Churchill, Berube and Academic Freedom

I was hoping Michael Berube would magically appear on Fox News or MSNBC this week, in lieu of the Ward Churchill claptrap that has dominated cable and radio talkshows as of late. So far it hasn’t meant to be. But Berube did post on the subject earlier this week, with his trademark balance of self-deprication and incisive contextualization:


…this humble blog has nothing useful to say on the subject of Ward Churchill… All I can say is that there really is no question that academic freedom was devised precisely to cover people like this: they may be horse’s asses, sure, but the capacious blanket of academic freedom covers even the largest horse’s ass when he speaks on matters in his field, and no one disputes that Churchill had staked out this terrain well in advance of September 11. But don’t take it from me; take it from a distinguished intellectual who abandoned the left in the course of his illustrious career.

“The qualified teacher, whose qualifications may be inferred from his acquisition of tenure, has the right honestly to reach, and hold, and proclaim any conclusion in the field of his competence. In other words, academic freedom carries with it the right to heresy as well as the right to restate and defend the traditional views. This takes in considerable ground. If a teacher in honest pursuit of an inquiry or argument comes to a conclusion that appears fascist or communist or racist or what-not in the eyes of others, once he has been certified as professionally competent in the eyes of his peers, then those who believe in academic freedom must defend his right to be wrong–if they consider him wrong–whatever their orthodoxy may be.” (36)

That’s Sidney Hook, from his 1970 book Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy. There’s much to admire in this passage– not least the fact that so few right-wingers would second it today. But what’s truly remarkable about it is that Hook used this rationale, at the time, to defend a young, impolitic Marxist named Eugene Genovese, who had recently made public his support of the Viet Cong– and, as Hook notes, had become immediately infamous for doing so: because New Jersey’s Democratic governor rightly refused to fire Genovese from Rutgers on the grounds of aiding and abetting the enemy, the Republican gubernatorial candidate “focused his entire campaign on the issue of Genovese’s right to teach” (42). Perhaps there’s a lesson here for the good people of Colorado. Yes, I’m sure there is.

I was discussing this larger idea of academic freedom–and how/if it applies to Churchill–with a friend and colleague at CCC earlier today. We agreed that individual word choices in his now-infamous essay “Some People Push Back” could be considered questionable, but Churchill’s overall rhetorical principles in writing the essay are perfectly sound. Lifting the “little Eichmanns” reference out of context and bouncing it through the echo chambers of the U.S. news media, we thought, was a damn effective way to light another cultural war that burns way too close for both our comforts.

It’s important, I think, to point out the essay in question was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, during a time of very real fear and equally real paranoia. Why Churchill’s essay is only now making national headlines (prompting, naturally, the ever-seething Ann Coulter to title her latest syndicated missive “The Little Injun That Could”), nearly four years (and a Bush re-election!) later is a real headscratcher.

Having recently secured my first full-time teaching position in a state-funded institution of higher education, my worry lies in the rabid politization of this issue, and the further chilling effect it will inevitably have on college and university campuses. It’s the likes of Colorado Governor Bill Owens–not Michael Berube–who are making the most noise on the talk show circuits, and what they have to say is particularly troubling. Owens is actively pushing UC Boulder’s board of regents to fire Churchill immediately, and is on the record thusly: “I think if the university should choose to take no action and basically accede to the view that anything a professor wants to say at any time is allowable, I think there will be ramifications from alums, donors and those from the community at large.” Since Churchill is a tenured professor, his case will be a particularly telling one as to the current practices and procedures for tenure.



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