March 1, 2005

OK, I'll Talk About Ward Churchill If I Must, But Just This Once

Tapscott rounds up some of the latest blogosphere chatter about Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado ethnic studies professor who called the 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns" (later making an exception for the murdered busboys and such, but holding fast to celebrating the deaths of the bond broker victims and their ilk.)

The hounds are baying after Churchill, a stance that is certainly justified morally. There's evidence, so they say, that:

  • Churchill was hired in part because he claimed to be an American Indian, a claim he's made in the past. He's no Indian.

  • He's plagiarized art work.

  • He assaulted a TV reporter who questioned him about the art theft.
  • Has no academic qualifications to speak of. His scholarship is full of inaccuracies such as made-up citations.

This all raises fascinating legal and policy questions. Let's stipulate that the guy is a swine. That's a given.

Can (and should) he be fired for his disgusting statement about the 9/ll victims? The University of Colorado is a public institution, so anything it does is "state action" and is subject to the restrictions of the First Amendment, including free speech, which our courts have held to be applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. This "incorporation" doctrine is in itself problematic, but won't change in this case. And a court would likely find Churchill's remark to be protected speech. Freedom of speech protection is unneeded for conventional utterances, goes the argument, but only for unpopular ones.

Should the law protect a professor's job in this circumstance? I think not. A professor is supposed to teach, and be something a model of scholarship and probity to the students and the community. This remark is inconsistent with that. It's not as if he had a dissenting view on Indian casino gambling or Lewis and Clark. It's an affront to the nation and not a contribution to any rational discussion. However, the "where do you draw the line" argument will prevail here.

A separate question is whether Churchill can be fired for falsifying his résumé or plagiarizing art. Generally, I'd say, yes, even if these things were discovered because the offensive remark led to their discovery. As long as these would be firing offenses for tenured faculty generally, he's fair game.

The lie about being an American Indian is interesting. Normally you couldn't fire someone for being, or not being, of a particular ethnic background. It's so clear here that ethnic background was the reason Churchill was hired, though, that if it's material on the hiring end, lying about it ought to be material on the firing end. Even if in my view ethnicity shouldn't have been a basis for hiring in the first place. Alfred Kroeber, the great Berkeley anthropologist, was an expert on American Indians, but wasn't Indian himself. Churchill, Indian or not, appears not to be an expert about anything.

Two asides about this discussion: The first: why the hell was this jerk hired in the first place? He has no academic distinctions that I know of; apparently his books are unscholarly, polemical rants, and he made his reputation as an agitator of no great skill. The answer is because of guilt, sit-ins, and a misplaced commitment to multiculturalism and affirmative action, universities have caved in to the ethnic studies racket, whereby every group with enough clout and enough victimhood gets its own department, mostly limited to its own ethnic group, where normal standards of scholarship do not apply, and hacks like Churchill can get hired. The whole thing is a racket and a scandal. The normal standards of scholarship don't apply -- the rule is, give them their department, hold your nose, and get on with life. This is an abdication by universities, but one of long standing.

Second: the "little Eichmanns" remark. Once again, the murder of Europe's Jews during World War II is exploited for rhetorical purposes. Just about everybody does it. Various Jewish circles do it to support their agendas, in part because it's an emotionally satisfying substitute for putting forth the positive content of Jewish religion and culture, and a conversation-stopper. Who's going to criticize Elie Wiesel, for instance? After all, he survived the camps. The Pope just did it, referring to abortion, the killing of the not-yet-alive. PETA does it to refer to killing animals for food. Churchill did it to blacken the 9/11 dead. All poor analogies. Better analogies: Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia. (No, I'm not going to get into the debate about whether the Holocaust was sui generis, unique; isn't every historical event unique in some ways?) It's easy and often a cheap device, to appropriate the emotional impact of these murders for some unrelated purpose. Often it's cheap, inaccurate, and in bad taste. ("Soup Nazi.") It's routine, and it won't stop.

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