“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed . . . without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., April 1967, Riverside, California.
While I am not prepared to predict the outcome of Ward Churchill’s wrongful termination lawsuit against the University of Colorado (CU) as it nears the finish, one feature that struck me as particularly salient is the extent to which his critics have tended to prove his points for him. If anyone else was struck, as I have been, by the plainly weak defense mounted by CU, it is not due to its legal team, but rather to the quality of its expert testimonials, who all too frequently helped to make Churchill’s case for him. Even the images and video of their testimonies evince either defensive smugness or signs of a critter caught in the headlights. Perhaps some of them never felt that they too could be called to account, and found, in public, to be very wanting. The weakness of the defense is rooted in the simple fact that CU never had anything like a “strong case” against Churchill, merely strong opinions, and strong attitudes of outrage, armed with a few suspicious footnotes. It seems that, in the final analysis, the most cogent point made by his critics, the first and the last point, can be summed up as: “He offended me.” As if one’s personal feelings, one’s emotions, are meant to tower over and regulate all actual and potential expressions of opinion, as if not being offended was the highest value to be guarded, as if every speaker is meant to not just speak but first attend to the emotional homework of those spoken to. “This is offensive,” said the Good Americans as they reacted, ever more viciously, as if in a competition to see who could make the most insane, most insulting charge possible, in response to Churchill’s excellent essay on 9/11. However, in the process, the reactions furnish themselves as mountains of valuable empirical evidence that support Churchill’s contentions, rendering his positions even more convincing.
[For a sharp outline of the most prominent deficiencies of the CU case against Churchill, from a Denver-based blogger who has followed Churchill for a long time, see “Sour Grapes.” Apparently a blame game has started on the right, that seeks to scapegoat the CU defense attorney, Patrick O’Rourke, for CU’s own weak case.]
The Good Americans Got Angry
In the years immediately following 11 September 2001, many if not most Americans reacted as if sacred, impenetrable ground had been violated. After generations of bending and bombing other nations to their will, the idea that they could be “touched” so directly seemed impossible to fathom, and all those who were touched were not just “innocent victims” but automatically beatified as “heroes.” The media would enunciate the phrase, “the families of 9/11” with such pious tones that one had to wonder if they had discovered a new Nativity scene, a new Holy Family, standing in the ruins of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Ward Churchill was asked by CNN’s Paula Zahn (then at CNN, later booted) , if he considered the impact his 9/11 essay might have had on “the families of 9/11.” Indeed, it was a recurring theme (see: Paula Zahn Now, CNN: Interview with Ward Churchill, 4 February 2005):
ZAHN:….In essence you’re calling the 9/11 victims little Eichmann, referring to Adolf Eichmann, of course, who organized the deportation of Jews into the concentration camps. Can you understand why 9/11 families are outraged by this as well as anybody who has any experience with the Holocaust?
ZAHN: I want to come back to the whole issue surrounding 9/11 families. Tonight, you said you wouldn’t take back anything…
ZAHN:….Tonight, I think you’re more clearly laying out what you in your judgment constitute victims on 9/11. Do you think you owe an apology to the families who read the same essay…
Churchill’s response was quite fitting: “There’s terrorism being undertaken in the name of the 9/11 families.” Any offense could be committed in the name of these sacred families, but none could be accepted, and anything less than silence or praise was treated as a virtual reenactment of 9/11 itself. Of course, “the families of 9/11” were shielded by an aura of absolute innocence and treated as if they were the only ones in human history to have suffered such deep loss, or to have suffered so much of it. Given the moralism, and the commercialism that exploited 9/11 (Do you have a WTC pop-put gold and silver coin yet, made with genuine Ground Zero silver? No? Hurry, supplies are limited!), one wonders why 9/11 has not yet been turned into a national holiday akin to Christmas.
The Good American Syndrome is the expression of a nationalist ethos that is repeatedly inculcated through schools, media, churches, and standardized rituals designed to uphold the mythological character of a nation. No national myths exist that portray the nation (and the state that forges it — forged in multiple senses of the term) in a negative, self-deprecating, self-critical light. A lifetime of socialization produces a seemingly amorphous, largely taken for granted set of assumptions that work to produce the citizen. It is only in times of crisis — and there have been many — and periods of structural transformation that these dominant assumptions come into the foreground and are actively defended and forcibly upheld as beyond question: ethos becomes mythos becomes orthodoxy. We are not speaking for the most part about people who “lie” to themselves, which is to give them too much agency and too much self-consciousness (as if they knew that the lie was a lie). There are true believers, and of course, as manifested in times of crisis, there are also true manipulators: those who have a sense of what the lies are that constitute the national myth and who actively work to enforce them and teach them to those who may be wavering. In other words, there are those who automatically salute the flag, and get a genuine tear to hear a moving rendition of “America the Beautiful,” moved by deeply seated emotional responses to primordial symbolism — “the families of 9/11,” as laughable as the construct may appear to us cynics, is precisely one such expression of primordiality, fusing emotion with family with nation with security. There are also the Dick Cheneys of the situation, the conscious manipulators who desire a new cultural hegemony, as they stand at the crossroads of multiple conflicts and multiple competing interests that reveal to them, at least, that the myth is a myth and something to be defended, and an opportunity for personal gain.
