Revolution #98, August 19, 2007
The Firing of Ward Churchill and the Dangerous Trajectory of Repression in Academia
On July 24th, the Regents of the University of Colorado (CU) fired tenured Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill. The vote came after a vicious campaign spearheaded by David Horowitz, self-described “battering ram” for the assault on critical thinking in academia, along with the right-wing American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Horowitz is a highly connected political operative, with close ties to and support from Karl Rove and top national Republican leaders. ACTA is a powerful academic “watch-dog” group founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice president.
This is much worse than, as the Pink Floyd song goes, just another brick in the wall. And it has nothing to do with the story being told of an "academic fraud" uncovered by a thorough investigation. The investigatory process was a fraud, and the charges brought against Churchill were either false or grotesque exaggerations (for more on this, see Revolution #92, June 17, 2007, “New Assault on Dissent and Critical Thinking: University of Colorado President Calls for Firing of Professor Ward Churchill”). Together with the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein by DePaul University (see Revolution #95, July 15, 2007, “Denial of Tenure for Norman Finkelstein: Rising Outrage, and Raising Big Questions”), it represents a major move to recast universities into a more fully controlled machine for indoctrination.
Building a Foundation for Indoctrination
Churchill was actually targeted for firing not because of any supposed academic conduct issues, but because of an essay he wrote that included his sharply worded post-9/11 critique of the U.S. role in the world. In it, he made a very provocative formulation about how not all the people, but those people who worked particularly as functionaries for the large corporations with offices in the World Trade Center were “Little Eichmanns,”—comparing them to the functionaries of the Nazi regime.
When Churchill was invited to speak at a small college in New York, the reactionary “noise machine” cranked up a huge attack on him for this essay. The governors of New York and Colorado called for his firing, and CU Chancellor DiStefano launched an investigation into “everything he had ever written” to see if he could be fired--or jailed - because of the content of his writings. Horowitz publicly advised that it would be better to go after Churchill for “fraud” instead. And in fact, the pretense for firing Churchill was not the essay, but instead a shamefully disingenuous investigation supposedly of Churchill’s academic scholarship. And while reactionaries fanned all kinds of hysteria about Churchill, the response of the Democratic Party establishment was stone silence in the face of this attack.
Reactionary opponents of critical thinking and dissent on campuses have explicitly said that the firing of Churchill should open the gates to wholesale attacks on other professors. A blurb for Horowitz’ book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America says, "American universities are full of radical academics like Ward Churchill—and worse." ACTA’s report, “How Many Ward Churchills?” also called for expanded witch-hunts, saying, "Is there really only one Ward Churchill? Or are there many Ward Churchills…Ward Churchill is not alone…Ward Churchill is everywhere."
In the wake of the firing, these same forces (along with some new ones) are demanding further attacks. These include targeting not just other dissident scholars, but the tenure system and whole fields of study, such as ethnic studies, women/gender studies, an anti-imperialist current within area studies, and numerous courses in law and other fields where “social justice” is discussed.
Setting an Intolerable Precedent
Churchill was fired even though he had tenure at the University of Colorado--a status that supposedly protects professors from being fired for their political views. The firing makes it very clear to scholars that tenure no longer provides any such protection. Furthermore, most professors are not tenured. They have always had even less security.
Speaking on Michael Slate's radio show, “Beneath the Surface,” DePaul professor Matthew Abraham, commenting on a colleague’s comparison of the Churchill and Finkelstein cases to public executions, said: "You don't need to do ten or twenty of them. You just need to do four or five just to keep people in line and to have them remember what can happen if you get carried away with your speech. Ward and Norman, these are top-flight scholars, and if they can take them out, believe me they wouldn't hesitate to take out people of much lesser stature.”
