04 April 2009

If Ward Churchill is Repellent, then Vincent Carroll is Odious

UPDATE: Perhaps I should qualify my headline, because I don't know either man. How about "If Ward Churchill's 'Little Eichmanns' is Repellent, the Vincent Carroll's 'Mea Culpa' is Odious"? That'd be more diplomatic, I think. Carry on.

Let me clarify a little. Ward Churchill, the newly vindicated CU professor of ethnic studies, presents a repellent personality. But I'll stand up time and again to support first amendment rights and the particular independence we expect our educators to enjoy in their classrooms. Truth be told, Churchill's case was never about what he actually said in the classroom. It was about a little-known (at the time) and highly off-putting essay that, never mind its intentionally provocative language, presents a kernel of truth. 9/11 was in part a retaliation against and consequence of the wrongs that America is perceived to promote across the world.

Churchill is more vehement than I am about this topic, but I will simply say that global perceptions of American wrongdoing (one might say "the evidence of American empire") are not unfounded.

Here's the phrase that tipped the scales for the Rush Limbaugh/Governor Bill Owens crowd: "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."

By "little Eichmanns" Churchill refers to the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. He calls them thus because, as willing cogs in a machine that oppresses and exploits and commits genocide, as Churchill argues, they (we) are enablers of atrocities.

The essay is not to my liking, and Churchill's bombast, scorn, and ridicule are not to my liking. And I'm not prepared to touch Churchill's assertions that the U.S. waged a war of genocide against Iraqi children. But when he says that certain chickens came home to roost on 9/11, his writing is not completely unfounded, nor inappropriate to a discussion of what 9/11 means for Americans and the world.

The essay was written in 2001 and largely ignored, probably because the writing is not very good, the tone inappropriate to civil discourse, and the radical views too transparently radical to be taken seriously by those in our culture who decide what views get taken seriously. But a protester at a talk Churchill gave in Florida in 2004 flagged the essay and challenged Churchill's integrity as a presenter. And right-wing talk radio picked up the story, and soon that story was broadcast as evidence of a culture-war battle that good Americans must win.

The affair that followed was not about intervention against a teacher's practices for the sake of a safer society, as Vincent Carroll's smug and repugnant "Mea Culpa" column, printed today, would interpret. It was simple, polarizing, fear-mongering, ideological, partisan politics, and the resulting university investigation showed the froth and lather of McCarthyism. Ward Churchill was presented by the right as the face of American pushback against the War on Terror. He was everything that was wrong with Americans who questioned George Bush and questioned the war. And, as we learned this week from Churchill's trial, the impetus for a university witch hunt against Churchill reached back to the highest office in the state. For more about that I'll kick it over to Mike Littwin, whose writing on the case has been spot on.

But this post is not about Littwin, and it's not even really about Churchill. Vincent Carroll's column today presents exactly why America's thinking conservatives are so dismal about the prospects for conservative ideology on the national stage. Carroll has been a vociferous voice in the Colorado media in all the tumult and boil of the Churchill case. And today he is a cheerleader for the former Governor, whose alleged squeeze play against CU (scroll down to "UPDATE: 3:12 p.m.") should be further investigated. Carroll's support for the governor, however, depends on a skewering of the actual conflict here, and is neither plausible nor sustainable.

Carroll's column would convince us that the governor acted appropriately to help remove a dangerous and morally unfit teacher from the classroom:

If a prison warden professed indifference toward sexual abuse within his facility, or a college football coach was caught distributing racist or neo-Nazi propaganda, I assumed that elected officials should stand up and object — that they should climb upon a soapbox, if necessary, and start waving their arms.

Oh boy. What Carroll would have us forget is that Churchill's incendiary comment did not transpire in a classroom. Indeed, Carroll can't even provide evidence of Churchill's lack of fitness for the classroom.

And what if Churchill had made his "little Eichmanns" remark in the classroom? America is a country that still enjoys a freedom much of the world goes without. Our teachers and students are permitted, encouraged even, to disagree with our government leaders and mainstream ideologies. We live in a culture that promotes and protects free speech in the classroom. In fact, tenure is designed to free the teacher from the specter of political retribution that--at the department level, the university level, the local level and even the national level--can lead to self-censorship. It is this exactly which tenure promotes: that a teacher may challenge students to think hard in the name of scholarship, even when we as a general public find that challenge distasteful.

To be sure, this can be taken too far. But Ward Churchill, radical and unlikable as he may be, wasn't removed for taking his classroom comments too far. In fact, CU argued, Churchill was fired for plagiarism. And while evidence of questionable integrity and scholarship arose, the jury didn't see it CU's way. They saw reactionism, they saw politics, they saw punitive retribution against an unpopular faculty member who, let's face it, wrote and probably said some pretty unwonted things throughout his career. But the jury did not see a dangerous and morally unfit teacher who would present a risk to students.

Vincent Carroll, back up. When you know of the prison warden who won't address abuses in his facility, when you catch the college football coach distributing hate propaganda to players, please use your column to motivate the government to intervene. We count on your prominent voice for just that purpose. But do not deliberately misrepresent the Ward Churchill affair for ideological and political gain. That's bad public practice, bad faith, and odious to boot.