There are also those whom the national myth excludes, marginalizes, and ignores. To declare peoples as “American” Indians, or African-“Americans,” is to whitewash a situation where “America” is the outcome of conquest of the Indians and African slavery, imperialism practiced and incubated at “home” and then translated overseas. Ward Churchill cannot be a Good American, because he knows these things — and he experienced transformational crisis in situations such as serving as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam (his critics almost always neglect to mention that he is a war veteran, since doing so would place them at the commands of their nationalist orthodoxy, that mandate respect and deference to “vets”). Churchill has known both the crises and the transformations and alienation that drive one to a divorce from the nationalist ethos, that lead one to question the very identity of the nation and the morality it proclaims, with the road to being “American” now forever closed.
Good Americans believe in the fundamental goodness of America, and balk, quite loudly at times, at any hint of their nation being characterized as an imperialist power, an occupying power, a nation that has known almost perpetual war since its founding, one responsible for the deaths of many millions worldwide through direct military means alone, the vast majority of those also innocent civilians. Good Americans think of the generosity of their foreign “aid” (one of the greatest ways to indirectly subsidize American industries, create dependency, displace local industries abroad, and acquire geopolitical mileage). Good Americans think of their nation as a land of freedom, despite the many institutionalized inequalities that render vast sections of their own population incapable of enjoying the fruits of such freedom except, perhaps, at the end of a crack pipe. Good Americans were outraged with Ward Churchill — he had “offended” them.
“The Board of Regents is taking this unusual action to consider the recently publicized comments of the Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at CU-Boulder, Ward Churchill. Mr. Churchill’s comments regarding the events of September 11, 2001, have resulted in substantial controversy and the Board of Regents intends to consider the concerns of members of the public and the university community at the special meeting. The Board will continue to welcome written public comment in advance of the meeting.” (CU Board of Regents to Hold Special Meeting — Jan. 30, 2005)
Let us keep the foregoing in mind when we remember that Marianne Wesson, the head of CU’s investigative committee had already testified, purse-lipped and solemn, taking the tone of an injured party, that she found Churchill’s 9/11 essay to be “gratuitous and cruel.” That was a Good American’s first response.
We would hear more of these first responses, such as the following testimony on Thursday, 26 March 2009, Day 14 of Ward Churchill’s court case against the University of Colorado:
CU Regent Michael Carrigan took the stand and said the University of Colorado was getting bombarded by hundreds of emails a day in the spring of 2005 from parents and alumni about the 9/11 essay Ward Churchill wrote.
“There were violent threats, profanity, and many instances where people were saying I’m not going to put my child in CU, or I am going to transfer my child out of CU, or I’m not going to give,” Carrigan testified.
He said every time he ventured out to speak about the university and tout the four Nobel Prize winning faculty members at the school, for example, all people wanted to talk about was the Churchill controversy.
Carrigan testified that the regents felt like they had to address the matter promptly, for fear that they might be accused of trying to ignore it or having an elected official try to take control of the issue.
Carrigan said he was “deeply offended” by Churchill’s suggestion that victims of 9/11 were akin to Nazi bureaucrats helping carry out American economic oppression worldwide.
“I read that to be that they deserved it,” he said. (source)
How perfectly apt that, once again, from those high up in the university, we have testimony that furnishes further proof for Churchill that the context of the university’s actions against him was a purely political one.
Prosecution through Pedantry
“…the University of Colorado has been at the center of a fierce debate that has raised a fundamental question: what are the boundaries of free expression, academic freedom and tenure protections? This question is especially salient in the face of the most offensive – the most appalling – political expression, such as many of Professor Ward Churchill’s comments in his essay regarding the events of September 11.
As I have said, I personally find the statements in Professor Churchill’s essay to be repugnant and hurtful to everyone touched by that tragedy. And I know that many of you share those feelings.
Beyond our visceral reactions to statements within the essay, we all have spent hours responding to parents, students, alumni, news media, and citizens throughout Colorado and across the country.
The debate has fostered passionate calls for the immediate termination of Professor Churchill’s employment based on his essay….
