Monday, February 28, 2005

Why you should be careful about Ward Churchill 

I had thought people understood the story with Churchill, but it appears that obfuscation will rule at many newspapers. Today's example is an editorial in the PioneerPress by a Native American who thinks the issue is academic freedom, which she believe Churchill is being denied.

His style, however, is akin to using a garden hoe in an operation that called for a surgical scalpel. Implying that those at the World Trade Center deserved to be killed is outrageous. Not surprisingly, his essay has provoked only a knee-jerk reaction with none of the intended dialogue he had hoped to inspire.

As an American Indian, I must admit that I rankle a bit at defending Ward Churchill. The bottom line, however, is the issue of academic freedom. A state legislature should not have the power to fire an academic because he or she promotes unpopular ideas.

I confess to not being enthused with responses like this one from Newt Gingrich, who really should know better. As reported by Jim Gegharty:
We ought to say to campuses, it�s over�We should say to state legislatures, why are you making us pay for this? Boards of regents are artificial constructs of state law. Tenure is an artificial social construct. Tenure did not exist before the twentieth century, and we had free speech before then. You could introduce a bill that says, proof that you�re anti-American is grounds for dismissal.

Talk such as this leads me to agree with David Beito, who thinks there's a parallel between Ward Churchill and Larry Flynt:

In the film, Flynt's attorney argued that if Americans know that the First Amendment protects "even Larry Flynt," they can rest assured that their own free speech rights will be secure.

Could it also be said that if professors and students (including many conservatives and libertarians who are currently under siege in higher education) know that if academic freedom protects "even Ward Churchill" they can have greater assurance that their own academic freedom will be secure?

Of course, the parallels are not complete because Churchill, unlike Flynt, is not only accused of offensive speech but of fraud.

The last point is important, because those who want to see Churchill punished have plenty of weapons at their disposal, without need of recourse to blowing up the tenure system or checking people's Americanism. Such talk smacks of the debate that began (and thought ended) with Sweezy.

Sweezy, of course, was an avowed Communist who refused to take a loyalty oath, something which Colorado has now had Churchill sign. How much further down the road to that case will Churchill travel, and how possible is it that he will become the new poster boy of academic freedom? And why would the Right want to make him a martyr?

There's plenty of evidence he's a liar and a fraud, and that the fraud goes to the matter of his tenure. Moreover, the university is culpable for at least not doing its due diligence in granting him tenure in the first place. Sack him if you want to, but be careful what you sack with him.