Genocide Denial and North American Academia

An interview with Ward Churchill

by Sara Falconer

Ward Churchill speaking in San Francisco. [cc 2.0] Photo: Steve Rhodes

It might be said that the measure of any decent smear campaign is the level to which the subject's own peers turn against them. If that's the case, Ward Churchill's defamers must be pretty pleased with themselves these days, as people of all political stripes line up to heap scorn on him.

Talking to him, you know this man is anything but defeated. Following his recent dismissal from the University of Colorado, he's taking his polemic show on the road, with stops next week in Ottawa, Toronto and Guelph.

Churchill became a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado in 1990. His name was already well-known in activist circles, following a long stint as a leader of the American Indian Movement, and later as a national spokesperson for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. His books, from Agents of Repression to Pacifism as Pathology to A Little Matter of Genocide, are eye-opening, rending accounts of history, and staples on the shelves of thousands of people who are committed to social justice.

He gained widespread notoriety in 2005, when the media seized on an essay he had written on September 11, 2001 entitled "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." In it, he suggested that American foreign policy was to blame for the attacks. He went on to say that some of those killed in the attacks were not "innocent" victims, but in fact the very people orchestrating and profiting from the imperialist system. He called them "little Eichmanns," a reference to the infamous Nazi bureaucrat.

The essay had appeared on a fairly obscure website, and didn't attract much public attention until 2005, when Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College in New York State. Former Stalinist and current right wing writer David Horowitz, among others, led a campaign against Churchill which quickly picked up steam. Right wing radio host Bob Newman went so far as to argue that he should be executed for treason.

Under considerable pressure, the University of Colorado began investigating claims that Churchill had falsified and plagiarized some of his research. In 2006, a five-person investigative panel announced that it had found evidence of misconduct, but was split as to whether he should be fired, especially given the questionable timing of the allegations.

Eleven professors at the university signed a complaint against the investigation, saying that the committee violated standard scholarly practices and was biased against Churchill. He has continued to deny any misconduct, but was fired in July. He filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming that his dismissal was retaliatory, and contravened his right to freedom of expression. Free speech is constitutionally protected regardless of the popularity of the perspective, he argues.

You'd like to think that academia, if nothing else, is a bastion for bold ideas, a last refuge for unpopular speech.

Significantly, the "roosting chickens" title is a nod to a Malcolm X quote on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who called it a simple case of "chickens coming home to roost." The comment was undoubtedly received with as much enthusiasm in Malcolm X's time as Churchill's essay has in the years following its publication.

In a lively interview with Newsweek shortly after his dismissal, he refused to apologize for the "little Eichmanns" statement, in characteristically ardent terms:

"I never have any particular regrets about calling things by their right name. And it's about time we stop pretending that Americans are in a completely different analytical category from everyone else in the world, and are somehow exempt from the consequences of their actions."

Churchill is no stranger to unpopular ideas. Many of his writings have focused on the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the US. Inspired in part by resistance to his own work, Churchill's current speaking tour focuses on what he calls "the denial of genocide in American academia."

"If you were making the exact same arguments and using same techniques to deny the holocaust in Germany, you would be guilty of a crime in Canada," he says.

Most deniers of the German holocaust are nuts, fringe types, he explains. "When you're talking about native people exactly the same thing is done, only it's the mainstream of academic discourse."

Ward Churchill speaking in San Francisco. [cc 2.0] Photo: Steve Rhodes

Churchill makes a convincing argument that the historic and systemic oppression of this continent's Indigenous populations does indeed fit within the official definition of genocide as found in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which specifies "...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:"

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

"It's no more acceptable when something is done to victims of one genocide than when it's done to another set of victims," he says. "If the... Zundel types are repugnant--and they are--then the people who would deny the native genocide are just as repugnant."

One of the main differences in this context, he points out, is that European whites were largely successful in their conquest. And the victors, of course, write history.

"If you'd had a Nazi victory in Eastern Europe, the situation of any Jews who survived... would have been quite discernibly different."

At its best, academia can be a space for people of colour and Indigenous peoples to develop their own histories. Churchill presents a different analysis of history, and he doesn't much care if the mass media or his political opponents like it.

Overall, he says, Canadians have been more receptive than Americans to his message. He does as many talks in Canada as he does in the US, despite the much smaller population.

"One suspects it is in part because Canadians - and even progressive Canadians - tend to view their history as rather less genocidal than that of the United States," he muses.

"Canada didn't resort to the same direct killing techniques... but that's hardly an indication that the genocidal policy wasn't effective, just that the techniques employed were different."

He cites articles A and B of the genocide convention--imposing serious physical or mental harm, and inflicting destructive conditions of life.

"Surely in Canada it's clear that native peoples are subjected to various forms of psychological battering, and physical battering in the sense of endemic poverty," he says.

Falling back on the argument that Canada's treatment of the Indigenous population hasn't been as brutal as that of the US doesn't cut it either. "If you're talking about a worse genocide than another genocide, then you're arguing for a 'good' genocide.

"That's part of what I'm about, is calling people on their self-absolutionist stances. Canadians like to pretend that they're qualitatively different than Americans, and they're not."

Likewise, the Canadian myth of a "mosaic" society is deliberately oblivious to systemic racism. "You have to be in a state of extreme denial to be blind to the profundity of racism in society," he adds. "You really have to be a Nazi or a Klansman to come out and celebrate being a racist... At least they're honest. They're relatively easy to deal with. It's the mass of deniers who continue to profit from a racist society which is far more insidious."

"Give me a Klansman any day; at least I know exactly who I'm dealing with."

Churchill's sense of humour comes through again as he turns to the controversy surrounding his 9/11 essay. His favorite moment, he recalls, was reading a headline in a Maoist publication: "Ward Churchill fired for calling little Eichmanns little Eichmanns."

"The only people upset are in fact those who would be encompassed within my meaning of the term little Eichmanns," he says. "I'm not getting it from communities of colour. I'm not getting it from poor people."

With all of the focus on his dismissal from university, there is a risk that people aren't listening to what he has to say about racism and imperialism, and clearly that's what frustrates him most.

"If they can discredit my scholarship they can discredit my analysis, and if they can discredit my analysis they can reinforce the status quo," he fumes.

Some detractors went as far as questioning his Native American heritage. And although there were rumblings that Karl Rove had a direct hand in his targeting, Churchill, who has written extensively about the government's illegal and corrupt Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) against civil rights era activists, shrugs them off.

"Cointelpro has been assimilated into the media to the point that you don't actually need intelligence agencies' involvement most of the time," he says.

Still, there's more than a hint of those bad old days in the air, with leftist writers and academics eagerly siding with those who want to dismiss Churchill as a kooky extremist. People like Todd Gitlin--who are considered left, but not too left, get a big share of the media attention surrounding this case.

"Most of my generation has sold out so long ago for so fucking cheap that it gives me generational embarrassment," Churchill says.

He believes that there is still hope for a broad social justice movement, outside of the currently established left. "It's not going to be people who work for the Nation, or the Progressive. It's certainly not going to be any part of the 'responsible left.'"

"We need to constitute an actual left. And that's going to come by and large from the new generation."

As a professor, Churchill was extremely popular with University of Colorado students, who have invited him to teach a "voluntary" class. The course is entitled "ReVisioning American History: Colonization, Genocide, and Formation of the US Settler State."

After years of weathering attacks, Churchill offers advice to budding activists. "Take clear positions and remain consistent and people will come to you. Don't worry about alienating people who are fundamentally sold out... Strip them of their privilege, they're gonna be alienated. I thought that was the goal."

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