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Jacob Laksin: The Left Leaps to Ward Churchill's Defense

Jacob Laksin, at frontpagemag.com (2-28-05):

"Who is defending Ward Churchill, may I ask?" That was the question posed by John Holbo, a philosophy professor and contributor to the leftwing academic blog Crooked Timber, when news broke that the University of Colorado was harboring a leftist extremist in its midst. The gist of Holbo’s question was that no respectable person on the Left could come to the defense of someone so demonstrably in leave of his senses as the former Weatherman accomplice, academic fraud, and faux-Indian.

One can only hope that the professor’s academic acumen is better than his news judgment. In fact, no sooner had the media picked up on Churchill’s now-notorious essay than his leftwing enablers rushed to rescue his reputation.

Carrying the flag of the pro-Churchill campaign was the academic community. Colorado University President Elizabeth Hoffman, before revising her views in the face of broad public condemnation, initially condoned Churchill’s likening of the victims of September 11 to Nazi apparatchiks, insisting that “Prof. Churchill's comments have precipitated a discussion we ought to have.”

Nor was there any shortage of academics who cheered Churchill’s work on its merits. Leading this charge of apologetics was Hamilton College professor Nancy Rabinowitz. Rabinowitz, who ignited the firestorm over Churchill by inviting him to speak at Hamilton College, argued that “the students should hear his whole argument before they boil it down to a few sound bites.” Allying with Rabinowitz in her campaign to rehabilitate the beleaguered Churchill was MIT’s resident radical Noam Chomksy. Famous for his zeal in whitewashing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the human rights abuses of North Korea’s Stalinist regime, Chomsky had little difficulty singing Churchill’s praises. “I've read a fair amount of his work, and a lot of it is excellent, penetrating and of high scholarly quality,” Chomsky gushed.

Seconding Chomsky’s assessment was James Riding In, a professor in the Department of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. “His work is viewed highly. I use it in my classes,” the professor told the Denver Post. Rather than addressing the historical inaccuracies and flat-out falsehoods that are the distinguishing feature of Churchill’s scholarship, the professor explained that “He's a good scholar but very controversial.” Likewise, Randall Fuller, an assistant professor of English at Missouri's Drury University, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he had no regrets about inviting Churchill to his campus last March. “We knew that he was a provocateur and that's what we liked about him,” Fuller explained.

There was more where that came from. Mark Grimsley, a professor of history at Ohio State University, could find only one fault with Churchill’s repellent analogy: it wasn’t quite clear enough. “As I have said, a major problem with the Ward Churchill essay is that the essay fails to deploy the metaphor effectively, at least as an aid to analysis,” Grimsley explained on his blog, adding, “I continue to wrestle with the issue of whether the ‘little Eichmanns’ metaphor can be made coherent.”

Yet another tack taken by Churchill’s backers on the Left was to ignore his views altogether. Instead, they trained their wrath of the real scourge of academia: the right.

Though he had little to say about Churchill himself, the leftwing economist and writer Max B. Sawicky was bursting with righteous indignation at the so-called right. “The Right,” Sawicky raged on his Web site, “likes to elevate these [Churchill] types, since they advance the work of the Right.” From Sawicky’s perspective, the real problem with the Ward Churchill’s of the academic world was not their tendency to confuse radical politics with rigorous scholarship, but that, by stirring up controversy, they were a hindrance to the successful advance of a leftwing agenda. “At the same time, they make effective radical, progressive, or liberal politics more difficult,” Sawicky explained.

Echoing this theme was Oscar Chamberlain, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. Like Sawicky, Chamberlain was more concerned about the criticism of Churchill’s writings than their content. Thus, he claimed that “the backlash against Ward Churchill has become far more offensive and frightening then anything he did or said.” Sniffing “McCarthysism” at work, Chamberlain warned of the pernicious influence of the media. “With the media trolling for the sensational, a comment can have striking consequences,” he said.

A derivative argument was advanced by Sherman Dorn, a professor at the University of Southern Florida. Dismissive of complaints against Churchill, Dorn fretted that the greater threat to university was represented not by the depravity of someone like Ward Churchill but by athletic recruitment, in which Dorn detected unmistakable evidence of “corporitization.” Even more than tenured radicals like Ward Churchill, Dorn explained on his blog, “universities have a far greater moral crisis in its sponsorship of semi-professional athletics at the expense of academics and, for many, the corporatization of universities. Which is more corrosive of academic values at the University of Colorado, the continued salary of Ward Churchill or the coverup of the athletic-recruiting scandal?” There was little mystery as to where Dorn stood on the matter.

