Inflammatory but insightful

Ward Churchill's comments, while insensitive, point out connections between local and worldwide problems.

When I was a kid trying to understand my father’s story of his family’s escape from Nazi Germany, the most puzzling question for me was, “How could the German people have allowed this to happen?” My father never had a satisfactory answer. We talked about those who worked in factories that made human ovens, and it seemed clear the people who designed the ovens, handled the paper work and screwed in the bolts had blood on their hands.

But as a young adult in the early 1980s, I was confronted with U.S. support for death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala. As a U.S. worker and consumer, wasn’t I complicit in the mass torture and killing of Central Americans? How much speaking up would be enough to counteract this involuntary complicity? I saw the Germans living in Nazi Germany differently then, understanding how easy it was for good people to participate in their nation’s crimes.

I thought about this after hearing the news that University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill is under attack for pointing out the complicity of U.S. citizens – and specifically those victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks – for U.S. war crimes. Critics of Churchill point to a passage in his book, “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” in which he compared those who worked in the World Trade Center’s financial offices to Adolf Eichmann and other civilians who supported the Nazi regime.

I think there is something else going on here. Adding fire to Churchill’s inflammatory assertions is the fact that this scholar has refused to stick to the American Indian box allotted to him. His book connects the genocide of American Indians to hundreds of years of U.S. conquest, including the current U.S. policy in Iraq. In doing so he has defiled two sacred myths about the United States:

First, there is no pattern of conquest in U.S. foreign policy. Each new White House administration has rutted the foreign policy road with its own good intentions. There are no historical roots to current policies and there is no accumulation of crimes. The American Indian experience has nothing to do with the Mexican experience, the Puerto Rican experience, the Vietnamese experience or the Iraqi experience.

Secondly, what happens between U.S. and foreign diplomats, banks, corporations and armies is not the concern of those who study race in the United States. Explaining what happens outside our borders is the job of political scientists and economists, not the business of ethnic studies scholars.

As a student and instructor of Inter-American relations and race in the United States, I have always found it much safer to stick to describing and decrying domestic inequalities or discussing foreign policies. It is much more controversial to connect racism, sexism and gross economic inequalities in the United States to what our government does on the global stage, and vice versa.

It is one thing to decry the growth in the number of people from Mexico who are impoverished in Minnesota, working full time, but not making enough to afford an apartment. It is quite another to show how this is connected to a decade of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It takes little political courage to join the clamor of outrage at the education gap between children of color and white students in Minneapolis public schools. It takes more guts to connect cuts in education programs essential to low-income students to a $5 billion monthly allocation for war in Iraq.

When we connect conditions here to global power relations, we pinpoint causes and find solutions. But these solutions need cataclysmic changes making those who are comfortable uncomfortable.

I think Churchill’s decision to comment on the people who died during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington was insensitive to those who are suffering from the loss of loved ones. His focus instead should be on people such as myself and so many others in academia, who make compromises everyday, refusing to connect U.S. foreign policy to inequality in our neighborhoods, in order to protect our jobs, our social standing, etc.

I believe it is Churchill’s decision to make connections between the celebration of Columbus Day in Denver and the war in Iraq, ethnic studies and U.S. foreign policy, that have made him a target for intense criticism.

For these reasons it is essential that we, members of a university community, lend him our support – not just because we support academic freedom, but because we need scholars like Churchill who step out of their assigned boxes to advance our knowledge of the world in which we live.

Anne Winkler-Morey is a University instructor. Please send comments to [email protected]