Friday, October 28, 2005

Ward Churchill speaks

I don't agree with Ward Churchill's opinions but I agree with some of his views: he's right about the suffering that the world goes through which the United States doesn't know (or pretends not to know) anything about. He's wrong to call the traders in the WTC on 9/11 "mini-Eichmanns" or "desk murderers" because they contribute to the system.

I should point out that I'm also suspicious of Jon Cohen (the writer of this article); he's not willing to concede that Churchill, for all his objectionable behaviour and opinions, may have some points that make sense and should be considered. He also segues to a criticism of Finkelstein, which reveals his bias toward anything anti-zionist. In other words, this dude may not be as objective a review of Churchill as I would have liked to present...but hey, you have a brain too. Reach your own conclusion.

Ward Churchill, whose status as a Professor at the University of Colorado is now in doubt due to various charges of biographical and academic fraud, was invited by the DePaul University Cultural Center to give a lecture. DePaul is the largest Catholic university in America, and has been embroiled in controversy over academic freedeom.

The weeks preceding the talk had seen a dispute between DePaul administration and the College Republicans. The College Republicans questioned DePaul’s paying Churchill to lecture at DePaul, and for refusing to say how much he was paid. They were also upset that they were not allowed to put up posters critical of Churchill, and were excluded from a meeting for groups seeking funds from the Cultural Center. After a somewhat confrontational meeting between a representative of the College Republicans and the director of the Cultural Center over these issues, the Director walked out and banned the College Republicans from the Center.

Subsequently, the main Churchill talk that was originally to be open to the public was changed so that it was open only to DePaul students and faculty who registered in advance and could produce a valid ID at the entrance. A follow-up meeting with Churchill was now open only to those already funded by the Center.

An hour and a half before his talk, students for and against Churchill started gathering outside the Student Center where a lively and at times heated debate went on up until the start of the talk.

While the general public had been excluded, as a faculty member I was permitted to attend. I sat down between a student, who was receiving extra credit for attending and doing a write-up, and a faculty member from the School of Education, who was giving extra credit to students from his class who attended and did some kind of unspecified follow-up.

Before Churchill spoke, two women who were not introduced to the audience came to the front of the room and asked everyone to close their eyes. They proceeded to chant for several minutes, after which they said something about it being a ritual cleansing and left the stage. The director of the Cultural Center, Harvette Gray, made a few remarks referring to the stress that had preceded the talk, and criticized those who had opposed Churchill’s visit. She said she got through this period because the earthquake in Pakistan allowed her to put her own situation in perspective. She made some rambling remarks about now understanding McCarthyism and introduced the speaker, giving him a huge hug as he came up on stage.

Churchill began by talking about 9/11. As he watched the news that day, he said that he was struck by the commentators repeated reference to it as senseless violence. He cited a report that claimed over half a million children in Iraq had been killed by the sanctions. I never understood how people came up with these figures and I have always found them implausible. He also described Israeli soldiers murdering defenseless rock-throwing children and pointed to the presence of ten thousand American soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia. These were the reasons cited by al Qaeda for the attacks.

He next addressed the question of his ethnicity. This began as a tirade against the Colorado media. As he put it “no white reporter is going to define whether or not I am an Indian”. This of course ignores the fact that he has used this claim to get a position as head of an ethnic studies department, he uses his claim to legitimize his attacks on white people, and he sidesteps the fact that Indian groups disavow his credibility as an Indian. He rambled on about this topic for a long time, dwelling especially on the drop of blood rule that he claims is still used to define a person as black. He told a story about a woman from Louisiana going to court in 1983 to prove that she was white and the court finding that one ancestor from 1776 was black and she was declared black. This claim and story seemed very strange, and not credible given the date of the supposed court case (1983). In the context of the talk the point was that white people were using these definitions to control people of color.

He asked the audience who among them was pure white. This piece of demagoguery is the kind of thing that makes some white people at such talks uncomfortable, because after being condemned for half an hour for the problems of the world that befall people of color, they are singled out in the audience. As much of the audience was made up of white supporters of Churchill, it probably didn’t have a therapeutic effect with that part of the audience, at least.

But it was a stupid question in any case, because there is no way anyone could possibly know the purity of their skin color. In a talk that emphasized the foolishness of racial division, the question might have meant something. But at a talk in which the implicit assumption is the oppression of people of color at the hands of wealthy whites, what was the use of pointing out the lack of clarity in racial definitions?

The talk turned to his favorite bottom line for evil, Adolph Eichmann. He pointed out that even in Israel they were never able to convict him of personally killing anyone. The Israelis tried but they dropped that charge. Eichmann was someone who did the scheduling for the Holocaust. He was a desk murderer. For Churchill the people who were bond traders in the Twin Towers were not innocent because they participated in the corporate system that is responsible for the vast majority of slaughter in the world. Presumably they were desk killers too. Churchill stated that Hitler exterminated the wrong people. He should have exterminated the audience’s grandparents, not the Jews.

