Wednesday, February 09, 2005

THE HYSTERIA OVER WARD CHURCHILL is astounding. People don't have to agree with what he said; people have every right to consider his comments cruel, offensive, and repulsive. I certainly do. My grandmother and most of my father's extended family were killed by the Nazis, so I would be the first to say that calling the women and men who died in the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns" is not only grossly inappropriate; it's also stupid and just plain ignorant of historical reality.

Now that I've said that, I'll say this: the United States is a free country governed by a constitution that gives every individual living in it the right to speak the truth as each individual perceives the truth to be. The First Amendment does not just protect the speech we agree with; if it only did that, freedom of speech would be meaningless. It's for people like Ward Churchill that free speech is most essential.

Ward Churchill should not be fired for comparing 9/11 victims to Nazis. What does that comment have to do with his ability to teach and carry out his professional responsibilities? Nothing at all. The authorities at the University of Colorado said they were going to "look at his work record" to see if there was anything that justified dismissal. What hypocrisy; what nonsense. I can't believe that an academic institution -- the one place where intellectual freedom should be treasured more than anywhere else -- is saying in so many words that they plan to trump up charges to use against a professor for having said something controversial.

Furthermore, the venom of the response to Churchill's comments, and the chorus of cries for his dismissal, are difficult to understand when you consider that comparable sentiments have been expressed by a number of Americans about Iraqi civilians. I have personally heard people say that any Iraqi who does not identify insurgents and turn them over to the U.S. authorities is an insurgent too and deserves to die. How is that fundamentally different from saying that any stockbroker or investment banker in the Twin Towers who did not speak out against the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children was a collaborator with that policy and deserved to die?

The bottom line is not how reprehensible or disgusting someone's spoken opinions are. The bottom line is, do we want to live in a country where a person can be fired for saying something that deeply offends public sensibilities, even if that person did nothing actually to harm anyone, either in his speech or in his actions? Ward Churchill did not harm anyone, nor did he threaten to harm anyone. He spoke his mind, he offended a whole lot of people, and that's what free speech is about. If you don't like it, whip up some speech of your own. That's the only proper response to hateful speech in a free society: more speech.

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