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Eye on the News

Katherine Ernst
Not Your Father’s Churchill
You couldn’t make up faculty antics like these.
4 February 2005

You know a professor has run into trouble at your local university when lefty protestors are marching around campus with duct tape covering their mouths, emblazoned with the words “free speech.” Such is the scene at the University of Colorado, where flowing-tressed ethnic studies prof Ward Churchill, who claims to be some kind of Native American (dubiously, it increasingly seems), is up to his neck in controversy.

Churchill’s invitation to speak on a panel devoted to “prisons and Native American rights” at tiny Hamilton College in upstate New York occasioned the hullabaloo. In the run-up to the event, students, staff, alumni, and then Fox News and other new media outlets got wind of an essay Churchill wrote three years ago: “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” There, the Nutty Professor seemed to be saying that the victims of 9/11 deserved their fate.

As the irate calls and e-mails poured in, Churchill backtracked, claiming that people had grossly misunderstood his argument. What he really had said, he explained, was that the United States could expect to reap what it has sown—that U.S.-sponsored “genocide,” such as economic sanctions on Iraq after the first Gulf war (his example), will inevitably provoke 9/11-style attacks. But it was hard to take such “clarifications” seriously when “Roosting Chickens” contained nuggets like: “If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation [in the U.S. imperial complex] upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.”

Hamilton has now cancelled the event (claiming concern over security), but the controversy has flown to the Mountain Time Zone, where many lawmakers, including Colorado Governor Bill Owens, have asked for the professor’s resignation from CU and the school’s Board of Regents plans to debate his fate.

But don’t hold your breath for anything consequential to happen. As CU Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano told the press, “While I personally find his views offensive, I also must support his right as an American citizen to hold and express his views, no matter how repugnant, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Ditto Churchill’s CU Ethnic Studies buddies: “We as faculty . . . stand in full and unconditional support of our colleague Ward Churchill’s freedom of expression and First Amendment Rights.” Hamilton College’s president Joan Hinde Steward had mouthed similar sentiments (at least until the security concerns prevailed): “However repugnant one may find Mr. Churchill’s remarks, were the College to withdraw the invitation simply on the grounds that he has said offensive things, we would be abandoning a principle on which this College and indeed this republic is founded”—free speech.

These First Amendment-based arguments miss the point: the right to free speech is not a right to be heard or a right to hold on to a job. Would these schools hire or invite to speak a biologist who claimed that alien gamma rays caused cancer—even if that someone held a Ph.D. from a prestigious school? Of course not. So why is a psuedo-intellect—who thinks that stock traders, accountants, and Windows on the World busboys are comparable to genocidal Nazis—given intellectual time and respect? Just to prove that officials at these schools have read the Bill of Rights? CU is also a public university: Why should Joe Taxpayer be subsidizing such idiocy?

Churchill’s academic allies may be defending him based on the importance of protecting free speech, even when it’s offensive, but in truth some are probably sympathetic with his out-there leftism. Consider the Kirkland Project, the Hamilton College group that invited him to the panel discussion. Kirkland’s mission statement claims that the project seeks “to provide the integrated, complex, rigorous intellectual analysis and engagement with ideas that [are] characteristic of a liberal arts education and necessary for social justice movements.” So much for the disinterested pursuit of knowledge!

So committed to this political goal is Kirkland director Nancy Rabinowitz that she attempted to hire social justice activist extraordinaire (or rather, domestic terrorist) Susan Rosenberg as an “artist/activist-in-residence” at the college recently. Fortunately, the convicted felon and Weather Underground alum bowed out of the appointment before the ink dried on her contract. Undeterred, the Kirkland Project has subsequently hosted scores of activists to participate in its “Intersections of Class, Race, Gender, Sexuality and Nationality” program. Thus, it’s implausible that Rabinowitz’s desire to have Ward Churchill on a Kirkland panel merely reflected a desire to showcase her commitment to the Bill of Rights.

As public anger over Churchill’s expected Hamilton appearance grew, the college had the Kirkland Project change the panel into a forum where Churchill’s views could be “confronted.” Therefore, to the original panel—Richard Werner (a Hamilton philosophy professor and pacifist) and Churchill’s wife, Natsu Taylor Saito, a law professor at Georgia State University and associate professor in her husband’s Ethnic Studies department, whose curriculum vitae reads like a satire of elite radicalism (among other things, she has sat on the board of G-Man killer Leonard Peltier’s defense committee)—Kirkland added First Amendment scholar and Nation contributor Philip Klinkner, who also teaches at Hamilton. If Hamilton really cared about free speech and the “exchange of ideas,” couldn’t it have found at least one right-of-center professor—or even just plain centrist—to participate in the forum?

Like Hamilton’s Kirkland Project, Churchill’s own Ethnic Studies department back at the University of Colorado is equally out there in lefty land. Courses such as “Native Americans and Environmental Ethics” and “Chicana Feminisms and Knowledge” are almost by definition not impartial scholarship but leftist political advocacy. In fact, until the controversy pressured Churchill to step down as chairman, the department seemed unconcerned about his hardcore anti-Americanism: “I want the state gone—transform the situation to U.S. out of North America. U.S. off the planet. Out of existence altogether.”

It’s probably unfair to single out Ward Churchill for pink-slip treatment, given that his views, though crude and shrill, aren’t really out of the faculty mainstream in today’s academe. But when one of these same radicals feels heat from taxpayers and outraged alumni, we should realize the “free speech” defense is a canard. Let’s not shed a tear for our pal Ward should he wind up cleaning out his office. He’ll pop up on a public access channel soon enough. Or land an Ivy League fellowship.

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