Does Ward Churchill even exist?
Dr., Native American, original artist, serious scholar, combat veteran, highly recruited and sought-after academic, ex-Weatherman mentor: How many–if any–of these seven faces of our real-life Dr. Lao are true?
Professors outside the arts at major research universities are supposed to have Ph.D.s. The phantom Ward Churchill does not. How he was hired, promoted, and tenured without a doctorate is a mystery–the equivalent of a high-school teacher credentialed with an AA degree, or a medical doctor operating without an M.D.
Ward Churchill proclaimed that he is a Native American of various tribal affiliations; he is not. Even his ridiculous costumes, occasional threats, and puerile rants cannot disguise that fact.
He seems to be a pop artist of sorts, but his canvasses are not quite his own either. Those of like political mind have praised his scholarship, but much of what he writes seems derivative, or misrepresents or outright plagiarizes others.
Churchill has spoken of the firsthand trauma of battle service as a combat veteran, both as a paratrooper and as a sniper–among the most hazardous of corps in the United States military. Once again, there is no such evidence that he served in any capacity other than what his official duties in a motor pool and as a projectionist entailed.
Embarrassed officials claim Churchill was sought after by other universities–so they had to reel in this trophy catch before he got away–but no one can find any proof other than Churchill’s own mendacious claims.
No one knows what to make of his various arrests, boasts of bomb-making, trip to Libya, angry and traumatized ex-wives, braggadocio about petty vandalism, tales of phone threats, and the variety of other sordid stories that surround this fabricated man. Churchill’s presence on campus is like the weaving driver who is pulled over by the state police, who quickly find no license, registration, or insurance, but plenty of warrants–and thus wonder how many other paroled miscreants they’ve missed out there, one accident away from being a public-relations nightmare.
So, again, does this Ward Churchill even exist?
Of course not: His faces are made up of whole cloth.
Yet instead of seeing Churchill as no man, it is better to envision him as an academic everyman. In the alternate universe of the modern campus, any collective imbalance of wealth, education, health, happiness, or almost anything is explicable only in terms of deliberate present discrimination and systematic past oppression.
Any other exegesis–cultural attitudes, individual preferences, bad personal choices and behaviors, time off for child-rearing, bad luck–is irrelevant. Indeed, to raise them is prima facie evidence of one’s own discrimination, intolerance, and racism, and can lead to the academic guillotine. Ask Harvard president Larry Summers.
Instead, equality of result is to be mandated by a government that in turn is to be instructed on how to do so by the university. Its cadres of subsidized social scientists and humanists provide both the rigged diagnosis and the lucrative therapy. Thus, to succeed on campus without a degree or talent or much of anything, it is absolutely critical to be an ideologue of the first order.
Churchill’s rantings are full of leftist hyperbole, vicious Nazi allusions, and calls for violence against the United States (“more 9/11s are necessary”) and an end to America itself (“There’s no U.S. in America anymore”). Should Churchill have been such a vicious court jester of the Right and slurred gays and minorities as he did the victims of mass murder, he would have been fired long ago.
Rule 1: Profess to be as far left as possible, understanding that extremism in the service of utopian virtue is no vice.
Most academics are retiring sorts. They enjoy the tranquility of the campus and its isolation from the conundrum of society at large. But like peaceful sheep grazing in green pastures, they are easy prey for rapacious wolves. Professors are especially vulnerable to a bully and showman like Churchill, whose record of both oral and written intimidation leaves most disturbed, frightened, or at least convinced to steer clear of this loose loud popgun when he goes off.
Note then his evocation of past bomb-making, his photo-ops in fatigues with obligatory machine gun, and his occasional brushes with the law.
Rule 2: Among the nerds and dorks, act a little like a Brando, Che, or James Dean, a wild spirit that gives off a spark of danger, who can at a distance titillate Walter Mitty-like admirers and closer up scare off the more sober censors.