Within the next 30 days, the Office of the Chancellor will launch and oversee a thorough examination of Professor Churchill’s writings, speeches, tape recordings and other works.
The purpose of this internal review is to determine whether Professor Churchill may have overstepped his bounds as a faculty member, showing cause for dismissal as outlined in the Laws of the Regents.” — (Remarks By Chancellor Phil DiStefano At The CU Board Of Regents Special Meeting – Feb. 3, 2005.)
DiStefano is also a “Good American,” more in the category of the manipulator like the figure of Dick Cheney as I outlined above. As an Italian-American (and I say this as an Italian-Canadian) DiStefano could take such visceral language and parade it for Denver’s infamous Columbus Day rituals (that attempt to create an Americanized cultural forgery of Columbus Day as central to “Italian heritage” an invented tradition if ever there was one — for more on Denver’s Columbus Day parades, see this, this, and that.)
A system in crisis, whose agents seek to repair and maintain it, will use any of the regular tools at the disposal of the system to realign deviants with the norm. Sometimes irregular tools will be used as well, but such an extreme was not reached in Churchill’s case — there was no overt physical torture, for example. Instead, a massive amount of fastidious pedantries were deployed, turning sentences and paragraphs on some page or another of Churchill’s massive corpus of work into something far larger than the work as a whole. Incidentally, that is also an act of falsification, routinely engaged in by Churchill’s academic prosecutors, demanded in fact by the very intent of their prosecution (which was always to expel him) — which also shows how pedantry can work in service of the system. Systemic tools are always imagined to be single-edged and never cutting both ways. Only the prosecuted could be guilty of “falsification” because that is the only way the pedantic sword can cut.
So what about the academic questions about Churchill’s scholarship? Few of Churchill’s critics, within and without the university, seem even slightly perturbed by the apparent fact that the University of Colorado is concerned about the quality of scholarship it produces only when it is named in some national scandal. Carrigan spoke of allegations of research misconduct passively coming to the university’s attention, just like that, coincidentally just at that time, and so then the university just had to act. Again, from the same source above, we have this exchange:
Churchill’s lawyer, David Lane, cross-examined Carrigan and asked him if then-Chancellor Phil DiStefano had simply forwarded on to the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct articles from the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News exploring academic misconduct allegations against the former ethnic studies professor.
“Was he supposed to ignore them?” Carrigan shot back.
Lane then trapped Carrigan with his own testimony from a previous deposition.
He asked him what he understood DiStefano to mean when the chancellor wrote that he wanted to investigate Churchill’s writings, speeches and tape recordings to see if he overstepped the bounds of free speech by a public employee and whether there was a fireable offense there.
Carrigan said he was under the impression that DiStefano was talking about the 9/11 essay and other potentially incendiary writings Churchill had penned, but not his scholarship.
He testified that he agreed it would be inappropriate for the school to do a “wholesale examination” of Churchill’s academic work based solely on an essay he had written.
Lane then played an interview for the jury on the display screen during which Carrigan testified that he understood DiStefano’s statement to mean that Churchill’s scholarship would be a part of his investigation as well.
“You took DiStefano’s words to mean you were going to look at scholarship as well as the essay,” Lane said.
“That’s what I said at the deposition,” Carrigan acknowledged.
Then Carrigan said he “misspoke” at his previous deposition.
“So that was a mistake?” Lane asked.
A couple of jurors smiled at the exchange.
As I said at the outset, it is not the legal team that has weakened CU’s defense, it is its own misconduct and the constant contradictions among CU’s many weaklings, Carrigan included of course, some of whom have bordered on perjury during these proceedings — potential charges of perjury averted by witnesses who either claim to have “misspoken” (under oath) or who seem to remember what everyone else may have said, but can only say “I don’t recall” about what they themselves are alleged to have said (thinking of Governor Bill Owens here). They thus offer a non-denying denial to evade answering honestly, which is perjury in spirit even if not to the letter of the law.
Again from Day 14, and the same source, we are offered one more glimpse into how Churchill’s CU prosecutors intentionally falsified his record, by stressing that he had engaged in, not errors, not oversights, not different interpretations, but rather habitual wrongdoing.
Joe Rosse, a CU professor of management and the head of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, was back on the stand this morning. Ward Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, resumed cross-examination of the witness that began Wednesday.
Lane immediately challenged Rosse on CU’s characterization of Churchill’s alleged academic transgressions as a “pattern” of misconduct.
“So, in a body of 4,000 pages and 12,000 footnotes, this is the best that you got?” Lane queried, referring to the eight findings of misconduct CU listed.
“This is all that we got,” Rosse responded.
