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April 2005 (Volume 56, Number 11)

Notes from the Editors

Annette Rubinstein’s ninety-fifth birthday will be celebrated on Saturday April 9 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the new home of the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School, at Westbeth, 451 West Street, at the corner of Bank Street, in Manhattan. We are pleased to join Annette’s family, friends, and comrades in also marking her thirty years of teaching at the Brecht Forum and eighty-five years of conscious socialist practice. Our friends at the Brecht promise refreshments, good music, an interesting program, and lots of fun and joy. For additional information call 212-242-4201 or go to Annette has asked that instead of gifts contributions be made to The Brecht Forum, Inc.

We are proud to note that Annette has been a contributor to MR and a much loved member of MR’s family for almost as long as this magazine has been published. Annette, we love you! Happy Birthday—and many more!

MR Foundation director John J. Simon writes:

The assault on critical thought and radical ideas accelerated this winter. Partly obscured by the uproar over the reactionary remarks of Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, on the so-called incapacities of women in the natural sciences, was the shameful revocation of an invitation to the outspoken Native American activist and analyst of indigenous issues, Ward Churchill, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York. The college administration said that the engagement was withdrawn due to threats of violence. In fact, these officials capitulated under intense pressure from a variety of right-wing media, including Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. Churchill’s talk had been sponsored by Hamilton’s Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture, directed by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, a professor of comparative literature and the author of works on classical literature and gender issues.

Churchill is the author of Marxism and Native Americans, and A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, among other books. He lectures widely on genocide and the colonization and environmental destruction of Indian lands. As Bruce Shapiro recently noted in The Nation, “Churchill is a figure respected enough to have contributed to the authoritative Encyclopedia of Genocide and divisive enough that fellow scholars debate his conclusions.”

Churchill also wrote the 2001 essay “Some People Push Back,” which is at the crux of the current assault. Contorting the essay’s meaning, the corporate media paint its author as a “pro-terrorist extremist.” Their charge, really based on reductionist sound-bites from his work, accuses Churchill of applauding the death of thousands in the September 11, 2001, attacks, calling them “little Eichmanns.” This is perfect for the ratings- and profit-driven twenty-four-hour cable news networks. Unable to compete with each other over their consensual analyses or insights with respect to their support for U.S. imperial aims in the Middle East and elsewhere, they build audience with hysteria and exaggeration. To be sure, Churchill, with his provocative shoot-from-the-hip style, encouraged some of the virulence. But, in the main, Churchill’s argument was as analytically nuanced as it was powerful. About those who worked as investment bankers in the global finance firms that occupied much of the space in the World Trade Center towers, he wrote, “They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire—the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved—and they did so both willingly and knowingly.”

Churchill, who has written widely on genocide, including that conducted by the Nazis during the Second World War, is not immune to the tragedy of personal suffering caused by such events or by catastrophes like the terror attacks; indeed his aim is to understand their root causes. So he focuses on the enduring U.S. drive for control of material resources and the resultant murderous violence against indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa, Latin America, as well as on this continent. And that’s what irritates the powerful. The attack of the right-wing media opinion-mongers on his essay is part of a larger effort to squelch critical thinking, to inhibit opposition to ruling-class goals, and to enfeeble the academy as a marginally safe arena for such views.

Which is where Hamilton College, its Kirkland Project, and Rabinowitz come in. Under pressure from the college’s administration, the Project asked Churchill to change the focus of his talk from the class exploitation of a North American “Third World” and, instead, participate in a panel about “the limitations of dissent.” However, in the face of a national right-wing media circus, resulting local press attacks, and anonymous e-mail threats of violence, the college’s president, Joan Hinde Stewart, canceled Churchill’s appearance. Having earlier announced an investigation of the Kirkland Project’s overall program, the president and dean then dismissed Rabinowitz as Kirkland’s director.

Subsequently, in what seems like a contagion of cowardice, Churchill was also disinvited from speaking at the University of Oregon where one of MR’s editors teaches. Scheduled to talk at a conference at the university’s Wayne Morse Center on Law and Politics on a panel on race, immigration, and September 11, Churchill was to have shared the keynote speech with his wife Natsu Taylor Saito, a colleague in Colorado’s ethnic studies department, who has written widely on racial and immigration issues. The Morse Center, like Hamilton’s Kirkland Project, has been a platform for critical and dissenting inquiry, frequently inviting radicals to speak. But following the intemperate right-wing attacks on his essay, the Morse Center rescinded Churchill’s invitation. Meanwhile Colorado’s governor has called for Churchill’s resignation and his university launched a full investigation of his writings, on grounds that can only be seen as spurious, to determine if he is fit to remain on the faculty.

The consequences for rigorous independent and oppositional thought at Hamilton, Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere are yet to be determined. But as Rabinowitz said recently, “We cannot be asked to abandon the attempt to interpret the world and our country’s actions. These events have made clear the connection between the academy and ‘the real world.’ At Hamilton outside forces—media attention, financial threats, and threats of violence—came together and led to regrettable abridgement of academic freedom.”

These incidents should be a wake-up call for all of us. The threat is not simply to radicals nor even to academics. It is also to the larger political, social, and cultural environment, in which we live, work, and endeavor to contribute to the struggle for social justice. The United States has yet to recover from the societal and intellectual “dumbing down” it suffered in the wake of the “red scare” of the 1940s and ’50s; without broad opposition it can and will happen again, this time with perhaps even more devastating results.

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2005, Volume 56, Issue 11 (April)
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