Ward Churchill Speaks at Univ. of Hawaii

Hawaiian Professors Defy the Witch Hunt

Revolutionary Worker #1270, March 13, 2005, posted at rwor.org

"Churchill's visit to the University of Hawai'i is about valuing free speech, upholding the spirit of academic freedom which involves open expression and transparent debate and, equally important, respect for informed discussions within and beyond the university that do not boil complex, controversial and problematic ideas down to cable television and drive-time radio sound-bites."

Eliza Joy White, Professor, University of Hawai'i

"The University of Hawaii embraced Churchill, provided him a vacation and the audience gave him three standing ovations, while outside just a few demonstrators spoke out against this misguided individual. What is wrong at UH? This is disgraceful. That institution will never command my respect again."

Right-wing commentator Bill O'Reilly, Fox News

The latest firestorm around Ward Churchill started with an act of courage and solidarity at the University of Hawaii.

Professors at UH, some of whom knew Churchill and his work well, watched as a witch hunt raged against him in January and February. Churchill's remarks were portrayed as insane, intolerable and "pro-terrorist"--especially remarks in a three-year-old article which suggested that the attacks of 9/11 are connected to a long history of U.S. atrocities, and that even civilians in the U.S. can't claim simple innocence. (See "Culture Wars on Campus: The Witch Hunt Against Ward Churchill," RW #1268, February 20, 2005.)

Right-wing forces demanded his head on a plate. They demanded that all his speaking engagements be cancelled. He was forced out of his post as head of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado, and ominous investigations were launched to find a pretext for firing him from his tenured post as professor. He was hounded by death threats.

Seeing all this, people in Hawai'i took their own action: they invited him to speak!

A highly relevant topic was chosen for his speech: "Speaking Truth to Power: Academic Freedom in the Age of Terror."

One organizer told the RW : " There was a real sense of `First they will come for Ward Churchill, then they will come for us.' So we decided to organize an event."

This proposal for inviting Ward Churchill was then circulated around various university academic departments and programs, for sponsorship and funds. The response was remarkable.

By February 21, the list of academic sponsors included: American Studies, Center for Pacific Island Studies, College of Social Sciences Social Policy Center, Diversity and Equity Initiative, English Department, Center for Hawaiian Studies, History Department, International Cultural Studies Certificate Program, Matsunaga Peace Institute, Political Science Department, Sociology Department, Women's Department, Ethnic Studies, Students Equity Excellence and Diversity.

A date was picked, for February 22. And the organizers attempted to quietly publicize this talk on campus. But in these days, there was no way this would be allowed to be a quiet, academic event.

The Dogs Howl

"We all agree freedom of speech should be protected, but not at the expense of supporting fraud and misrepresentation. In this regard, I hope Mr. Churchill will not be given the opportunity to speak under the auspices of the University of Hawai'i."

Fred Hemmings State Senate Republican leader, on the floor of the Hawai'i State Senate

Five days before his talk, the ever-alert right-wing web blogs started screaming about this UH invitation. Their hyped outrage was immediately picked up and echoed by Hawai'i's mainstream press and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.

In this wave of attack, the focus has shifted slightly. The reactionaries (including Bill O'Reilly) now insist they are not against "free speech." They insist the issue is not what Churchill has written. They now foam that he is an academic fraud, that his scholarship has holes in it, and that he is accused of falsely claiming to be Native American. It is no accident that these are exactly the kinds of charges that are being raised in Colorado, as the university authorities there try to find a pretext for firing this tenured professor.

There is a really sick mutually reinforcing media operation: the right-wing web-bloggers act as watchdogs hunting down the next arena of witch hunt, Fox's Bill O'Reilly kicks the news up to the national level, while the rest of the mainstream media shamelessly adopt these most extreme and fascistic arguments.

And driving the campaign in many ways are prominent figures high in the U.S. powerstructure. It was the governor of Colorado who insisted most loudly that Ward Churchill should simply be fired at the University of Colorado. It was the governor of New York who insisted that Churchill's speaking engagement at Hamilton College must be canceled. It is the influential Republican strategist Newt Gingrich who is arguing that Churchill should be fired specifically and openly for his political views (and not just on manufactured pretexts of "academic fraud.")

And now, it is Fred Hemmings, the top elected Republican in Hawai'i, who has stepped forward to drive the firestorm in Hawai'i.

Hemmings argued that "taxpayer's money" should not be spent on anti-government speakers, and that if someone like Churchill does speak (even without funding) that the University should be required to provide an opposing "equal time" speaker to refute him publicly.

The themes were echoed, day after day, in the media: The headline on the Honolulu daily Star-Bulletin's editorial page announced, "Ivory Tower's Morals are Crumbling." The invitation to Churchill should be withdrawn, they said, because "taxpayers' money" should not be spent on "academic fraud."

Articles claimed that this coming event would be "a freak show." They repeated charges that Churchill did not have sufficient Native ancestry to qualify as a Native American.

Right-wing networks cranked out foamy letters to the newspapers. The University of Hawai'i was under attack. Specific UH professors were targeted, viciously, by name. One outspoken professor, Ruth Hsu, was denounced by Bill O'Reilly on the air and started getting hate mail and death threats.

It was a continuation of the firestorm over Churchill's Hamilton speech last month.

Hearing for Themselves

What has been announced is not an attempt to purge me, although they have that in mind in Colorado. Fat chance! It's a purge of the academy and a conversion of the institutions--across the board--into bloc cheering sections for the red-white-and-blue as they define it. There is to be no critical engagement. There is to be no questioning. There is to be no stimulation of public discourse and inquiry. There is to simply be a reinforcement and amplification of the utterances of the status quo. And that's it!"

