The Firing of Ward Churchill
Soon after 9/11, Ward Churchill, then a professor at the University of Colorado, wrote that the people killed on 9/11 at the Pentagon were legitimate military targets. “As to those in the World Trade Center . . . Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire—the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved—and they did so both willingly and knowingly. […] If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.” (See the full text here, and his subsequent explanations here.)
The bit about the Pentagon is defensible. The bit about the “little Eichmanns,” not quite. Nothing could possibly justify the targeting of the World Trade Center as “legitimate” in any way. It was terrorism, pure and simple, although not quite as unique to al-Qaeda terrorists as most Americans like to believe. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among others, are close kin to 9/11, at least in intent (9/11 wasn’t such a close kin in results). As William Langewiesche writes in the opening pages of “The Atomic Bazaar,” the intent of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings “was to terrorize a nation to the maximum extent, and there is nothing like nuking civilians to achieve that effect.” He also said that the killers, the nineteen hijackers, were “not cowards,” which is also what Bill Maher said on his “Politically Incorrect” show on ABC. As accurate as Maher was, it got him canned.
Whatever Ward Churchill said, he had a right to say it, to write it, to disseminate it, and to preach it without fearing for his job, let alone his life. What he wrote may have been inelegant, even stupid. But that’s irrelevant in a free society. He was not preaching those words to his students. He wasn’t using his university classrooms as a platform for his odd views, except in so far as they related to his field of expertise (Native Americans). He was writing them and disseminating them on the web and in his book, “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Nevertheless, once people started hearing about it, they wanted him fired. Among those wanting him gone was the Colorado legislature, and of course Bill Owens, the Colorado governor and once-upon-a-time object of every Republican’s lust in the land. (Owens’ endorsement of a tax hike necessary to keep Colorado functioning got him canned from the reactionary’s Mount Olympus.)
On July 24, Churchill, a tenured professor since 1981, was fired. The reason had supposedly nothing to do with “academic freedom.” Churchill, you see, is a plagiarist. “The university president, Hank Brown, who recommended that the board fire Professor Churchill,” the Times wrote, “said he deserved to lose his job because he had ‘falsified history’ and ‘fabricated history.’” And in this, Thomas Brown, the Lamar University sociology professor, seems to have had it right: “ I’m beginning to see Ward Churchill as the carny in the dunking booth, who hurls insults at the crowd, and then howls with outrage when he gets soaked. Yes, the unenlightened were out to get you. Yes, the system was rigged against you by the power structure. No argument there. But should anyone care?”
But Churchill may also have a point when he claims that the crime doesn’t justify the punishment, which he considers politically motivated by his stance on 9/11 anyway. An outright firing for some plagiarism and some “fabrications,” which he would argue is a matter of interpretation? Generally speaking, harsh punishments for professors who plagiarize and invent is just. But that’s not been the case lately:
- Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s the presidential historian who proved to be a serial plagiarist, and a sore confessor at that. Has she been hurt by those discoveries? Not at all. She had to leave PBS’ NewsHour, but she still got her book contracts, and she got a media promotion. She’s now an “analyst” for NBC News. Imagine how great she’d look in a split-screen show with Judith Miller and anyone from the Bush administration.
- Joseph Ellis, the fine historian and small machine shop of books on the founding fathers. He lied to his Mount Holyoke College students about serving in Vietnam. He was suspended for a year, without pay. Then allowed back. He continues to write books (his latest was “His Excellency George Washington”).
- Stephen Ambrose. He’s the popular historian who made his name stroking the vanity of the “Greatest Generation” with Tom Brokaw and popularizing the exploits of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery in his well-selling “Undaunted Courage” book. But he turned out to be a serial plagiarist too.
But those people didn’t offend American identity. They weren’t subversives. They merely erred, whereas Ward Churchill is a modern-day apostate. The school wanted to get rid of him. The whole country wanted to get rid of him. He was and remains one of those convenient punching bags, proof, to the reactionary right, that liberals “hate” America (as if Ward Churchill in all his oneness stood for the hundred-million plurality of American liberalism!). The University of Colorado had the cynical luck to fall on his shoddy scholarship, which it should have gotten wind of long ago, but didn’t, because there was no reason to—shoddy scholarship isn’t exactly unheard of in the academy, and it isn’t usually punished—and Churchill’s fate was sealed.
The University of Colorado is right. Ward Churchill’s firing has nothing to do with academic freedom. But it has everything to do with freedom, period—not to be a lousy scholar, which Churchill may have been in bits and drabs (as countless scholars can be); but to get a fair shake when the lousiness is revealed, and not to fall victim to a politically motivated cabal in the guise of academic purity. Churchill was allowed neither.