Chickening Out

Fear and loathing in the academy: Ward Churchill faces the dilemma of the holy whore

This is not something Americans should fault him for. In all of these ways he is quite typically American. He's movin' on up, for God's sake. He is in the most unexceptional way a whore to the system he claims to hate. He, too, is a Good German. We all are. In the end, we go to work, do what's expected of us (even if that means just assigning grades), and accept our paycheck (and a nice six-figure thing that can be for a full professor at a flagship institution like Colorado, and you get to live in Boulder!). Worst of all, at the end of the year we pay our taxes, which we know are going toward things that would break our hearts to witness. And we have little choice but to continue to do these things.

So, what's most annoying about Churchill's essay and the putative radicalism of academics in general is that it is mostly blind to its own contradictions. It is self-satisfied, even self-righteous about its own feel-good political virtues. Little Eichmanns died in the World Trade Center? Are we to suppose that there are no little Eichmanns in the university? Are not the biggest little Eichmanns those who ought to be most aware of their complicity—that is, the intellectuals?

It's also revealing that when incidents like the Churchill affair hit the media, academics appear naked and defenseless. They stand pale in the media glare. All over the country untenured assistant professors are saying, "There but for the grace of God go I," and hunkering down till it all blows over. They have no friends outside of their so-called "fields," and even those are just "colleagues" (one of the most treacherous categories of human beings on this or any other planet, in my experience). They have no solidarity, not even with the races, classes, and genders they purport to study. (What is a middle-class white American intellectual teaching postcolonialism to middle-class white students in the middle of Nebraska really doing except kidding himself?) It is not even clear that Ward Churchill has solidarity with Native Americans, since the Grand Governing Council of the American Indian Movement (AIM) has publicly called him a fraud and a sort of mail-order Indian. So, Ward Churchill will be excoriated by everybody, Native Americans and his anxious colleagues at the University of Colorado first. ("He's gone too far this time!" Then sotto voce, "Hey, man, you're fuckin' up our good thing!")

The academic left lives in bad faith with its political pretensions, its inscrutable texts, and its grade books.

We're big little Eichmanns.

I offer these comments on the Holy Whore as self-criticism, just as Fassbinder did in his film. In the absence of any sort of viable left in this country, it will not do to blame bond traders (especially after they've been murdered) or, as Ward Churchill does most ungently elsewhere in his now notorious essay, "Tiffany" and "Ashley" who need "just the right roll-neck sweaters to go with their new cords." I find this assumption of difference and righteousness offensive and dangerous. Let the distinguished professors of ethnic studies look to their own complicity first.


Curtis White is the author, most recently, of the novel America's Magic Mountain (Dalkey Archive) and the nonfiction workThe Middle Mind. He teaches at Illinois State University, where the board of trustees has better things to worry about than what he writes. Thank goodness.

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