Chickening Out


Noisy and ugly though it has been, even fascistic at its extremes, the current flare-up over Ward Churchill’s essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” is not going to endure. It began, as these things do, when a professor at Hamilton College discovered Churchill’s essay in connection with an upcoming campus lecture. The news was sent out to the right-wing media a few days later. Bill O’Reilly attacked Churchill on Fox. For O’Reilly, Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, had gone beyond the bounds of academic freedom when he wrote that some of the people who died on 9-11 were “little Eichmanns.” Hamilton College came under pressure, and the event was canceled, but not before the governor of Colorado, the university’s chancellor, and the board of regents became loudly involved. Next month the chancellor will lead a full investigation of Churchill’s scholarship. This investigation won’t be limited to the essay in question, but to everything the man has produced in “writings, speeches, tape recordings, and other works.” Anyone with a shred of anxiety about people in brownshirts, McCarthyism, and the health of the First Amendment should note well how this bit of academic justice plays out.

But my assumption is that the University of Colorado and American universities in general have too much to lose to allow anything draconian to happen to Churchill. After all, Churchill has not argued anything that Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Chalmers Johnson haven’t argued before him, although they were perhaps more tactful about it. Which leaves us with a more fundamental understanding of this curious affair: It is merely today’s scandal commodity. (The book version of Churchill’s essay spiked to number 129 on Amazon as of February 11. The man is moving some product!) It’s another shot across the bow of leftist academia from the ideological right. It’s the culture wars, folks, about as good as public theater gets, and it’s so profitable that it should have its own place on the Nasdaq. But this battle will pass and soon Churchill will return to his normal routine of assigning grades and saying tactless things, and O’Reilly, the one-man goon squad, will have moved on to his next defenseless chump.

What is of some interest for me is the Churchill scenario as another instance of what Rainer Werner Fassbinder called the dilemma of the Holy Whore. In his 1971 film Beware of a Holy Whore, a group of young and very radical actors has gathered in a Spanish villa, the gorgeous repose of the Mediterranean in the background, for the purpose of making a film that will reveal (and smash!) the violence of the State. The problem is that they can’t begin their work until funding for the film arrives from the German state art council. So while they’re waiting for a handout from the very entity they’re supposed to be smashing, they sadistically abuse each other—and the hotel staff if they happen to get in the way.

Academic leftists, Ward Churchill included, are caught in the dilemma of the Holy Whore: I am dependent on that which I would destroy. In fact, I cannot act at all without its help. The dependence of leftists on institutions either supportive of or directly a part of the State is obvious and requires no comment (although that will not stop O’Reilly and his ilk from asking, in that insouciant way of theirs, why taxpayers should pay for treason). What’s less obvious is the fact that academic leftists in general understand quite well that they shouldn’t embarrass their institutional sponsors and so make considerable effort to keep their radical ideas to themselves. They write in coded languages, in a hierophantic jargon, and mostly they only speak to each other. Their journals and conferences are “disciplinary” and “specialist.” They work in “fields,” which is a way of saying that they are self-conscious about not working in public. They’re in the south forty, exchanging secret hand signs behind a haystack. The legitimate complaint about radical academics is not that the knowledge they produce is radical but that it is private. It ought to be shared broadly with the public because in a sense the public owns this knowledge, if knowledge it is.

The truth is that academic radicalism is mostly about polite professional markers. If you want a marketable Ph.D. in the humanities these days, you’d better be willing to talk about race, class, and gender. But, I emphasize, this is a decision based on disciplinary expectations and marketing strategies before it is a commitment to a political passion. That the political conclusions of their work are hostile to the institutions, legislators, and voters of their states is a fact about which they are in general most discreet. Legislators and boards of trustees have a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement with their tenured radicals.

What, after all, was Ward Churchill planning to do at Hamilton College? I’ll tell you because I know—because I’ve done things much like it myself. He wasn’t there to start a revolution or embarrass his employer. No. He was going to lecture to students and faculty. He was going to create great ripples of self-satisfied virtue that would never under ordinary circumstances leave the room. And he was going to make a nice chunk of change. In short, he was going to indulge in the academic celebrity circuit.

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 work The 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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