An Interview with Ward Churchill
Accusations and Smears
Joshua Frank: Prof. Churchill, I’m sure that the majority of BrickBurner readers are familiar with your now infamous essay “Some Push Back,” so I won’t ask you to explain yourself, but I recently read in an Associated Press article that you wished you had phrased your Adolf Eichmann comment a bit differently. It seemed obvious to me after reading your essay that you were referring to Hannah Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann in her classic book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Is that true? Could you expand on your comment to the AP?
Ward Churchill: What I meant was that I wished I’d explained the Eichmann analogy a bit, right off the bat. Silly me. I thought it was rather self-explanatory, like maybe a lot of the people professing such strong negative opinions on the matter might have some clue as to who Eichmann actually was and how Hannah Arendt had rather famously analyzed the implications of his career. This is especially true with regard to my self-styled “liberal” critics. I mean, really, Dave Dellinger advanced exactly the same analogy clear back in 1975 without generating anything resembling the same kind of sanctimonious response from the “left.” But, then, he was an unabashed white guy, and a pacifist to boot, so…
JF: Your “liberal” critics have also gone after your scholarship. I remember reading something that Marc Cooper, the circular pundit for The Nation, wrote about it on his blog, hoping that it would get you canned. He, like a lot of liberals, doesn’t like your politics and demeanor. But it’s not just the liberal establishment that’s jumped on the “get-Churchill-fired” bandwagon. The right-wingers seem to think that going after your scholarship could actually do the trick and get you fired – which they’ve clearly wanted since your 9/11 essay blew up. The most severe of these charges is an alleged plagiarism case, where you’ve been accused of stealing someone else’s work. What’s been the fallout of all of this, and are the charges legit? Or has the media simply taken the whole episode out of context?
WC: Let me reframe that one a little bit. The commonalities linking “liberals” like Marc Cooper to reactionary jackanapes like Bill O’Reilly couldn’t be clearer. At a certain level, and it’s not a terribly obscure one, Cooper and O’Reilly share an identical agenda. That’s a point I’ve been trying to hammer home for years, with only limited success, and now Cooper has come right out in full public view and proven me correct. That’s been one of the
most gratifying aspects of this whole charade, as far as I’m concerned. I’m absolutely delighted that he and liberals more generally have elected to attack me the way they have.
This takes us to the plagiarism “issue.” But maybe the best way to address it is to start by clarifying exactly how Cooper has gone about dancing his little minuet with O’Reilly. I mean, he himself was never so out front as to actually appear on The O’Reilly Factor to condemn me. What he did instead was quote, approvingly and at length from columns authored for the Rocky Mountain News by another self-styled liberal, University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos. Campos repeatedly entered O’Reilly’s “no-spin zone” during the 41-day period in February and March when hefty segments of the Factor were devoted to my “case” every single night, alternating as talking head with the likes of Newt Gingrich, David Horowitz, and such Clear Channel hacks as Mark Silverman. Self-evidently, the views Campos expressed fit right in with those expressed by O’Reilly’s other “analysts.” Otherwise, “Mr. No-Spin” wouldn’t have brought him back on. There’s no way Cooper could have been unaware of this. So it’s fair to say that he knowingly built the O’Reilly/Gingrich/Horowitz/Clear Channel spew into his own material, but without ever owning up to the fact that that’s what he was doing. Paul Campos served as his cover (whether wittingly or not, I have no idea). Clever, eh? In any event, the plagiarism allegation against me originated in one of Campos’ News screeds in early February. There, and in subsequent columns, he waxed sanctimonious, not only about my supposed plagiarism, but about other “fraudulent research practices” in which he claimed I’d engaged. Among other things, he went on and on about how I supposedly “distorted my sources.” And, of course, since the mainstream media tends to spend most of its time quoting itself, Campos’ assertions were endlessly repeated-albeit, usually without attribution-thus mutating into “fact,” no less for readers of Marc Cooper’s blog than for those whose preference is tuning in to O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. Here’s where it gets to be amusing in a twisted sort of way. Campos cited a 1999 article by a law professor named John LaVelle at the University of New Mexico as having already accused me of plagiarism, and that he-Campos-was merely repeating the charge. When you look at the LaVelle piece, however, he says nothing of the sort. In fact, he argues the exact opposite, adducing that I’ve written, or helped write, several pieces that have appeared under other people’s names. And, although he’s wrong about almost everything else in he wrote in his essay, John LaVelle scored a direct hit with that one. So, not only is Paul Campos flagrantly guilty of one of the major charges he’s hurled at me-that is, of grossly distorting a source-he now has to suffer the indignity of watching as the truth of what LaVelle actually said is borne out. It’s been generally conceded at this point, even in Campos’ own paper (although it’s been predictably careful not to remind readers that he was saying exactly the opposite a few months back), that I in fact wrote the material I supposedly plagiarized. This being so, the worst “ethical violation” I can be said to have committed is the “deception” of sometimes serving as a ghostwriter and sometimes writing under pseudonyms. That puts me in league with such “unseemly” characters as C.L.R. James, a fate I guess I can learn to live with. That’s not all of it, to be sure. There’s a bunch of other pretext charges on the table-when they realized I wasn’t going to cave under pressure and, at about the same time, that they weren’t going to be able to sustain a firing on speech grounds, they shifted to shotgunning me with “academic integrity” allegations in hopes that something might stick-but its all going to work out pretty much the same way. Actually, there’s a lot more I’d like to get to in this vein, especially with regard to how the liberal “left” has actively collaborated in the right’s use of “scholarly standards” as a ploy to accomplish its objectives.
JF: Can you explain a bit about “how the liberal ‘left’ has actively collaborated in the right’s use of ‘scholarly standards’ as a ploy to accomplish its objectives”?
WC: It’s been going on for quite a while now. In my view, you can probably date the origin of the technique from the David Abraham case of the mid-80s, when a newly-minted assistant professor at Princeton came out with a really excellent book titled The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, in which he not only laid out the role played by German big business in bringing the Nazis to power, but the whole complex range of liberal democratic sociopolitical dynamics that contributed to the same result. The study, which was unabashedly neomarxian in approach, was really well received, heralded in some quarters as a major methodological breakthrough. The problem was that Henry A. Turner, a senior historian at Yale, and an archconservative to boot, was just then finishing what he viewed as his summative work, a weighty tome called German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, in which he sought to completely exonerate German industrialists from complicity with Nazism. On it’s face, the situation would seem to form an ideal basis for colloquy, that is, subjecting the two competing interpretations to the
process of discussion and debate that supposedly constitutes the backbone of scholarly life. But Turner elected not to play it that way. Instead, he set out to cast the impression that his opponent was guilty of “research fraud,” thereby not only eliminating Collapse of Weimar as a competitor to his own book, but destroying the reputation of a junior scholar he considered ideologically objectionable in the bargain. Turner’s approach is instructive in that it established the template for what the right has been doing ever since. Joined by Berkeley’s Gerald Feldman, another senior and very conservative historian specializing in the German interwar period, he drafted graduate students to go through Abraham’s annotation, line-by-line, citation-by-citation. And, of course, they found plenty of trivia: quotation marks missing in various places, inserted where they shouldn’t have been in others, wrong dates here and there, and so on. These are the sorts of “endless, minor errors” you’ll find in any book, including those of such “greats” as Sir Lewis Namier. But Turner and Feldman kept generating “reports” in which they cast Abraham’s missing quote marks as examples of “plagiarism,” his inserted quote marks, wrong dates and the like as “fabrications,” and his resulting conclusions as “fraudulent.” In the end, Turner and Feldman’s allegations against Abraham were shown to be sheer nonsense. All of the documents Abraham cited actually existed, although he’d misdated several. His inserted quotes attended accurate paraphrases. Attribution was given to sources quoted where missing quote marks were concerned, etc. Most of all, it was determined that none of his technical errors had any appreciable effect on either the quality of his argument or the validity of the conclusions he’d reached. But all that took years. Meanwhile, he was denied tenure and Collapse of Weimar was withdrawn by Princeton University Press. Feldman actively intervened in several search processes to prevent his being hired by other universities, and even attempted to have his Ph.D. revoked by the University of Chicago. The bottom line is that David Abraham was destroyed as an historian.
JF: What was the response of left historians while all this was going on?
WC: By and large-there were few exceptions-they sought to distance themselves from their colleague or, worse, adopted postures of utmost sanctimony, prattling on about the “sloppiness” of Abraham’s scholarship and the need to maintain “the highest standards of scholarly integrity.” Although Turner and Feldman had openly committed a broad range of professional ethics while pursuing their ideological vendetta, the “left-leaning” American Historical Association (AHA) declined to follow through with an investigation and censure of their conduct.
Even when a group of German historians finally took it upon themselves to document how Turner’s German Big Business displayed a pattern of evidentiary distortion far more pronounced than any of which Abraham was accused, the AHA maintained a discrete silence. Thus was the issue of “academic integrity” gift- wrapped for usage by the right. And it didn’t take long for right-wing ideologues to figure out what to do with the advantage just handed them. While I guess it’s fair to say that the “Abraham Affair” was pretty much an in-house tussle among academics, what followed has been anything but. Consider the case of Michael Bellesiles, the young historian at Emory who wrote Arming America, a study devoted to debunking many of the more cherished myths of the country’s thriving gun culture (for which he won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2000). It wasn’t other academics who went after Bellesiles, but the National Rifle Association, which commenced a campaign alleging “academic fraud” even before the book was published (there were nearly 250 national articles published on the “Bellesiles Hoax” in less than two years). Ultimately, the “fraud” claim hinged on a single footnote in which Bellesiles gave the wrong archival location for certain documents he cited to demonstrate that gun ownership in early America was much less common than those of the NRA persuasion-which, by the way, includes me-would have it. The documents actually existed, and they said pretty much what Bellesiles said they said. Nonetheless, in the face of an unrelenting barrage of negative publicity-the NRA was able to orchestrate nearly 250 articles on the “Bellesiles Hoax” in less than two years-a panel of “impartial” scholars commissioned by Emory to “investigate the integrity of Professor Bellesiles’ scholarship” concluded that in this instance his handling of data was “less than professional.” On that basis, although the university tried to put a happy face on the situation by allowing him to “resign,” Bellesiles was effectively fired. Once again, the performance of the left was something less than exemplary. Although there were a few progressive scholars who publicly defended Bellesiles-Gary Wills comes to mind-I can name none who expressed a sense of outrage that their colleagues on the left weren’t joining in. The unfortunate reality is that where a thundering silence didn’t prevail among anti-gun liberals, the target quickly found himself as apt to be assailed on “scholarly” ground in the Nation as in the Weekly Standard or the New Criterion. Then there’s the case of Mike Davis, who was accused by real estate interests in Los Angeles of having fabricated much of the data upon which he based his 1998 Ecology of Fear. The allegations, which turned out to be false, precipitated a media frenzy surpassing even that to which Michael Bellesiles was subjected, especially on the front and editorial pages of the LA Times. The upshot was that Davis, a major scholar by any defensible estimation, was not granted so much as an interview by either USC or UCLA, both of which had openings for senior historians specializing in California. He had in fact leave southern California altogether in order to secure a faculty position, teaching at SUNY-Stonybrook for several years before finally landing a job at UC Irvine (a decidedly second-tier school in the California system). Davis received more coherent support from the left academy, as did Edward Said, during the 90s, when Lynne Cheney’s ACTA was making him a priority target. But these are exceptions. And Chomsky is by and large always-as he should be-defended at a bedrock level. The rule will be found in the Abraham and Bellesile cases, as well as the current right-wing campaign to drive a number of Arab and Arabist scholars out, not only of the academic context but of the political discourse more generally. Shahid Alam at Northeastern University and the junior faculty members targeted by Zionist students for elimination at Columbia-Joseph Massad in particular-are good examples of what I’m talking about.
