The Witch Hunt Against Ward Churchill
"We're a tolerant society here, but some things cannot
-- Bill O'Reilly, Fox News discussing University of Colorado
professor Ward Churchill, February 11 2005
An intense battle is being fought out right now over whether anyone will
be allowed to express ideas that challenge the U.S. empire, its operations,
its motives and its official history.
With growing insistence, rightwing "cultural warriors" have demanded that
college campuses be purged. And now this whole campaign has been kicked onto
the national political stage. Fox News is on the case, and two Republican
governors have demanded that radical professors be fired.
The focus of this moment has been Ward Churchill, a long-time political activist
and author. Churchill is a professor at University of Colorado (UC) and head
of the Ethnic Studies Department there. He is a Native American who has worked
closely with the Colorado American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier
Defense Committee. He has written, edited and co-authored many books, including
Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party
and the American Indian Movement and A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust
and Denial in the Americas: 1492 to Present.
Last fall, Churchill accepted an invitation to speak at Hamilton College
in upstate New York on February 2, 2005,. The topic was prisons and Native
American rights. The sponsor was Hamilton's Kirkland Project for the Study
of Gender, Society, and Culture and their "Class in Context" speakers series.
Churchill combines his scholarly knowledge with a radical perspective and
an often shocking style of delivery. And for exactly those reasons, he has
been in demand, speaking at dozens of colleges over the last few years. His
professional focus is exposing the genocide and current oppression of Native
This time, however, a highly organized ideological and political assault
broke out--demanding that he be prevented from speaking. In the method of
all witch hunts, the target quickly widened, surrounded by rumors and crude
distortion: Who invited him and why? Who in high places has allowed such
things to go on? What other professors, on other campuses, share his radical
Active in the attack on Ward Churchill from the beginning was David Horowitz,
the notorious intellectual hitman for the right wing--who has formed a network
of campus brownshirts (perversely called "Students for Academic Freedom")
to target progressive professors, disrupt their classes, record their remarks,
and use the conservative mass media to brand them as "America haters"
This campaign is aimed at every prominent academic voice who criticizes the
U.S. system and policies. And it is aimed at the very idea of academic ferment
and dissent, which is despised by the rightwing forces as an incubator of
critical thinking, radicalism, and challenges to the status quo in every
sphere of intellectual endeavor and society.
The stakes here are extremely high. And this is not yet well understood by
many forces who need to be intensely engaged in this battle.
Up Against the Witch Hunt
- "We need to train our students to listen, think critically
and speak up at these hard questions. We don't need to protect them from
things that they might disagree with."
Nancy Rabinowitz, Kirkland Project
TV News 10, Syracuse, New York, January 26
- "You have the right to free speech, As long as
you're not dumb enough to actually try it."
The Clash, in the song "Know Your
Professor Nancy Rabinowitz was already on the rightwing
watch-list when she invited Ward Churchill to Hamilton College. In 2004,
her Kirkland Project invited Susan Rosenberg to teach a one-month course
on writing memoirs. Rosenberg is a former political prisoner who served time
for supporting the activities of the Weather underground. Rightwing forces
screamed bloody murder over this appointment, and Susan Rosenberg backed out.
Then, on December 14, 2004, the Kirkland Project announced that their speakers
for 2005 included Professor Churchill. And immediately a self-appointed rightwing
attack group on campus dug into his background and writings.
Their attention focussed on an essay Churchill wrote after 9/11, called "Some
People Push Back--On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." In that essay, Churchill
argues that the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center could
not be separated from what the U.S. had been doing in the world. In particular,
he talks about the horrors of the U.S.-enforced embargo against Iraq that
caused the death of 500,000 children. In a now-famous passage, Churchill
likens many who died in 9/11 to the "good Germans" who kept silent in Nazi
times. He argues that many formed "a technocratic corps at the very heart
of America's global financial empire--the `mighty engine of profit' to which
the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved--and they did
so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to `ignorance'--a derivative, after
all, of the word `ignore'--counts as less than an excuse among this relatively
And in a now famous passage, Churchill describes these technocrats as "the
little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers." (This
is a reference to Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi responsible for organizing
the death camps during World War 2.)
