Raise Your Voice But Keep Your Head Down
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
ABC to the
New York Times
, and through to the halls of Washington,
DC—are ultimately far more important.
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.
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?
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.
dynamic is not new, but it is growing bolder. A recent report in
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
why are O’Reilly and the
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
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.
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.”
that wasn’t Ward Churchill, it was Sir Winston Churchill, the
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
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.
is co-founder of South End Press and
He is the author of numerous books on political theory, including
Life After Capitalism.
He is currently on the ZNet staff.