Professor Ward Churchill speaking at the University of Hawai'i, February 22

"My parents said they were upset that their tax money was being spent on Ward Churchill. I'm going to tell them that I learned more tonight than I learned in my entire history class. I don't agree with everything he said, but he made me think!"

Lisa, student at University of Hawai'i

"The anti-Americans just overplayed their hand. We are now unstoppable."

Right-wing commentator, in the UH campus newspaper, February 28

In the face of a wave of reactionary howling, a press conference was called on February 21, and several professors explained and defended the event.

Haunani-Kay Trask, a professor at the Center for Hawaiian Studies, said, "Like the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s, the Colorado investigation of Ward Churchill is nothing less than McCarthyism. For this reason alone, if for no other, we at the university and all others concerned for civil liberties, absolutely and categorically, must defend Ward Churchill's constitutional right to speak his mind as a public intellectual."

Meanwhile, despite all the intense political pressure and threats, the University administration decided not to cancel Churchill's February 22 talk.

However, UH Interim President David McClain issued a statement saying he found some of Churchill's previous remarks "personally offensive." And, in a surprise to everyone, the university administration also froze the funds that had been collected to reimburse Ward Churchill's airfare to Hawai'i.

There was a feverish media campaign to tell everyone to stay away, and "prove" that no one in Hawai'i wanted to hear the views of someone like Churchill.

Only a relatively small auditorium was reserved for the talk, and the University cancelled arrangements for a video/audio feed that could have reached any overflow crowd. Several hours before the talk began, a UH Vice Chancellor said that no larger venue would be needed: "If I was a betting man I'd bet that not more than 300 people will come to hear that man."

Ah, but he was wrong. On Tuesday evening, nearly 1,000 people showed up at the Manoa campus auditorium.

Our RW correspondent wrote: "Everyone was talking about why they had come. Native Hawaiian students already familiar with Ward Churchill's books. Elderly Japanese speaking quietly comparing the witch hunts of today with the anti-Japanese campaign that accompanied Japanese internment in concentration camps during World War 2. Sunburned tourists saying they'd heard O'Reilly's rant against Churchill and decided to hear him for themselves. UH faculty talking about their concerns about academic freedom. U.S. Marines wearing pro-Bush shirts mingling in with the largely antiwar crowd. A Samoan bus driver who voted for Bush and wasnow feeling deceived. Most people I talked to supported the decision to bring Churchill to speak. Over and over again they said: `I just wanted to hear for myself what he has to say.' "

Outside, a small knot of "Young Republicans" carried signs like "You're a Traitor." But the main attraction to the TV cameras was Hawai'i State Senator Fred Hemmings and Vermont's Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who had showed up to denounce the talk and demand "equal time." (This concept of "equal time" is an interesting one: Does it mean that radicals and revolutionaries should also get equal time for every fundamentalist sermon preached in campus chapels? Or equal time after every lecture by right-wing professors of history or economics? Obviously that is not their intent! Their concept is that the University should be required to follow any progressive and so-called "controversial" speakers with immediate, "equal" and on-the-spot rebuttal by reactionaries.)

The auditorium filled, and hundreds were still outside. A University administrator tried to order them to go home. They refused, and chanted so loudly that the program couldn't start. So finally, the university was forced to set up speakers so everyone outside could hear the event.

Churchill was introduced by one of the event organizers and by the noted radical activist Yuri Kochiyama. His talk was a call for everyone to see what the witch hunts represent and oppose them.

He said: "This is not McCarthyism. It is something that is geared up to function in a much more sophisticated and ultimately successful way, allowed to run its course. You can't give it an inch. You give it an inch and its going to come galloping right over you. I couldn't believe how fast this campaign shaped up on me. These guys are organized. They don't do their homework. They don't necessarily understand calculus. But they've got an infrastructure for news-- well, here I go, using a term like that to describe disinformation--they have a disinformation apparatus, a spin apparatus, second to none."

The audience was enthusiastic. Their applause interrupted him over and over -- as he skewered the witch-hunt and exposed the crimes of the U.S. empire against colonized people, Native Americans and the indigenous Hawaiians.

And then, most of the crowd jumped to their feet clapping when he said, "United States has never had 15 minutes of its history when it was not butchering some people for its perceived interests somewhere... This most peace- loving country has never experienced peace."

They listened thoughtfully as he gave a careful explanation of his views on 9/11-- explaining his belief that people in the U.S. should confront their own degrees of complicity with the crimes of U.S. imperialism.

In his closing remarks Churchill cited Newt Gingrich, who reportedly said: "We're going to nail this guy and send the dominoes tumbling."

Churchill discussed what some of these so-called "dominoes" are--describing the targeting of whole disciplines like ethnic studies, women's studies, cultural studies and queer studies.

One participant told the RW that these issues are still being intensely debated on campus, including among people who sponsored the event.

A student quipped, "This is what education should look like." And this sentiment seems to be widespread.


As we go to press, the reactionary storm (including the feverish rantings of State Senator Hemmings) has not stopped in Hawai'i.

And meanwhile, ominous hearings are about to start at the University of Colorado about whether Ward Churchill remains there as a professor.

Emma Perez, who became the Chairperson of Ethnic Studies at UC after Churchill resigned, recently said:

"This is much, much bigger than an individual attack on Ward. What we're looking at is a carefully developed, pre-existing national strategy that has been searching for exactly the right breakthrough `test case.' It has found extremely favorable conditions in Ward's situation and in the post-9/11 climate. As they've been doing already in other areas they want to dismantle the structural footholds (academic freedom/tenure, ethnic studies) that social movements gained for people of color and liberal and progressive intellectuals inside academia during the '60s and '70s. If they are successful in Colorado, it could set a precedent.. This is a fight to make history."