Raise Your Voice but Keep Your Head Down
By Michael Albert
I first met Ward Churchill when I was working at South End Press twenty five
years ago and Ward submitted his first book which was about Marxism and Native
Americans. It was a collection of essays which revealed why indigenous people
distrust Marxists' cultural politics and community norms. I found Churchill's
insights very compelling and became friends with him. I haven't seen Ward
for years, but every so often we publish a piece by him on ZNet, where I
now work. I offer all this in case anyone might feel our ties bias my viewpoint.
ZNet, February 5th 2005
I think the current controversy about Ward Churchill is a manipulative attack
on free speech aimed at the whole left. I remember when Ward's post 9/11
essay came out. My reaction was to wish he hadn't written it. Ward took clear
and cogent insights about the causes of international hostility to U.S. policies
and weighed them down with not so clear and not so cogent non insights about
the general population of the U.S. This kind of mix is always a problem,
not least because astute but reactionary readers will try to dismiss the
good by pointing to the bad. It doesn't matter that that is like trying to
dismiss Newton's positive contributions about gravity on grounds that he
believed in alchemy. When attacked with manipulative skill, tangential flaws
can be used to undercut important truths.
On a larger scale, that's what people are now trying to do to Ward himself,
as well: dismiss him in toto, as a person and as an employee of a university,
over a single essay some key parts of which were, I would agree, worthy of
There are two problems that should not be confused with one another. One
problem is that no person should be seen as only the tangential worst that
he or she does, even if there is a complete consensus about the failings,
unlike in this case.
Ward Churchill, for example, over the years, has contributed a great deal
to the comprehension of cultural concerns and possibilities as well as to
revealing the dynamics of repression and international relations. Ward is
a prodigious writer and an effective speaker and organizer who has fought
for just causes over and over.
I don't agree with Ward's views on some health issues, on population issues,
and on certain particular cultural matters, much less on the efficacy of
what we might call political trash talk about strategies of struggle. But
none of that has interfered with my liking Ward the person and feeling positive
about his many contributions. Ward Churchill should not be judged solely
on a single essay written the day after a gargantuan calamity, whatever anyone
may think of that piece. Parts ought to be criticized, yes, but not the person
who wrote it. It is the difference between ad hominem and substantive argument.
But second, and in this case more important, there is the little matter of
free speech. Criticizing what someone says is not the same as writing them
death threats and trying to terminate their career. The right-wing thugs
who are after Ward Churchill are stalking horses for more astute and sober
folks in the rear. The troops in the field are Ward's proximate problem,
but the powers that be--at the University of Colorado, in the Colorado state
government, in major media from Fox to The Wall Street Journal and from ABC
and the New York Times, through to the halls of Washington DC--are ultimately
far more important.
Are reactionary elites going to coercively remove Ward Churchill from U.S.
academia? That needs to be prevented by all of us, including people annoyed
at having to wage the free speech fight over words they do not like. Raise
Why is it so hard for people, often on both sides of the left/right divide,
to understand that what free speech means, if it means anything at all, is
freedom to speak what others do not like or even cannot stand to hear?
Tolerating what you like is hardly a major achievement. Hitler tolerated
what he liked. So did Stalin. Idi Amin did too. So did Genghis Khan, the
Shah, and Henry Kissinger. Free speech only becomes an issue when someone
says what others don't want to hear. Ward Churchill did that and so free
speech is now an issue. If the wrong side wins, the precedent will be dangerous.
This dynamic is not new but it is growing bolder. A recent report in the
New York Times relayed how teachers in many states and counties in the U.S.
are avoiding evolution by natural selection as a topic in their public school
classes. The teachers fear fallout from fundamentalist parents, scared school
board members, and even politically cowed principals. Ward's fight and the
fight of these teachers are logically of one cloth. The difference is that
so far Ward has more guts.
Ward used to tell me, after a visit, "Keep your head down." He had seen war
at home and abroad and he knew what he was talking about. Now Ward is in
another kind of war. I doubt any of these right-wing thugs will come after
him bodily. But the harm they can do institutionally is bad enough. Keep
your head down.
Why Ward Churchill? I think Ward would probably say it is because what he
is doing is very effective. Ward may even see the attacks on his essay as
evidence that the essay had great dissident merit. I think Ward would be
wrong in that. Ward is being attacked not because he is the strongest possible
target, but because he is one of the weakest possible targets. His essay
is featured not because it was seriously threatening, but because it is easily
ridiculed. Ward provided right wingers fodder they could manipulatively use.
The right wingers are hoping that Ward has sufficiently irritated those who
would otherwise defend him so that he is left without defenders. We can't
allow that. The right is a long way from going after stronger targets. Everyone
on the left has to be sure no targets they do go after are vulnerable.
Since 9/11 at public talks I often compare George Bush and Osama bin Laden.
I note that if you could have been a fly on the wall of the inner circle
meeting rooms of the U.S. government leading up to the bombing of Afghanistan,
I believe you would have heard no discussion, not even a minutes worth, taking
into account the well being of the Afghan people in the face of possible
massive starvation induced by our assault. Mass media at the time reported
(on back pages only) that bombing Afghanistan could lead to five million
deaths. No mainstream paper had a headline "U.S. contemplates killing millions
to prove we are tough," though all knew it was true.
I also indicate in the public talks that if I were to now have the opportunity
to ask bin Laden how he could possibly have chosen to undertake the assault
on the Twin Towers, despicable as this act was, I think he would probably
understand the question and would reply, roughly, that he thought the gains
(in trying to propel the U.S. into reactions that would provoke fundamentalism
throughout the Mideast) were worth the price in human loss. Bin Laden, as
evil as his designs surely were and are, would understand, that is, that
there was something untoward that occurred on 9/11, piles of corpses, and
that the negative deaths had to be weighed against what he saw as positive
political gains. Sane people will reject his moral calculus, of course, but
I am guessing that at least he had one.
On the other hand, I say in these talks that if I were to now have the opportunity
to ask Bush and Cheney how they could possibly have chosen to undertake the
bombing of Afghanistan, I think they would not even understand the question.
They would not see any need to weigh off benefits against costs because they
saw no costs. For them the general estimates made by all responsible parties
that literally millions of Afghans might suffer starvation if bombing were
to commence counted for naught. For them, Afghans are like bugs outside our
front door are for the rest of us. To Bush and Cheney Afghans are expendable.
Bush and Cheney have no moral calculus. They reduce humans to the status
And then I say in these talks, if there is a deep hell for sinners surely
Osama bin Laden is headed for at least its seventh floor down, but George
Bush and Dick Cheney are going to ride an elevator even further down to a
deeper basement. Everyone at talks like this given in the U.S. understands
these images and few have any problem with the harsh tone. When I have given
talks like this in Europe, however, I have been asked why I am alive. I was
confused the first time I heard this question in France, and then in Belgium
and Italy, and then I realized what they meant. "If the U.S. is as bad as
it seems, why don't Bush and Co. eradicate people as radical and militant
That's what our really bad guys did here in Europe, after all." Well, the
answer is that things in the U.S. are not that bad. Our fundamentalists can
only pick on targets that are relatively weak and effectively repress them
in states that are relatively congenial to right wing thuggery, and even
then they can do so only in relatively limited ways, at least so far. But
if we let our fundamentalists get away with that much, which is already more
than bad enough, then it will be just an opening act. If they succeed at
first, their efforts will expand. So why do O'Reilly and the Wall Street
Journal pick on Ward? I think it's because his words can be made to seem
indiscriminate, and indeed arguably were indiscriminate, and because as a
result they felt he would have a hard time fighting back. Pick Ward off,
then work on all those teachers still having the gall to tell students that
Darwin knew what he was talking about, and then move on from there. I don't
want to rally around Ward Churchill's specific words.
They aren't my cup of freedom. I want to rally around Ward Churchill's right
to write whatever words he chooses. More, I want to fight for our need to
have institutions and social conventions that respect and support dissidence
rather than institutions and social conventions that try to extinguish dissidence
at every opportunity.
Indeed, when we attain that level of free and supported speech, we might
have reason to claim a degree of civilization.
P.S. There are plenty of historical instances of individuals being judged
for more than one dimension of their lives and writing, even when one dimension
had no redeeming logic at all. Here is another comment from W. Churchill
(compliments of Mickey Z): "I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the
final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long
time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great
wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of
Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the
fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race
to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." Whoops, that wasn't
Ward Churchill, it was Sir Winston Churchill, the man U.S. News and World
Report called "The Last Hero." Sir Winston also said:
"I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes,"
and asked British scientists to cook up "a new kind of weather" for the citizens
I wouldn't recommend taking Winston Churchill out of the library, but I would
recommend strongly criticizing his vile words that had far fewer redeeming
features than the worst things Ward Churchill has ever even fantasized saying.