Rosse said out of the limited number of allegations of misconduct the school examined, there was a clear pattern of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. He said he couldn’t speak to the entire 30 years of Churchill’s scholarship.
“It was not an extrapolation beyond that,” he said.
Does the reader see the nonsense that Rosse is offering here, and why such a weak witness can only strengthen Churchill’s hand? Rosse is saying essentially this: he takes a selective sample of the whole, and then treats it as the whole itself. In other words, by excluding all contrary examples, you create a “pattern.” So that someone who stole candy from children on several occasions as a teen, is to be reduced to a thief…regardless of the thousands of other acts of charity and of dying and leaving all of one’s assets to the poor. That is falsification, and it was produced on the stand, by a witness for CU.
I will then take this single incident, ignore everything else, and say that it is a pattern. Joe Rosse engages in habitual falsification.
The problem lies with those who will mistake this case as one about scholarly rules. The starting point, and end point, of the decision to fire Ward Churchill began from the very top, beginning with Interim Chancellor DiStefano and ending with CU President Hank Brown. Faculty committees were themselves divided — the majority of the members of the CU Investigative Committee (part of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct) recommended suspension, not firing, based on their own contradictory report. The Privilege and Tenure Committee voted to fire Churchill, but their own Appeals Committee instead recommended suspension. The decision then went to CU President Hank Brown, a rightwing politician, and a scripted performance by the Board of Regents, who fired Churchill. (For more see this.)
Racism and Genocide
Like many readers already know, there have been many allegations that Ward Churchill is a “fake Indian,” a “wannabe,” an impostor who manipulated an affirmative action regime in order to secure access to a university position. His long life of activism in the American Indian Movement is set aside in an argument about genetics and blood, in other words, race. I should point out that allegations of Churchill being an “ethnic fraud” were rejected as a matter of consideration by the University of Colorado. (For the very latest example of a published “ethnic fraud” rant, see Vincent Carroll’s baseless claims in The Denver Post, “Ward’s world of brazen claims,” 25 March 2009. Then pay special attention to this comment by a reader who is a little more familiar with DNA research than Carroll, and spots his misrepresentation.)
This is not the place for a lengthy reexamination of the long history of genocide-by-definition that has occurred in the U.S., as elsewhere, wherever British colonial concepts of race, and wherever African slavery, were instituted. The two go together, as the “one-drop rule” that dictated that anyone is Black who has even a minute amount of African ancestry (thus vastly expanding the population of those who could be enslaved) is relationally tied to its opposite, the idea that many drops are required to “prove” you are Indian (and thus potentially entitled to land), and the fewer Indians meant more land for Whites, and more Blacks as slaves to work for them. The idea of the “fake Indian” is both an arbitrary construct of principles of citizenship, as well as racialized notions of identity. Since all identities are relational, and exist in relation to one another, the one-drop rule, the real Indian, and White, are all tied to each other to maintain an historical system of unequal privilege and exploitation.
It is a fact that there is no single definition of who is an “Indian” in the United States, neither at the federal level nor at the tribal level. In fact, the “map” of conflicting definitions is so complex, that it is possible for a person to have both a “full blood” Indian mother of one tribe and a “full blood” Indian father of another tribe, and yet have no rights to membership in either of the federally recognized tribes of the parents that may reckon descent differently. There are tribes that require half blood quantum, others that require only a quarter blood, and those who use no blood principles at all. There are federally recognized tribes, and terminated tribes that seek to regain recognition. There is in fact an entire population of what are effectively “Indian non-Indians” produced by various conflicting arbitrary rules, who nonetheless self-identify as Indian and whose numbers greatly exceed those living on tribal reserves. There is also a long American tradition of taming and disciplining people by means of categorization, restricting access to some categories, and maximizing access to others.
To ignore or not grasp all of this history, and make simplistic pronouncements that Churchill is a “fake Indian,” does two things from an anthropological standpoint: it reinforces racist and nationalist doctrines, and it makes the cardinal sin of essentializing and biologizing Indian identity as a matter of skin. In doing so, Churchill’s critics once again strengthen his hand, showing how racism, with the intent of producing the annihilation of an identity, is not just alive and well, it is proved by his very critics who furnish themselves as evidence for this thesis.
Resentful that Churchill is not one of the Good Americans, some Good Americans respond with the racial accusation that he is not a “true” or “real” Indian either. That is ultimately the “truth” that we should take away from this long Churchill saga — that by definition, nothing Churchill said or says can be allowed to pass for truth, and everything else is secondary or unimportant. Churchill was used to repair the system, by damaging him.
Knowing this means I can only wish Ward Churchill the very best, regardless of the outcome of the trial. In the meantime, let us pay our final respects to a terminal myth: