Ward Churchill scores again


I wonder whether it’s worth bringing up his name again.

Ward Churchill is a disgrace. It’s something of a shame that his firing became a cause célèbre, because this is a man who would probably deny to others, if he could, the academic freedom he so loudly demands for himself. Still, freedoms are not meant to be granted only to the well-behaved. A jury is convinced that Churchill was fired for exercising a First Amendment right.

The jury awarded him — shrewdly, I thought — one dollar in damages.

Now, as Gary Kamiya reports at Salon.com, another judge will decide whether Churchill is entitled to further recompense from the university that dismissed him. Whatever the outcome, I agree with Kamiya’s assessment of the damage that Churchill has done to American Indian studies:

To put it mildly, Churchill was not an ideal poster child for the cause of academic freedom. If right-wing critics of the university had set out to create a perfect caricature of a tenured radical who sacrifices scholarship for advocacy, they couldn’t have come up with a better one than Churchill. … The ultimate lesson of the Churchill case is that no cause, however just, benefits from being taken up by a propagandist. Scholarship must be sacrosanct. Rules of evidence must be followed. You can’t assert things that you want to believe are true, no matter how morally right or practically beneficial those assertions may be, and then distort or make up evidence to support them.

For an example of how to do it right, see the well-lived life of John Hope Franklin.

Churchill, who parlayed a job in an affirmative-action office into a professorship in ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, is about as dishonest as anyone living. A long-overdue peer review, completed in 2006, “found that Churchill had fabricated historical claims, cited sources that did not support his allegations … and plagiarized at least one other paper.”

The hell of it is that, despite some complaints from colleagues, no one at the University of Colorado checked on Churchill’s work until after he became notorious for his “little Eichmanns” essay — the one that described office workers who died in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers as the moral equivalent of Nazi war criminals. It’s a piece that is long on self-righteousness and sarcasm, crammed with dismissive labeling, but weak on analysis. Oddly enough, its author soon seems bored with the oppressed Middle Easterners whom he’s supposedly championing. (You can read it for yourself.)

All in all, the piece is about what you might expect from a man with such an inflated sense of personal privilege that he successfully assumed a make-believe American Indian identity — even though, as a white man, he had never suffered any of the disadvantages of reservation life or anti-Indian discrimination. Instead, Churchill gained through sheer chutzpah the privileges of a protected Indian minority status to go with the privileges of his whiteness.

All the privilege, none of the pain. A win-win for Ward.

As a pretend Indian, Churchill was able to recast his indolence and dishonesty as radicalism and a rejection of ostensibly white norms. Yet as Churchill’s colleagues concluded in 2006, for someone who claims the protection of Indian oral traditions, Churchill shows “considerable disrespect” for those traditions, not even bothering to familiarize himself with them, much less to seek out and listen to esteemed Indian storytellers.

That would be too much like work.

One aspect of the case that I haven’t seen explored is the likelihood of unconscious racism in the behavior of university officials toward this faux ethnic scholar. The appointment of Churchill despite his lack of traditional credentials can be understood as a bid to avoid criticism for having an insufficiently diverse faculty. That may also explain the school’s reluctance to delve into his identity claims. But what are we to make of official willingness, for so many years, to avoid holding this “ethnic” scholar to any kind of professional standard of conduct? Does it imply certain unexamined assumptions about the relative capacities of white and non-white people?

I’m just asking. Maybe someone at UC besides Churchill is in need of a peer review.

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