[Marxism] Ward Churchill Redux

Bonnie Weinstein giobon at comcast.net
Mon Apr 6 11:17:37 MDT 2009

Ward Churchill Redux
April 5, 2009, 10:00 pm

Last Thursday, a jury in Denver ruled that the termination of  
activist-teacher Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado had  
been wrongful (a term of art) even though a committee of his faculty  
peers had found him guilty of a variety of sins.

The verdict did not surprise me because I had read the committee’s  
report and found it less an indictment of Churchill than an example  
of a perfectly ordinary squabble about research methods and the  
handling of evidence. The accusations that fill its pages are the  
kind scholars regularly hurl at their polemical opponents. It’s part  
of the game. But in most cases, after you’ve trashed the guy’s work  
in a book or a review, you don’t get to fire him. Which is good,  
because if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill  
committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would  
have jobs.

At least two reviewers of my 2001 book “How Milton Works” declared  
that my reading of “Paradise Lost” rests on an unproven assumption  
that Milton repeatedly and designedly punned on the homonyms  
“raised” (elevated), “razed” (destroyed) and “rased” (erased). I was  
accused of having fabricated these puns out of thin air and of  
building on the fabrication an interpretive house of cards that fell  
apart at the slightest touch of rationality and evidence.

I use the criticism of my own work as an example because to talk  
about the many others who have been accused of incompetence,  
ignorance, falsification, plagiarism and worse would be bad form. And  
it wouldn’t prove anything much except that when academics assess one  
another they routinely say things like, “Professor A obviously has  
not read the primary sources”; “Professor B draws conclusions the  
evidence does not support”; “Professor C engages in fanciful  
speculations and then pretends to build a solid case; he’s just  
making it up”; “Professor D does not acknowledge that he stole his  
argument from Professor E who was his teacher (or his student).”

The scholars who are the objects of these strictures do not seem to  
suffer much on account of them, in part because they can almost  
always point to positive reviews on the other side, in part because  
harsh and even scabrous judgments are understood to be more or less  
par for the course. And I won’t even go into the roster of big-time  
historians who in recent years have been charged with (and in some  
instances confessed to) plagiarism, distortion and downright lying.  
With the exception of one, these academic malfeasants are still  
plying their trades, receiving awards and even pontificating on  

Why, given these examples of crimes or errors apparently forgiven,  
did Ward Churchill lose his job (he may now regain it) when all he  
was accused of was playing fast and loose with the facts, fudging his  
sources and going from A to D in his arguments without bothering to  
stop at B and C? In short, standard stuff.

The answer Churchill’s partisans would give (and in the end it may be  
the right answer) is “politics.” After all, they say, there wouldn’t  
have been any special investigative committee poring over Churchill’s  
12 single-author books, many edited collections and 100-plus articles  
had he not published an Internet essay on Sept. 12, 2001, saying that  
the attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon were instances  
of “the chickens coming home to roost” and that those who worked and  
died in the towers were willing agents of the United States’ “global  
empire” and its malign policies and could therefore be thought of as  
“little Eichmanns.”

These incendiary remarks were not widely broadcast until four years  
later, when Bill O’Reilly and other conservative commentators brought  
them to the public’s attention. The reaction was immediate. Bill  
Owens, governor of Colorado, called university president Elizabeth  
Hoffman and ordered her to fire Churchill. She replied, “You know I  
can’t do that.” (Not long after, she was forced to resign.)

The reason she couldn’t do it is simple. A public employee cannot be  
fired for extramural speech of which the government (in this case  
Gov. Owens) disapproves. It’s unconstitutional. A public employee can  
be fired, however, for activities that indicate unfitness for the  
position he or she holds; and after flirting with the idea of a  
buyout, the university, aware that questions had been raised about  
Churchill’s scholarship, appointed a committee to review and assess  
his work, no doubt in the hope that something appropriately damning  
would be found.

It was, or so the committee said. It found inaccuracies in  
Churchill’s account of the General Allotment Act of 1887, a piece of  
legislation generally considered to be a part of an extended effort  
to weaken the force of Native American culture. In his discussion of  
the act, Churchill described it as a “eugenics code” that uses the  
“Indian blood quantum requirement” to achieve its end. But there is  
no mention of any “blood quantum” requirement in the text. Indeed,  
the act “contained no definition of Indian whatsoever.”

But then, after having established what could possibly be classified  
as a misrepresentation, the committee turned back in Churchill’s  
direction, and allowed that while the blood quantum requirement was  
not “expressly” stated, there was some force to Churchill’s  
contention that it is “somehow implied.” “In this respect,” the  
committee continued, there “is more truth to part of Professor  
Churchill’s claim” than his critics are “prepared to credit.”

Still Churchill, the committee went on to say, was factually wrong  
when he says of the Act that it introduced “for the first time” the  
“federal imposition of racial Indian ancestry” as a device designed  
to force assimilation. That happened, the committee reported, 40  
years earlier. So that while Churchill gets “the general point  
correct,” he “gets the historical details wrong.” Moreover, when his  
errors were pointed out by another researcher in the field, Churchill  
simply ceased making the erroneous claims and “offered no public  
retraction or correction.” The conclusion? “Professor Churchill  
deliberately embellished his broad, and otherwise accurate or, at  
least reasonable, historic claims regarding the Allotment Act of 1887  
with details for which he offered no reliable independent support.”

That’s it? He didn’t verify some details and he didn’t denounce  
himself? There must be something else and there is. Churchill, the  
committee noted, argues that the U.S. army, among others,  
“intentionally introduced the smallpox virus to Native American  
tribes,” and he claims also that circumstantial evidence implicates  
John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) in this outrage.

