For nine years, I did my commenting from Washington, D.C., and then I moved back to Colorado, away from the political hubbub to the peaceful Rockies, to Western hospitality and to – what’s that? A controversy banging on the door? There’s a professor up the road named Ward Churchill, and he wrote something that execrable?
Washington, it seems, does not have a monopoly on idiotic utterance, although that exists in the nation’s capital in plentiful supply. The words of some of Washington’s politicians, pundits and activists of various stripes are vaporous, mean and destructive, but most of them seem little more than ants at a picnic compared to the words of ethnic studies professor Churchill, which are more on the order of Nazi prison guards ushering their victims to gas chambers.
Churchill, who teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder, wrote that the people killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were little Adolph Eichmanns who had it coming. America had done terrible things to Iraqis, by his reasoning, and it wasn’t just policy-makers in government who were responsible; it was every citizen who did not raise a hand in protest, especially those engaged in finance. The terrorists were just hitting back, and they had plenty of reason to do so.
It’s hard to know where to start in response to such flabbergasting nonsense, just as it would be hard to know how to convince someone who believes the Earth is flat that the planet is actually a globe. A flat-earth exponent, after all, is someone who has spent a lifetime in opposition to the obvious, so reciting more of the obvious won’t get you anywhere. Would it be possible to convince Churchill that America is not responsible for Middle East misery, as he alleges in the essay where he conjures up much of his slime? Almost certainly not.
We know from reporting in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, for instance, that he has gotten fundamental issues wrong in his so-called scholarship, such as his charge that the U.S. government planned Indian deaths through the spread of smallpox. We also know from the newspaper that his essays include portions that are almost word-for-word the same as portions in work published previously to his and that even his claims to be part Indian are suspect. To him, it would seem, wild imaginings are equivalent to factual delving and truth is what you want it to be.
Otherwise, you could maybe persuade him that if specific policies were what angered the 9/11 murderers, they would have left a calling card listing what they wanted changed. They didn’t. Otherwise, you could maybe get him to see that when virtually everybody is guilty, as in his calculations, no one is guilty. Otherwise, you might get him to acknowledge that giving excuses for evil is tantamount to participating in that evil.
Should he be fired? As someone who is virtually an absolutist on the issue of free speech, I have troubles with that. But I think those of us who say he should be allowed to keep his job should ask ourselves this question: During Hitler’s genocide of Jews in Germany, would we have argued for the dismissal of a public-university professor maintaining that the Jews deserved what they were getting? If my answer is in the affirmative, as it is, consistency demands that I have got to show that Churchill is different in at least some important respects. I think he probably is, but I don’t think the issue is an easy one.
To me, there are a couple of other matters here that are also interesting and important to the future good health of this republic. One is whether at least some ethnic studies programs are as much an excuse for ideological blather as they are rigorous explorations of ethnicity in this country’s history, and the other is whether radicalism of the Churchill ilk is not more commonplace at American universities than anyone blessed with common sense would applaud.
I’ve got my guesses about the answers – yes and yes – and I have a caution to offer my fellow citizens: Keep a close eye on the irrationalities emanating from Washington, to be sure, but be on intellectual guard for political poison in your own backyard at the same time.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly the Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)