Ward Churchill's Berkeley address
The reluctant poster boy for academic freedom defends his 9/11 comments, meets little resistance at campus forum
| 31 March 2005
(Bonnie Azab Powell photo)
Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado Indian-studies professor whose splenetic take on the 9/11 attacks has provoked belated storms of outrage from academia and The O'Reilly Factor alike, arrived on campus Monday amid all the commotion of a falling snowflake.
A pair of Native Americans protested quietly outside the Martin Luther King Student Union, holding placards that called him "a liar and an academic fraud." Earl Neconi, a Kiowa tribal member with the American Indian Movement of California, passed out flyers insisting that Churchill "has blatantly misrepresented himself as a Native American" and demanding that the University of Colorado "terminate this imposter." A small, well-behaved group of conservative students was on hand as well.
The low-key atmosphere distinguished the event from many of Churchill's recent appearances, some of which have been canceled due to threats of violence. Inside Pauley Ballroom, what was billed as "a forum on academic freedom in troubled times" had the feel of a political rally, as speaker after speaker - from the four-member panel to the majority of questioners from an audience that neared 500 at its peak - voiced strong support for Churchill, now fighting to keep a spot on the CU ethnic-studies faculty that he's held since 1978.
"It's really the University of Colorado that's on trial," declared Ling-chi Wang, who teaches Asian American and ethnic studies at Berkeley and moderated the session, titled "Academic Freedom in Peril: Professor Ward Churchill and His Right of Free Speech." Few in attendance, it seemed, disagreed with his judgment.
The author of more than 20 books, Churchill has labored in relative obscurity for much of his career, his reputation limited mainly to academic and Indian-activist circles. That changed forever in January, when an angry polemic he wrote on Sept. 11, 2001 - "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" - resurfaced.
The 5,000-word essay went largely unnoticed in the tumultuous aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But two of those words - Churchill's characterization of the New York City victims as "little Eichmanns" - have now eclipsed his large body of scholarly work and threatened his tenured teaching position at the University of Colorado's Boulder campus. (He resigned earlier this year as chair of the ethnic-studies department there.)
Arguing that those killed in the WTC attack were anything but "innocent," Churchill wrote that "this relatively well-educated elite" constituted "a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire" and thus bore responsibility for the civilian victims of the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent U.S.-imposed sanctions, which, he said, cost the lives of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children.
"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," Churchill wrote, "I'd really be interested in hearing about it."
Likening Americans who fail to resist U.S.-sponsored violence to the "good Germans" who professed ignorance of Nazi death camps, he declared the attackers had "given Americans a tiny dose of their own medicine" and concluded: "There is justice in such symmetry."
Since January, when the media first reported his analogy of 9/11 victims to Adolf Eichmann - the Nazi bureaucrat responsible for implementing Hitler's program to exterminate the Jews - Churchill has fought to stave off a high-profile campaign to oust him from the University of Colorado, with Gov. Bill Owen, Newt Gingrich, and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly leading the charge. University administrators last week acknowledged that his political views are constitutionally protected, but said their review of his work had turned up allegations of research misconduct - including plagiarism, fabrication, and misrepresentation of his ethnicity - that could lead to disciplinary action.
At Monday's Berkeley event, Churchill noted the generous deployment of cameras and reporters in Pauley Ballroom, observing sardonically that he "couldn't buy a media moment" for his critiques of political repression and genocide. Now, however, "I'm starting to feel like Jon-Benet Ramsey," another darling of cable-TV news.
Turning serious, Churchill, an imposing figure with gray-streaked, shoulder-length hair and wearing black cowboy boots, defended his use of the phrase "little Eichmanns," citing Hannah Arendt's description of Eichmann himself as representing "the banality of evil." He called his essay "my own gut reaction" to the events of Sept. 11, and said critics had seized upon "really a single phrase" as a pretext for a broad, right-wing attack on academic freedom.
Without going into details, Churchill denied allegations of plagiarism. As for his ethnicity, he insisted "it's an absurdity on its face" to suggest that anyone would falsely claim Indian blood to advance his career. "Check the box and all good things will come to you," he said sarcastically. "You don't have to do any more."
Surprisingly, he claimed university administrators have not informed him of their investigation, nor asked him questions about the complaints against him. There has been, he said, "no interchange whatever."
As audience members streamed out of the hall after his 30-minute presentation, the others on the panel - including Natsu Saito, a law professor at Georgia State University introduced as Churchill's "significant other" - continued to make the case for academic freedom generally and for Churchill in particular.
Professor Ralph Hexter, dean of arts and humanities at Berkeley, said he was once a colleague of Churchill's at the University of Colorado, and described the state's elected Board of Regents as "very partisan." He recalled that "the way to get elected" to the board was to "run against the Boulder campus," and criticized efforts in Colorado and beyond to bring about "the homogenization of discourse."
Hexter also objected to what he dubbed "the culture of offense-taking," saying that the proper antidote to objectionable opinions is the expression of opposing views. Students and professors, he said, are "engaged in a dialogue. that wants to hear marginalized voices."
And Carlos Muņoz, Jr., professor emeritus of Chicano and ethnic studies, emphatically called the campaign against Churchill "a direct manifestation of the war here in this country."
"The reality is that we are no longer living in a democracy," Muņoz maintained, framing efforts to oust Churchill as "the right wing versus those of us who speak truth to power" and condemning them as "an attack on the academy as a whole."
It fell to Kerry Eskenas, a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, to take issue with some of Churchill's assertions during the question-and-answer period, and to point out that the panel featured "no opposing views."
"I thought," she offered, "this was supposed to be a forum."