Victimization is essential to academic man. Under the warped tenets into which affirmative action has devolved and the existing protocols of the blame industry, at first glance this put a pink heterosexual American male like Churchill in a seemingly tough bind. What cover or exemption, after all, is there when his scholarship, teaching, or academic citizenship is found wanting?
That dilemma Churchill solved brilliantly when he endowed himself with two new unimpeachable personas: the noble but victimized Native American, and the half-noble but nevertheless traumatized Vietnam veteran.
Both costumes were eerie in their cleverness: In Colorado, with its Western heritage and abundance of Native Americans, the frontier past is especially touchy and ripe for exploitation. And while it is harder for a pale white man to simply declare himself one day black or Hispanic, fraudulently identifying oneself as a quarter, eighth, or sixteenth American Indian has been a roguish American pastime since the onset of affirmative action. Even before that, 1950s Hollywood showed how quite a lot of white people like Ward Churchill can indeed pass as Indians, if they grow their hair long, get a beaded headband, and put on some tassels and buckskins. But instead of the 1950s Kemosabe lingo, by 2005, the script had evolved to add shades and scream about massacres, genocide, and getting even.
If Malibu and Burbank actors playing braves and chiefs once taught suburban Americans how to reinvent themselves as Nez Perce warriors, so too Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Rambo reinvented the Vietnam veteran as the misunderstood anti-hero. Under the changed protocols, the once-slurred “war criminal” of the 1960s was in the ’70s and ’80s reinvented as a sympathetic “victim” who was “used” by the military-industrial complex.
Indeed, the only other persona more faked by American con artists than the Native American is the tortured Vietnam War combat veteran–especially on the campus, where military service is rare and first-hand revelations of its horror are at a premium, lending a hard masculine edge felt to be sometimes lacking in the world of Volvo fender-benders, elbow-patched tweed, and seminar droning.
In short, Churchill’s Indian and Vietnam-veteran pseudo-affiliations–replete with long hair, camouflage, and sunglasses getup–were worth at least a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Rule 3: Whenever possible, reinvent yourself as anything but a white, straight American male.
The short resurrected career of Bill Ayers, the former 1960s terrorist, showed how nostalgic the tenured class is for the barricades of the 1960s. The only thing that cut short Ayers’s glitzy book tour in autumn 2001 was the catastrophe of 9/11. That coincidence unfortunately reminded even the most diehard SDS fans that terrorist killers and bombers are hardly idealists but rather repulsive thugs and two-bit murderers.
Although most American males at the plant and office nearing their 60s are thinking of grandchildren, Social Security, paying off the mortgage, and Vioxx and Viagra, a post-menopausal Churchill sensed the romanticism of the 1960s that lingered among his colleagues and the mystery the period connoted for a new generation of upscale, rite-of-passage college students.
Recalcitrant, unbending, immobile, a throw-back to a better, more idealistic age–this is the rock-cut image that the perpetual ’60s professor taps into. And Churchill, with his photo-studio manufactured profile, pageboy locks, occasional fake Indian name, hip street lingo, and sassy banter did it better than any we’ve seen in quite a while–or at least well enough to wow the flabby university committees that allowed him to cash in.
Rule 4. Don’t worry about the anti-capitalist’s embarrassing six-figure salary, plush job, lifelong guaranteed employment, and fondness for jet travel and hotels. Just keep acting like an ageless denizen of the Woodstock nation, professing to be a timeless dagger pointed at the heart of money-grubbing square America.
So who really is this strange creature who calls himself Keezjunnahbeh? The Paris Hilton of the campus, a Peter Sellers-like fraud in his own Being There, or a Tony Randall turning into all sorts of strange beasts in Dr. Lao’s circus? He is nobody in fact, but also everybody in theory.
Perhaps it is best to think of Churchill as our aging portrait of an academic Dorian Gray, in whom all the once-hallowed university’s vices and sins of the last half-century are now so deeply etched and lined.