JF: The establishment left seems to ignore all of this history, as well as ignore what’s really going on now.
WC: A lot of this is glossed on the left with the rather pious pretense-which a lot of the people saying it may actually believe-that, whatever else may be said, progressives are “ethically obliged,” uniquely so, to uphold the very highest standards of scholarly integrity. A standard variation on the theme is that the “credibility” of oppositional politics itself is contingent upon our maintaining an impossible degree of precision in our work. There’s a degree of truth to both propositions, of course. We are bound by ethical and factual considerations. We, no more than anyone else, are entitled to simply invent convenient “facts,” suppress inconvenient information, engage in plagiarism, or any of the rest of it. The way this plays out, however, is that the right, which-predictably-treats such matters in an utterly cynical fashion, has long-since learned that it can use the pretext of “scholarly integrity” to discredit and thus neutralize oppositional scholars on a selective basis, and that it can do so without serious opposition from, and often with the active complicity of, so-called leftists. The right has refined its techniques accordingly, having discovered that all it usually takes is a set of highly-publicized allegations, not just to silence particular voices it considers particularly objectionable, but to deter others from engaging in the kinds of research and articulation that caused the selected individuals to be targeted. Meanwhile, right-wingers are routinely exempted-by the Marc Coopers of the world no less than by the Billy O’Reillys and Newt Gingrichs-from adhering to the standards imposed upon oppositionists.
JF: Can you give examples?
WC: Take the issue of plagiarism, for example. I’m currently-and falsely-accused of it. The allegations have been advanced in a tone of tremendous indignation from the right and attended for the most part by endless tongue clicking on the left. Everybody’s suddenly worried about whether I gave proper attribution to a left environmental group in Canada when using material included in a 12- page pamphlet they produced in 1972. Well, I did. But here’s the key. While you’ve got a feature on this weighty “controversy” in the Rocky Mountain News, a follow-up editorial in Boulder’s Daily Camera, and the area Clear Channel stations having devoted maybe 24 solid hours to it over the past couple of weeks, you’ve had not a single word said in any medium about Michelle Malkin.
JF: Why Malkin?
WC: Well, she came out with a book titled In Defense of Internment in 2004, highly touted in hard right circles, that not only seeks to justify the mass internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II but argues that the same procedure could be used against Arabs and Arab Americans today. Setting aside the squalor of her thesis, and the gross distortions of data to which she resorts in “supporting” it, the fact is that the bulk of her argument on the World War II internment …. derives from a fairly obscure right-winger named Lillian Baker. Yet Baker’s material is cited nowhere in Malkin’s book. In fact, she isn’t so much as mentioned (perhaps because Baker, who passed away some years back, was exposed by Deborah Lipstadt in Denying the Holocaust as having employed the same “scholarly methods” as neonazi holocaust deniers). What’s the payout for Malkin? Let’s start with a stint as a regular commentator-read, pet “minority” (she’s Filipina)-on Fox News and Clear Channel. And let’s end with an all but total silence about her “scholarly integrity” from the left. Why? Because she is paid by [Malkin worked at the Competitive Enterprise Institute until 1995], a right-wing think-tank, rather than holding a regular faculty position somewhere? Gimme a break on that one. Her book is used in classes, and she speaks regularly on campuses across the country. If the left is going to indulge in condemning scholarly lapses-real or imaginary-where its own are concerned, it has at the very least an obligation to hold the right accountable to the same standards, and to do so to the best of its ability- through alternative media, if nothing else-using the same tools as the right. But for the most part it doesn’t, and it hasn’t even tried for the past quarter-century or more. Look at the record. Michael Bellesiles was destroyed on the basis of what amount at most to trivial mistakes while, on the other hand, you’ve got John Lott, a right-winger who was revealed to have fabricating an entire survey with which to underpin his contention that the use of firearms reduces social violence. His book, More Guns, Less Crime, has never been revised to eliminate the fraudulent material, yet it’s still listed under the imprimatur of the University of Chicago Press and I don’t hear any resulting chorus of outrage from left academics about Goth U’s “lack of scholarly integrity.” Do you? Take the case of Allen Weinstein as another example. A few years before David Abraham came out with Collapse of Weimar, Weinstein, an unabashed anticommunist, came out with a supposed breakthrough volume of his own. The book, entitled Perjury, purported to use “new evidence”-both documents and taped interviews-to “prove once and for all” that 1940s State Department official Alger Hiss was actually a Soviet spy (and, by extension, that wholesale repression of the American left during the “McCarthy Era” was therefore justified). Having thus made his case, with the result that several of his interviewees complained that they’d been badly misquoted, Weinstein simply refused-and continues to refuse-to provide access to his research data, as required by the AHA’s ethical canons. Nonetheless, Perjury is text routinely assigned-especially by conservative professors purporting to be devoted to nothing so much as preserving the “highest standards of scholarly integrity”-in classes on the Cold War. So well did the gambit work for Weinstein in “confirming” his thesis on Hiss that he wrote a sequel titled The Haunted Wood in which he covered a broad range of Soviet espionage operations in the U.S. In this instance, he actually arranged for his publisher to pay $100,000 for exclusive access to KGB archives, meaning that other scholars would be barred from confirming the accuracy of his citations and translations (a translator he employed has indicated that some of the documents he ostensibly quotes don’t actually say what he claims they do). This embodies another glaring-and obviously calculated-breach of the ethical canon, but, like Perjury, The Haunted Wood has seen wholesale adoption as a course text by right-wing faculty members across the country. So esteemed is Weinstein’s handling of primary source materials by the right, in fact, that in 2004 George W. Bush nominated him to become the U.S. National Archivist (the appointment is still pending). There is a number of other striking illustrations of “patriotic” historians not being held by either the right or the left to the “strict standards” imposed on dissident scholars. Before his death it was thoroughly demonstrated that the late Steven Ambrose regularly engaged in plagiarism throughout his career, yet neither his reputation nor his book sales appear to have been damaged in the least. The biographer Doris Kearns Goodman, to offer another example, was proven not only to have plagiarized a lesser-known writer, but to have paid her victim a substantial sum to keep quiet about it. As a “penalty,” she was hired as a political commentator by both NBC and CNBC (you can see her regularly on Hardball and Meet the Press). The list of such examples goes on and on. My personal favorite, however, is Edward Pearson, chair of History at Franklin and Marshall College. In 1999, he published Designs against Charleston, a book purportedly analyzing the “transcript” of the 1822 Demark Vesey trial and proving thereby that not only was Vesey the linchpin of a conspiracy to initiate a slave revolt that would slaughter whites in the coastal area of South Carolina, but that the alleged conspirators had ultimately received something resembling due process before being hanged from the nearest tree. This was big news, because no copy of the trial transcript had been previously known to exist. As it turned out, there wasn’t. Pearson had combined two different post hoc summaries as being a single “transcript” of what may have been a nonexistent trial (the “conspiracy” itself is also in doubt, but that’s another story). Compounding this gross fraud, Pearson was shown to have misquoted or otherwise misrepresented the contents of the his documentary sources in “5,000-6,000” separate instances. Acknowledging only that he was guilty of “unrelenting carelessness”-rather than a deliberate deception designed to reinforce white supremacist historical interpretation-Pearson retained not only his professorship but his departmental chairmanship. On this, as always, the silence on the left-most conspicuously among “liberals” of the Marc Cooper- Paul Campos variety-has been absolutely deafening. That, perhaps, is because they’ve been far too busy building “cases” against oppositional scholars on behalf of the right to say much of anything about the right itself.
JF: Okay. It seems to me that you’ve laid things out pretty thoroughly in a lot of ways. But, there are still some things left dangling, like why you think the left, especially people like Campos and Cooper, conduct themselves as they do. You’ve gotten to part of it, I think, but it’s still not entirely clear. And then there are still questions of substance in regard to the allegations against you. Regardless of the double standard involved, you agree that plagiarism, for example, remains a serious issue. Am I right? You addressed some of that earlier when you explained how you’d actually written some of the material you’re now accused of plagiarizing. But there’s still the allegation concerning Fay Cohen’s essay, and now, as you mentioned, the environmental pamphlet. Would you care to respond to those?
