Skip to main content

Churchill controversy represents a split in America

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The firestorm surrounding University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill
has not abated. In case you've been living in a Himalayan cave, Churchill
was the director of the Ethnic Studies department at his university who
wrote about the events of Sept. 11, 2001 shortly after they happened and
described the event as "blowback" from an ill-conceived U.S. foreign
policy. His statement included language that has been interpreted as
blaming the people who were killed for their own deaths.

The gist of his essay is that the people in the World Trade Center's twin
towers knew they were working for corporations that were engaged in
advancing American economic hegemony around the world and that supported a
U.S. foreign policy that included sanctions against Iraq -sanctions that
denied medicine to poor children in that country and resulted in numerous

He later clarified his statement to exempt the working class people who
were killed but has refused to apologize to the families of the other
victims for comparing them to "little Eichmans," a reference to a World War
II Nazi leader.

The issue emerged when people protested an appearance he was about to make
at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Churchill has since resigned as
chairman of the Ethnic Studies department while numerous individuals,
including a few powerful politicians such as the governors of New York and
Colorado, have called for his dismissal from the University of Colorado
faculty. The University Regents has initiated a review of Churchill's work
that could result in his dismissal from the university. The review process
should report in mid-March.

In addition to demanding he be fired, some have called for his prosecution
as a traitor - a charge that could bring the death penalty. The hot button
issue in the controversial article involves Churchill's apparent adaptation
of Hannah Arendt's analysis of Eichman in a book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A
Report on the Banality of Evil," which describes Eichman's supportive role
in the Holocaust.

The controversy has arisen at an extraordinary moment in American history
when issues about America's identity and its role in the world are hotly
contested. Academia is at the center of that contest, which revolves around
popular mythology. Myths are stories people embrace that tell them about
who they are. The ancient Greeks had plenty of myths, the most powerful of
which was the Iliad, which told the story of heroic warriors and how they
are to be in the world.

American mythology probably dates back to James Fenimore Cooper, the
"Leatherstocking Tales" and Natty Bumppo, an individual with European genes
but who was raised by Indians. He possessed the best of both worlds, the
supposed intelligence of the colonizers and the noble traits of the
Indians, and he was a fellow who knew right from wrong and was not afraid
to act.

American heroes - mythical figures including Daniel Boone and John Wayne -
always have been like that. The mythical cowboy (there never was a
historical character like him) sauntered into town, found the bad guys
holed up in the saloon and absorbed their insults but came back shooting.
He had no family, no roots, could ignore the rule of law when it pleased
him, committed human rights violations when circumstances called for it,
never made mistakes and never said he was sorry before he left town. You
know the characters: Wyatt Earp, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Dirty Harry,

Scroll to Continue

Read More

After the attacks on 9/11 a lot of people in America - the red states, to
legitimize and over-generalize - wanted America to personify their heroes,
to be Rambo.

Academia is, in many ways, the antithesis to that spirit of unbounded and
mindless adventurism. The culture of academia wants to know details, while
Rambo has no interest in details. He never accidentally shoots the wrong
people, and he's never on the wrong side because whatever side he's on is,
by definition, the right side. As Rambo, America has set off a huge
division within herself and has done much to psychologically isolate the
United States from the rest of the world.

Academia is traditionally and rightfully skeptical of the Rambo approach -
which is part of the reason why ultra-nationalists are suspicious of
academics who they feel don't know right from wrong, are insufficiently
cheerful about unfounded military adventures, and spend too much time
parsing nuances. The soul of the country is being torn between passion and
reason, and the fact is even within academia there is plenty of passion and
reason to go around.

Into this scenario steps Ward Churchill, whose writings find misdeeds by
America under every rock. Upon inspection, the vast majority of these
writings have yet to be factually questioned (except perhaps for the
Mandan-smallpox assertion, which has yet to be fully explored) but when
fact patterns fail to meet mythological expectations the ideologues on the
right are inclined to slay the messenger. Academia can't afford to let them
do it, nor can it afford to allow the ideologues on the left distort the
issue into something it is not.

The people who went to work in the World Trade Center that morning, with
negligible exceptions, were not plotting American hegemony. They were
pursuing careers. To the extent that intent is part of culpability, they
were innocent.

If the standard is that knowing or unknowing complicity renders people
guilty and therefore worthy of being killed for their actions, the net is
spread too wide. In that context, everyone in a given society who pays
taxes or fails to protest every action of government is guilty. When
everyone is guilty, the people who actually are plotting harm to others are
let off the hook, lost in the crowd, rendered innocent. It doesn't work for

If I were Churchill, I'd apologize to the families of ordinary people who
were killed that day, and I'd show enough generosity of spirit to include
all of them. People don't deserve to be killed because they went to work.
The connection to Eichmann is far too much of a stretch for any but the
most theoretically-minded. The destruction of the World Trade Center and
the other attacks that day were acts of willful murder by people whose
motivations, except for revenge, are unrecognizable in American terms.

Of course, in the U.S., once you start apologizing, you can never do
enough. The issues of Churchill's membership in an Indian nation are
separate and are exposed for all to see. The other accusations against him
require concrete evidence that has not surfaced and which no serious person
would entertain until it does.

John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the American Studies Department at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.