There's been a lot of news about Ward Churchill, Ethnic Studies Professor at the University of Colorado, who's catching a lot of flak for his remarks calling 9/11 victims at the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns" and suggesting that they got what they deserved.
I agree with Eugene Volokh that Churchill's remarks -- disgusting as they may be -- should be protected by academic freedom. But I also think that this should cause some rethinking among academics.
Academics are supposed to be skeptical and questioning, even about their own societies. But there's a big difference between being skeptical -- which requires actual thought -- and being adversarial, which requires only contradiction. What's more, the doctrine of academic freedom -- which goes well beyond the general freedoms of speech encompassed by the First Amendment -- is supposed to be about freedom for individual academics to think, well, freely -- not about the freedom of academic institutions to escape scrutiny from the outside world.
And that -- as University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos notes -- raises the real question about Churchill. Because Churchill isn't so much a brilliant scholar who might be retained despite the nature of his views, as a deeply undistinguished scholar who was, if anything, hired because of his views:
But while the question of whether a brilliant scholar with a fascist streak ought to be considered for a place on a university faculty retains at least some academic interest, it has nothing to do with Churchill, whose writings and speeches feature an incoherent farrago of boundless paranoia, wildly implausible theories, obscene celebrations of murder, and atrocious prose.
The question of whether a serious research university ought to hire someone like Churchill is laughable on its face. What's not so funny is the question of exactly how someone like him got hired in the first place, and then tenured and named the head of a department.
According to the national Indian newspaper, Indian Country Today, Churchill (whose claims of Indian ancestry appear to be dubious) was hired because of his views, and in place of other Native American thinkers whose scholarship was less politically correct:
Suzan Shown Harjo, a columnist for ICT who has tracked Churchill's career, said that aside from the in-laws of his late Indian wife, he has not been able to produce any relatives from any Indian tribe.
Beyond the question of his personal identity is the question of his standing to represent Indian opinion, not only on 9/11 but also in his other published works. Mohawk ironworkers helped build the World Trade Center and other monuments of the New York City skyline, and one crew was actually at work in the flight path of the plane that struck the second tower. St. Regis Mohawk Chief James Ransom noted that they joined rescue teams at great personal risk.
Churchill's other writings repudiate not only the U.S. but also most Indian tribal institutions. In one 1994 essay, he described tribal self government as a ''cruel hoax'' carried out by ''puppets'' of ''an advanced colonial setting.'' He equated the status of Indian tribes in the U.S. to that of European colonies in Asia and Africa. His analysis reflected an extreme version of European left-wing ideology.
Far from suffering for his views, Churchill appears to have been sought out by many in the universities as a representative of American Indian thinking. But to many Native intellectuals, he is traveling under false pretenses, both in his ideology and his personal identity.
It sounds as if what the folks doing the hiring wanted was someone who could give a stamp of Native American "authenticity" to what were really left-wing European views. That his scholarship was poor, and his background questionable, was less important than the nature of the views he was espousing.
This sort of practice bespeaks a hothouse atmosphere in which there isn't much room for debate or dissenting views within the part of the University doing the hiring. In other words, the problem is not too much intellectual diversity, but not enough. And although Churchill's case may be an extreme one in terms of the attention it has gotten, the issues underlying it are not limited to the Ethnic Studies program at the University of Colorado. (Just look at the problems with anti-Semitism at Columbia University, for example.)
It seems clear that trustees and alumni are going to have to take a closer look at hiring practices in many academic programs, or we're likely to see more Churchill-style embarrassments. That would a bad thing for academia, and for academic freedom.
There goes Mr. Jordan
Earlier I mentioned CNN news executive Eason Jordan's comments at Davos. Jordan accused U.S. soldiers of targeting journalists, though he reportedly backed down when challenged by Congressman Barney Frank. Here's a good summary:
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, during a discussion on media and democracy, Mr. Jordan apparently told the audience that "he knew of 12 journalists who had not only been killed by U.S. troops in Iraq, but they had in fact been targeted," according to a report on the forum's Web site ( www.Forumblog.org). The account was corroborated by the Wall Street Journal and National Review Online, although no transcript of the discussion has surfaced. Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Christopher Dodd were also present, but calls to their offices were not returned in time for publication.