WC: Sure. The short version of Fay Cohen, is that I didn’t write the piece in which her essay was supposedly plagiarized, and I’m not entirely sure who did. I was asked by my ex-wife, Annette Jaimes, to go over a manuscript she had-it was a cut-and-paste job that looked to be collectively authored-and tie it together for style and consistency. In other words, I agreed to serve as a combination copy-editor and what among journalists is called a “rewrite guy.” That’s way different from being the author, or even a coauthor. It was in effect Annette’s piece, although I’m sure she had collaborators. In any event, the finished product was destined for inclusion in a book Annette was putting together, The State of Native America, in which her by-line already appeared several times. She was worried that another piece by her wouldn’t look right, so she used the name of a by-then defunct research institute I’d founded along with Winona LaDuke (who has nothing to do with anything concerning the offending essay). Cohen took an essay she contributed to a book in 1991 and the piece in Jaimes’ book to the legal counsel at her university-she’s at Dalhousie, in Nova Scotia- asking him to do a comparison and render a legal opinion as to whether plagiarism was involved. He then wrote up an internal report concluding that there was. It’s important to note, I think, that although it’s implied on the first page of the “Dalhousie Report,” as the document’s been called in the press, it’s nowhere stated therein that I myself actually plagiarized anything. If it did say that, Fay Cohen would presently be the named defendant in a defamation suit brought in the Queen’s Court of Nova Scotia. But it doesn’t. In any event, that was the end of it for quite a long while. Cohen used the report internally, at Dalhousie, for whatever purpose, and never said another word. Not to me, not to Jaimes, not to the publisher. Nobody. Hell, she didn’t even forward a copy to the granting agency to which she was applying when the report was written in 1997. It wasn’t until the campaign against me was kicked off in late January 2005-that is, eight years after the report, thirteen after the supposed plagiarism-that she suddenly felt “obliged to come forward.” Actually, I can document the fact that she felt no such “need” even then. Not until John LaVelle and Dan Caplis from Denver’s Clear Channel KHOW radio went to work on her. Caplis has reputedly received substantial funding from Christian right organizations in Colorado Springs to convert his daily program-which he hosts along with the earlier-mentioned “liberal,” Craig Silverman-into what he calls “All Churchill, All the Time.” He’s been spending rather lavishly in the effort to get me fired, and I’m not shy about suggesting that that had a little something to do with Cohen’s curiously timed surge of “moral obligation” in sending the Dalhousie Report to the University of Colorado. Maybe it should be mentioned, here, that if you were to ask her about her politics, Fay Cohen would no doubt describe herself as being a “progressive” (just like Cooper, Campos and, for that matter, Craig Silverman). There of course still had to be some explanation of why, if she actually believed I’d ripped off her material, Cohen had waited well over a decade to mention it. That was given-and on this, the stench of Caplis is unmistakable- with a fable about how I’d called her up in the dead of night and threatened her. With what, was never made clear. But whatever it was, it was apparently so traumatizing that, when asked about my alleged phone call by a relatively independent reporter, she couldn’t even come up with the year in which she’d supposedly received it. But, whenever it was supposed to have been, it was years before the Dalhousie Report was prepared and-although it would obviously have served to strongly reinforce the impression that it was me who plagiarized her-she apparently “forgot” to mention it to the university counsel or anyone else. Pretty compelling stuff, eh? You can see why “progressives” have their undies all in a knot dithering about the implications of my “character.” I mean, really, how transparently false does an accusation have to be before it becomes self-discrediting? Actually, this became something of a media fad for about two weeks or so, back in February. Once Caplis surfaced Cohen’s allegation that I’d threatened her via a late night phone call, the Denver press corps went into overdrive, suddenly it turned out that I’d done the same to anybody and everybody with whom I’d ever had a personal or political dispute, most of them self- styled “progressives.” Hell, even that famous AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt weighed in, claiming to have been “intimidated” by a message I left on his answering machine about ten years ago. This, from a guy who, according to police intelligence documents released in the Denver “Spy Files” case, appears to have tried to have me and a couple of his other opponents shot during the summer of 1995, and who is generally believed to be responsible for the murder of Anna Mae Aquash back in 1976. Anyway, the bottom line with the Fay Cohen business is no, I didn’t plagiarize her. And, in fairness to Jaimes and anyone else who might have, at least in a technical sense, it should be emphasized that the whole thing has been vastly overblown in the press. About two weeks ago a lawyer specializing in such matters, solicited by the Rocky Mountain News to give his opinion on the matter, concluded that there were only three places where what was done might “rise to the level of plagiarism.” That must have really dismayed Vincent Carroll and the rest of the editors at the News, who’ve been spinning it as if Cohen’s essay had been more or less copied, verbatim. Any way you want to slice it, there’s nothing on the order of Ambrose’s or Malkin’s offenses at issue, and, for all the hoopla, there never was.
JF: And the environmental pamphlet?
WC: Yeah, that one’s a real giggle. First of all, the “issue” is being fronted by Dan Caplis, who’s postured himself so far to the right that he makes Rush Limbaugh sound like a leftist. So, plainly, Dannie-boy’s tremendously concerned with protecting the proprietary interests embodied in the texts of left-wing pamphleteers. The sheer ludicrousness of that proposition appears to have dawned on administrators at the University of Colorado, so the interim chancellor, Phil DiStefano-yet another “liberal” weasel-referred Caplis’s allegation that I plagiarized this pamphlet, which was put out in 1972 by a Canadian group called Dam the Dams, to the faculty committee charged with investigating my supposed “research misconduct” under his own name. So here’s the story. Along about 1988, I testified on the Peltier case before an international tribunal in Toronto. While I was there, I met a guy named John Hummel who worked with the Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples and, as I recall, was part of an environmental group called Dam the Dams. He asked if I could help publicize the rather vast water diversion projects underway in northern Canada and their impacts on indigenous peoples, especially in the west. I readily agreed, and a little later he sent me a whole big box of material: not only pamphlets and Xeroxes of newspaper and magazine articles, but copies of official documents, correspondence, and so on. Since the initial emphasis was to be on western Canada, I locked in on a pamphlet by Dam the Dams covering NAWAPA-the North American Water and Power Alliance-a grandiose scheme to move massive amounts of water from the Yukon River all the way down to the Rio Grande, which had been initiated as a U.S./Canadian collaboration during the 1960s. I took the pamphlet, substantially reorganized it, rewrote parts of it, added a few more recent cites, and included it in the first volume of my Critical Issues in Native North America in 1989. Authorship was listed as a collaboration between Dam the Dams and my own research group, the Institute for Natural Progress (INP), and the address Hummel had provided for Dam the Dams was included at the end of the piece for those seeking further information. The idea being to publicize the issue as broadly as possible, I also sent a somewhat contracted version of the piece to Z Magazine, then called Zeta, to which I was at the time a regular quarterly contributor. Z’s procedure was, when possible, to have several articles by given contributors “in the can” at any given moment, and run whichever piece seemed most appropriate, or in which they themselves were most interested, or which conformed most closely to their available space-or whatever-when each contributor’s turn came up in the rotation. They also mucked around with things a bit from time to time, for production or editorial reasons. The upshot in this instance was that the NAWAPA piece, titled “The Water Plot,” didn’t actually come out in Z for nearly two years, and, although I’d submitted it as coauthored, it appeared under my by-line, solo, with Dam the Dams included only by way of the contact info being included at the end. I wasn’t especially happy about authorship of the article being presented that way, and said so, but the magazine was already on the stands before I was aware of the alteration. It was an accumulation of that sort of thing that caused me to stop writing for Z altogether-it was supposed to be a collective effort, but it never really was-a couple of years down the line. Anybody wanting to know more about the decision-making involved should feel free to contact Mike Albert or Lydia Sargent. It was. and, so far as I know, still is their show. One thing, though. Z is not an academic venue (I don’t claim anything I’ve published therein as “scholarly writing”). It’s always been explicitly political. “Movement work,” so to speak. And the rules in that arena are very different than they are in academia, or even in the realm of commercial publishing. I’ll give you a classic example. In 1975, Pathfinder Press-that’s an organ of the Socialist Workers Party-came out with a book titled COINTERLPRO, edited by Cathy Perkus. In 1987, Pathfinder re-released the book. Same title, same content. Identical. But, this time, for whatever reason, they listed the editor as being Nelson Blackstock. Why? Who knows. Some sort of internal political calculation, no doubt, but you’d have to be a member to the SWP to be privy to it. Be all that as it may, nothing more happened with regard to “The Water Plot” for several years. Then, in the late-90s, while preparing the 2002 edition of my Struggle for the Land, I wrote a whole new and far more comprehensive essay on Canadian water diversion projects, covering not just NAWAPA but GRAND, James Bay I, Great Whale, and so on. The result was vastly different from the little piece I originally cobbled together as a collaborative effort between Dam the Dams and INP. With regard to NAWAPA itself, I drew on a much broader range of materials, but-and let’s be clear about this-I made attribution to Dam the Dams, not once but four times. So what’s the problem? You tell me. It appears that Caplis and his liberal friends are arguing that since I once coauthored a piece on NAWAPA with Dam the Dams, any time I mention NAWAPA forever after, I’m obliged to list the group as coauthor. Otherwise, I’m “plagiarizing” them. They’re treating coauthorship like it constitutes something akin to marriage, till death do us part. The whole thing is absurd on its face. Here, let me show you just how absurd it really is. I’ve been relying on Jon Wiener’s new book, Historians in Trouble, in offering a lot of the examples I’ve used in this interview concerning plagiarism and fraud (Wiener’s subtitle is Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower). He has a whole chapter on the David Abraham case, and in the annotation to that chapter, he cites Peter Novick’s 1988 book, That Nobel Dream, three times. Now, read pages 612-21 of Novick, where he discusses Abraham, and compare it to Wiener. What you’ll find is that Wiener is in large part virtually paraphrasing Novick. So here’s the deal. By the “standard” they’re trying at this point to use on me, the guy who just wrote the book on plagiarism is himself guilty of it. Either he is, or I’m not. One or the other. The matter can’t be had both ways. And if the decision is that he is, too, well then look out, because I can find-and I suspect he can, too-any number of comparable “plagiarisms.” Actually, I almost wish it would work out that way because there are more than a few pompous jackasses that I’d not mind hoisting on the on petard of their own insufferable sanctimony. Since Wiener is a contributing editor to the Nation, it might also be interesting to watch Marc Cooper do a bit of wriggling on that score. In other words, if there’s going to be a standard applied in circumstances like these-and I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be-it’s going to be one size fits all. It’s not going to be situational, with the “bar” raised and lowered, depending on your politics or popularity. I never set out to be the poster boy for issues like academic freedom, tenure and such-like-I really do have other priorities-but since I’ve been sort of forced into that position, I’m going to use it to confront some of this bullshit. Follow?
JF: Yeah, I follow. This should take us to your views on the left, but it seems that you’re on something of a roll in terms of rebutting the allegations against you. Would you like to address the charge that you “invented history” when you accused the U.S. Army of deliberately infecting Indians with smallpox in 1837? There’s that, and the allegation that you did the same thing when you claimed that the U.S. imposed a racial definition of their identity upon Indians in the 1887 General Allotment Act.
WC: My response is that I was basically correct on both counts, although I probably should have said “War Department” rather than “Army” with regard to the smallpox. It’s important, I think, to point out that, although I’ve mentioned both matters in several places, I’ve never done so other than in passing. I’ve never really stopped to spell out why I was saying what I was saying, or to flesh out the annotation, partly because I mentioned them in the context of developing broader arguments, and partly because I considered what I was saying to be more or less self-evidently true. So, I glad-handed things a bit. Mea culpa. I’m now preparing in-depth essays, both on what happened at Fort Clark in 1837- it turns out to have been much worse than I originally contended, involving not just a couple of low-ranking army officers but the Secretary of War himself-and the identification criteria pertaining under provision of the Allotment Act (I never said the criteria were articulated within the Act itself). Those will be in print within the next year-I’ve already got a publisher for both pieces-and I think I’d just as soon let them speak for themselves. They’ll be far more thorough than anything we’ll be able to go into here. I’d like to say, however, that I don’t mind colloquy in the least. Challenges to his or her facticity always prompts a scholar to go back and look at what s/he’s said-or it should-and sometimes you find you were wrong about something, in which case you correct the error, and that strengthens your argument. Other times, and this is one of them-or two of them, I guess-it turns out that you were correct in the first place, but you usually learn more about why in the process, and that, too, strengthens your argument. So, in a perverse sort of way, I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to Thomas Brown for having raised the smallpox issue, and John LaVelle for having advanced his ridiculous claims about the Allotment Act. That said, however, let’s take a peek at my accusers. LaVelle, I’ve already talked about to some extent, so let’s take him first. To begin with, he’s a long-time political adversary, having served as a flunky for Carole Standing Elk, Vernon Bellecourt’s designated northern California “AIM leader” before finally landing a job at the University of South Dakota law school and then moving on to the University of New Mexico. He’s got precious few publications: five essays, I think, and two of them are devoted to attacking me. In a sense, it’s fair to say that I am his career at this point. It might be flattering if it weren’t so pitiful. More pitiful still is the nature of the argument he employs in trying to prove that my interpretation of the Allotment Act adds up to a “hoax.” In effect, he claims that the government was bent upon reinforcing Indian self-determination during the 1880s, at least in terms of setting the criteria for tribal membership. It follows-no kidding, he actually says this-that Indians imposed racial definitions upon themselves, the federal government being essentially powerless to prevent their doing so. You can see why his stuff hasn’t achieved much resonance. In academia, you measure the influence of your publications via what’s called the “Citation Index,” that is, a literal count of the number of times your material is cited by others. Neither of LaVelle’s essays on the Allotment Act, the first of which came out in the American Indian Quarterly almost a decade ago, has ever been cited by an Indian legal scholar. Not once. In fact, LaVelle’s Allotment Act stuff has been cited exactly three times by any legal scholar, and two of those citations were by the same author, Carole Goldberg, a UCLA law professor who also happens to be the only person the Rocky Mountain News could get to vet LaVelle’s junk during the current “controversy.” Needless to say, the News didn’t quote people like Robert Porter, a tribal jurist who was on the law faculty with LaVelle in South Dakota, and who has publicly described the whole thrust of his former colleague’s legal interpretation-all of it, not just the essays on the Allotment Act-as being designed to “put a happy face on colonialism.” Let’s just say that his “scholarship” is not particularly well-regarded, either by Indians or by anyone else I could name other than the Denver press corps and administrators at the University of Colorado.