Clutching this three-year-old essay, Theodore Eismeier, a government professor
at Hamilton, rushed to threaten the college administration with a public
relations scandal. Nancy Rabinowitz said that when the college president
came to ask her opinion, Nancy responded, "Let's take a strong stand for
freedom of speech." Hamilton College refused to cancel the invitation to
Churchill. They decided to have Churchill appear on a broader panel, together
with opposing, conservative speakers.
The right wing was furious over this idea of engaging in opendebate. Standing
reality on its head, Eismeier denounced the panel idea saying: "It seems
akin to inviting a representative of the KKK to speak and then asking a member
of the NAACP to respond." And public attacks started--first in the local
Syracuse newspaper (on January 26), and then on the internet's influential
rightwing blog-sites, like "Little Green Footballs" and "Free Republic."
Two days later, Fox News' commentator Bill O'Reilly denounced Hamilton College
and labeled Ward Churchill "insane." He called on his listeners to target
Hamilton College. A spokeswoman for Hamilton College said, "When the segment
stopped, the phone just started ringing." Hamilton was flooded with over
8,000 e-mail messages (many ugly, some supportive). Within days of O'Reilly's
rants on Fox, Churchill had received over 100 violent threats.
(O'Reilly's coverage included extended clips of Ward Churchill speaking--which
prompted one Hamilton professor to point out that O'Reilly believed Churchill's
words shouldn't be heard in reasoned campus discussion, but should be heard
in hysterical TV broadcasts.)
In the firestorm that broke out, Ward Churchill, his writings and politics
have been taken completely out of context and reduced to a one-liner: "He
compared the victims of 9/11 to Nazis." Churchill fought to be understood
(Counterpunch.org, February 3):
"I am not a `defender' of the September 11 attacks, but simply pointing
out that if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction
abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned.
I have never said that people "should" engage in armed attacks on the United
States, but that such attacks are a natural and unavoidable consequence of
unlawful U.S. policy. To the extent we shirk this responsibility, we, like
the "Good Germans" of the 1930s and `40s, are complicit in its actions and
have no legitimate basis for complaint when we suffer the consequences."
But in the roar of the rightwing offensive, and in the absence of organized
resistance, such clarifications have rarely been heard. Churchill's views
are being portrayed as "pro-terrorist hate speech" and then declared outside
the bounds of legitimate public debate. The argument has been, quite simply,
that someone (anyone!) who had ever written such things should never again
be allowed to speak on any subject--not even in the context of an open debate
of opposing views.
The broader mass media "picked up this story"--meaning: they adopted and
broadcast (almost word for word) all the distortions, overheated outrage
and fascistic demands emerging from the rabid rightwing forces.
And it must be said, unfortunately, there was not the necessary timely counter-offensive
by progressive forces--to defend those under attack, to defend the right
of professors generally to hold radical views, to defend the right of students
to judge different political analyses for themselves, to counter the incredible
allegations being spread, and to expose the crude fascist agenda behind this
Public Persecution for Open Discussion
What followed was the painful public breaking of Hamilton
College and its resolve.
At first, college president Joan Hinde Stewart tried to take a clear and
principled stand in favor of free speech and academic freedom.
On January 26, she wrote: "Hamilton, like any institution committed to the
free exchange of ideas, invites to its campus people of diverse opinions,
often controversial. The opportunity to encounter and respond to people from
outside the college community in their intensity and their immediacy is among
the key attributes of a liberal education. The views of speakers are their
own. We expect, as a matter of civil discourse, that the members of this
academic community, as well as visitors, respect the dignity of reasoned
and principled debate. It is in this setting that the substance and credibility
of a speaker's views are established as being worthy of support, or not.
We expect that many of those who strongly disagree with Mr. Churchill's comments
will attend his talk and make their views known. This is the process of both
academic freedom and freedom of speech."
On January 30, as the full force of the rightwing campaign hit, President
Stewart wrote: "There have been calls for me to rescind the Kirkland Project's
invitation to Ward Churchill and cancel the event. But there is a principle
at stake, for once the invitation was extended by the Kirkland Project and
accepted by Ward Churchill, it became a matter of free speech.. On Thursday
[when the panel discussion was to take place] we will have the chance to
demonstrate the power of democracy."
What followed demonstrated that the so-called democracy in the U.S. is based
on a dictatorship--that is more and more rearing its ugly head in academic
and intellectual life.
