The recent controversy over the writings of Ward Churchill, radical activist, faux Indian, and tenured professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, raises a number of serious academic issues–which, let me underscore, does not mean that Churchill himself is in any way serious. On the contrary, Churchill is as unserious as anyone ever paid to stand in front of a classroom, an intellectual featherweight whose ideas are less politically scandalous than buffoonishly wrongheaded. Case in point is his assertion that the victims of the World Trade Center attack got what was coming to them: “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.”
Churchill’s own attempt to clarify what he meant by this is telling: “I have never characterized all the September 11 victims as ‘Nazis.’ What I said was that the ‘technocrats of empire’ working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of ‘little Eichmanns.’ Adolf Eichmann was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide. Similarly, German industrialists were legitimately targeted by the Allies.”
To make sense of Churchill’s clarification, a reader has to accept the following premises: 1) the United States government is actively and intentionally engaged in genocide; 2) the hijackers, contrary to their own claims, were attempting to defend individual freedom rather than advance a totalitarian spiritual regime; 3) the ideological agenda of the hijackers represents the true aspirations of the people on whose behalf they claim to act.
Each of these premises is false based on a preponderance of evidence. But that understates the point; all three are so utterly false that failure to recognize their falsehood, in effect, betrays a cognitive disability. Yet I’d estimate ten percent of American college professors–and I’m low-balling that figure–would accept them as probably or at least partially true. (If you substitute “corporate capitalists” for “the United States government” in the first premise–i.e. “Corporate capitalists are actively and intentionally engaged in genocide”–assent among college faculty probably rises to 25 percent.) These are credentialed adults who are initially hired to instruct, and who are eventually tenured to profess…yet they’re professionally, stupendously, tenaciously, defiantly, demonstrably wrong.
That is the gist of the problem.
If we take as axiomatic the principle that colleges exist in order to pursue and disseminate the truth, it follows that no accredited mathematics department would employ a teacher who denied, say, that base angles of an isosceles triangle are equal; that no physics department would employ a teacher who denied the force of gravity; that no chemistry department would employ a teacher who denied that protons and neutrons are found in the nuclei of atoms; that no biology department would employ a teacher who denied that green plants convert light energy into chemical energy by photosynthesis. The hard sciences, in other words, are bound in their fidelity to truth not only by traditional logic and empirical evidence but by a demand for coherence within a framework of what is already known. Faculty in hard sciences seek to push the envelope of knowledge, not to “deconstruct” it. (Deconstruct v.t. To affect intellectual depth by teasing out secondary and tertiary senses of a term until it belies its original meaning.) It is exceedingly rare, therefore, to find a professor in a hard science espousing irrational, unsupportable theories.
Not so in the social sciences. To be sure, no history department would, in the current academic climate, employ a teacher who openly argued that the Holocaust never happened. But this is a matter of political expediency, not material certainty. On the contrary, many history departments employ teachers steeped in postmodern thinking, who hold, for example, that the perception of a reality existing independently of thought and language is illusory, that “reality” is in fact a linguistic construct of the phenomena of subjective experience which is continually adjusted in response to a fluid social consensus. But if there’s no such thing as an independent reality, then there can be no reality check. There’s no test for truth. And that, my friends, is Holocaust denial–one step removed. Postmodern thought has taken root across the social sciences, spawning all manner of loopy theoretical posturing in history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, political science, and even philosophy itself.
Still further down the epistemological food chain come literature and art, pseudo-disciplines hoist on the ouija-board wonkery of aesthetic judgment. The truth value of a work is gauged neither by correspondence with an independent reality nor even, for the last quarter century, by it coherence within a canonical framework; rather, truth value is a function of whether the work pleases the teacher. Subjectivity, therefore, rules. Literature and art departments often employ faculty members whose theories are not just at variance with one another but are mutually exclusive. It is not unusual, nowadays, for two students at the same college to sign up for the same survey course the same semester with two different professors and discover they’re learning nothing in common.
But the epistemological nadir of any university is found in the wacky world of ethnic and gender studies: black studies, Africana studies, Chicano studies, Latino studies, Puerto Rican studies, Middle Eastern studies, Native American studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, et al. The suggestion that “studying” is involved in any of these subjects is laughable; they are quasi-religious advocacy groups whose curricula run the gamut from historical wish fulfillment (the ancient Egyptians were black; the U.S. Constitution was derived from the Iroquois Nation) to political axe grinding (the Israelis are committing genocide against the Palestinians; the U.S. is committing genocide against the people of Cuba) to gynocentric self-help (reasoning from verifiable data is a tool of male domination, to which the experiential impressions of women are a necessary antidote) to circumstantial special pleading (Lincoln was gay because, well, he was a nice guy; Hitler, not so nice, therefore not gay). Contesting the status quo is the raison d’etre of these departments. No idea is beyond the pale–except, of course, the suggestion that the status quo might somehow be valid.
Which returns us to Ward Churchill, professor of ethnic studies, University of Colorado. In one sense, he’s like a thousand other burnt-out refugees from the 1960s who avoided a full-time job long enough to acquire multiple university degrees. Along the way, however, he convinced lots of people that he was a Cherokee Indian–apparently on the basis of an honorary tribal membership–and thus tapped into the vast reservoir of white liberal guilt flowing through the halls of academia. Most critically, he found outlets to publish crypto-Marxist rants and thereby distinguished himself from the vast majority of his invincibly ignorant peers. That publishing record, in turn, allowed him to command not only his tenured professorship, but activist committee posts and lucrative speaking engagements at campuses nationwide.
So who published Ward Churchill?
Well, there’s AK Press. Publisher’s mission statement:
AK Press is a worker run book publisher and distributor organized around anarchist principles. . . . Our goal is to make available radical books and other materials, titles that are published by independent presses, not the corporate giants, titles with which you can make a positive change in the world.
Then there’s South End Press. Publisher’s mission statement:
Since our founding in 1977, we have tried to meet the needs of readers who are exploring, or are already committed to, the politics of radical social change. . . . In this way, we hope to give expression to a wide diversity of democratic social movements and to provide an alternative to the products of corporate publishing.
Finally, there’s City Lights Books. Manuscript submission guidelines:
City Lights Books is a publisher of fiction, essays, memoirs, translations, poetry, and books on social and political issues. We publish a dozen new books a year and are committed to providing the finest works of vanguard literature and oppositional politics.
In other words, Churchill hooked up with like-minded lefties, networked himself into book contracts, parlayed these into academic prestige and political name recognition–and thus a wholly unserious man who says wholly unserious things wound up being taken very seriously. In a more rational world, Churchill would be an amateur conspiracy theorist with a chip on his shoulder, the type who spends an hour on hold with CSPAN to spew 15 seconds of venom before Brian Lamb cuts him off.
In our world, Churchill is a cause célébre.
So what’s to be done with him?
The fact that he has tenure must, I’m afraid, be taken into account. Firing him, or forcing him to resign, might be morally satisfying but would be a tactical error. It would confer martyr status on him, and it would be interpreted by his students, and by Churchill himself, as punishment for speaking the truth to power. Besides, the fault here does not lie with Churchill; he’s a symptom, not a disease. The fault lies, generally, with the sick academic culture in which he has thrived, and, specifically, with the administrative weasels at the University of Colorado who have repeatedly rewarded his dubious critical achievements. What should be done with Churchill, therefore, is…nothing. His notoriety should stand as an ongoing monument to the decay of intellectual standards in higher education, and his professorship as an ongoing monument to the intellectual cowardice of the school which hired and tenured him.
Thus, inadvertently, Ward Churchill might teach us all a lesson.