The committee found that with respect to Smith, Churchill “did not  
connect the dots in his proposed set of circumstantial evidence.” As  
for the allegation that that the army spread smallpox by knowingly  
distributing infected blankets, the committee found no support in  
written records, but notes that Native American oral traditions  
rehearse and pass down this story, which has at least one documented  
source in British General Jeffrey Amherst’s suggestion in 1763 that  
infected blankets be given to hostile Indians.

The conclusion? “We do not find academic misconduct with respect to  
his general claim that the U.S. Army deliberately spread smallpox.”  
In addition, the committee acknowledges that “early accounts of what  
was said by Indians involved in that situation and certain native  
oral traditions provide some basis for [Churchill’s] interpretation.”

In short, it seems for an instant that Churchill is going to be  
declared (relatively) innocent of the most serious charges against  
him. But after noting that he cited sources that do not support his  
argument and failed to document his assertion that up to 400,000  
Indians died in the smallpox epidemic, the committee turned severe  
and declared, “We therefore find by a preponderance of the evidence a  
pattern of deliberate academic misconduct involving falsification,  
fabrication, and serious deviation from accepted practices.” On the  
evidence of its own account the committee does not seem to have  
earned its “therefore.”

The question of “accepted practices” is raised again in a  
particularly focused form when the committee considers the issue of  
Churchill’s “ghostwriting.” On several occasions Churchill wrote  
essays to which others put their names and then, at a later date, he  
cited those essays in support of an argument he was making. The  
committee decided that a charge of plagiarism could not be sustained  
since it is not plagiarism to cite ones own work (even if it bears  
another’s name). That does not dispose of the issue, however, because  
in the committee’s view “ghostwriting” is itself a “form of  
misconduct” that fails “to comply with established practices” and  
deceives readers into thinking that an author has independent  
authority for his assertions, when in reality the only authority he  
has is his own.

Churchill’s response came in two parts. First he pointed out that  
university regulations (Colorado’s or anyone else’s) do not contain  
guidelines relating to ghostwriting. There seems, therefore, to be no  
“established” practice for him to violate. Second, he challenged the  
assertion that a text he wrote cannot be properly cited as  
independent support for something he is writing in the present.

He argued (during the committee hearing and in Works and Days, 2009)  
that what ghostwriters do in the academy and elsewhere is give voice  
to the views and conclusions of others. All the ghostwriter does is  
supply the prose; the ideas and contentions belong to the third  
party, who, if she did not agree to “own” the sentiments, would  
decline to affix her name to them. Thus when the ghostwriter  
subsequently cites to the text of which he has been merely the  
midwife, he is citing not to himself but to the person to whose ideas  
he gave expression. “It follows that ghostwriters are under no  
obligation . . . to attribute authorship to themselves when quoting/ 
citing material they’ve ghostwritten.”

Well, that’s a little tricky, but it is an argument, and one that  
committee members, no doubt, would have a response to. But all that  
means is that there would be another round of the academic back-and- 
forth one finds in innumerable, books, essays, symposiums, panel  
discussions — all of which are routinely marked by accusations of  
shoddy practices and distortions of evidence, but none of which is  
marked by the demand that the person on the other side of the  
question from you be fired and drummed out of the academy.

There is, as I think I’ve shown, a disconnect in the report between  
its often nuanced considerations of the questions raised in and by  
Churchill’s work, and the conclusion, announced in a parody of a  
judicial verdict, that he has committed crimes worthy of dismissal,  
if not of flogging. It is almost as if the committee members were  
going along happily doing what they usually do in their academic work  
— considering , parsing and evaluating arguments — and then suddenly  
remembering that they were there for another purpose to which they  
hastily turn. Oh, yes, we’re supposed to judge him; let’s say he’s  

I can easily imagine the entire affair being made into a teaching aid  
— a casebook containing Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” essay, the  
responses to it by politicians, columnists and fellow academics,  
assessments of Churchill’s other writings by friends and foes, the  
investigative committee’s report, responses to the report (one group  
of academics led by Eric Cheyfitz, a chaired professor at Cornell,  
has formally charged the committee itself with research misconduct),  
the trial record, the verdict, reactions to the verdict, etc.

You could teach a whole course — probably more than one — from such a  
compilation and one of the questions raised in such a course would be  
the question I have been asking: How did a garden-variety academic  
quarrel about sources,evidence and documentation complete with a lot  
of huffing and puffing by everyone get elevated first into a review  
of the entire life of a tenured academic and then into a court case  
when that academic was terminated. How and why did it get that far?

I said earlier that the answer Churchill partisans would give is  
“politics.” It is also the answer the jury gave. It was the jury’s  
task to determine whether Churchill’s dismissal would have occurred  
independently of the adverse political response to his  
constitutionally protected statements. In the ordinary academic  
course of things would his writings have been subject to the extended  
and minute scrutiny that led to the committee’s recommendations? Had  
the governor not called Hoffman, had state representatives not  
appeared on TV to call for Churchill’s head, had commentators all  
over the country not vilified Churchill for his 9/11 views, would any  
of this have happened.? The answer seems obvious to me and it has now  
been given authoritative form in the jury’s verdict.

Let me add (I hope it would be unnecessary) that nothing I have said  
should be taken either as a judgment (positive or negative) on  
Churchill’s work or as a questioning of the committee’s motives. I am  
not competent to judge Churchill’s writings and I express no view of  
them. And I have no doubts at all about the integrity of the  
committee members. They just got caught up in a circus that should  
have never come to town.

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