With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Ward Churchill: He’s Baaack!

Well, that embarrassment for the liberal academy—Ward Churchill—is back in the news again. This time he is triumphant.  A jury in Colorado has just ruled that his firing in 2007 was improper, and they upheld Churchill’s central contention: that he was fired because of his politically-incorrect comments on the victims of 9/11. This turn in the saga has allowed Churchill to proclaim his vindication, and has moved his attorney to crow that: “There are few defining moments that give the First Amendments this kind of light.”1 As of this writing, Ward Churchill is pursuing reinstatement at the University of Colorado.

So, it is now Ward Churchill who is the poster boy for academic freedom. How did it come to this? Let’s review.

Multicultural Postmodernism at Work-

In early February 2005 a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado named Ward Churchill went in one day from the usual academic obscurity to national notoriety when an essay he had written in 2001 on the Twin Towers tragedy for some reason became a topic of media interest. Churchill had, among other intemperate remarks, described the victims in the Twin Towers as “little Eichmanns,” and had suggested they got what they deserved. As Churchill summarized his thesis at the trial: “if you make it a practice of killing other people’s babies for personal gain . . . eventually they’re going to give you a taste of the same thing.”2

Churchill was immediately depicted in the popular media as an anti-Semite, and perhaps even a traitor. The Governor of Colorado, reflecting the popular sentiment, demanded his firing. Churchill, for his part, held a defiant rally sponsored by the American Indian Movement, and he was introduced at the rally—and embraced as a beloved elder of the Indian peoples—by Russell Means. The rally was a flashback to the 60s, and, as it turned out, Churchill’s rant was the standard far-left stuff about how America is a genocidal imperialist power. Pretty much everything he said could just as easily have been said, perhaps a little more elegantly, in any essay by Noam Chomsky, or coughed up in pretty much any speech by Ramsey Clark. But from reading the summarized version of events that appeared in the press and on television one would never have known this. Churchill was depicted as some kind of sui generis madman. Instead, like Chomsky and Clark, he is just a pathetic figure, still stuck in the 60s, and still trying to somehow sell the old brand of soap.

But the world has changed. The official journalistic take on Churchill can no longer go unquestioned. Thanks to the Internet, anyone with an interest can find the original source document upon which the entire story was based, and can read the primary source itself. 3 In Churchill’s case, reading the source document reveals that the reference to “little Eichmanns” was not an anti-Semitic slur. Rather, his actual thesis was that America is a capitalist, imperialist, hegemonic, genocidal, corrupt state, and that the tenants of the World Trade Centers (because they were mostly involved in high-finance) were mid-level functionaries in this capitalist system and hence played a role that is, very crudely, that of an Eichmann, i.e., a bureaucratic functionary in a corrupt state. Not much better perhaps, but different than the journalistic consensus account.

In any case, the academy was horrified; they wanted this embarrassment to go away. But Churchill had tenure. And he was—despite having only a Masters degree—the Chairman of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The University officials could not come right out and admit they wanted to fire Churchill because they found his views to be so patently offensive. They thus launched a peer review of his academic work and found, apparently to their surprise, that it was shoddy, unprofessional, plagiarized, and in general not up to academic standards. Thus, he was fired, presumably on these grounds, and not on grounds of political correctness (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

Why it is that Churchill’s worthless scholarship was news to the academy, is worth reflecting on. Anyone who had ever bothered to read anything Churchill had written, or heard any of his speeches, would have instantly been able to detect their quality—unless they were wearing a certain type of intellectual blinders. The type of blinders at work here, I suggest, are what I have referred to as one of the five main forms of postmodern declension in historical scholarship—Multicultural Postmodernism—in which we do not demand of certain historical narratives the full measure of objective rigor, if they are narratives in service of the favored clients of the postmodern academy, i.e., women, minorities, the victims of imperialism, etc.4

I realize this is a rather sweeping claim; so it might help to examine in detail an example of Churchill’s scholarship, to see just how hard it was to discern its quality.

The Bogus Blanket Story

There is a fringe view out there that claims that the introduction of smallpox in the New World was a deliberate genocidal strategy by the Europeans. Churchill is a major peddler of this tale. In Churchill’s version of the story, smallpox-infected blankets were knowingly distributed to the Indians by the U.S. Army, with the result that hundreds of thousands of Indians were murdered in this way.

It turns out this story was completely fabricated by Churchill. In his 1997 pastiche, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, Churchill neatly juxtaposes two separate stories so that he can elide the distinctions between them, so as to give the appearance that the two stories support a broader claim. This deliberate use of misleading juxtapositions as a substitute for evidence is a common technique throughout Churchill’s corpus of work. When evidence is lacking, he merely glides over the problem by implying that one piece of information proves the next because they appear in consecutive paragraphs.

In the first story, two British military officers exchange letters in 1763. The first officer, in a postscript, suggests that giving smallpox-contaminated blankets to Indians might help the British “extirpate” their native foe. The second officer reports he has taken up the suggestion and distributed “two blankets and a handkerchief” to this end. Churchill then neatly assumes that all subsequent smallpox-related deaths among Indians in this era (by his estimate over 100,000) were due to these three infected pieces of cloth.5

Then immediately in the text comes the next story. In 1837 a steamboat run by the American Fur Company out of St. Louis stopped at Fort Clark on the Missouri River to sell its wares and trade with the residents at the Fort, and in the nearby Mandan Indian village. Some disembarking passengers were unknowingly carrying the pox and they unwittingly infected people at the Fort, and some members of the tribe. In the ensuing epidemic, almost 95% of the 2,000 member Mandan tribe perished, lacking as they did any immunity to the smallpox virus. This is the actual story, according to the only source cited by Churchill in documentation of this event. 6 But in Churchill’s version—having established that two English officers distributed two infected blankets more than seventy years earlier—and noticing the origins of the steamboat in St. Louis, entitles him to conclude the steamboat was carrying U. S. Army blankets that had been loaded aboard by the Army from the smallpox infirmary in St. Louis and intentionally distributed to the Indians as a weapon of war.

The epidemic that began at Fort Clark (which again Churchill puts at causing over 100,000 deaths over the whole region, all of which he conveniently puts down to the infected blankets) is thus claimed to be an example of a military use of smallpox infection as a weapon of war, intended to produce genocide among the Native American populations in North America.

But of course, the story that the Army loaded infected blankets on the riverboat as a weapon of war against the Indians, is pure invention—pure Churchill. It is fiction from start to finish. But Churchill passionately believes it, since it fits so nicely with his master narrative here. This fabricated story by Ward Churchill of the Army using infected blankets as a weapon of war is now routinely assumed and repeated by scholars in a host of disciplines.

The Right Clients

It is also instructive to note that Churchill has for years now been in the business of fabricating for himself an imaginary Indian ancestry: he claims to be 3/16 Cherokee Indian. This self-representation as a Native American is the central technique Churchill used to lend credence to his scholarship. He represented himself as a Native American specializing in documenting the history of America’s oppression of his people. Churchill’s claim to be a Native American also explains how a minor scholar with a Masters degree in Communications from Sangamon State University could become a departmental chairman at the University of Colorado. 8 It also explains, I suggest, why his scholarship received so little peer scrutiny—he was cheering for the right clients.

As a result of the notoriety Churchill called down upon himself due to his comments about 9/11, the Rocky Mountain News newspaper in Denver launched an investigation of Churchill’s claimed Indian ancestry—tracing his ancestry back to Pre-Revolutionary days—and determined that this claim too, like much of his scholarship, is false. 9

The Wrong Clients

The odd thing about Churchill’s hateful commentary about Jews and the World Trade Center attack is that it was nothing new. For years Churchill had been making equivalent allegations against a wide variety of American cultural figures. He even has his own twisted version of Holocaust-denial: one of Churchill’s central ideological crusades is to minimize the importance of the European Holocaust, so that he can enlarge the importance of the New World holocaust by contrast, all the while claiming that the deniers of the New World holocaust are like the deniers of the European Holocaust.

No one in the academic establishment thought his earlier remarks beyond the pale; no one called Churchill to account for his plagiarism; no one in the academic community seemed to be offended by Churchill’s hysterical pseudo-scholarship. The difference, it seems, is that most of his previous insults and lies about American history were launched, as it were, from the far left of the political spectrum and were aimed at historical figures who are out of favor among professional historians—they were attacks on the “great white men” of American history. The new apparent attack on Jews, by contrast, seemed to come from the far right (redolent as it was with Nazi-like views of Jews) and to be focused on a traditional “protected class” for the left-leaning multiculturalists. No one in the academic establishment seemed outraged when Churchill falsely accused the American government of using smallpox as a weapon of war to create an intentional genocide of the Native American population; but when he called Jews Eichmann-like money-changers, well, that finally caused the academic establishment to wake up and take notice.