And Churchill’s champions were not limited to his fellow travelers in the university. Ron Briley, an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School in New Mexico, offered one of the odder defenses of the Colorado charlatan. Making only a passing reference to “Churchill’s rhetorical excess,” Briley contended that the real problem was American Marines. Specifically, what troubled Briley was the candid confession Marine Corps Lt. General James Mattis that he enjoyed serving his country in Afghanistan because it was a “hell of a hoot” to shoot “guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil.” After condemning Mattis as “simple-minded” for his “offensive” remarks, Briley praised what he deemed as the nuanced thinking of Ward Churchill. “Thus, in his controversial 9/11 essay,” Briley explained, “Churchill attempts to assess why so many in the world perceive the United States as a symbol of oppression rather than freedom. He makes this argument while examining both the economic and military legacy of expansionism and imperialism.” Riley regretted only that the complexity of Churchill’s diatribe would be lost on most Americans, who were presumably as simple-minded as General Mattis: “This approach is, of course, a difficult one for many Americans to understand,” Briley sighed.

Not to be outdone, leftwing activist organizations also leaped to Churchill’s defense. The National Association for Ethnic Studies, for instance, chastised the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents for conducting an investigation into Churchill’s dubious academic credentials. According to Larry Estrada, the association’s president and a professor of American cultural studies at Western Washington University, Churchill was being unfairly singled out for his ambitious scholarship. “Churchill is really getting a bad rap for what he was trying to do, which was to explain why events like 9/11 transpired,” Estrada claimed. As Estrada saw it, the controversy was hatched by the “far right media.” “The far right media are trying to create a domestic scare,” he explained, adding, “If we can’t find terrorists, we’ll create terrorists in our midst.” Estrada offered no opinion about Churchill’s efforts, in the 1980s, to instruct the leftist terrorist group the Weathermen in the manufacture of bombs and the use of assault rifles.

Also silent on the more disconcerting chapters of Churchill’s biography was the American Association of University Professors. Clearly congenial to Churchill’s radical views, the organization stated in a press release that “we reject the notion that some viewpoints are so offensive or disturbing that the academic community should not allow them to be heard and debated.” Silent on the subject of Churchill’s extremist views, the AAUP stated that what was “reprehensible are inflammatory statements by public officials that interfere in the decisions of the academic community.” The AAUP even offered a defense of Churchill’s September 11 essay, insisting that “We must resist the temptation to judge such statements more harshly because they evoke special anguish among survivors and families of the September 11 victims.”

A defense of Churchill issued by the ACLU of Colorado was equally uncritical of the professor. Casting Churchill as a First Amendment martyr, the organization was effusive in its attacks on Churchill’s critics. One curious ACLU press release claimed that Churchill’s critics, including the regents at the University of Colorado as well as Colorado legislators, had no right to attack the professor. Instead, the ACLU called these critics “to stop threatening Mr. Churchill's job because of the content of his opinions,” railed against “governmental interference with the content of Mr. Churchill's constitutionally protected opinions” and insisted, on no evidence, that an investigation of Churchill’s scholarly qualifications “tramples on fundamental American liberties.” Going further, the ACLU presented a strikingly sanitized account of the controversy surrounding Churchill: “His language was harsh and he pointed his finger of blame for the attacks at the U.S. government, not at the zealots who flew the planes,” the ACLU explained.

Major media outlets did little to shed light on the scandal. The Washington Post, for instance, categorized Churchill’s remarks as “a few incendiary sound bites” which threatened to “overpower esoteric discussions about the right of tenure and the value of free discussion.” The New York Times, meanwhile, benignly described Churchill as an “in-your-face critic” with a penchant for “hyperbole.”

Notwithstanding the leftwing’s determined efforts to sponge the stain of extremism from Churchill's name, some liberals were puzzled by the publicity garnered by the story. On the Washington Monthly's blog, writer Kevin Drum wondered, “It's fascinating how a trivial story like this managed to spread so far, isn't it?” Predictably, Drum attributed the story’s longevity to the labors of a “right wing machine.” He didn’t pause to consider that by shamelessly rallying to defend an extremist like Churchill, leftwing activists were keeping the story afloat.

For evidence of this loathsome phenomenon, Drum need not have looked further than the comments section of his blog, where one visitor wrote, “Ward Churchill is a dedicated Civil Rights activist who just stated what is plainly the truth. That is, we Americans are complicit in the murder of millions of innocent foreign civilians over the years, and as such, must expect to be in the crosshairs of those people who we have put down in other countries.”