February 2, 2005

Off the Hook

I’ve been reading in a few places about the controversy over Hamilton College’s now-rescinded speaking invitation to University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, and Churchill’s resignation as the head of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado.

In a way, it’s a pity that the whole affair has become so consumed by Churchill’s remarks on 9/11, because that’s allowed it to fall into the familiar, scripted form of public controversies over remarks that are deemed to hurt or offend. The remarks get repeated, mantra-like and disconnected from the general work or thought from which they came. Critics cite the personal pain and distress the remarks create. Defenders of the speaker first mobilize behind the figure of free speech, that we may disagree with the remarks but must defend the right of the person to make them. Finally, the speaker issues a non-apology apology, usually in the formula of “I am sorry if anyone has taken offense at my words,” which manages to make it sound as if the real offense lies with those who felt offended. Sometimes the original speaker may also clarify intent by saying that he or she merely meant to “start a conversation” or “make a useful provocation”.

It’s a tired dance on so many fronts. If there’s anyone who should know all the steps in it, it’s Ward Churchill, who is a prolific practicioner of the kind of identity politics that has helped to choreograph many such waltzes and minuets. Now everyone knows how to play that game, particularly American conservatives. Rinse wash repeat.

We lose so much in this pantomime. On one hand, it allows the less thoughtful critics of academia to go away with one more caricature in their bag, to imagine Churchill as a absolutely typical, representative academic. On the other hand, it allows many academics to walk away without having to think about the ways in which Churchill and the invitation to him from Hamilton is also not aberrant. If not representative, neither is he idiosyncratic.

Churchill should frankly be happy if this whole affair is confined to his isolated remarks on 9/11, to be handled with the usual pro forma apology, because his larger intellectual career is the thing that really raises some questions. Not the kinds of straightforwardly bombastic one-liners now descending on Churchill from right-wing pundits, perhaps, but pointed observations nevertheless.

Churchill is prolific in the manner of many careerist academics, meaning, he’s written the same thing in a great many formats again and again. He’s got a very long c.v., but the length misleads. Almost everything he’s written is part of one long metapublication. And what he’s written is highly formulaic kind of identity-based scholarship that expounds unthoughtfully on some of the characteristic themes and ideas of one very particular segment of the left, with particular application to Native American issues and questions.

I stress very strongly, not the left at large or overall. It’s a very small tradition of anticolonial, pseudo-nationalist radicalism that eclectically and often incoherently grabs what it needs from Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, and even conservative thought now and again (though often in unacknowledged ways).

It is also a tradition that is completely unable to face its own contradictions. Churchill’s much-cited remarks on 9/11 are an indication, for example, of the underlying moral incoherence of his writing (and writing like his). The principles that are used to value some lives (Iraqi babies dying under sanctions) and not others (people in the World Trade Center) have no underlying ethical or moral foundation: they’re purely historicist and instrumental. The original sin of modernity is seen as the expansion of the West; it is perceived as a kind of singularity that utterly destroyed or erased historical experience to that point. The only moral vector, the only capacity to act immorally or to commit evil, descends from that original sin. If you’re associated by social structurewith that expansion, you are bad. If you are a victim of it, you are good.

This perspective on history and contemporary global politics is incapable of explaining its own existence. How is it possible to value life in a world produced by the expansion of the West, even the lives of the victims of colonialism? What are the sources, in a purely historicist account of ethics, of a belief in the sanctity of human cultures, or a belief that it is wrong to colonize or practice what Churchill would call genocide? Churchill, like others who write within his intellectual tradition, has no way to explain the genesis of his own political and ethical position. He can in fragmented ways claim an authenticity rooted in Native American traditions—but if it is possible today in the here and now to construct and disseminate a whole ethical practice founded in those traditions, then his claim of genocidal eradication by the West is clearly is false. If on the other hand, the West contains within it the seeds of its own critique, then the expansion of the West is itself a much more complicated phenomena than it would appear to be in Churchill’s writing.

Churchill, like others, constructs the hegemony of global capitalism and Western domination as being near-total. The unmitigated and simplistic totalizing that suffuses Churchill’s writing makes it impossible to explain his own existence and professional success or anyone like him. He is incarnated impossibility of his own analysis. The only contradiction Western domination faces is produced, according to his oeuvre, by the dedicated and militant resistance of its subjects. But how is it possible that a totalizing system of domination permits such an uncompromising practicioner of resistance to publish over 11 books and occupy a tenured position at a university? (I know, I know: doubtless from a Churchillian perspective, the recent controversy is the system finally getting around to slapping him down. Quite a delayed reaction if so.)

