Freedom is On the March

Ward Churchill, an Indian rights activist and professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, faces potential dismissal for his comments in an essay written after 9/11. For those of you playing the home game, here’s the story so far.

After 9/11, Churchill wrote an essay which expressed a view very different from the one we are accustomed to hearing:

“Let’s get a grip here, shall we?” he wrote.
“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…. To the extent that any of them
were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were
involved in — and in many cases excelling at — it was because of
their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were
too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell
phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which
translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into
the starved and rotting flesh of infants. 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.”

For a while, nothing happened. Churchill has long been
a gadfly, and has written copiously about America’s genocides,
particularly with relation to American Indians. Those who are incluined
to take Churchill seriously no doubt agreed with what he wrote;
everyone else either ignored it or chalked it up to Yet Another Loony
Indian.

>>

But then Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College, a liberal
arts college in upstate New York. Someone dug up the old article, read
“little Eichmanns”, and went through the roof. Suddenly Churchill
became a traitor — a label that I’m sure must amuse him, as I doubt
very much that in his heart of hearts he considers himself or any other
Indian to be full members of this nation which has done so much to
marginalize and disenfranchise Native Americans (when we weren’t
killing them outright). Churchill’s appearance was protested, then
cancelled, and in the light of the controversy, he voluntarily resigned
hisposition as chair of his department, citing the inability to attend
to department affairs effectively in the face of the controversy.

Now the University of Colorado is reviewing his work, en masse,
to “determine whether Professor Churchill may have overstepped his
bounds as a faculty member, showing cause for dismissal.” In other
words, they’re looking for a way to fire him.

This is, frankly, unacceptible. Churchill has long been a strong voice
of dissent in the academy and in Indian-Anglo relations overall –
something that U of CO surely knew when they fired him. More to the
point, although a lot of people might not like it, Churchill’s analysis
is a fair one. You can dispute it if you like, and Churchill has
addressed some of the criticisms in a statement he issued last week
(particularly noting that the “little Eichmanns” he was criticizing
were the “technicians” of capitalism, the people who make it go, not
the service workers who, as it happens, seem to have made up the bulk
of 9/11′s victims — janitors, maintenance workers, etc.). But our
educational system is premised on
academic freedom — and that does not mean the freedom to say what
everyone else is thinking already (where’s the freedom — or the
academic value — in that?). Even if Churchill hates America
(and I don’t think he does, although as I said, I don’t think he thinks
Indians get much of a fair shake in it), academic freedom means he has
to be allowed the opportunity to express and develop his work. If his
ideas are truly not appropriate for the U of CO, they should never have
hired him, and they should never have tenured him (I assume he’s
tenured, as he’s a pretty significant figure within American Indian
Studies, and he’s been around for a long time).

Churchill is hardly the first professor to be put up against the wall
for airing unpopular views. During the McCarthy years, the unpopular
view was anti-racism (not communism — lots of communists went through
the ’50s untouched by McCarthyism; outspoken anti-racists didn’t fare
nearly so well). David Price’s book Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists
details the cases of several anthropologists whose views so threatened
mainstream America’s sense of self-righteousness and unreproachfulness
that they had to be punished; Churchill’s case fits right in with those
cases. Because we don’t like what he says, we will hound him from the
academy, and feel good about doing it.

I’m going to go out on a limb here now, too, because I have to say, I
don’t think Churchill is wrong. His words perfectly echo the thoughts I
had, standing on the roof of my Brooklyn apartment and watching the
World Trade Center’s towers burning. I was stunned, of course, deeply
frightened, panic-stricken even. When the first Tower collapsed, so did
I — all those lives! But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think
that maybe, just maybe, Americans would realize that some jobs are not
safe, and that’s because they are not innocent. I wept watching
brokers, accountants, and others recounting their experiences, wailing
with grief over the deaths of their co-workers, their employees. I
collected scraps of ledger paper that fluttered down and covered the
streets of Brooklyn, several miles from the WTC. But I also recognized
that the people who worked for these companies, the people whose
handwritten notes were laying in burnt scraps at my feet and in my
pockets, these people had been directly or indirectly implicated in the
suffering of millions around the world. They shifted investments out of
third-world nations, undermining local economies. They privatized local
resources around the world, or worked for companies that pushed for
such privatization. They worked for companies that polluted the
environment, exploited workers, supported anti-democratic leaders, and
poisoned children. Were they any guiltier than the rest of us? I don’t
know — surely the firemen who died in the WTC as it collapsed were
further removed than the CEOs. But however far removed, we are, all of
us, beneficiaries of this exploitation, to whatever degree we partake
in American wealth.

What does it mean to call these people “little Eichmanns”? I don’t
think Churchill was making a simple 1-to-1 comparison with Nazi
Germany. Rather, he was referring to something deeper, and a lot more
worrisome, about human nature. As portrayed in Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem,
Eichmann was not this demonic sociopath who masterminded one of the
greatest evils of human history — rather, he was a shlubby little man
who, by keeping his eyes and mind shut to the implications of his
day-to-day affairs, managed to create the immense evil of the death
camps, the deportations, the gas chambers. He was able to avoid
personally taking any responsibility for his actions by saying to
himself, “all I do is run the trains”. Just as the people who worked in
the World Trade Center could say “all I do is manage investments” or
“all I do is help companies file their taxes” or “all I do is arrange
imports” or “all I do is answer the phones and sort the mail”. They
probably even thought of their work as helping people — “without me,
people couldn’t afford their clothes/groceries/homes”, “I help people
save up for better tomorrows”, and so on.

But however they thought of their work, they made the system run, and
the system has created great evil in the world. Did they deserve what
they got? God no — not any more than the ten or tens of thousands of
Iraqis bombed, burnt, beaten, shot, or starved to death over the last 2
years, and over the last 20 years before that, deserved their fate. Not
any more than the millions of children who die every year for lack of
adequate nutrition, clean water, or medical assistance deserve their
fate. Not any more than you, I, or Ward Churchill deserves to be killed
for the sins of our society. They didn’t and don’t deserve it, but they
got it anyway. Churchill recognizes this fact: that unless we are
willing to face the horror in the mirror, the horror outside our walls
will not stop.

U of CO’s response, Hamilton College’s response, and the rest of
America’s from the looks of things, has been to clap their hands firmly
over their ears while chanting a hearty “I’M NOT LISTENING I’M NOT
LISTENING I’M NOT LISTENING!!!” And then they’re going to string that
Injun up, but good.

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