Maybe it’s appropriate to point out by way of contrast that I was, as of mid-2001, the most cited ethnic studies scholar in the country. I’ve not checked lately, but that’s likely still true. My interpretation of the Allotment Act alone has been cited well over a hundred times, way more, if you add in the stuff I published under Jaimes’ name and pseudonyms. And nobody has ever described my work as being in any sense an apologetic for colonialism. Quite the opposite. Which is why the right, including sell-outs like John LaVelle, is so avid to discredit it.
Joshua Frank: So, let’s move on. I think we better talk about your Native American identity a bit. It has become one of the focuses in the attacks against you. So many hope they can discredit you by saying you’ve lied about your ancestry. They all think that you are a fraud and your gene pool can prove it. So, well, I’ll shoot it to you point blank: are you or aren’t you a Native American?
Ward Churchill: Is there any particular definition you’d like me to use? There are more than 30 currently in effect under federal law alone. And then there’s the ways in which Indians have traditionally gone about deciding who we are, which is usually a lot different from the way things are done now –although the methods always varied from group to group, and often within the groups themselves — the way Hollywood has defined Indians, and so on. What’s your preference?
JF: How about any definitions under which you don’t qualify?
WC: I’m not a Hollywood Indian. Not even close. Other than that, I “qualify”. Do you want me to run it down?
WC: Okay, let’s start with the traditional native definition, which has to do with genealogy: “You are who your grandmother says you are.” That’s to say, your identity lodges in how your family understands its descent. So, the question in this regard is whether my family understands itself to be of American Indian descent, and the answer is that we do: All of us, apparently without exception, and by that I don’t just mean my immediate family. The Rocky Mountain News recently assigned a senior reporter named Kevin Flynn to spend several months more-or-less, full-time, tracking down my relatives all over the country. We’re talking here about fifth cousins once removed and such, people I’d never heard of, much less met, for the sole purpose of finding one who understood things differently. Well, guess what? He came up dry. Every person Flynn contacted said essentially the same thing: We are descended from Joshua Tyner and Joshua was Cherokee. Even an uncle who is actively hostile to my publicly identifying with that aspect of my lineage confirmed that I’ve in no sense “misrepresented” anything by saying that I’m of Cherokee descent. That’s who my grandmother told me I am, and my whole family confirms it. End of story. That’s who I am.
JF: So the Rocky Mountain News has now admitted that you’re Indian?
WC: Oh, hell no! They’ve just changed the reason, or reasons, why I’m supposedly not. And the way they’ve gone about it is very revealing. They started out in early February trying to build a case that I’d simply “invented” the whole thing at some point in the late ’70s, although they were never quite clear about why I supposedly did so. One clown, Charlie Cambridge, was quoted several times “explaining” that I did it so I could sell my artwork. Another supposedly authoritative source explained that it was so people would buy my books, although I’d published none at that point. A half-dozen others provided the inside scoop on how I’d done it to get a job at the University of Colorado. That was the biggie. Both the News and the Denver Post ran copies of my affirmative action forms to “prove” the point. That kept up until the Post sent a couple of reporters to my home town in Illinois to interview people I’d gone to high school with, trying to obtain evidence that, 40-odd years ago, I presented myself as being just another white kid (that’s how the News ended up publishing a photo spread of my baby pictures). What they ended up with instead were recollections on several people’s part that, yes, although I’d made no big deal of it, I had “mentioned” being of native descent even then. And, since I went to school with the same little group of about 50 kids from 6th grade on, that meant I’ve been identifying as Indian from at least as young as age 10. Right? They couldn’t simply bury the information because it was starting to come out in the Peoria Journal Star (that’s the paper of record in central Illinois) and would inevitably end up on the web. So now they had a problem: either they had to argue that I was a really precocious little fucker, able as a 10-year-old to foresee the passage of affirmative action legislation more than a decade in the future — and therefore start “pretending to be an Indian” so that by the time I was 30 I’d be able to “trick the Colorado taxpayers” into hiring me — or they’d have to admit that it was not me, but rather the sources they’d previously been quoting to the exclusion of all others who’d been inventing my background. This, by the way, would have come as no surprise to any journalist professional enough to vet the veracity of his/her sources; Charlie Cambridge has long been viewed as an inveterate backstabber and habitual liar among people in the Denver Indian community. In any event, “liberal alternative” to the News that it is (both papers are owned by the same parent corporation), the Post did neither. Instead, having done its part to help raise the “question” of my ethnicity, it just abruptly clammed up on the matter. Certainly, the allegation that I’ve perpetrated some sort of “ethnic fraud” has never again appeared in the Post. That’s to their credit, I suppose, although the fact that they failed to publicly acknowledge or correct the demonstrable falsehoods incorporated into what they’d already published tends to speak for itself. In no sense did the Post meet even its most rudimentary responsibilities in that regard. But at least it stopped peddling the same lies once its reporters were confronted with unassailable evidence that that’s what they were. Not so, regarding the Rocky Mountain News. The point at which the Post fell silent coincides quite neatly with the point at which the News decided to pull out all the stops. Near as I can tell, this is when Kevin Flynn was assigned to try and find somebody in my family who would come forward and contradict me. It was also at this juncture, more-or-less, that Flynn and others at the News, apparently in concert with a couple of rightwing list-serves that I’ll leave unnamed until I get things nailed down a little better, really geared up their campaign to coerce Keetoowah Band officials into changing their repeatedly-stated position on my enrollment status. Rationally speaking, there wasn’t much point to it, since any realistic prospect that the “ethnic fraud” allegations might be sustainable evaporated the moment the recollections of my grade school classmates were mentioned in the Post. Actually, there is one logical motive underlying both the manner in which the News has sought to discredit me on my home turf, and the sheer obsessiveness with which it has pursued that goal. This concerns the success with which Colorado AIM has been able to utilize a strategy of physically confronting Denver’s annual Columbus Day parade, not only as a vehicle for radicalizing public consciousness around “Indian issues,” but as a foundation upon which to build a coalition of progressive local organizations — it’s called the All Nations Alliance — reflecting the full range of the city’s ethnic diversity. This, needless to say, has been anathema to Denver’s white power structure, for which the News serves as head cheerleader, and so, since at least as far back as 1990, editorial page editor Vincent Carroll has been devoting considerable space to depicting us as being everything from “Brownshirts” to “common street thugs.” But, [this] seems to have driven him absolutely wild; by 2002 (his frustration had become so palpable that it was conjuring delightful little images in the mind’s eye of his foaming at the mouth, chewing on the carpet, and exhibiting all the other mythic symptoms of Hitlerian degeneracy), Carroll’s spew has had no discernable effect. Utter impotence; he’s been firing verbal blanks. If anything, his rants have helped solidify our credibility, and thus our success as organizers. The best illustration of just how ineffectual Vinnie has been in convincing the general public to view us as “criminals” can be found in the fact that, thus far, the City of Denver has filed roughly 2,000 charges against upwards of 500 individuals in connection with our Transform Columbus Day (TCD) protests, and has yet to win a single conviction. Not one. There’ve been a few people who entered pleas for personal reasons (they were from out of state, or whatever), but the City had no viable alternative other than to dismiss the charges against almost everyone else. The reason is that in the two instances where they did conduct what amounted to show trials (select groups of “ringleaders” were prosecuted in 1992 and 2005), they suffered the humiliation of having juries return “not guilty” verdicts on every charge against every defendant. As it stands, if you count by the number of people prosecuted, they’re 0 for 12; if you count by charges put to juries, they’re 0 for 28. There’s a lot that should be said about how this came to pass, but, for the moment, let’s just say that as a member of the leadership council of Colorado AIM, I’ve been highly visible in the process, a defendant in both trials, and that, in the most recent one, this past January, I not only testified but defended myself pro se. This is significant because we’d barely finished the press conference following our acquittals when the local media launched its campaign against me. In fact, it started the very next day and has only lately begun to abate. It was running full tilt in Denver for about six months, even though, at a national level, it only lasted for about 60 days or so with intermittent follow-ups by Bill O’Reilly.
JF: Can you explain how this all ties in?
WC: Sure. Here’s how it ties together. The City Attorney’s staff did a quick post mortem analysis of how they’d managed once again to lose such a high profile, slam-dunk case in so spectacular a fashion. Their conclusion, which I don’t happen to share, incidentally, was that I myself had been the decisive ingredient in convincing the jury to acquit. This isn’t mere speculation: prosecutors were quoted to that effect in the News. The story was by a reporter named Charlie Brennan, who’s been a key player right from the start. He sat through the whole trial, watching, listening very attentively, and taking copious notes. So, the instant the prosecutors delivered their take on what needed “fixing” if we were to be prevented from dispensing still further humiliation to the powers that be, Brennan — which is to say, the News and its collaborators in the electronic media — were ready to roll. They’ve taken my testimony, point by point, and assigned reporters — on some cases whole teams of reporters — to cast doubt upon what I said on the stand, as well as my character more generally. It’s been in some respects rather systematic: they’ve gone after my scholarship, trying to undermine confidence in my historical and legal interpretations; they’ve questioned my military record — even while conceding that I am in fact a decorated Vietnam veteran — and ridiculed the quality of the university I attended on the GI Bill; my driving record has been analyzed in print, as have my credit history and the types of vehicles I’ve purchased over the past dozen years; Brennan in particular has adopted a cant worthy of the National Inquirer, interviewing my ex-wives and so on, trying to paint me as a violent abuser. All that’s in addition to Kevin Flynn’s persistence in raising the “Indian Question.” Brennan’s had a heavy hand in that one, too.
JF: What do you think their motivation or goal is here?
