Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ward Churchill and the Making of a Martyr

In 2001, University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill sparked a firestorm of controversy when he wrote and published an essay in which he described the victims as "Little Eichmanns".

In the essay, he wrote:
"As for those in the World Trade Center … Well, really, let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire — the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved — and they did so both willingly and knowingly… 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 really be interested in hearing about it."
Naturally, in the wake of an international outrage -- at least in the eyes of those not blinded by ideological fervour -- these comments were bound to provoke a great deal of animosity.

When They Came For Ward Churchill is a carefully-planned film, in which Churchill and the film's producers attempt to lionize him and transform him into a martyr at the same time. For those satisifed by the film's treatment of the affair, it may seem as if they succeeded. For those willing to weigh the film against a broader sample of reality, the film's failure is nothing short of dismal.

Throughout the film, clips of a speech given to a sympathetic audience in which Churchill spoke with his voice dripping with outrage.

Irritatingly, the film tacitly avoids speaking to anyone critical of Churchill, his comments, or his work. So on this note Churchill's history of plagiarism and fabrication within his own academic works goes entirely unaddressed.

But there's other value in When They Came After Ward Churchill: as an exploration of the attempts of Churchill -- and many individuals like him -- to make himself into a martyr.

In the film, Churchill appears before a sympathetic audience, backed by a party from a nearby First Nations tribe, replete with drums. Their dress and demanour suspiciously resembles that of "war party" styled militant protesters.

Churchill -- widely known as a self-styled blowhard -- seems to be striving to create the impression of himself as an otherwise-helpless target of reactionary forces.

Churchill reiterates a litany of Chomsky-esque historical grievances against the United States -- many of which, in many ways, are entirely legitimate, even if in some cases stripped of their historical context (the nature of the warfare used against Imperial Japan during the Second World War is an atrocity by today's terms, but Churchill is reflecting on an entirely different era of total warfare).

But to use those acts as justification for the 9/11 attacks would be to artificially transplant many of those grievances into the motivations of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. As will shortly be elaborated on shortly, this is a grave conceptual and analytical error.

Russel Means, a lawyer appearing alongside Churchill in interviews, insists that the backlash against Churchill was simply racism. He chooses to overlook the fact that many other academics and commentators have provoked similar outrage, without the benefit of having the race card to play.

(Canada's own Kevin Potvin comes to mind.)

This kind of disengenuous allusions to race and racism are a convenient refuge for the demagogue desperate to artificially establish themselves as a martyr.

Furthermore, in order to classify the response to Churchill's essay as "anti-intellectual" is to overlook the dubiousness of the academic, analytical, and conceptual value of his essay.

Most intriguing about the film is Churchill's own -- again, unchallenged -- attempt to spin the academic review of his work into a crusade against him.

Churchill would later admit that the plagiarism did, in fact, take place, and admitted that he was directly involved in it through his role as an editor.

Interestingly enough, the allegations of plagiarism pre-dated Churchill's "Little Eichmann" comments. In 1997, Fay Cohen, a professor at Dalhousie University, complained that Churchill had plagiarized her.

Cohen would also report that Churchill placed a threatening late-night phone call to her.

Churchill also takes time to complain about the state of aboriginal policy in the United States. His complaints are every bit as valid in the United States as they would be in Canada.

But, again, the last thing on Osama Bin Laden's mind was the state of American aboriginals. It can't be used to justify 9/11, or Churchill's comments about 9/11.

It's remarkable how willing Churchill is to contradict his own argument. While Churchill insists that he didn't mean to declare that the children, police officers, firemen, and other "support workers" were legitimate targets, he also argues that in order to be considered "innocent" one also has to oppose what he describes as the oppressive system of global capitalism.

Thus unless each and every one of those individuals were opponents of the social order Churchill so despises, they would still be considered legitimate targets according to his own argument.

But at the end of the day, the most pertinent point is this: Ward Churchill's comments weren't merely inflammatory, but they were also academically bankrupt.

Churchill's suggestions that the sins of global capitalism -- real, imagined, and invented -- justified 9/11 and rendered the victims of 9/11 legitimate simply doesn't hold water when one considers that Osama Bin Laden, and those who carried out the attack, wouldn't agree with Churchill's analysis of the attack.

Osama Bin Laden and Khalid Sheik Mohammed didn't plan and execute the 9/11 attacks as a retaliation against global capitalism. They didn't even plan and execute the attack as a retaliation against American foreign policy.

Al Qaeda planned and executed 9/11 as an act intending to intimidate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into giving into their demands, and helping to reestablish the Caliphate.

Not only does Ward Churchill's feigned outrage distract from the general weakness of his thesis, but the public outrage at them served as a distraction as well. In this particular sense, the controversy -- though well-provoked by Churchill -- was actually a grave disservice to the discourse on the matter, both public and academic.


  1. Patrick - I read this yesterday and went away, however, something was nagging at me as "not true" and I had to come back to verify.
    You said: "Al Qaeda planned and executed 9/11 as an act intending to intimidate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into giving into their demands, and helping to reestablish the Caliphate."

    That is not true, not true at all. If intimidation of SA was what the 9/11 monsters wanted, they would have flown airlines like Emirates, SA, Kuwait and others from that region and flown them into palaces of the sheikhs over there. That would be sending a message to SA and that area.

    The 9/11 massacre was an act against USA because of USA and nothing but.

    Morever, although most of the 9/11 hijackers had SA passports, the origins of many were Palestinian. Is it any wonder that the Arab countries surrounding Gaza and West Bank want nothing to do with Palestinians? The father of terrorism is their hero - Arafat.

    Anyway, thanks for the Ward Churchill info. Knew very little about him before this.

  2. Maria, with respect, you are mistaken.

    Terrorism, by its very nature, is never directed at its targets. It's meant to spread fear, and you don't accomplish this by killing the people who are meant to acquiesce to you out of fear.

    Think of it this way, Maria: the King of Saudi Arabia can't give Bin Laden anything if he's dead. And if he were dead, there would be political and social turmoil. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wouldn't be in a position to grant Bin Laden anything.

    Venture just a little off the beaten path and read about some of Bin Laden's true ambitions. He wants to establish Saudi Arabia as a true Sharia state at the helm of a united and militant alliance of Islamic states. For that, he needs the Caliphate.

    The one question that remains, for me, is precisely who Bin Laden wants to see installed as the Caliph. I suspect he actually has someone other than himself in mind.


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