Ward Churchill and the Respectable Left

Ward Churchill and the Respectable Left
Macdonald Stainsby
Feb 7, 2004
originally written for Resist.ca

I remember deeply how in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 2001, there was a
tremendous number of the most vicious, racist and reactionary witch hunts
carried out–seeking to destroy anyone who would dare take a line different
than “freedom was attacked” in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade
Centre and Pentagon. There were those of us who, unlike Christopher Hitchens
and Doug Henwood (to name but two), were able to resist the need to line-up
with the new-and-improved ‘revenge’ imperialism that was about to begin a
mass slaughter of the Afghan people to install new rapists in the place of
the old, and to protect heroin traffickers and oil pipelines from our former
anti-Soviet allies who harbored yet more former CIA agents.  Of those of us
who did not immediately decide that we had no ability to stand and resist
witch hunts unseen since the days of “I have here in my hand a list of 205,
a list of names made known to the secretary of state”, many still wanted to
take a small part in the witch hunting going on. After all, jolly fun is
indeed jolly fun.

Yes, many of our best were able to look at the McCarthyizing of Sunera
Thobani and see it for what it was. The womens studies professor from Canada
who had the nerve to allow the phrase “[T]he path of U.S. foreign policy is
soaked in blood!” to escape her lips without asking what John Ashcroft
thought (before his fortunately early, unforeseen retirement) was defended
by many of us. From across the settler state of Canada, and even well into
the belly of the militaristic oil monster itself, the United States, people
saw the hunting of Thobani for uttering such a benign and observable fact as
a threat against their own right to utter benign and observable facts.
People stood with her. She was invited to speak at conference after
conference, given a prominent place in many antiwar demonstrations, and
often seen as a heroine for her defiance of the gag on ideas–for indeed, it
seemed she was, for the time being, just that.

Yet, as I said, many of us still felt a solid need to take part in the
tar-and-feathering of our more erstwhile colleagues. We could stand against
the basic direction of the hot wind of reaction emanating from the ashes of
19 alleged hi-jackers and resist the call for some form of war, though
Hitchens openly clamored for the re-establishment of imperialism on a
civilizing mission, and Henwood called for a way to arrest and try the Al
Qaedans indicated responsible by the FBI (without, of course, similar calls
for the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, for but one example). In
those heady days of massive reaction many of us were able to do our
impression of the one foot at a time rope skipping kid: on the one hand we
were “solid” and we resisted the call to burn the world with “our” fury. At
the same time, we assigned Americans a special level of fury to express.
Certainly, many of us said loudly, it is horrible what happened, and we
should be fast to condemn it and allow for a period of deep grief. Who
wouldn’t think so? Does anyone really think that it is alright to attempt to
immolate 50 000 people, for any purpose?

Perhaps when all the peer pressures, the social conventions, the innuendo
of darkness, bleakness, despair– innuendo that you hated people, enjoyed
death, celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers– all of it tends to make you
quietly want to, well, set the record straight. The easy way to not endorse
the war but still feel like you acted to protect yourself from the whirlwind
was quickly observable: any hint, snuff or suggestion that the US government
or establishment of any kind (or worse, Israeli) had some form of
foreknowledge needed to be roundly attacked as “ridiculous”, “reflexive
anti-Americanism”. Even from some academics who knew better you might have
been called “anti-Semitic”. Though still not considered respectable, social
conventions on the left about 9-11 theories that go beyond the one produced
by the FBI no longer get you attacked beyond ridicule, which serves the end
investigation well enough. Still, while these mini witch hunts were around,
they did their damage and played their historic social role with
goose-stepping bluntness.

But others took a slightly different tack. Of course, in North America, or
rather here on Turtle Island if you’ll allow me, there were many
revolutionaries who referred to events on this continent and pointed out
that this has happened so many times over. One such individual was Ward
Churchill, department head of Ethnic Studies at Colorado University. His
article came from the same hands that produced such books as “A little
matter of genocide”. In these books, this proud Indian revolutionary
detailed the near unparalleled destruction and annihilation of Indians
across the continent–including the continued work of today’s nuclear and
toxic waste fill sites, the destruction of lands that remain among the most
sacred to spiritual practices for indigenous populations. He has recently
finished another work exposing how in all corners from the deep south to the
far north of Turtle Island the residential school system took tens of
thousands of lives and carried out the strategy of cultural annihilation:
“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”.

This is, to use the phrase Paul Robeson self-described himself during the
witch hunt of him decades before us, the rock upon which Ward Churchill
stands. To have lived and dedicated your life to the decolonization of the
Indians of Turtle Island is to truly know what a society can reduce human
life to, when profit leads the way. Thus, Churchill wrote in the now-famous
email “Some People Push Back/ On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” essay
following the September eleventh events:

“Property before people, it seems – or at least the equation of property to
people – is a value by no means restricted to America’s boardrooms. And the
sanctimony with which such putrid sentiments are enunciated turns out to be
nauseatingly similar, whether mouthed by the CEO of Standard Oil or any of
the swarm of comfort zone “pacifists” queuing up to condemn the black block
after it ever so slightly disturbed the functioning of business-as-usual in

Since those words were written, by his own account, in a stream of
consciousness, the world has see one hundred thousand dead Iraqis, many more
Palestinians and their lands, attempted coups in Venezuela, Ukraine, the
list of which sadly conforms to his assessment. Yet here it is the beginning
of 2005– how did our brother of struggle get so easily attacked?

Yes, many of us now clamoring to defend Ward Churchill pushed that door
open for his exit. No, his job was never made in doubt, for that the
powers-that-be are needed. The climate, however, surrounding this essay was
undoubtedly discovered by a casual Google search. You see, despite so much
that is as plain as can be about Churchill observing that Eichmann
proclaimed innocence for doing his job, and so do the traders of Wall
Street, despite the deaths that inevitably occur. If Eichmann is famous for
not being granted absolution, nor can those who run the New York Stock
Exchange, today’s “friends of Ward” created the climate and most likely even
wrote the playbook.

In the interests of not escalating the damage, the names of those quoted
below will be withheld. Here is some of the bilge directed at Ward Churchill
by his “colleagues” and “comrades” long before Rush Limbaugh, New York
patriotic bungle heads and the Rocky Mountain News raised a peep:

“Ward Churchill wrote some really dumb stuff in the aftermath of September
11 — stuff that really and truly was apologetics, bordering on outright
enthusiasm, for al-Qa’ida. […]
Which — apart from the fact that it really is morally disgusting — betrays
a personality much more interested in rhetorically acting-out than in
actually acting to change things in the US. It’s really just nihilistic
ultraleft posturing, worthy perhaps of the Weather Underground, but not much
else. That said, I find Churchill’s collection of documents on COINTELPRO to
be useful, but can I otherwise take him seriously in politics? I don’t think
so.” (January, 2004)

Of course when trying to brow-beat a fellow academic, the threat to not take
someone seriously is tantamount to casting you out of the village.
Fortunately, Churchill has always seen academic achievement as a means to
his true end of social justice and societal transformation. But what of
those who were “activist”, choosing before the witch hunt of today, by a
couple of years in fact, to make such comments as

“Up until today, I would say this movement has been growing. I’m not sure
about today. We do not want to see a growing movement for peace derailed by
the views attributed to a speaker.” (a demonstration organizer, opposing his
speaking at a rally against the bombing of Afghanistan).

or how about:

“It is one thing when the press maligns Chomsky or Zinn, dedicated leftists
who not only don’t make inaccurate assessments of the significance of 9/11
(can you imagine Chomsky or Zinn saying something so bizarre as calling the
survivors “eichmanns”?…) […] I have […] defended Chomsky against the
distortion of his comments on 9/11 [….]  That was, however, because
Chomsky’s remarks were defendable.”

Of course, again, we are left with the impression that Ward Churchill the
revolutionary is not “dedicated” nor even understandable. To take such an
attitude is a hallmark of the left itself, but rarely has the case made
itself in the improper order. Normally, if one wanted to lynch a fellow
activist, revolutionary and individual who sacrificed everything in life for
the unrewarding cause of social ossification, vilification and constant
harassment, we would need to at least wait until the setters of social
convention in the media and the ruling class itself were to start the ball
rolling. That is normally the time when “good” leftists avoid witch hunts by
ourselves dunking our own in the water to see if they float. And the best
among us will float and rise above all of it. but in this sad, demoralizing
case, even worse than with Paul Robeson: it is clear that we not only will
accommodate partial witch hunts in order to beckon others away from us, in
this case it appears we ourselves invited, constructed and launched it.

It is to the shame of the corporate war loving press that they didn’t pick
up on their cue for so long. But now, once we wrote the script and handed
them another Indian to scalp, small wonder one could see it coming over
three years ago. Ward Churchill resigned from his post as Chairman of the
Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado, coincidentally the
scene of the greatest massacres of the retreating Indian population during
the “Last Indian Wars” of the 1860’s, at the end of January 2005. He had
written what amounted to a rambling though eloquent email to a small
publication. At the time, little was said about it. But that didn’t prevent
some of our “friends” in the movement from expressing the very definition of
the self-fulfilling prophecy, in December of 2001:
“I ask a different question for the left. We know that the media will try to
associate the anti-war movement with support for the attacks.  Why, knowing
that, would left activists want to bring a person to speak at a rally
knowing that his public on line remarks can be expected to be used to malign
the movement?”

Today, because the hunt is being carried out by major media, including CNN,
the UK Guardian and others– we will now all exhibit a solidarity with the
man who has already been maligned. As usual on Turtle Island, the Blacks,
Indians and the various non-white men and women such as Robeson, Churchill
and Thobani are the ones who bear the brunt of the assault. But we have done
so much more on this particular hunt, it bears note to allow the voices of
those who defended Churchill right from the beginning. Again, in 2001:
“Churchill’s strong language makes for easy criticism, but once Churchill is
picked off, then the pressure put on people like my colleague, **
**, for making a couple statements that were taken out of context,
becomes acceptable.  The attack on freedom of speech always begins at the

In these days of patriot acts, demoralized antiwar movements and ratcheting
war rhetoric against Iran, nothing is more marginal than the truth of where
this whole bloody war began, whether seen from the point of September 11,
2001, or from the invasion of Colombus over five hundred years ago. The
scalping of this Indian professor is nothing new for the American state,
with or without a “war on terror” as a means to accomplish it. However, as
much as we have said so, we have not learned a thing collectively about how
to react in the face of such racist scapegoating. Instead, we have started
to show the way, and take the lead. That should clearly be a cause for all
to ponder.  In fact, we can go right back to the maligned professor’s
infamous essay for the not-so-famous line:

“Sheeplike, the great majority of Americans can also be counted upon to
bleat their approval, at least in the short run, believing as they always do
that the nasty implications of what they’re doing will pertain only to others.”