WC: The goal, insofar as it can be defined in rational terms, is to discredit me in such a way as to nullify the effect of any testimony I might give in the future. That, and to cast me in as personally unsympathetic a light as possible in the eyes of any jury I might encounter. In that sense, the whole thing amounts more to attempted jury tampering than to journalism of even the most disreputable sort. More broadly, the thinking seems to be that, since I’ve been so out front in the Transform Columbus Day effort, and in the leadership of Colorado AIM, discrediting me will have a ripple effect in terms of discrediting both AIM and the anti-Columbus Day protests. From there, I guess they figure the All Nations Alliance as a whole will begin to unravel. Again, I question the validity of their strategy — what they’re trying to halt will continue, with or without me — but that doesn’t mean they’re not pursuing the game plan I’ve described. And, of course, there’s the way all this fits in with the ACTA initiatives and such at a national level, but we’ve already covered that to some extent.
JF: Okay, I’ve just got to ask: How’s your driving record? [laughter] And, more seriously, what’s your sense of whether there’s been involvement by police and/or federal intelligence agencies in the media’s campaign to neutralize your political effectiveness? I am not talking about any lofty conspiracy theory there. It’s happened before on many occasions, as you’ve pointed out in The COINTELPRO Papers and elsewhere. The FBI in particular has a long history of orchestrating these sorts of ventures.
WC: Well, let’s see, on my driving record, I think the worst they were able to come up with was my receiving a warning ticket for a burned-out headlight about three or four years ago. Same with my credit history: The hot news flash a few months ago was that I settled an outstanding education loan at some point in the late ’80s. The one they really got me on, though, was my record of vehicle purchases. With that, they were able to establish conclusively that I have a marked preference for driving pickup trucks, indeed, I’ve bought two of them since 1995 — so I can “look more like an Indian” according to the lily-white yuppie liberals at the Boulder Daily Camera — and still own/drive the newest, a ’98 Chevy. Can you believe they actually wasted newsprint on this sort of shit? As to possible FBI involvement, it’s almost certain that there is. We know, for example, that the Bureau’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver has active files on Colorado AIM and its “notables” — some of this material, dating from 2002 and focusing on our TCD organizing, has recently been released through an ACLU lawsuit, but I’ve not seen it yet — so there’s no disputing the fact that they’re surveilling us under the rubric of “counterterrorism”. It’s also important to mention, since the JTTF involves direct collaboration between the FBI and local police intelligence personnel, that it was revealed a couple of years ago that, since the late-’80s, the Denver PD’s intelligence unit had been secretly building what they called “criminal extremist” files, not only on Colorado AIM, although ours was far and away the most extensive, but more than 200 other organizations as well. So, yeah, the FBI’s definitely in the picture. And you’re right about the media having collaborated with the FBI during the COINTELPRO era, often quite enthusiastically, by printing disinformation provided by the Bureau about activists designated “key agitators.” It was a well-developed technique for political “neutralization” — that’s the FBI’s own term for it — and they had hundreds of “friendly” or “cooperating” journalists — again, that’s FBI terminology — and a few dozen editors enlisted for that purpose. It should be emphasized that the media people involved weren’t “mislead” or “tricked” into doing what they did; they knew full well they were putting out false information, deliberately smearing people targeted by the FBI for political reasons. There’s a long list of people this was done to, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King. One of the worst cases — and maybe I’m only treating it as a “worst case example” because I was there and witnessed a large part of it firsthand — was that of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader assassinated by the Chicago police in 1969. For months beforehand, the local papers, especially the Chicago Tribune, were absolutely relentless in running derogatory information about Hampton, all of which was later proven to be false. Then, after his murder, which was actually set up by the FBI, they really went into overdrive, trying to exonerate the police. There were about two-dozen “journalists” involved in this single operation, the nastiest of them being a guy named Ron Koziol at the Tribune, a real scuzzball who, come to think of it, puts me in mind of several reporters working [on] my story for the Rocky Mountain News. This sort of thing supposedly ended when COINTELPRO was “discontinued” in 1971, or in the aftermath of the Church Committee hearings in 1975, or after the new FBI guidelines were put into place a couple years after that, or sometime, but, of course, it never did. The FBI was certainly running the same kind of operation against CISPES and the Sanctuary movement during the 1980s, and then there was all that utter nonsense published in the press about the Branch Davidians a decade later, and I shouldn’t even need to mention how Arabs and Arab Americans have been treated by the media since 9-1-1. A lot of the Bureau’s function back in the “bad old days” of COINTELPRO has since been privatized by outfits like Clear Channel and Fox News, but the FBI is still “interacting” with selected editors and reporters in very much the same fashion as it always has. So, yeah, I’ll be very surprised if it turns out that the JTTF has not had a hand in the blitz on me, although the only fairly solid circumstantial evidence I have of it at this point is the way even the News suddenly dropped the “issue” of my military service. After all, they started out by suggesting that I might never have seen combat, or done recon work, or any of the other things I’d recounted during the trial, because my “military records don’t support such claims.” Truth is, they didn’t have my records, which are classified. Instead, they were pretending that a one-page summary form from the National Archive — plainly inaccurate and incomplete — added up to the same thing. That deception might in itself have enabled them to concoct a whole series of insinuations, and they undoubtedly would have, had they not been told, in no uncertain terms and by someone in a position to know, that they were setting themselves up to get burned. This raises the question of who would be “in a position to know” what’s in my actual file? Obviously, it had to be someone with ready access to classified material, that means feds, and that, at least in the connection we’re discussing here, all but inevitably means the FBI. It’s the same “service” the Bureau provided back in the early ’70s to editors and reporters collaborating in its campaign to discredit Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) by implying that it was infested with “peaceniks” who’d never even been in the military and veterans who’d “invented” their combat experience. Sound familiar? Clearly, if you’re going to play that game, it’s kind of important that you not get caught “exposing as a fraud” some guy who’s not. Otherwise, you end up validating your target and discrediting yourself. I mean, the very idea of some snotty little reporter who’s in all likelihood never heard a shot fired in anger defaming a bona fide “war hero” doesn’t play too well, even in Peoria, or maybe especially in Peoria. Right? So the FBI was very careful to check the DoD files and warn the press off whenever allegations that any specific VVAW activist had “claimed a phony war record” seemed likely to backfire. The media campaign they’d started on this front eventually just sort of dribbled off into nothing because, in the end, they really couldn’t come up with any “fraudulent vets” to expose, and it looks like that’s pretty much what happened in my case.
JF: Sorry to stop ya, but aren’t we getting off track here a bit?
WC: Yeah, I guess so. What we’ve been talking about for the past few minutes makes it sound like everything is all perfectly logical, fitting into some conspiratorial master plan. And that’s at best only partly true. Actually, it looks like there might be a couple or three “master plans” at work here, and that they’re often not very well in sync with one another. So much for grand conspiracies. Even taken in combination, it seems to me that, although it may well be true that things are playing out differently at a national level, that’s not been the decisive factor in determining how the local media offensive has evolved. What I was starting to say before going into the Denver establishment’s agenda, the FBI’s, and so on, was that I don’t think rationality really enters into what an appreciable segment of the local media has been doing. Or, at most, rational objectives of the sort we’ve been discussing have played a very secondary role. I’ve already touched upon the situation with Vincent Carroll. What I haven’t mentioned is that the same pertains to a number of Denver area reporters. They’ve consistently displayed a huge emotional investment in “getting” me, quite apart from their usual ideological biases. And the form it’s taken, that of an undeviating insistence that they and they alone are entitled to define my identity, was perfectly predictable. After all, I went out of my way to goad them into it.
JF: Goad them? Wait a minute, Ward, let me tag you right there. You’re saying that you wanted them to make an issue of your ethnicity? That in effect you’ve been playing them?
WC: Like a violin.
JF: Well, I think that requires an explanation.
WC: Yeah. Okay, I’ll run it down, beginning with the fact that both my tactics and my “strategic vision,” as it were, are based on a lifetime’s experience with and a reasonably comprehensive analysis of the white racist mentality. Why white racism, rather than factors like religious or political orientation? Because, as I see it, racism plainly transcends such divisions among whites, unifying them in ways that were much and quite constructively discussed during the ’60s and ’70s, but which are — ahem! — no longer fashionable to address. If you want to “alienate” white folk of most any political persuasion these days, just introduce the topic of racism to a conversation devolving upon such preferred issues as the need for building more and better bike paths, abolishing cigarettes, or creating “properly gendered space.” Recognition of the continuing primacy of racism in defining the character of the American “mainstream” being essential to understanding everything else this country does, and preservation of their privilege under the resulting socioeconomic order being preeminent in motivating whites people’s collective insistence upon obfuscating that reality, has led me over the years to explore any number of ways and means of fostering the former by confronting and exposing the latter. If I’ve a “vocation”, that’s it. Everything I’ve done since coming back from Vietnam towards the end of 1968 — activism, teaching, writing — all of it really comes down to that. So, naturally, after recovering from my initial surprise when the “great controversy” erupted back it January — it took me about a week to do so — I immediately began to consider how it could be used not only to demonstrate the ongoing ubiquity and virulence of white racism in the U.S., but as a lens through which to focus attention on some of the more insidious ways in which it asserts itself. It follows that my strategic objectives have been what they always are: to use the nature of the attack on me as a means of forcing cognition of something a lot of people simply do not want to cognate, and thereby to further the realization of what somebody, my apologies for not remembering who, once quite aptly described it as a “transformative consciousness.” I’m not sure at all that whoever coined the term meant what I meant by it. The tactics I’ve employed derive from those goals. Sorry if I’ve been sounding pontifical, but that really is how I frame things. In any event, the part about demonstrating ubiquity has been a real no-brainer. All I have to do is point to the obvious, do a little tabulating, and then call the result by its right name. So, let’s start with what is — or should be –among the most obvious points of all: The composition of the Denver media is so glaringly white that you need to wear sunglasses to avoid going snow-blind any time you face off with it. Any more questions out there about why I tend to wear shades? [laughter] There are virtually no people of color employed as editors, reporters or columnists by the press, mainstream or “alternative”, and the electronic media are little better. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen by accident in a locale where nearly a third of the population is “non-white”, and that in itself holds some very tangible implications with regard to the way information and opinion are packaged for public consumption. The effects are abundantly clear. Witness the fact that, of the very few flashes of color you can spot among the sea of white faces comprising the Denver press corps — Reggie Rivers for example — none have been involved in the smear campaign. On the contrary, whenever they’ve written about — or, perhaps more accurately, they’ve been permitted to write about — “The Churchill Issue,” they have done so in a uniformly fair and accurate manner. Paul Campos might be viewed as an exception if not for his pathetically obvious eagerness to convince the white guys he writes for that, “in his heart,” he’s every bit as white as — or even whiter than — they are. And, of course, since “white” is ultimately a mindset rather than a gene code, he is-not so white as the likes of Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Condi Rice or Michelle Malkin, perhaps, but give him a break, he’s working on it. By any honest assessment, then, the local media attack has come exclusively from white journalists and commentators, a situation only slightly more ambiguous at the national level. The same holds true for the audience to which the “news” stories and op-ed pieces are pitched, and with whom they resonate. How do I know? Well, I’ve got a pile of about 4,000 pieces of hate mail at this point, and maybe 50 of them appear to be from people of color. The trend holds when you look at the scores of letters to the editor reviling me in the Denver area press during February and March. Every one of them was written by a white guy or gal. Such letters by people of color as were actually printed — and there weren’t many — were entirely supportive. Callers on the radio talk shows? Same thing. I’ve got a random sample of tapes and CDs people recorded for me over a 60-day period. I’ve not yet done a precise computation, but my preliminary estimate is that, no matter whose program or what time of day, well over 90% of all call-in “guests” were white, and that although not all white callers were hostile to me, all hostile callers — and that’s about 85% of the total sample — were. Of the relatively few people of color who actually made it on the air, all were supportive, or tried to be; they were routinely shouted down or simply disconnected by the Three Stooges of Clear Channel — Caplis, Silverman and Peter Boyles — flaming white guys, one and all. How about the bloggers? I don’t know of a single anti-Churchill blog run or even contributed to by a person or group of color. Do you?
WC: Whether, like Marc Cooper’s, they’re ostensibly “leftist” in orientation, or openly rightwing operations like PirateBallerina, the blogs at issue are to all appearances an exclusively white domain. Pun definitely intended. Chat rooms? I’m a long way from having collected enough strings to have completed what I’d consider an adequate sample, but based on what I have now — and that’s a lot — it looks like the data will turn out to be even more decisive than it is for talk radio. I’ve sort of drifted from the local to something broader at this point, so I suppose it’s worth noting that the picture doesn’t change much when you look at the press and electronic media nationally. Actually, after an initial flurry of items in such publications as National Review and the Wall Street Journal — all of them known for nothing so much as the ethnic/racial diversity of those they publish, right? And a follow-up feature in the Weakly Standard which, big surprise, wasn’t written by a black guy — the print media hasn’t been much involved at the national level. The electronic media are another story, however. There, apart from Bill O’Reilly, the heavy hitters have been Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough, with an occasional back-up chorus from Chris Matthews and, of course, CNN’s Paula Zahn, the one time I gave her a shot. That’s all TV, of course, but it’s the same thing on radio: the big-time attack dogs have been O’Reilly, Hannity again, and, assuming he still qualifies as “big-time”, Rush Limbaugh. The overall effect when you visualize these guys is similar to that produced by one of Rauschenberg’s blank white canvases. But let’s be fair: Who could the cable news channels possibly use to relieve the monotone: Geraldo? Neither they nor Clear Channel employ anyone but whites in such capacities. Have I been concentrating too much on right-wingers? Not by choice. That’s where all the noise has been coming from. On the left, other than when Anthony Lappé and a few others I could name have joined [Marc] Cooper in competing to see who can be the first to truly outfox Fox, the silence on the left has been downright deafening.
Be sure to check out Ward Churchill’s great new book, Since Predator Came, published by AK Press. It’s quite a read. Also, forthcoming from AK is a book which will include the rest of these interviews. And here are Parts One and Two if you missed them. – jf
Joshua Frank: It does seem like the left has abandoned you. What about lefty-liberals like Al Franken and Bill Maher?
Ward Churchill: Oops! You’re right. I was passing right by Franken, who, as I understand it, has lately joined the chorus by using the televised version of his Air America program — I guess you’re aware that Air America is Clear Channel’s “liberal alternative” to itself, eh? — to parrot O’Reilly and Hannity with regard to yours truly. The problem is that he wasn’t trying to do some funny impersonations; he was apparently serious. That being so, how about you ask him for an interview on the theme of-how did he put it in his book? — “lies, and the lying liars who tell them”?
JF: Franken won’t return my calls [laughter].
WC: Ha! Yeah, well Maher’s a different story. He was one of the very few people-aside from myself, Susan Sontag is the only other one I could name off the top of my head — who openly contested the way the hijackers were officially depicted in the immediate aftermath of 9-1-1. Lost his job over it, too, and you’ve got to respect that, even if, like me, you’re not especially in tune with his overall politics. Besides, after Maher picked up his HBO gig, he had Janet Reno and me on the same show. That gave me a chance to ask her face-to-face whether, since Waco, she’s had occasion to reconsider her ideas on how to respond to suspected child abuse. She gave me a sort of puzzled look, so I explained how some of us tend to think that sending the FBI to burn the kids alive wasn’t much of a “solution.” It really wigged her out, and I’ll always have a soft spot where Maher’s concerned, since, however unwittingly, he afforded me the opportunity to impose what may the closest to an actual penalty she ever pays for what she did to those poor kids. Maher’s gotten all gushy lately about the “prospect of democracy in Iraq” being some how redemptive of the slaughter over there. Sometimes he sounds like a comedic reincarnation of Rudyard Kipling. Then there’s Dennis Miller. From a liberal perspective, he used to do some really good, biting stuff. Since 9-1-1, though, he’s ridden the tide of reaction for all it’s worth, coming out of the closet as an unmitigated Nazi whore. For my money, the only one of these guys you can count on to remain consistent with their supposed principles over the long haul is George Carlin, but maybe I’m convinced he’s a safe bet only because he’s already stayed the course for 40-odd years.
JF: So, you’re saying you’ve gotten no support from the “white” left? Is that it?
WC: No, I’m not. There’s been substantial support from important sectors of the left academy, which, of course, is predominantly white. Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Emmanuel Wallerstein, Richard Falk, Robert Jensen and David Stannard, among many others, have all made strong statements affirming the quality and importance of my scholarship as well as their solidarity on the issues. The same, albeit on a lesser scale, with such prominent centrists as James Sterba. Hell, even Jay Custer-yup.
JF: No kidding?
WC: No kidding, he is a direct descendant of the famous “General”-and an editor for North American Archaeologist to boot — even he’s made an unequivocal statement vouching for the integrity of my work. All of this has of course been actively ignored by the media mainstream at both the local and national levels — so far as I know, Chomsky alone has been quoted thus far, once and quite briefly, in the Denver Post — even as they’ve been lavish in quoting scholarly nonentities like Thomas Brown and John LaVelle to the opposite effect. So, too, the fact that, testimonials from luminaries aside, there’s been a substantial demonstration and organizing of broad-based support within the academy, notably by progressive faculty members at Pitzer College and on my own campus. These efforts are both ongoing and, I’m happy to report, have been steadily widening their focus, treating my case not as a uniquely unjust phenomenon, but rather as being symbolic of something far bigger and much more sinister. Among serious activists outside the academy — and, by “serious,” I mean those pursuing fundamental rather than cosmetic changes to the status quo — things have been even better and more promising. Not only have the usual suspects like Derek Jensen and John Zerzan stepped up, but, with the possible exception of Anarchy magazine, I seem to have remarkably solid support across the entire anarchist spectrum, which is composed, let’s face it, predominantly of whites. Somewhat ironically, since I’ve been unsparingly critical of them over the past 30 years or so, I’ve received very much the same kind of unqualified support from hard-line Maoists. This has really astonished me, but I’ve gotta give it up: both the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and its recent spin-off, the Maoist International Movement (MIM) have used their weekly papers to advance some of the best analysis of my case and its implications yet published. MIM has been especially consistent in putting its cadres on the street to do political education concerning my case, gathering signatures on petitions supporting me, and the like. This has led to some interesting results, to say the least. One of the high points of my spring was when, unbeknownst to me at the time, a bunch of MIMsters cornered Rocky Mountain News reporter Charlie Brennan on the sidewalk outside the Women’s Building in San Francisco — he was there because I was speaking inside — and told him he wasn’t taking another step until he signed their petition supporting me. Man, I’d love to have seen the look on his face! They eventually cut him loose without signing, but let’s just say he’s stopped stalking me around the country-he’d earlier shown up at a talk I gave at the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus, and a few other unlikely locations-and I think the MIM people can take credit for his absence. Sooooo…Thanks, comrades. Between the two poles represented by the anarchist milieu on the one hand, and what remains of the “party-building” left on the other, I’ve gotten very solid gestures of support from VVAW and Veterans for Peace, both of which are mostly white, as well as the more militant sectors of the environmental and animal rights movements. There’ve also been e-mails of support from several thousand white folks whose politics aren’t immediately classifiable. It should be noted that despite the organized nature of the avalanche of electronic hate mail I’ve received, there have been a far greater number of spontaneous communications expressing support and solidarity. Much of this — over half, I think — comes from what I call the “kiss my ass” factor. That’s a group who more than anything seem motivated to applaud the fact that I’ve refused to back down, most of all my refusal to apologize for offending those I’ve offended by saying what I’ve said. My read is that there’s a substantial pool of disaffected whites out there who are at once profoundly antiauthoritarian and antiracist, and that they’re almost begging for someone or something to give shape to their zeitgeist, galvanizing it and thereby unleashing its transformative potential. That’s where the left media are supposed to come in. Their purpose is not merely to provide the “alternative” of more accurate news reportage and/or editorial commentary critical of the status quo. These are important, of course, but the more substantive responsibility of any genuinely oppositional media is to advance the sorts of analysis and interpretation that stand to consolidate the latent potential I was just describing, and propel it into the next phase of its actualization. In other words, it’s their function to engage in “advocacy journalism” of the most serious and unequivocal sort, a call to arms designed to facilitate the literal dismantling of the system generating the myriad forms of oppression they report on and verbally condemn. Therein lies the default. Not only have the more prominent media figures on the left failed to meet this last-and most crucial-of their responsibilities, they’ve usually done exactly the opposite, joining hands with their colleagues in the rightwing media to actively discredit anyone whose words or deeds might, if pursued to their logical conclusion, serve to precipitate fundamental rather than superficial changes to the structure of power and privilege embodied in this country’s white supremacist status quo. In this sense, they serve not as an alternative to, but rather as a completion of the propaganda system forming the first line of defense relied upon by those presiding over American business as usual. That’s how you end up with “lefties” like Marc Cooper and Al Franken saying things that are interchangeable with what’s being said by rightwing hacks on the order of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. The preponderance of heavies in the left media are just as white as the big names on the right, and thus have an equal stake in explaining reality to “the masses” in such a way as to preserve and protect the white supremacist bedrock upon which their monopolistic claim to the privilege of explaining reality ultimately depends. If the logic sounds a bit circular there, it’s because it is. On the whole, for all their pretensions to the contrary, I’d say these guys are very comfortable with the status quo. So comfortable, that every now and again you see a left media luminary like Christopher Hitchens do a Dennis Miller-style “transition” to the right. A lot of people are surprised when something like that happens, but they shouldn’t be. Anybody who paid attention to Hitchens’ postulations on race relations over the years-his 1992 piece in The Nation on the Columbian Quincentennial, to offer a prime example-found it unsurprising. A lot of us, in fact, viewed him all along as being little more than a closet rightwinger. The line is always thin to the point of anorexia in these circles.
JF: Okay, let me rephrase my earlier question. Are there any exceptions to what you’re saying about the white left media?
WC: Sure. You are, aren’t you? And Alex Cockburn came out with a very strong piece in my defense right off the bat. It ran in CounterPunch and, I think, in The Nation as well, back in early February. Mickey Z
, Tim Wise and Carolyn Baker have also done some good stuff. Then there’s Shannon Service, who did a really excellent hour-long piece for Free Speech TV. But y’all are very much exceptions, exceptions prove rules, and the rule has been very different. Not that everybody else followed the lead of Cooper, Lappé and some others I’ve mentioned in openly attacking me. That’s the other pole of exception. The norm, as I was starting to say earlier, has been something far more insidious, ranging from silence to blatant condescension. On the silence front, take Amy Goodman, for example. She did one rather insipid segment with me on Democracy Now!, and no follow-up. Air America’s been even worse; I did one very good interview with its Atlanta affiliate early on, but, again, no follow-up. The Portland station dithered for days in June when local organizers tried to set something up in conjunction with a speech I gave, before deciding they had “no time available”; actually, the word is that Clear Channel’s corporate headquarters put out the word that several of us from the Denver area are not to be allowed air time because of a couple of things we might bring out about the background of Dan Caplis, who they’re apparently grooming for some sort of national programming slot. Even on Boulder’s own progressive radio station, KGNU, I’ve been invited to do exactly one morning interview segment; no follow-up and nothing during the prime-time evening program blocks. This raises a related question: Where, oh where, is my old pal, David Barsamian? He’s Boulder-based, after all, and we’ve worked together for years, but he’s yet to make so much as an overture for an interview to be distributed through his well-established Alternative Radio enterprise. Condescension? Try Bruce Shapiro’s piece
in The Nation back in March, wherein he starts out by acknowledging the quality of my scholarship and ends up conceding the necessity of supporting me in the face of the right’s attempt to purge me from the university. The space in between, however, is largely devoted to reviling my “broader political writing” — by which he means my political analysis — as being “adolescent,” “noxious” and “uniformly hackneyed.” Decoded, what he’s saying is that he heartily disapproves of my focusing upon the form, function and effects of white racism rather than the trendier oppressions of white folks with which he prefers his readers be preoccupied. In effect, his main goal seems to have been the recording of his own credentials as a Noble White Man, willing to defend a wog despite the indefensibility of the wog’s politics. Mike Albert played a similar game in one of his Z-Net commentaries, first extolling what he called my “many contributions,” then positing the need to defend me in my “weakness,” before expending considerably more energy decrying the fact I’m inclined to hold those mostly white folks who actively contrive to profit from the mass death and immiseration of mostly brown children accountable for their comportment rather than restricting culpability to whoever happens to be holding the reigns of state power at any given moment. It’s worth mentioning that Richard Oxman immediately responded with a line-by-line demolition of Albert’s attempt at extending blanket exoneration to those I’ve referred to as “little Eichmanns”. The same basic formula has been employed by so many pundits on the white left over the past few months that it’s become seriously boring. Dare I call it “hackneyed”?. Now, contrast this sort of “support” to that articulated by Mumia Abu Jamal when he wrote that I not only have the right to say what I’ve said, but that I’ve been analytically correct in saying it. Or Yuri Kochiyama’s public statements repeatedly comparing my circumstances to those of Malcolm X. Or the Seneca writer Scott Richard Lyons’ powerful affirmation of my work-and of me personally, for that matter — in Indian Country Today. Or the sheer force of Haunani-Kay Trask’s and Kathleen Cleaver’s declarations in my behalf. Or Rafael Renteria’s commentary, “Ward Churchill and White America,” in which he advises those signified by Albert and Shapiro to “look in the mirror” for a full-face view of racial chauvinism at play. I could keep going, but I think you get the drift.
JF: Can you explain how this all fits together with your essay, “Some Push Back”?
WC: The common denominator among those I just mentioned is that they’re all people of color. The equivocators are not. This is not to say that all white lefties have been equivocal — I’ve already addressed the fact that a lot of them haven’t been — but, rather, that the equivocators have been quite uniformly been of what one wag recently described as being a “Caucasian Persuasion.” There’s a very pronounced pattern to it, and it’s entirely consistent with my experience of how things tend to shake out “on the street.” I’ve already covered the way the e-mails and letters I’ve recently received are breaking out, and that gets to it in a way. What I’ve not yet mentioned, however, is that the present “controversy” generated by the right over my perspective on 9-1-1 isn’t the first. The original brouhaha, which was far less public, came from the left, mostly by e-mail, during the first few days after the “Roosting Chickens” essay was posted on Dark Night’s website. I got several dozen missives in the first week or so, virtually all of them from self-described white Marxists of one stripe or another, most of them from New York, or saying they were, and all but a handful devoted to informing me of their authors’ outrage at the Eichmann analogy. Now here’s where it gets truly bizarre, and I swear I’m not making this up: Every single one of those expressing indignation claimed that s/he had a relative in the World Trade Center. And none of those relatives were stockbrokers, investment bankers or the like. Words like “Cantor-Fitzgerald” never even came up. Hell, none of the supposed relatives were even rank-and-file firemen or cops. No, they were all described as having been janitors, maintenance people, food service workers and such, the great majority of them people of color, and a disproportionately large percentage as having been recent immigrants from Third World countries. None of this was true, of course. The New York Times shortly began publishing photos and biographical sketches of everyone who died in the Trade Center; I read every one of them, and the demography was about what I’d expected. It follows that the basis upon which the initial wave of complaints from the left were mounted was blatantly contrived, so much so that I considered writing it up as a parody in which, of the fewer than 3,000 persons killed in the WTC, more than 4,000 were relatives of white lefties, and of those 4,000, at least 5,000 were working-class immigrant people of color bearing no responsibility whatsoever for the horrors of American empire. The twin towers complex, it turns out, didn’t actually function as a hub of U.S. economic globalization in any sense at all. Instead, it was something more along the lines a gigantic homeless shelter. The nature of this initial and entirely spurious reaction by the left tends, I think, to spotlight what may well be the most taboo of all topics among self-styled progressive whites: the extent to which they’re inclined to be every bit as heavily-invested in the paradigm of American Exceptionalism as the rightwingers they purportedly oppose. Certainly, there was no way to readily distinguish one from the other when it came to the fervor with which they arrived at an instant insistence upon the inherent “innocence” of those killed on 9-1-1. Left, right and always white, they very nearly managed to coin a new term, fusing “innocent” and “Americans” into the single word: “Innocentamericans.” It was an altogether stunning illustration of the sociocultural pathologies Stanley Cohen discusses in his States of Denial, and, of course, the more particular phenomena analyzed so ably by Karl Jaspers in The Question of German Guilt. Such behavior is nothing unusual for Euroamericans, by the way. In his Benevolent Assimilation — a truly excellent book — the historian Stuart Creighton Miller chronicles a very similar assertion of “radical innocence” by mainstream Americans immediately following revelation of the genocide perpetrated by the U.S. during its conquest of the Philippines at the turn of the last century. This is from one example. From there, you can — as I have, in A Little Matter of Genocide, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens and elsewhere — trace the record of comparably self-serving denials of reality all the way back to the inception of the Republic, or forward into the present moment. What you encounter adds up to a seamless whole. In this sense, the history of the Euroamerican mainstream has been undeviatingly consistent. As Susan Griffin observes in A Chorus of Stones,’there are whole disciplines, institutions, rubrics in our culture which serve as categories of denial.’ Put another way, denial is not just integral to but definitive of what Griffin, writing as a white woman, perceives as being the “American Character.” And, coming as it does from an explicitly Euroamerican perspective, her perception is both entirely accurate and commendably honest. But here’s the catch. Who does Griffin mean by “our” when she refers to “our culture,” the one she describes as being so pathologically afflicted with denial? Black folk? Brown? Those of Asian or Polynesian descent? How about American Indians? You see? Even as she critiques the American Character to devastating effect, she frames it-or perhaps even conceives of it-exclusively and not very subtly, in terms of her own whiteness. That which is white thus equals ‘America,” for Susan Griffin no less than for crudest of aging Mississippi Klansmen. Here, it seems to me, we find the pulsating heart of white racism. In its essence, it consists of the presumption that anyone Other than white holds meaning — hence, value — only in relation to whiteness, a dominion in which, in and of themselves, unwhite “others” possess no meaning or value at all. Often, as I suspect is the case with Griffin, the attitude is so deep-set as to operate well below the level of awareness, and is therefore intractable. So subliminal is the mindset at its core that, confronted with evidence of her own display of it, Griffin would no doubt seek to deny it, thereby consummating the very pathos she herself has explicated with utmost eloquence. I’ve been working on an analytical essay developing this theme for the past couple of months. Let me read a bit of it into the record, so to speak, because doing so will probably get us to where I want to end up faster-and, hopefully, more clearly-than whatever I might spin off the top of my head at this point. Okay by you?
WC: Okay, here goes: “In its most discernable manifestation, white racist presumption appears in its carriers’ assertion of a unilateral entitlement to define-that is, to ‘name’-the Other in terms constructed entirely of utility and convenience to themselves. For those cast as Other, the true measure of white racist imposition is encountered first, foremost and always in this perpetual process of naming: They, and They alone, are positioned to determine who you are, are not, might be, what each station denotes, and why. This is because, so They continuously declaim, that which is knowable is truly ‘Known’ only to Them, or in ways devised and sanctioned by Them, for purposes They themselves approve. “Hence, They not only ‘know you better than you know yourself’ but ‘what’s best for you’ as well. Predictably, the latter turns upon the perceptions of Those who Know as to what might at any given moment be of most benefit to Them. For the Other, this entails an existence captioned in the language of intrinsic inferiority at best, or, in the worst case, out-and-out existential negation (figuratively, literally, often both). Within a perception of ‘reality’ based in the strata of such presumption, the wielding of white supremacist prerogatives becomes so familiar as to go unnoticed by Those who enjoy them, seeming natural, therefore inevitable, and thus both right and just. “Wherein lies the potential for culpability? White supremacism, speaking in its emic voice, admits to none. It is in fact incapable of such admission. Guilt cannot be reasonably said to inhere in being and doing that which is right and natural, irrespective of how it might effect essentially irrelevant Others. Within the psychoconceptual parameters by which they are established, whiteness and its attendant privileges comprise their own justification. By the terms of its very existence, then, the cognitive structure of white racism denies even the possibility that genuine empathy, less still such sentiments as regret or remorse, might be extended beyond the pale of itself.”Only the most forceful of etic intrusions are sufficient to disrupt the fantasies of innate superiority and concomitant entitlement to possession of all and everything entertained at the most primal level as a conception of Self by Those infected with the mass psychosis of white racism. Reciprocation of the dehumanizing treatment They have accustomed Themselves to visiting quite universally upon valueless Others is often-perhaps always-requisite to penetrating the veil of Their delusion so deeply that They, some of Them, will be jarred into conceding that the realm of meaning might perhaps not be reserved unto Them alone, that the Other can never be consigned-was never in fact consignable-to a terrain “outside of history,” that s/he or “it,” too, is endowed with a fully human face.”The jolt of such cognition, however momentary, produces a series of aftershocks: recognition that the life and fulfillment of a brown-skinned child is just as ‘important’-which is to say, ‘worth’ every but as much-as that of a white-skinned child, for instance. Thence, it will be all but invariably admitted that the Other is, or might yet become, ‘just as good as We are.’ Promising on its face, this supposedly ‘enlightened acknowledgement’ is actually the most cynical of white supremacist ruses, evading as it does the very possibility that whiteness might reduce to the signification of anything other than ‘goodness,’ thereby reasserting its station as the condition to which all Others can/should/must aspire. It is thus no more than a reaffirmation of white supremacism, albeit in a form clad in the soft trappings of liberal sophistry rather than the fundamentalist armor of ‘conservatism.’ “For the instant of cognition generated by an exemplary act of reciprocation to produce a different result, it is necessary that the intervention be continued with equal force, but in another manner, one expressly designed to increase rather than alleviate cognitive dissonance within the status quo. This is to say that the Other must seize the moment of Their greatest cognitive disarray to (re)claim the all-important power of definition; that is, to call what has just happened by its right rather than Their preferred name and, in the process, bestow the correct name upon Them.