The moral calculus of equating the buying and selling of stocks with coordinating the extermination of six million Jews is at the heart of the controversy that surrounds Ward Churchill and marks him as a complete crackpot and a moral idiot. It is simply amazing that there are people on the left, some of them at DePaul, that want to claim Churchill as their own. The Churchill lecture shows that on a college campus, an applause line these days is that one’s grandparents should have been exterminated by Hitler.

There were some more remarks explicitly talking about white privilege, and then after conferring about the lateness of the hour the lecture came to an end. A lot of the people in the audience stood up and applauded very appreciatively. A few of us remained in our seats and did not.

A short question and answer period followed. The questions were selected by an organizer of the event from a collection of questions submitted on index cards that had been placed on people’s seats before the talk.

Most of the questions were pretty innocuous but there were two that Churchill didn’t like. In his responses, one got a true picture of what an intimidating presence he can be. He was asked whether he thought that exporting jobs to the third world resulted in bringing development through investment. As he answered the question, Churchill got increasingly angry about the suggestion that this investment did anything more than make a few capitalists rich at the expense of the people who got the jobs.

What was most interesting about his response was that by the end of it he was in such a rage, he was calling the anonymous questioner a Nazi. In a classroom situation the questioner might have wanted to follow up by asking him why the people in the third world choose to work at these jobs if their alternatives are so much better. But it was clear after hearing the anger in his answer that nobody would be comfortable asking him anything that would contradict his opinion.

The second question that got a hostile reaction was “what would he do about illegal immigration”. To this he answered, illegal immigration started in 1607, apparently implying that this land was stolen beginning with the first colony in Jamestown. Here’s where Churchill’s phony Indian persona legitimizes his demagoguery. He then said he would like to see all the wealthy people leave America and replaced by all who wanted to come in.

That was the end of Churchill’s talk and he left the room.

Then the Vice President for Student Affairs, Jim Doyle, got up and made a few comments. He made reference to the controversy in the three weeks prior to the visit. Doyle said he was glad people had shown interest and come to the meeting and thought the arguing outside the student center was a good thing. He said that debate was good as long as people respected everyone’s right to an opinion. Looking over the audience he recounted observing the body language of the audience and noted that it was obvious that some people approved of what Churchill was saying while others did not. Turning his attention to those of us who had not stood or applauded the talk, he admonished us in a scolding manner that we needed to consider seriously the things that Churchill was saying, especially about human rights. Somehow, equating anything Churchill said as advancing the cause of human rights seemed ridiculous, since Churchill had effectively justified the killings at the World Trade Center, and suggested a more suitable target for Hitler’s extermination machine: the audience’s grandparents.

After that the evening was thankfully over.

The entire evening was a frightening experience. Churchill’s talk was typical of the “shame the audience because they are white, male or middle class” genre, where the speaker attacks the audience for who they are rather than what they have done. If the speaker succeeds in intimidating the audience, by the end of the talk the humiliated audience is applauding vigorously, hoping their favorable response to the speech will bring some sign of exemption from the speaker. It happened a lot in the sixties and it is just as distasteful today, since those in the audience against whom the attacks are directed are not guilty of anything other than being white, male or middle class. While most of the audience was white, it was made up mostly of Churchill sympathizers. For the director of student affairs of the university to single out Churchill’s opponents after the speech amounted to an official DePaul endorsement of this type of harassment by a well known political demagogue.

DePaul officials are upset by the fact that they are being attacked by the blogsphere. But they should ask themselves how they got into this mess. Maybe the students have the right to some answers.

1. Why was Churchill invited?

2. Why was the Human Rights Workshop open only to Cultural Center-funded student groups?

3. Why shouldn’t the College Republicans be resentful of the fact that they have been effectively excluded from being funded by the Cultural Center?

4. Why was no media allowed to attend Churchill’s talk?

5. Why were no recording devices allowed in the room?

6. Who is funding this event?

7. How much was the speaker paid?

8. Why should the students at DePaul who are white have their tuition dollars used to pay to have a demagogue like Ward Churchill incite hostility towards them simply because they are white.

9. Why are students being given extra credit for attending?

This is not an isolated occurrence. So far this year the students have had a speech by Norman Finkelstein who stated unequivocally that the 1948 Arab/Israeli war was an ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians by the newly created Jewish state. The fact that the destruction of Israel and the eviction of the Jews was the publicly proclaimed goal of the surrounding Arab states that attacked it was never mentioned. Then Kathy Kelly, the human shield for Saddam and Yasser Arafat, gave a talk on Iraq. In the winter and spring there is to be a program entitled “Confronting Empire”, a series of lectures, conferences and other activities, aimed at “educating” the students. Does anyone seriously believe that with a name like “Confronting Empire” that the program will be objective?

Maybe the DePaul administration needs to take a look at itself and the college’s recent behavior, such as its handling of the Klocek affair instead of blaming the College Republicans or conservative blog sites for their sinking reputation.

Jon Cohen is a Professor of Mathematics at DePaul.


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