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The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

On Ward Churchill

From undergrad days to the present day, I've always been interested in going to hear lectures on campuses. In college, I heard, among others, Nelson Mandela, Jerry Ford, Christine Todd Whitman and Jack Kemp. I never went to a lecture by any "divisive" (in Harvard's case, that meant "right-wing") speaker, but plenty of students did, including some who came to protest. These ranged from demonstrators at speeches by Rudy Giuliani (before he became a national hero after 9/11) and Pat Buchanan to huge protests at an address by Jiang Zemin (I was one of the free-Tibet crowd; I couldn't get into the actual speech).

In recent years, it seems, ideology has become more of an issue in speeches across college campuses. (Or maybe it was always thus.) Harvard faced its own drama in 2002, when it invited the Oxford poet Tom Paulin to speak at the university. Paulin had been criticized for an interview given in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram earlier that year in which he said that Israel had no right to exist, and that Brooklyn-born Israeli settlers "should be shot dead." Protests from Harvard students led to Paulin's invitation being withdrawn -- and then re-issued. However, he declined to visit the university.

These days, the center of protest is another academic, Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was invited to speak at Hamilton College in New York. More than three years after Churchill called the businessmen and women inside the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns" -- on the day after 9/11 -- these words have finally come to the general public's notice. Churchill has been dis-invited, and now faces a scrutiny into his job; it seems he has been somewhat less than truthful in describing his American Indian background -- which may not exist at all.

What seems equally disgusting about Churchill's philosophy is a book he wrote entitled "A Little Matter of Genocide," in which he claims that the Holocaust has been overexaggerated in history books as a means of disguising Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. This column seems to sum up Churchill's beliefs fairly well.

As someone whose great-grandparents (and other relatives) were killed during the Holocaust, I take this news quite personally, and I'm sure the 9-11 victims' relatives also took Churchill's comments about their loved ones personally. When the speech becomes personal, it can be hard to look at it in a detached way -- which, I guess, is what makes people human and stirs them to rise against it.

So, was it right for Hamilton to invite Churchill in the first place? Colleges are, after all, supposed to be places where students are exposed to a variety of opinions, which would help them develop their own. Yet are there some ideas that are simply so repugnant that they should not exist in a civilized setting? If people like Churchill say disgusting things about 9/11 and the Holocaust, thus disrespecting many in his potential audience, should the university allow these people a voice?

I think that the university should be a place for debate, but the debate should be civil. "College" and "collegial" do have a link. People like Churchill are just trying to win attention by their outrageous statements, just as bigots on the extreme right would do. Dialogue that slurs others has no place at a university, or anywhere else.

Postscript: In addition to the claims described above by Churchill, he also has accused the US government of creating massive deaths in Iraq as a result of the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's government. Is he right? Some would say yes, others no.


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