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Free Speech on (One) Campus | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Free Speech on (One) Campus

As a joke some years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Ward Churchill's 1998 book Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America. In it, the University of Colorado professor, who is rapidly being turned into the nation's greatest outlaw intellectual by his right-wing critics, argued that nonviolent political activism -- in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- should not be seen as a force for positive social change. Rather, Churchill suggested, pacifism is a counterrevolutionary movement that unintentionally reinforces the very status quo its proponents claim to be dismantling.

As a Quaker, I was not about to buy into Churchill's worldview, which the friend who presented the book with a wink and a nod well understood. And as a journalist who has covered social justice struggles in the United States and abroad for the better part of a quarter century, I knew enough about how political change occurs to find Churchill's thesis wanting.

But I read the book with interest, and found it to be an engaging enough statement of a controversial point of view. It made me think. It forced me to reconsider some of my own presumptions -- although, instead of changing my thinking, Churchill's critique ultimately reinforced my faith that Thoreau, Gandhi, King and their followers are the real change agents. And, while I don't appreciate its premise any more than I do George Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war making, Churchill's book remains on the shelf of serious books to which I return for information and insight.

In other words, while I probably disagree with Ward Churchill more than most of his right-wing critics, I recognize him as a challenging public intellectual who has prodded and provoked my thinking in ways that I have to respect.

So, as a native Wisconsinite, I was pleased when University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chancellor Jack Miller became the first campus administrator in the country to resist the right-wing crusaders who have been campaigning to deny Churchill a right to speak at institutions of higher learning.

The thought police at Fox News, led by Bill O'Reilly, have sought to silence Churchill ever since conservative students at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, stirred up a firestorm regarding an essay, Some People Push Back, in which the professor asserted that the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, had been provoked to action by vile US foreign policies.

"The most that can honestly be said of those involved on Sept. 11 is that they finally responded in kind to some of what this country has dispensed to their people as a matter of course," wrote Churchill, who went on to argue, "As for those in the World Trade Center, well, really, let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break."

Churchill's argument is a troubling one, as it takes a legitimate point of view -- that wrong-minded US policies increase the likelihood that this country and its citizens will become terrorist targets -- and turns it into an argument that reads like a justification for what most people in the United States and abroad see as indefensible violence.

But, while Churchill's views are radical, and to some offensive, the movement to prevent him from expressing those views on campuses is even more troubling. Ideas that provoke debate are the lifeblood of higher education. Bad arguments get dismissed soon enough. But in the process of discarding the bad, good ideas are invariably made stronger. That is the point of the principle that, for more than a century, has guided intellectual inquiry within the University of Wisconsin system: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

Campuses in other states, where there is less of a tradition of academic freedom and respect for the First Amendment, have caved in to the pressure from right-wing media to cancel Churchill's talks. But Wisconsin has a long history of setting a higher standard -- and the decision of the UW-Whitewater chancellor to allow Churchill to speak honors that tradition.

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