In any event, it's an assertion Mr. Jordan has made before. In November, as reported in the London Guardian, Mr. Jordan said, "The reality is that at least 10 journalists have been killed by the U.S. military, and according to reports I believe to be true journalists have been arrested and tortured by U.S. forces." This is very serious stuff, if true. Yet aside from Mr. Jordan's occasional comments, there's no evidence to support it. Mr. Jordan's almost immediate backpedaling seems to confirm this. In a statement to blogger Carol Platt Liebau, Mr. Jordan said, "To be clear, I do not believe the U.S. military is trying to kill journalists in Iraq. I said so during the forum panel discussion. But, nonetheless, the U.S. military has killed several journalists in Iraq in cases of mistaken identity." He added, "three of my CNN colleagues and many other journalists have been killed on purpose in Iraq." He didn't elaborate by whom.
According to information on CPJ's Web site ( www.CPJ.org), between 2003 and 2004, 12 journalists were killed as a result of U.S. fire. None was from CNN. At least a few of those were instances of mistaken identity. In one case, Terry Lloyd of ITV News was in an SUV at the start of the war in March 2003. As CPJ notes, an investigative report in the Wall Street Journal cited accounts of U.S. troops who recalled firing upon cars marked "TV" since it was believed suicide bombers were using them to attack U.S. troops. It appears, however, that Mr. Lloyd's vehicle was caught in a crossfire. Aside from this one dubious case, none of the other reported deaths even remotely resembles intentional targeting by U.S. troops.
That's from the Washington Times, which is the only major-media outlet to give this story attention. (I kind of expected Howard Kurtz to mention it, but I suppose his relationship with CNN makes that sticky). As blogger Ed Morrissey notes, the story has been widely ignored by outlets that ought to be covering it.
After all, either Jordan's telling the truth -- in which case it's an explosive story of U.S. troop misconduct of the sort U.S. media usually pounce on -- or, alternatively, Jordan's lying -- in which case it's an explosive story of misconduct at a major news organization. I guess they're not as quick to pounce on those stories, which makes me think that Jordan's story isn't true.
Hugh Hewitt interviewed a blogger who was there, and apparently there is a videotape of the event. So where is it? It will either prove that Jordan is being misquoted, or that he's not. (CNN initially claimed that his remarks were taken "out of context," though it has since shifted its position and now says that Jordan expressed himself badly).
Was this an innocent misunderstanding based on clumsy phraseology? Or did a top executive at a major news operation tell a lie to foreign representatives in order to ingratiate himself to anti-Americans at the price of slandering American troops? The longer CNN and Jordan stonewall, the more people will believe the worst.
Back in April we had the Eason Jordan scandal, in which CNN turned out to have been covering up known atrocities by Saddam Hussein in exchange for access.
Then we had RatherGate, in which CBS presented bogus documents because of its overwhelming desire to hurt George W. Bush. (And we have Eason Jordan again, this time making unsubstantiated charges that American troops are trying to kill journalists.)
But in the most absurd development of all, we had a wide variety of news outlets yesterday reporting that an American soldier had been taken prisoner by Iraqi terrorists (excuse me, "insurgents"), along with the usual photo.
All in good fun, and both the terrorists -- and the sensation-hungry media who are all-to-quick to empower them by running this sort of thing -- deserve all the derision we can manage.
But it raises another question. Professional journalists are always sniffing at the Internet's amateurs, and claiming that their superior fact-checking and editorial resources produce a better product. Yet, once again, they've fallen for an obvious fraud.
And it was obvious. In fact, one reader e-mailed me this:
I did not tell him anything about the questions being raised about its authenticity when I showed my 16 year old son the picture posted at this site, he took one look and started laughing and said "that is a GI Joe doll."
Perhaps today's journalists are the kind of people whose parents didn't let them play with military toys, but this still calls into question just what we're getting from all those editors and fact-checkers. A story in today's Christian Science Monitor asks, " Are bloggers journalists?"
Perhaps we should start asking if journalists are journalists.
On the other hand, I shouldn't complain -- if media organizations hadn't been gullible enough to run with this story, I never would have gotten to read G.I. Joe's P.O.W. diaries:
As I huddle in the shoebox that will soon define the four corners of my world, my thoughts turn to my wife, Barbie; my brother, Fireman Rescue Hero; and my son, Lego Luke Skywalker. I must be strong for them.
I've had to be strong all my life. It's hard to be a poor plastic kid in a video-game world, and even harder when you're an immigrant -- I was made in China. My mother was a Chinese novelty factory and my father was a petroleum by-products distributor who just played around with my mother and then disappeared. Nobody wanted a soldier toy in Clinton's nineties, so I made my way playing minimum-wage gigs like "Thug #3" in the Hudson Hawk action figure line. But after a shameful night of drinking nail polish remover and driving a Mattel remote-control car full of underage Jem sidekicks into a telephone pole, a judge gave me a choice: an Army enlistment, or a Goodwill box.
I chose the former.
Heh. Great art often comes from tragedies. Even journalistic ones.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive