Tuesday, February 08, 2005


This Ain't Winston

Bush II Press Secretary Ari Fleischer once famously stated during a White House press briefing:
"All Americans.. need to watch what they say, watch what they do."

He made this statement two weeks after 9/11, in which the atmosphere in this country was so intolerant of dissent that it was practically treason to say anything that didn't end with "home of the free" or "from sea to shining sea."

Over the last few years, I thought the censorship noose has loosened a tad, as it became more common to hear people speak out against the President, our military, our foreign policies, or whatever indefensible wars we're fighting.

Instead, since the wardrobe malfunction incident a year ago, the decency police seem to have focused their crosshairs more on the purveyors of sex and sexuality. Judging from the Super Bowl's sanitized commercials (give or take a Cialis ad) to the Terrell Owens / Desperate Housewives "scandalous" promo to the ludicrous suggestion that the kids' cartoons "Postcards from Buster" and SpongeBob are promoting a "gay lifestyle," we Americans are currently wading through a cultural swimming pool where a 2-piece bathing suit might be indecent.

But Ward Churchill proves that political censorship is very much alive today.

For those who haven't heard, Mr. Churchill (a.k.a. Keetoowah Band Cherokee) is a Native American activist and Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado. He is the author of the new book, "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality," which chronicles American military interventions and violations of international law. The book didn't attract much attention when it was released in November 2003, although it won honorable mention for the Gustavus Myer Human Rights Award.

But all hell broke loose when his recent invitation to speak at Hamilton College was rescinded because of "security concerns." It's not clear to me how the controversy started, but someone obviously took offense to Churchill's essay in the book in which he equated the "technocrats of empire" working in the World Trade Center with "little Eichmanns" -- a reference to Adolf Eichmann, who was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide. His point, as I understand it, is that the 9/11 attacks were an inevitable consequence of unlawful U.S. foreign policies.

In a recent statement, Professor Churchill stated:

"[t]he bottom line of my argument is that the best and perhaps only way to prevent 9-1-1-style attacks on the U.S. is for American citizens to compel their government to comply with the rule of law. The lesson of Nuremberg is that this
is not only our right, but our obligation. 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

It's no surprise, however, that in our wicked national game of "grapevine" or "telephone," his views have been twisted and reduced to: Ward Churchill says that Americans deserved to die on 9/11 because they were Nazis.

The mainstream media spread, like wildfire, the false allegation that he labeled all Americans 'Nazis.' An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, for example, wrongly referred to Churchill as "the pro-fascist University of Colorado professor of 'ethnic studies' who cheered on the Sept. 11 attacks." (As you can see, that editorial also seems to dismiss the legitimacy of an 'ethnic studies' department.)

This controversy doesn't just end with people taking offense. If only. Here's a sampling of the aftermath, thus far:

  • The University of Colorado ordered a 30-day review of Professor Churchill's speeches and writings to determine whether the tenured professor overstepped his boundaries of academic freedom and should be fired.

  • Fox News and Bill O'Reilly and his minions are on a constant campaign to shut down all of his speaking appearances, labeling him an "American-hater."

  • Colorado Gov. Bill Owens called on Churchill to resign his faculty position, saying taxpayers shouldn't have to subsidize his "outrageous and insupportable" views that defy the facts of history.

  • Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald also said he should resign from CU, saying he was compromising the school's reputation.

  • Republican members of the House also introduced a nonbinding resolution expressing sympathy for the September 11 victims and criticizing Churchill's comments.

  • His latest speaking engagement at Colorado University were cancelled for "security reasons."

  • There is a growing movement -- especially in conservative talk radio circles -- who are calling for him to be executed for treason.

Honestly, this public crucifixion scares the bowels out of me -- not just as an academic, but as a blogger, an aspiring essayist, a poet, and an American citizen.

There but for the grace of God go I.

For starters, I find merit in Professor Churchill's argument that the United States must follow international law because, otherwise, "[i]f we respond with callous disregard to the deaths of others, we can only expect equal callousness to American deaths." If anything, this sounds like common sense.

I haven't read Ward Churchill's book, but I know enough to disagree with some of his perspectives, many of which seem alienating or sensational.

But that's the thing: they're his perspectives. His opinions.

Professor Churchill isn't advocating or encouraging violence against anyone. He isn't spreading lies or slandering any person. He isn't falsifying research. He did not defend any attacks on our country.

Yet, he is on the verge of termination. And remember: Professor Churchill has tenure.

As I am not even tenure-track, this controversy has a huge chilling effect on my willingness to publicly air my views.

So especially to all the bloggers and writers and poets and rappers and scholars out there, I humbly suggest that we need to support Ward Churchill's First Amendment right to speak.

I would defend Ward Churchill's right to speak even if he was on the conservative end of the spectrum. I know that my right to free speech will be meaningless unless I defend the rights of those with the least popular views.

Unfortunately, we already live in a country where all Americans need to watch what they say and watch what they do.

But we don't have to devolve into a nation where the consequences of our choices in words or scholarship lead to academic termination, silencing, or God forbid, imprisonment.

We have the right not to remain silent.

If we don't speak up for Ward Churchill, one of us is going to be next.

* * *

P.S. How do I reconcile this perspective with my belief that Miss Jones on Hot 97 should have been fired?

For starters, Hot 97 is a private company; University of Colorado is a public university (I think). Constitutionally speaking, Miss Jones doesn't have the same First Amendment rights on broadcast radio as a professor has to conduct academic scholarship. (She does, of course, have the right to perform or sell the song in numerous other settings.) Miss Jones is an entertainer; Ward Churchill is a scholar. Radio DJs don't have tenure; Ward Churchill has tenure. Miss Jones was broadcasting racial epithets, without apology; Ward Churchill was articulating an analytical perspective on foreign policy. And finally, if the First Amendment has any historic meaning, it's to protect political dissent, as opposed to the idea-less, racist fighting words that Miss Jones chose to repeatedly broadcast.