“To clarify: The Other cannot be content with liberal concessions as to her/his/their basic humanity; it is essential that They be forced to confront and ultimately confess the implications of what They, in their whiteness, have done-are in fact still doing-to fully human but unwhite Others. On this, there can be no polite hedging to spare offense to the tender sensibilities of the offenders. (They have long since honed to unrivaled perfection the ability to do this for themselves; such is the time-tested stuff of their collective denial). The naming must be both unsparing and of the ‘in your face’ variety. “Example: Those brokers and ‘market technicians’ who harness their proficiencies-as all of them do-to attracting investment in corporate enterprises, the profitability of which derives from extracting veritable slave labor from brown-skinned 12-year-olds throughout the Third World, are by no reasonable definition “unaware” of what they are doing or its effects upon those enslaved. It is, after all, their stock-in-trade to know with considerable precision why the value of certain stocks may be expected to increase more rapidly or sustainedly than others. “Hence, they are in no sense ‘innocent’ of the sheer carnage induced by the sweatshops their energies are devoted to proliferating. Instead, they function as ‘desk murderers,’ a type of malignancy best symbolized by Adolf Eichmann, the mid-rank SS officer who-always at a sanitary step’s remove from the ugly stench wafting from the ‘product’ his energies made possible-unstintingly applied his technical expertise to the logistics of genocide, thereby ensuring that the nazis’ exterminatory system operated in the most efficient and profitable manner possible. “Eichmann’s peculiar notoriety arises, no doubt, from the fact that what he facilitated was done, not to unwhite Others but to whites themselves. Thus, his subsequent pleas of ‘innocence’ or that he should at least be accorded some right to mitigation or redemption-that he’d personally killed no one, had been a good husband and father, civic-minded and culturally sensitive (he spoke Hebrew, no less), and had merely done his job to the best of his ability-though all true, were to absolutely no avail. In the end, he stood exposed before the world for who he and what he was, convicted of his crime. For this, he paid with his life. “Or not. “It may very well be that Eichmann was punished, not for his actual ‘crimes against humanity,’ but for his transgression of whiteness; that is, for having done to unto certain whites that which whiteness decrees will be done only unto Others. His real crime, however, was to embrace an outlook in which it was/is permissible to dehumanize anyone in such fashion, thereby establishing the model, both psychointellectually and in terms of precedent, for what the nazis eventually did to Slavs and Ashkenazi Jews, right along with such nonwhite untermensch as the Sephardim and Gypsies. “In this, the most elemental dimension of his criminality, Eichmann had and still has no end of company. It includes not only the earlier-mentioned and overwhelmingly white corps of brokers and finance techs who knowingly feed their bottom line from the rotting corpses of Third World children, but in a very real sense anyone who identifies with and seeks to defend either them, personally, or the order emblematized by their minds and deeds. So transparently commonplace is the baseline evil embodied in Eichmann that no less astute an observer than Hannah Arendt was led with some bewilderment to classify it as a ‘banality.’ “Rephrased, all who exhibit the pathology of whiteness are at issue, and all who take as their objective anything less that a complete eradication of the white supremacist edifice may be rightly said to share it. Those who struggle to rationalize, justify and thus preserve either the mentality or its manifestations have no more legitimate a basis for complaint with regard to whatever fate may be imposed upon them by the multitudinous Others they’ve defiled than did Eichmann himself. In this connection, there remains much to learn from Fanon.” Okay, that’s enough.
JF: I’m not asleep, yet.
WC: There’s more [laughter], but I’m sure you can see where I’m going, and what’s upsetting white folks from all points on the political compass. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Bill O’Reilly or Marc Cooper, my analysis doesn’t leave any wiggle room within which you can pronounce your own “innocence,” much less maintain your accustomed privilege of defining for everybody else what their options are, or “should” be, vis-à-vis the status quo. It’s downright infuriating, I suppose, and they’ve responded accordingly. Now, let’s go back to “the street” for a moment. We’ve spent most of our time examining the response pattern of whites. By contrast, consider the fact that I don’t know a person of color who didn’t have the same gut reaction to 9-1-1 as me: It was just chickens coming home to roost. If there was a question involved, it was “what took them so long”? I’ll grant you that while the pool of people I know personally is substantial, it’s hardly a definitive sample, even of the intellectual/activist community. But, check this out: Ever since I came up on O’Reilly’s radar screen, and especially during the period when he and his rightwing media cohorts were bearing down on me with the most intensity, I’ve had random people of color greeting me with big smiles and effusive thanks. For a while there, I couldn’t be out on the sidewalk in Denver without drivers honking and giving me the power salute. People were literally crossing the street to shake my hand, not only because of the “in your face” nature of what I’d said, but — and this seems to have been important to them-my refusal to back down in the face of the tremendous reaction it provoked. We’re not talking about folks who spend their spare time reading David Roediger, either. These were delivery people, baggage handlers at the airport, custodial personnel, food service workers, parking lot attendants, people in toll booths, mostly black, Latino and South Asian, including a fair proportion of recent immigrants. Funny thing: I’ve yet to encounter anyone fitting this description who seemed in the least confused about the fact that I wasn’t referring to them, or people like them, when I used the Eichmann metaphor, at least I’ve never been asked to explain it to a person of color. And, to amplify an earlier point, I’ve yet to interact with a single one of them who professed to have a white Marxist in their family. In any event, this pattern hasn’t been evident only in Denver. It’s been the same everywhere I’ve gone since February: the Bay Area, Honolulu, LA, Atlanta, Seattle, even Milwaukee and Spokane… and Northern Saskatchewan, for that matter. On several occasions, I’ve had white reporters tagging along, and they’ve been visibly stunned by the response I’ve gotten at a grassroots level. I have to admit that, at times, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by it myself. There’s been a marked drop-off in this sort of thing since June, when the last of the full-glare media spotlight was turned off, but, by then, it had become abundantly clear that my analysis of 9-1-1 touched just as deep a nerve in people of color as it did in whites, but for diametrically opposing reasons: On the whole, those of color have demonstrated that they agree with me at a really elemental level; for whites, it’s the precise opposite. That’s exactly the pattern I thought would prevail, so it goes without saying that, personally, I feel quite validated by the response pattern. What I want to see now is a further shaking out along those lines, in a way that involves an increasingly mindful inclusion and expansion of that earlier-mentioned pool of antiauthoritarian/antiracist whites-“race traitors,” if you will-and starts to consolidate a genuinely liberatory consciousness in this country. It’s been a long time-the early-70s, in my estimation-since that sort of dynamic has been evident.
JF: So you want a return to the principles, as opposed in some respects to the practice, emblematized by the early Black Panther, the Brown Berets and Chicano Moratorium, the Young Lords, etc?
WC: I do want to see a return to those principles of the groups you mentioned, and a few others you didn’t, like I Wor Kun, Rising Up Angry, the Young Patriots, VVAW and the early American Indian Movement, among numerous others, and I do want to see us pursue the promise embodied in the original Rainbow Coalition established by Fred Hampton, not to be confused with Jesse Jackson’s subsequent imitation. That’s the idea underlying the All Nations Alliance in Denver. More broadly, you can find a lot of what I’m talking about within what’s called “hip-hop culture” — it took me a while to figure that one out, even though Fidel Rodriguez and his cohorts in East LA were already referring to me as being “an elder of the hip-hop movement” by some point in the late-90s — although there’s obviously a lot of work to be done, if it’s to realize its transformative potential. The key is to understand that the requisite consciousness exists, at least in embryonic form, that certain of the component parts are also there, organizationally-speaking, and that the potential for actualization is therefore real. And, of course, the neocons are doing a truly amazing job of polarizing things, thus galvanizing the hip-hop impulse into ever more coherent modes of resistance.
JF: What role do you think you can play in all of this?
WC: As I see it, my own role in the process, having managed to crystallize a reaction via my 9-1-1 piece, is to utilize the opportunity thus presented as a vehicle upon which not only to further demonstrate the ubiquity of white racism, but to demystify some of the more sophisticated means by which whiteness asserts and sustains itself. In the latter connection, one of the predominating features of white supremacism is, as I mentioned earlier, its appropriation unto itself of the prerogative to unilaterally define the meaning of everyone and everything, exclusively in accordance with its own perception of need or interest. That being true, it was absolutely certain from the outset that They’d respond to my turning the definitional tables on Them by reasserting Themselves in ways designed not so much to discredit my framing of 9-1-1-although They certainly tried to do that, by way of the consistency with which They insisted upon misquoting my essay-but to discredit me, personally, and thereby my broader analysis. Hence, all the fishing around in my credit history and driving record, raising of doubts about the “quality” of my military service, eliciting of comments from ex-wives, former in-laws and outright enemies, etc., in addition to Their remarkably belated-not to mention sudden-“discovery” that my scholarship exhibits what one commentator described as being a pronounced “absence of rigor.” Had this been the end of it, the entire media campaign might be summed up as simply a drive, à la those recently conducted against Bellesiles, Davis and others, to redefine me in ways that would neutralize my credibility in primarily political and scholarly terms. That was hardly “the end of it,” however. Right from the start, there was an additional dimension bespeaking a desire on the part of my attackers not only to nullify whatever intellectual influence I might wield, but also the nature of my identity itself; that is, my very existence as a human being. What They really wanted, in other words, was to override my signification of self by imposing Their own upon me, thereby negating me altogether. This, of course, assumed the form of Their raising questions with regard to my “Indianness.” You know, “Is he ‘really’ an American Indian?” That sort of thing. At first, it was just part of the more general chorus, but it was always there, and it was by far the most explicitly racist aspect of what was going on. So it occurred to me that if I could draw Them out on the theme of “Ward Churchill and the Indian Question,” it might provide a really useful illustration of exactly what I’ve been trying to explain about whiteness and the power of naming. What I wanted was for Them to put the racial agenda right out front.