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Ward Churchill And The Threshold Of Influence

by Jack Random

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Ward Churchill

Arthur Miller died a little too soon. The man who penned The Crucible, a gripping metaphorical drama forever linking the McCarthy Era to the Salem Witch Hunt, would have had much to say about the lynching of Ward Churchill.


Ward Churchill And The Threshold Of Influence

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Sadly, Arthur Miller is gone and with his passing, we are reminded that most of those who were victimized by that tragic and sordid chapter in American history are also gone. Indeed, those who witnessed the shame of a nation firsthand and swore that they would never allow it to happen again have also passed and their solemn promise has faded from the national conscience like the whisperings of a charlatan lover.

Those of us who remain are dumfounded. We are compelled to listen to "fair and balanced" debate on whether or not a distinguished university professor should be fired and effectively blacklisted for expressing an unpopular idea. Completely lost in the discussion is the fact that Ward Churchill is one of America's most prominent experts on Native American history (can the reader name three others?) and a leading advocate of Indian rights. Ward Churchill is a prolific writer and every writer should take note: If we can be held to the highest account (our livelihoods threatened, our integrity questioned, our characters smeared, and our very right to speak out under attack) for a single sentence, ripped out of context, from literally hundreds of thousands of words that found their way to the printed page, then we are all in peril.

To understand Ward Churchill, you must begin where he begins, with "A Little Matter of Genocide" (City Lights Books, 1997), an exhaustive scholarly work that cannot fail to touch the heart of anyone who reads it. To Churchill, the Holocaust (and therefore Nazi) analogy is not a rhetorical device but a thoroughly studied, documented and objective conclusion.

Ward Churchill is not the first to draw upon the Nazi analogy and he will most certainly not be the last, regardless the consequences.

I would dearly love to say that Ward Churchill is not important, that it is the principle of free speech, the essence of a democratic society, and the foundation of academic excellence, that is at stake here, but I simply do not believe it. Ward Churchill is important. His is a singular and distinct voice in American society and, if it is lost, we are all impoverished. His crime is not that he misspoke or that he spoke out of turn, too loudly and too proudly, but that he dared to say what many thought. Moreover, the sentence he committed to paper on September 12, 2001, would never have garnered any significant attention had not the writer crossed a threshold of influence.

Ward Churchill's unforgivable crime is that he dared to influence others. Our crime and the crime of every media spokesperson that feigns outrage or affects agony over the moral dilemma of the latest test of first amendment rights is that we have not stood up in his defense. Even those who have claimed the banner of the civil libertarian will not rally to his cause. Even those who would and have defended the Skinheads of Topeka for their inalienable right to speak the unspeakable have fallen silent.

The shame does not belong to Ward Churchill for saying what he believed in his heart of hearts. The shame is ours for failing to recognize the christening of a new Witch Hunt or worse, for recognizing the truth but failing to step forward in opposition.

The University of Colorado at Boulder has long been known as an exemplary institution of higher learning and free thought. If it fails this critical test, the academic landscape will be forever altered. It will realign itself from such luminaries as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Einstein to the lower standard of Colonel John Chivington, the minister turned Indian killer, who famously rationalized the murder of women and children at the Sand Creek Massacre with the words: Nits make lice. The posturing Governor of Colorado ought to be more sensitive to his state's disgraceful history of Indian mistreatment and less so to the words of an outspoken university professor.

All of us Americans could stand a great deal more true history and a great deal less of whatever is spread by hate radio in the cause of the day.

Ward Churchill did not cry "fire" in a crowded theater. He did not defend terrorism, violence or the enemies of the nation. He did not call for armed rebellion. (It would be a more interesting debate if he had.) He simply engaged in the most fundamental practice of any civil society and, like any good teacher, he provoked thought.

If we crucify this man for the perceived crime of offensiveness, we sacrifice the better part of ourselves. We validate the most severe criticisms of our society and give credence to the most cynical judgments of our nature: We never learn.

Long before September 11, 2001 and the ensuing wars, in a brief essay entitled "True History," I wrote:

"The greatness of our country and the greatest hope is that there are those who have broken free from the bindings of our indoctrination and declared themselves free. These individuals have discovered the greater truth that where one falsehood lies it is often accompanied by many others. They have uncovered the lies of manifest destiny and equal opportunity. They uncovered the lies of blind justice and the moral imperative to war. They have uncovered the lies of American sovereignty, American democracy, American superiority, and they have discovered the underlying truth: We are a nation born of great ideals yet we have failed to live up to them."

Ward Churchill is such a man and it is time that we, as a nation, began living up to our ideals.

"Jack Random" is the author of the Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press 2003) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press)

His last commentary for the Monitor appeared in September

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