against costs because they saw no costs. For them the general estimates made by all responsible parties that millions of Afghans might suffer starvation if bombing were to commence counted for nothing. Afghans are for them like bugs outside our front doors are for the rest of us. Bush and Cheney have no moral calculus. They reduce humans to the status of fleas.
Then, I say, if there is a deep hell for sinners surely Osama bin Laden is headed for at least its seventh floor down, but Bush and Cheney are going to ride an elevator to an even deeper basement. Everyone in the audience understands these images and few have any problem with my 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 and then I realized what they meant. “If the U.S. is as bad as it seems, why haven’t Bush and Co. eradicated people as radical as you? That’s what our 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 relatively weak targets and effectively repress them in states that are congenial to right-wing thuggery. Even then they can do so only in limited ways, at least so far. But if we let our fundamentalists get away with that much, it will be just an opening act.
S o why are O’Reilly and the Wall Street Journal picking on Ward? I think it’s because his words can be made to seem indiscriminate and because, as a result, they feel 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. 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.
There are plenty of historical cases of individuals being judged for more than one dimension of their lives, even when one dimension had no redeeming logic at all. Here is a 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.
Michael Albert is co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine . He is the author of numerous books on political theory, including the current Thought Dreams and Parecon: Life After Capitalism. He is currently on the ZNet staff.
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