On January 31, George Pataki, governor of New York State publicly denounced
Hamilton College for inviting Ward Churchill. In fluent double-speak, he
said: "There is a difference between freedom of speech and inviting a bigoted
On February 1, President Stewart announced that Churchill would not be allowed
to speak. Stewart said Hamilton College had tried to " protect what we hold
most dear, the right to speak, think and study freely" but that the threat
of physical attack made this impossible. Churchill had privately said that
he would be willing to risk his life to go through with the discussion.
Even cancellation was not enough to satisfy the raging reactionaries. And
attacks piled in from many sides on Professor Rabinowitz.
For example, on February 3, a classic smear--in the manner of infamous communist
hunters J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy--appeared on Horowitz's
Frontpage website. In a long rambling dossier-like piece, Frontpage writer
Thomas Ryan attacked Hamilton's Professor Nancy Rabinowitz--documenting that
her father-in-law Victor Rabinowitz had been accused of being a communist
(during the early 1960s witch hunts conducted by U.S. Congressional committees!)
and connecting him with the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional
Rights. Ryan wrote that Victor Rabinowitz had served as defense lawyer for
Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground.
In other words, the basic charge here is that Nancy Rabinowitz is related
to Victor Rabinowitz, a lawyer who is charged with defending his clients!--i.e.,
accused of representing "radical individuals and groups seeking to destroy
the U.S. Constitution."
On February 5, David Horowitz denounced Nancy Rabinowitz on his personal
blog for supposedly creating a "Terrorist Nexus at Hamilton College."
On February 11, it was announced that Nancy Rabinowitz had been forced out
of her position as head of the Kirkland Project.
It was not enough that Churchill should be dis-invited. Those who invited
him had to be publicly humiliated. A college had to betray its own belief
in open debate.
Nancy Rabinowitz asked a good question: "How many people can stomach what
we've been through?"
The Storm in Colorado
Day by day, a parallel campaign raged in Colorado. Colorado
Republicans took time out from their permanent assault on gay marriage to
focus on Ward Churchill and the suspect political climate in the state's
Bill Owens, Governor of Colorado, went on the O'Reilly Factor and called
on the University of Colorado's Board of Regents to fire Professor Churchill.
Owens said, "I've called for him to actually be terminated, because of his
words and his actions, which I think are inconsistent with what we stand
for in Colorado and at the University of Colorado."
It is worth taking a second to think about what he is saying: Quite simply,
it is that someone should not be allowed to teach at a college in Colorado
unless they conform to the highly conservative governor's political standards
of "what we stand for." Apparently he thinks he is the dictator of what the
state's college professors are allowed to think or say. This is the kind
of "academic freedom" that the Horowitzians are calling for and, if such
views carry the day, the impact on political and intellectual life would
Republicans in the Colorado House of Representatives introduced a resolution
Bowing to this political pressure, university authorities set to work concocting
some way to punish Churchill.
First he was stripped of his department post: On February 2 (the same day
that Hamilton College cancelled the panel event) Ward Churchill resigned as
head of the Ethnic Studies Department at University of Colorado.
At the same time, Ward Churchill is a tenured professor--which means that
he cannot be fired unless he has committed major violations of ethics (like
The American Association of University Professors weighed in ("Statement
on Professor Ward Churchill Controversy," February 2): "Freedom of faculty
members to express views, however unpopular or distasteful, is an essential
condition of an institution of higher learning that is truly free. We deplore
threats of violence heaped upon Professor Churchill, and 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. Also reprehensible are inflammatory
statements by public officials that interfere in the decisions of the academic
Meanwhile, the chancellor at UC initiated a 30-day investigation into Churchill's
writings and statements supposedly looking for firing offenses, saying Churchill
"may have overstepped his bounds."
Enter stage right: A certain Thomas Brown, Assistant Professor of Sociology
at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, popped up on cue. On Horowitz's Frontpage
website, Brown published a long polemic challenging some details in the way
Ward Churchill once (ten years ago in a legal document) described the use
of "small pox blankets" to kill Indians. Brown writes. "Churchill's tale
of genocide by means of biological warfare is shocking. It is also entirely
This is a set-up for a political firing: the plan is to accuse Churchill
of fraud, while really targeting him for his politics.
A number of scholars quickly rose to his defense.
