Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

PROF MAY BE FIRED FOR QUESTIONING AMERICAN INNOCENCE

Thereís a bitter chill blowing across my campus, the University of Colorado at Boulder. My colleague Ward Churchill is taking the brunt of it. But all of us who express political views in public can feel the chilling effect on academic freedom.

Churchill resigned the chairmanship of the Ethnic Studies Department at C.U., because of a furor raised by an essay he wrote right after the 9/11 attack. In it, he described many of the victims as "technocrats of empire" and "little Eichmanns."

In his resignation letter, Churchill rightly blamed "the present political climate" for forcing him out of the chair. Even in Colorado, where state politics moved to the left last Election Day, the victory of George W. Bush has created a chilling effect, a general sense that the right is on the march and professors on the left can no longer freely speak our minds, even if we have tenure.

This leaves the University authorities caught between two conflicting demands. On the one hand, their own rules guarantee tenured faculty "the freedom to inquire, discover, publish, and teach truth as the faculty member sees it, subject to no control or authority save the control and authority of the rational methods by which truth is established." Just what youíd expect in a democracy.

On the other hand, the authorities seem to be hearing, loud and clear, the famous words of White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, right after the 9/11 attack: People had better watch what they say.

Unfortunately, University officials seem to be paying more attention to Ari than to their own rules. They have decided to spend the next thirty days studying all of Churchillís writings, to see whether this tenured professor "may have overstepped his bounds as a faculty member, showing cause for dismissal." The witch hunt is on. To call it outrageous is putting it mildly. Old Joe McCarthy must be smiling, wherever he is.

Exactly what bounds may Ward Churchill have overstepped? The words in question came in an essay written right after 9/11 (which went unnoticed until very recently), suggesting that the attack was a predictable result of U.S. policies around the world. But the pious burghers of Colorado are not merely complaining about his florid prose, comparing the American empire to the Nazis. Theyíre not saying, "Yes, we may have done things to provoke the attack, and thatís worth looking into. But weíre not as bad as the Nazis. Letís look at the evidence." That would be an appropriate rejoinder to an academic argument.

Rather, the critics are simply screaming "SHUT UP AND BE GONE, FOREVER," like the chastised child who puts her hand over her ears and says "Iím not listening." Why the mindless hysteria?

Itís because people really do understand Churchillís point. Technicians donít run the empire. They merely represent the empire. On 9/11, they became symbols of the empire. To question their innocence is to question the innocence of the United States itself. That is the boundary no one is allowed to cross.

Within days of 9/11, a compelling near-consensus arose in this country to impose what I once called "the Great Taboo, the unspoken rule that forbids us to talk about the only questions that really matter: Why do they hate us? What can we do to reduce their desire to attack us?" http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0316-01.htm Until we explore those questions thoroughly and get some kind of meaningful answers, we canít do a thing to make ourselves more secure.

But the American public has drawn a firm line against even asking these questions, much less debating any kind of answers. The furor over Ward Churchill shows what lengths American society and even its top educators will go to, in order to defend the Great Taboo. We will sacrifice not only tenured professors, but rationality, common sense, and even our own physical security.

The Taboo has to be defended at all costs, because as long as it stands, we can rest assured that we are innocent. We didnít do anything to provoke our assailants. That means no U.S. policy changes could reduce their desire to attack us again. So thereís nothing to talk about. We just hunker down, spend billions more on "security," and wait for the next attack. Ward Churchill is being pilloried because he refused to play this insane charade.

The irony in all this is that Churchill has tricked the mainstream media into violating the Great Taboo. Many sources have quoted from his "offensive" essay, giving its basic point a degree of public exposure it hasnít seen since the early fall of 2001. The tragedy is that the media will print these ideas only when they are expressed so luridly that they trigger hot-button controversy. So the idea of U.S. provocation is put in a context where it is sure to be ignored. Serious discussion about why they hate us is still taboo. The only permissible question is how severely we should punish those who violate of the Great Taboo.

It is particularly sad to see this tragedy acted out on the campus of a fine university. When the Dean of our College of Arts and Sciences accepted Churchillís resignation as chair, he said that itís "in the best interests of the University." The Dean usually gets things right. But this time he is wrong. Itís not in the best interests of the university to show the world that professors who say unpopular things will suffer consequences of any kind. Administrators should bend over backwards to make it clear that the University will not budge one inch from its most treasured value, freedom of speech.

Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I spout political opinions in public all the time. I was once the target of an organized effort to prevent me from teaching a course, one that Iíd been teaching for 20 years, because of my political views. At that time, the administration backed me up completely, with no qualifications. I wish Professor Churchill had the same total support now.

This is one more reminder of why we need tenured professors. Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where outrageous ideas get debated. Thatís their most important role in society. There was once a time when it was considered outrageous to say that people should elect their leaders, or have freedom of religion, or have sex before marriage. Yesterdayís outrage is todayís cutting edge idea, and tomorrowís common sense.

Some day, the idea that we can best protect ourselves by changing our nationís policies will be common sense, too. Where will that change start, if not on campus?

Before you rush to Ward Churchillís defense, though, please remember that itís about defending everyoneís right to say outrageous things. That includes the racist reactionaries, the fundamentalist homophobes, and all the other people whose words you may get your blood boiling. On campus, you canít ban any kind of speech. The only weapon youíre allowed to use is a better argument. If you canít stand that heat, you should stay out of the free-speech kitchen.


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