Churchill’s scholarly oeuvre is practically a guided tour of every trope of identity politics: polemical extensions of the concept of genocide into every possible institutional or social interaction between the colonized and colonizer, erasures of any historical or programmatic distinctions between colonizers in different eras or systems, reduction of all history and contemporary society into a sociologically and morally simple binary schema of colonizer and colonized (hence the remark that the people in the Twin Towers were “little Eichmanns” while Iraqis are literally infantilized into starving babies and nothing more), pervasive indictments of systems of representation, and aggressive assertions of exclusive cultural, moral, political and economic ownership of anything and everything connected with a particular identity group (Native Americans in this case).

Anything and everything can be fed, often with appalling casualness, into the polemic machine he builds: other scholars become, if not heroic comrades, mere “crypto-fascists” (there is no other possible position or posture). Mickey Spillane’s novels are part of a cohesive infrastructure for global hegemony. All power is endlessly and floridly conspiratorial. And so on.

The thing of it, there are very thoughtful people who take some or all of these positions. Churchill isn’t: he’s prolific but he’s also something of a hack. Herein lies the deeper problem that Hamilton College, Ward Churchill and many academics might be perfectly happy to escape notice, and that shouldn’t be reduced to one more example of right-wing polemicists beating on lefty academics.

Hamilton College’s first instinct, the first instinct of all institutions (including conservative ones) that get caught up in this well-rehearsed minuet, is to cite free speech as a defense. I think that’s perfectly proper in a highly limited way. Once an invitation has gone out, I think you generally have to stick by your guns. Everyone does have a right to speak and say what they want, whatever it might be.

But academic institutions also insist in many ways and at many moments that they are highly selective, that all their peculiar rituals—the peer review, the tenure dossier, the hiring committee, the faculty seminar—are designed to produce the best, most thoughtful community of minds possible. In response to criticism from conservatives who complain at the lack of conservatives in the academic humanities and social sciences, a few scholars even had the cheek publically (and more privately) to suggest that conservatism is one of those things that academic quality control quite legitimately selects against, that if the academy is liberal, that’s because it’s selective. Anybody has the right to speak, but nobody has the obligation to provide all possible speakers a platform, an honorarium, an invitation.

In that context, it becomes awfully hard to defend the comfortably ensconsed position of someone like Churchill within academic discourse, and equally hard to explain an invitation to him to speak anywhere. There’s nothing in his work to suggest a thoughtful regard for evidence, an appreciation of complexity, a taste for dialogue with unlike minds, a proportionality, a meaningful working out of his own contradictions, a civil ability to engage in dialogue with his colleagues and peers in his own fields of specialization. He stands for the reduction of scholarship to nothing more than mouth-frothing polemic.

We cannot hold ourselves up as places which have thoroughly and systematically created institutional structures that differentiate careful or or thoughtful scholarship from polemical hackery and then at the same time, have those same structures turn around and continually confirm the legitimacy of someone like Churchill. We can’t deploy entirely fair and accurate arguments about the thoughtless cruelty and stupidity of a polemicist like Ann Coulter only to fill our bibliographies with citations to Ward Churchill, not to mention filling our journals with highly appreciative reviews.

Certainly if you study contemporary Native American politics, you’d have to cite Churchill, but as a phenomenon who is part of that which you study, not as scholarly creator of useful knowledge who guides and instructs you in your own arguments or findings. There is a distinction.

That’s the deeper problem here: not Churchill’s particular remarks, but the deeper wellsprings of his legitimacy. Conservatives should not necessarily welcome a turn to those deeper issues: it seems to me that Glenn Reynolds, for example, would have to be held a hack by any standard that held Churchill to be one. Nor would I want to raise the banner of higher standards only to have that quash interesting, provocative, exploratory writing and thinking on behalf of dour, cautious and bland scholarship. But there is more here than just some callous remarks on 9/11 to worry about. Churchill has said before that his main critics are on the left, not the right, but far too many academics remain timid in the face of the retaliatory capacities of identity-based activism within the academy and therefore too silent in the face of thoughtless choices by their colleagues about whom to value, whom to canonize, whom to invite to speak. It might be a good thing to make Churchill's characterization the uncontested truth.