Ward Churchill

The day after September 11, 2001, University of Colorado Professor and Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department Ward Churchill wrote an essay entitled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” In the essay, Churchill explored the reasons for the attack on the World Trade Center, and made the claim that some people in the WTC bore some moral culpability for the actions of the United States abroad, particularly in the Middle East.

Churchill’s essay went unnoticed and largely unread for a few years until it was discovered by some right-wing nutjob who, I think, goes by the pseudonym “Bill O’Reilly.” (What? That’s his real name? Someone signs their name to that dreck? Wierd.) This O’Reilly guy and his merry band of loyal followers, predictably, went nuts. Churchill was soon under a lot of pressure, and he resigned from the Chair position he held. After that, his story dropped off the face of the earth.

Not for him, of course. I imagine his life has been fairly busy, since he was dismissed today from his (tenured) position at University of Colorado.

Based on the story, it seems fairly obvious that Churchill is correct in claiming that the decision on the part of the regents was political in nature. The classic view (which is being challenged more and more often) of a tenured professorship is that the protection of tenure gives the person holding it license to say things that might make others uncomfortable. Things that aren’t exactly conventional wisdom, as it were. Churchill’s essay – and his larger body of academic scholarship – certainly did just that. Apparently the powers-that-be at UC-Boulder didn’t like that.

I should note, too, that for many people, the right to say otherwise unpopular things is very tied up with conceptions of academic freedom. For more on academic freedom, see this great stuff.

As for the crux of Churchill’s argument in “Some People Push Back,” the funny thing is that it’s a pretty common position on the radical left: We, as citizens of the United States, are responsible for the things that our government does. If our government bombs and starves civilians for 12 years nonstop (as it did with Iraq between the two Gulf Wars), we bear some responsibility for it, including moral responsibility. The reaction to Churchill’s essay – even considering the time and place – drives home for me how unusual it is for that argument to be presented in the mainstream.

Joseph over at Engage talked about Churchill’s essay some time back, and I left a comment over there that I want to reprint here, since apparently I was more eloquent then:

On the one hand, I want to say that Americans in general are of course very responsible for the war on terror and its consequences; we live in a “democracy” and we, um, elected Bush.

On the other hand, what are the consequences of making this claim? Without nuance, I think it condemns 300 million people as either being fundamentally immoral or having made one helluva moral mistake. At least the former can’t be right (can it?), so what’s going on here? How do we accept/claim responsibility without entering into a world wracked with tremendous & paralyzing amounts of moral guilt? If we’re responsible, are we not also guilty?

For me, a more interesting question: Given the state of American government – something of a globalized corporatocracy that’s responsive only to large amounts of money and/or power – are we responsible for its actions at all anymore? It’s not like the government is representative of the average person anyway.

I still don’t have an answer to the questions I posed in that comment. Any takers?

Explore posts in the same categories: academia, politics, responsibility, ward churchill

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