How perfect, for starters, that the surname be Churchill. How many of us, in the aftermath of 9/11, to the extent we could think at all, thought of Winston Churchill during Britain’s grim days and longed for his steely words.
But we had our own Churchill: Ward Churchill, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and as all the world now knows, this is what he wrote after 9/11: “They [the people in the World Trade Center] were too busy braying into their cellphones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the started and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d be really interested in hearing about it.”
For three years, these words drifted in the ether. But when Mr. Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York, they came to general attention. Hamilton withdrew its invitation, and U.C. Boulder finds itself under pressure to fire him.
Mr. Churchill’s job hangs on other factors besides his prose. The ethnic group he studies is the Native American, for whom he claims special affinity as a part-Cherokee, but it turns out he is no more Cherokee than Andrew Jackson. He has been accused of doctoring footnotes, claiming to prove that a smallpox epidemic among the Mandan Indians of the Midwest in 1837 was deliberately introduced by U.S. Army, when in fact the sources he cited said the disease was accidentally spread by traders. He has also been accused of three instances of plagiarism, one of them from his former wife. Here, for connoisseurs, is one of the sentences Mr. Churchill copied: “despite the fact that the act technically left certified Indians occupying the status of citizenship in their own indigenous nation as well as in the U.S. (a ‘dual form’ of citizenship so awkward as to be sublime), the juridical door had been opened by which the weight of Indian obligations would begin to accrue more to the U.S. than to themselves.” Note to the Churchills: Can you inject some sublimity into your awkwardness?
These factors cloud the question of academic freedom, which is cloudy enough.
Before we grapple with academic freedom, we must set to one side the question of free speech. If Ward Churchill said “little Eichmanns” at a meeting of 9/11 firefighter survivors, those would be “fighting words,” i.e., words likely to provoke a fight. If he said “little Eichmanns” and it was a registered trademark of Wal-Mart, that would be infringement of copyright. If he said, “The next time you want to really kill some little Eichmanns, here’s the secret passage to the West Wing of the White House” and then told Osama bin Laden, that would be treason. If he said, “How’d you like to handle my little Eichmann?” while leaning over a stage to take a $20 bill in his G-string, and if he said it near a public school or residential neighborhood, that would be obscenity. If he said “little Eichmanns” and Adolf Eichmann were still alive and could show that he was not a public figure, and that his reputation had been damaged by the remark, that would be libel. Otherwise, Ward Churchill-and every other American, Cherokee or paleface-can stick his head up his anus as far as his collarbone.
Does U.C. Boulder therefore have an obligation to keep paying his salary? Roughly speaking, there are three schools of thought. My friend, the columnist Tom Lipscomb, gave me the pure libertarian version of academic freedom: Anything goes, all the more since the academy is the place of training the mind through the clash of opinions. Mr. Churchill should speak at Hamilton or any campus that will have him. If the schools get death threats, they should line the stage with cops.
William F. Buckley Jr. gave the classic statement of the opposite view in God and Man at Yale. Universities may dedicate themselves to distinctive missions and see that they are endorsed in their classrooms. Otherwise, why not simply give Yale to the University of Connecticut? What would be lost? Why should there be Notre Dame or Yeshiva? St. John’s or Reed? Bob Jones or the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?
Somewhere between the two stands the late sociologist Edward Shils, quoted by Roger Kimball of The New Criterion. “Academic freedom is not the freedom of academic individuals to do just anything,” said Shils. Rather, “[i]t is the freedom to do academic things: to teach the truth as they see it on the basis of prolonged and intensive study, to discuss their ideas freely with their colleagues, to publish the truth as they have arrived at it by systematic methodical research.”
While the libertarian model is the simplest, it is simply unrealistic. It describes the way society works over time, grinding everything in its mills. But it is not the way most, or even any, specific institutions-which all require direction and authority-operate. It is certainly not the way the modern academy operates. The phrase “P.C.” was coined by a student cartoonist at Brown to describe the stifling atmospherics of that elite campus.
Mr. Buckley’s vision is even more contrary to the spirit of the age, as Mr. Buckley himself knows (otherwise, he would not have written his book). Colleges do not follow the convictions of their alumni, their donors or their trustees. Teachers teach what teachers want, and there are always fashions which make most of them want the same things.
Shils was trying to let a little air into the system: Say whatever you think, but prove it. The discipline of scholarly rules would check the impetuous and goad the lazy. Fashion would at least have to be honest, and the inevitable niggles over proof and plausibility would, in time, generate new fashions.
Mr. Churchill has been caught by scholarly checks and balances: The allegations of plagiarism and bogus footnotes have been brought by other academics. But suppose scholarship is not the purpose of all scholars? What if some disciplines, say Ethnic Studies, are intended to make a specific case, say that America is always and everywhere a death-dealer, from Mandan smallpox epidemics to the little Eichmanns of Cantor Fitzgerald? Then Mr. Churchill’s off-campus rhetoric precisely fulfills his academic mission, and lies about résumés, footnotes and authorship are irrelevant.
Mr. Churchill may go because he was so Churchillian. But he has many soulmates, and they will last even longer than the Iraqi insurgency.