From the beginning, the attack on Ward Churchill has been approached as a test case, a proving ground for tactics and strategies, and as a foundation for broader attacks on academia. As an example, this past March, the CU Regents voted to tremendously speed up the process of firing tenured professors. Whereas before the process could take years and involve appeals from the professor, it is now designed to take a little over three months. These guidelines, which drastically depart from standard practice at universities, were established by the Regents with the Churchill case in mind, as a fast-track for future punishment and repression. They were also explicitly put forward as a model for other universities to follow.
The Stakes Involved
The firing of Churchill makes clear the dangerous trajectory of U.S. society. The stakes involved need to be grasped, not just by students and academics, but by everyone who hates the current direction of society and who longs for something different, and everyone who thinks that academia should be a place where people are free to pursue the truth.
What makes it so important is the relation between the overall direction those in power are taking the world--going for a qualitative leap in consolidating and expanding their global empire--and their need to chill, suppress, discredit, and drive out dissent and critical thinking in academia, and making “indoctrination,” rather than critical thinking, the watchword. Their agenda requires lies, torture, violations of international and domestic law, and the unleashing of horrors against millions. It cannot stand up to critical thinking, and requires closed, intimidated, and uncritical minds. They need to restrict any public debate to tactical discussions based on shared aims and assumptions. At a time when powerful forces in the U.S. have unleashed a cauldron of contradictions, which they do not control, accomplishing this is essential to ensuring their continued rule.
Radical and critical-minded intellectuals who challenge established truths and create the intellectual space for debate and discussion play a disproportionate and crucial role in society. When they are silenced, it has tremendous ramifications throughout society.
Many people, especially but not only from the middle strata, are first introduced to "inconvenient truths" of U.S. history and imperialism in college. There is still much more space for critical thinking in academia than elsewhere in society. And in the past few decades, people coming out of the 1960s have become professors, received tenure, and gained influence in some academic sectors, and have brought forward new scholarship that sheds light on and refutes the official narratives about America’s history and role in the world. To Horowitz, ACTA, and the system they represent, that is a terrible plague.
The Need to Resist: Rehire Churchill and Finkelstein!
Many scholars and intellectuals have defended Churchill and condemned the witch-hunt against him. They have seen through the lies surrounding this case, understood the tremendous threat to critical thinking hidden behind them and have defended Churchill as an expression of principle.
Unfortunately, many others have stood on the sidelines. Others have joined in on the attacks, or have blamed Churchill for his problems, and for putting others in danger. Some have even advocated throwing Churchill to the dogs in order to protect themselves--which amounts to sawing off the branch you're sitting on.
Scholars and others need to step back and look at the big picture. Any pragmatic or uninformed response to the firing of Ward Churchill will only compound the disaster and speed the already very negative motion and development in the universities. John K. Wilson, author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, noted on his blog:
"Back during the McCarthy Era, colleges thought that they could protect themselves from outside intrusion by sacrificing a few radical professors to the witchhunt. Ultimately, they simply fed the bloodlust. It’s not hard to see a parallel to Churchill’s case, and the glee of conservatives who hope this will be the beginning of mass firings and the abolition of entire departments."
Academics have a special responsibility--to “sound the alarm” as broadly as possible, enlist the broad masses in the defense of dissenting scholars and critical thinking in academia, and contribute to the greatest degree possible to the awakening of society in fundamental opposition to this whole regime.
It would be disastrous to adopt the view that the firing of Churchill (and the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein) is unjust but irreversible. Churchill's firing must not be allowed to stand. The demand for the reversal of this decision needs to be massively raised, in academia and in broader society. What is called for now is actually stepping up the full opposition to these attacks on the basis of demanding that the injustices against Churchill and Finkelstein be reversed.
In so doing, our sights should be set on bringing into being their worst nightmare--an aroused and awakened academia, increasingly rejecting the present dynamic in society and the vision of the future it threatens; a situation where prominent intellectuals and scholars are publicly calling into question and challenging the whole direction those in power are rushing to take the world. And more, are engaging and encouraging discussion and debate over the question of the kind of world we would want to live in, and making major contributions to strengthening the theoretical as well as the practical underpinnings of that world, and what it’s going to take to get there.
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