I might also be impolitic enough to observe that it is no accident that a pseudo-scholar like Ward Churchill could find himself a departmental chairman in an Ethnic Studies program. Such programs—along with Cultural Studies and Women’s Studies programs—are non-traditional academic disciplines in many respects, not the least of which is their apparent attitude toward traditional scholarly practices. Indeed, these types of programs often have more of the character of Political Action Committees than they do the character of scholarly research programs. Women’s Studies programs, for example, make a central function of their operations—and a central point of their appeal to young female students—the idea that they exist to empower women.

When political motive is allowed to intermingle so promiscuously with scholarship, a diminished valorization of objectivity is inevitable. And the hiring of scholars based on their political correctness rather than their scholarship seems just as inevitably to follow. It is hard to think of any other explanation for the rise of such a merit-less poser as Ward Churchill. Indeed, as L.A. Timescolumnist Gregory Rodriguez observed about the firing of Churchill: “What should concern us all . . . is academia’s nurturance of loons like the hate-filled Mr. Churchill. . . . And though their influence is minor . . . they can be very influential in particular fields, such as comparative literature and gender and ethnic studies. That’s because the problem on campuses isn’t rigorous Marxist materialists, as conservative stereotypes would have you believe, but craven emotional warriors in the arena of identity politics.” 10

This latest rebuke of the actions of the board of regents ought to have taught them a lesson—but I doubt they got it. This is a classic example of the old saw about being hoist on one’s own petard. The University of Colorado hired this unqualified scholar and promoted him to a high position at the University out of political correctness, and they were forced to fire him for the same reason. Initially they hired Churchill because he represented the Native American victimization in America’s history—his hiring was the usual kind of intellectual compensation for historical injustice in which the liberal academy specializes. It was “positive political correctness.” But when Churchill made comments that were offensive to the current sensibilities of the liberal academy, a reverse form of political correctness motivated them to fire him. This “negative political correctness” was indeed, as the jury rightly perceived, the reason Churchill was fired.

How much simpler it all would have been if they had never hired Churchill in the first instance, because he was so obviously unqualified for the position he was given. And how much simpler it would have been if they had fired him long ago for all the shoddy, disreputable, scholarship he spewed forth over the years. But that scholarship had the right valence: he was criticizing American history for its treatment of Native Americans. To this “noble” end, apparently anything goes. But when he implicitly criticized a favored class (Jews and the victims of 9/11), suddenly the academy noticed that his scholarship was shoddy. His work then became the “cover story” for his firing. The jury—and pretty much everyone else—clearly saw this. But since the jury members were not initiates in the academic club, this perverse kind of conduct struck them as improper—as indeed it is.

I say that the story of Ward Churchill is a perfect case study in the shortcomings of Multicultural Postmodernism, and its denigration of the ideals of truth and objectivity in scholarship. When we dispense with these traditional ideals of the modernist conception of historical scholarship, scholars like Ward Churchill are exactly what we inevitably get. We ought to be embarrassed—again.

1  “Ward Churchill Wrongly Fired by University of Colorado: Jury,” Huffington Post, 4/3/09. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/02/ward-churchill-wrongly-fi_n_182619.html

2 Ibid.

3 The text is available on various sites, including: http://www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/s11/churchill.html

4 I argue this case in detail in my manuscript Truth and Objectivity in History: In Defense of Declining Virtues.

5 Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, (San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1997): 154.

6 Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987): 96-99.

7 Churchill, 1997: 155-156.

8 Sangamon State was founded in 1969 as an “alternative” university in which grades were optional (at the choice of the student) and which dispensed with academic departments, departmental chairs and deans, among other trappings of traditional instruction. The university advertised for faculty in such publications as Rolling Stone and Radical Teacher magazines, and opposition to the Vietnam War was virtually a de facto requirement for an appointment. This was the university that credentialed Churchill.

9 Kevin Flynn, “The Charge: Misrepresentation; are Ward Churchill’s Claims of American Indian Ancestry Valid? Our Findings: Genealogical Records, DNA Don’t Support Assertions,” Rocky Mountain News, June 9, 2005: 5A.

10 Gregory Rodriguez, “Activists Masquerading as Academics,” Baltimore Sun, 8/5/07: 15A.

Related Links

  • Stanley Fish says Ward Churchill was guilty of"standard stuff" of historians

  • Thomas Brown: Truthiness v. Scholarship: Ward Churchill’s Day in Court