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Attending to the Wrong Chickens?

Are we going to give the state more authority, as Stanley Fish suggests? Are we going to impose indoctrination of any kind in schools? And are we going to help the state divest the people -- the working people -- of their civil rights?

Frederick Luis Aldama

Free of any stake in Ward Churchill's or Larry Summers's opinions, I am responding to a piece by Stanley Fish "Chickens: the Ward Churchill and Larry Summers Story" that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 13, 2005).

I don't want to rehash the Ward Churchill controversy. As might be expected, Fish comes down hard on Churchill. He mentions that Churchill "went so far as to say that those who died in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center were part of the military-industrialist machine that had produced the policies that had produced the hatred that eventually produced the terrible events of that day". What he fails to mention is that Churchill wrote several responses to 9-1-1. For example, in an addendum to his essay "Some People Push Back" (published in Pockets of Resistance on November 27, 2001) that he identifies as a "stream-of-consciousness interpretive reaction" he does mention "little Eichmanns" "as inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers"; in the revised version published as a chapter in his book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens (2003), the "little Eichmanns" comment becomes transformed to a critique more generally of the "cadre of faceless bureaucrats and technical experts" that work as appendages to US imperialist policy. If we agree or disagree with Churchill, we would do well to at least read him carefully.

This isn't why I'm writing a response to Fish's piece, though. Rather, it is because of a disturbing rhetorical maneuver that he performs whereby he ends up undermining civil rights and defending a form of totalitarianism.

Fish acknowledges that the opinions of Churchill (xenophobia) and Summers (sexism) raise "different issues". For Fish, however, this isn't about a defense of the freedom of speech; it's about an administration's lack of power in taking punitive action against those speaking out in the wrong contexts. It's the difference between a baseball game where one "can yell any number of things, even abusive profane things, without being silenced or arrested or thrown out of the stadium" and a nurse asking for higher salaries or better working conditions while the surgeon's operating on a patient in a hospital; when hauled out of the operating theater, First Amendment rights will not exist for the nurse (Fish's examples). And so even though the classroom is for Fish a secular space free of indoctrination, he nonetheless states that if a professor like Churchill "makes a call to arms" in the classroom, he should be disciplined and/or fired: "He has every right to issue that call, as long as he doesn't do it in the classroom and, as it were, on the state's dime. He concludes, that Churchill "can and should be disciplined for urging those views in venues designated as academic and financed as such by state revenues or by tuition". For Fish, then, the right to freedom of speech changes from "situation to situation"; it is, as he declares, "not an absolute right".

Fish also brings up the possibility that Churchill could be fired on grounds of providing "a certificate of the kind you might get (and here I date myself) out of a Cracker Jack box". This, he states, "is not a philosophical or a constitutional matter. It is a matter, simply, of falsified credentials". Apart from the disturbing sense that Fish has already deemed Churchill guilty (till proven innocent) we might ask, who gives a rat's tail about whether or not Churchill passes the blood quantum litmus test? Does his being Native or not have anything to do with how well he teaches, studies, and or writes about Native American Indians? And, if it were proved that Churchill were not native, then who in the hell is going to be the one entitled to punish him?

Bottom line: Fish sets up an identification of the problem with Churchill (mostly) and Summers (barely) as not an "issue" of upholding the universal right of free speech, but rather a right that is relative to contexts and determined by administrative entities. His not-on-the-state's-dime argument is a thinly disguised defense of increased state control and authoritarian rule.

Whether a Ward Churchill or a Chicana janitor cleaning those toilets at the university, there's nothing relative about the freedom of speech and thought; we all should have the right to express any and all opinions; this should be protected universally for all the people. If we make the right of free speech and thought a matter relative to context and give over the power to judge right from wrong to an administrative body, then we're handing over more power to that state apparatus that has historically worked counter to the rights of the working people.

Fish has cooped up the wrong chickens. Neither Churchill nor Summers are the problem in today's educational system. Churchill might use his classroom for political indoctrination (I don't know, I've never sat in on his lectures) and if this is so, it is my opinion that he should reign this in, but not because I say he should nor because he's working on the state's dime. He should stop because this only further strengthens the position of those who are erasing that line between the church and state -- a line that has protected the secular space of the classroom. More and more school boards across the lands now require the teaching of Creationism ("Intelligent Design") alongside science in the classroom. Are we going to give the state more authority, as Fish seems to suggest? Are we going to impose indoctrination of any kind in schools? And, as Fish ultimately encourages, are we going to help the state divest the people -- the working people -- of their civil rights?

Frederick Luis Aldama is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Ohio State University.

Copyright © 2005 by Frederick Luis Aldama. All rights reserved.