Prof. Arturo Aldama, who works with Churchill at CU, told the press: "He's
impeccable on his sources and known for his empirical and archival-based
Noam Chomsky, MIT professor of linguistics and prominent researcher into
U.S. imperialism, said: "I've read a fair amount of his work, and a lot of
it is excellent, penetrating and of high scholarly quality."
Meanwhile, the University of Colorado tried to suppress a campus rally in
Churchill's defense. On the morning of February 8 they announced that the
event planned for that evening was canceled--citing "security concerns."
Students threatened a court suit, and the administration backed down. (Apparently:
no real security danger, huh?)
That evening over a thousand people crowded in to hear Ward Churchill speak,
and over 250 stood outside trying to get in. As the audience cheered, colleagues
and students spoke movingly in Churchill's defense, and Churchill declared
fiercely that he had no intention of retreating from his justified criticisms
of U.S. atrocities around the world.
Later, O'Reilly sneered on the air that Churchill had created a "cult of
personality" on campus--and that it only showed how dangerous it was to allow
students to hear radical views.
Meanwhile at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, the school administration
has courageously insisted that they will not cancel plans to have Ward Churchill
speak on March 1. And, in a pattern that is both chilling and now typical,
members of the Wisconsin legislature have announced that they would take
steps to prevent Churchill from speaking in their state.
This is where things now stand--as this sharp struggle continues.
A Call for Campus Purges
- "Given the prevailing political climate, and
the power of institutions like Fox News to stir up mass hysteria, it won't
stop with Churchill, and it won't stop with Hamilton College,"
Maurice Isserman, Professor of
History, Hamilton College
- "The problem with this guy is that he sees
the U.S.A. as a country that persecutes people, a bad country."
Bill O'Reilly commenting on Ward
Churchill, February 2
- "Churchill is typical of the hate-America
academic left--a fifth column every bit as much a threat to our survival
as Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Sixties rioters are today's professors.They've
created universities that mirror their mindset. Women's Studies, African
American Studies, Hispanic Studies, ethnic studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies
are excuses for neo-Marxist indoctrination (where race, gender, or sexuality
substitute for "class")..Should Ward Churchill be fired? The question is
almost irrelevant. As the saying goes, Churchill is symptomatic of a raging
disease--the academic Left (a redundancy, really) which loathes America,
lionizes the killers of Americans, and longs for the demise of our republic.
In a way, Professor Churchill serves an educational purpose for the American
people. As the old World War II posters cautioned: Know your enemy."
Don Feder, Frontpage magazine,
February 11, 2005
- "Ward Churchill literally and definitively
called for the violent overthrow and destruction of the United States. By
any even remotely objective standards, his statements can be construed as
nothing else.. It is almost unconscionable that Churchill and his ilk are
still allowed to engage in seditious behavior. Sedition is on the cusp of
treason. Further, with his comments Churchill is providing `aid and comfort
to the enemy.' That is treason. Why do we, as a nation, no longer prosecute
the Left for this high crime? Why is the Left consistently immune? Again,
free speech includes neither sedition nor treason.even in the `academic'
Sher Zieve, columnist The
Conservative Voice, Christian fascist blogsite
These quotes show what the attackers are really
up to. So much hinges on their portrayal of the U.S. as the global source
of liberty and morality that they are driven to a FRENZY by anyone who describes
or discusses the true nature of their empire.
This situation is serious. And it is particularly intolerable that the defense
of Churchill has been so scattered and half-hearted --- and filled with tortured
attempts to clarify differences with Churchill.
Everyone needs to be clear on the stakes and the bigger picture.
The powerful, well-organized, well-funded wolves attacking Churchill intend
to politically purge the campuses, chill the political climate, silence dissent,
and empower a system of thought police to enforce all this. These are the
This is a campaign filled with hatred of critical thinking and open debate.
It is rooted in forces deeply hostile to the very idea of critical thought--powerful
forces whose vision for our lives includes the enforcement of absolute truths
and extreme conservative political and religious gospel. And, obviously,
this is a crucial part of the larger cultural war-- which has a whole vision
of how they want this society to be.
There is a need to step back--to see this larger picture--and then energetically
step forward to mount a vigorous defense of Ward Churchill--and organize
a much larger and powerful resistance to the whole fascist agenda that is
on the move.