Churchill is a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado,
Boulder, and recently came under fire for an article he wrote following
September 11, 2001 titled, "Some Push Back." He is also the author of
numerous books, including
On the Justice of Roosting Chickens and
A Little Matter of Genocide. Churchill recently sat down with
Joshua Frank to discuss his ordeal, and this is the first part of their
* * * *
Joshua Frank: Prof. Churchill, I'm sure that the majority of the readers are familiar with your now infamous essay "Some Push Back," so I won't ask you to explain yourself, but I recently read in an Associated Press article that you wished you had phrased your Adolf Eichmann comment a bit differently. It seemed obvious to me after reading your essay that you were referring to Hannah Arendt's portrayal of Eichmann in her classic book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Is that true? Could you expand on your comment to the AP?
Ward Churchill: What I meant was that I wished I'd explained the Eichmann analogy a bit, right off the bat. Silly me. I thought it was rather self-explanatory, like maybe a lot of the people professing such strong negative opinions on the matter might have some clue as to who Eichmann actually was and how Hannah Arendt had rather famously analyzed the implications of his career. This is especially true with regard to my self-styled "liberal" critics. I mean, really, Dave Dellinger advanced exactly the same analogy clear back in 1975 without generating anything resembling the same kind of sanctimonious response from the "left". But, then, he was an unabashed white guy, and a pacifist to boot, so...
JF: Your "liberal" critics have also gone after your scholarship. I remember reading something that Marc Cooper, the circular pundit for The Nation, wrote about it on his blog, hoping that it would get you canned. He, like a lot of liberals, doesn't like your politics and demeanor. But it's not just the liberal establishment that's jumped on the "get-Churchill-fired" bandwagon. The right-wingers seem to think that going after your scholarship could actually do the trick and get you fired -- which they've clearly wanted since your 9/11 essay blew up. The most severe of these charges is an alleged plagiarism case, where you've been accused of stealing someone else's work. What's been the fallout of all of this, and are the charges legit? Or has the media simply taken the whole episode out of context?
WC: Let me reframe that one a little bit. The commonalities linking "liberals" like Marc Cooper to reactionary jackanapes like Bill O'Reilly couldn't be clearer. At a certain level, and it's not a terribly obscure one, Cooper and O'Reilly share an identical agenda. That's a point I've been trying to hammer home for years, with only limited success, and now Cooper has come right out in full public view and proven me correct. That's been one of the most gratifying aspects of this whole charade, as far as I'm concerned. I'm absolutely delighted that he and liberals more generally have elected to attack me the way they have.
This takes us to the plagiarism "issue". But maybe the best way to address it is to start by clarifying exactly how Cooper has gone about dancing his little minuet with O'Reilly. I mean, he himself was never so out front as to actually appear on The O'Reilly Factor to condemn me. What he did instead was quote, approvingly and at length from columns authored for the Rocky Mountain News by another self-styled liberal, University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos. Campos repeatedly entered O'Reilly's "no-spin zone" during the 41-day period in February and March when hefty segments of the Factor were devoted to my "case" every single night, alternating as talking head with the likes of Newt Gingrich, David Horowitz, and such Clear Channel hacks as Mark Silverman.
Self-evidently, the views Campos expressed fit right in with those expressed by O'Reilly's other "analysts". Otherwise, "Mr. No-Spin" wouldn't have brought him back on. There's no way Cooper could have been unaware of this. So it's fair to say that he knowingly built the O'Reilly/Gingrich/Horowitz/Clear Channel spew into his own material, but without ever owning up to the fact that that's what he was doing. Paul Campos served as his cover (whether wittingly or not, I have no idea). Clever, eh?
In any event, the plagiarism allegation against me originated in one of Campos' News screeds in early February. There, and in subsequent columns, he waxed sanctimonious, not only about my supposed plagiarism, but about other "fraudulent research practices" in which he claimed I'd engaged. Among other things, he went on and on about how I supposedly "distorted my sources."
And, of course, since the mainstream media tends to spend most of its time quoting itself, Campos' assertions were endlessly repeated, albeit usually without attribution, thus mutating into "fact", no less for readers of Marc Cooper's blog than for those whose preference is tuning in to O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh.
Here's where it gets to be amusing in a twisted sort of way. Campos cited a 1999 article by a law professor named John LaVelle at the University of New Mexico as having already accused me of plagiarism, and that he, Campos, was merely repeating the charge. When you look at the LaVelle piece, however, he says nothing of the sort. In fact, he argues the exact opposite, adducing that I've written, or helped write, several pieces that have appeared under other people's names. And, although he's wrong about almost everything else in he wrote in his essay, John LaVelle scored a direct hit with that one.
So, not only is Paul Campos flagrantly guilty of one of the major charges he's hurled at me -- that is, of grossly distorting a source -- he now has to suffer the indignity of watching as the truth of what LaVelle actually said is borne out. It's been generally conceded at this point, even in Campos' own paper (although it's been predictably careful not to remind readers that he was saying exactly the opposite a few months back), that I in fact wrote the material I supposedly plagiarized. This being so, the worst "ethical violation" I can be said to have committed is the "deception" of sometimes serving as a ghostwriter and sometimes writing under pseudonyms. That puts me in league with such "unseemly" characters as C.L.R. James, a fate I guess I can learn to live with.
That's not all of it, to be sure. There's a bunch of other pretext charges on the table: when they realized I wasn't going to cave under pressure and, at about the same time, that they weren't going to be able to sustain a firing on speech grounds, they shifted to shotgunning me with "academic integrity" allegations in hopes that something might stick. But it's all going to work out pretty much the same way. Actually, there's a lot more I'd like to get to in this vein, especially with regard to how the liberal "left" has actively collaborated in the right's use of "scholarly standards" as a ploy to accomplish its objectives.
JF: Can you explain a bit about "how the liberal 'left' has actively collaborated in the right's use of 'scholarly standards' as a ploy to accomplish its objectives"?
WC: It's been going on for quite a while now. In my view, you can probably date the origin of the technique from the David Abraham case of the mid-80s, when a newly-minted assistant professor at Princeton came out with a really excellent book titled The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, in which he not only laid out the role played by German big business in bringing the Nazis to power, but the whole complex range of liberal democratic sociopolitical dynamics that contributed to the same result. The study, which was unabashedly neo-Marxian in approach, was really well received, heralded in some quarters as a major methodological breakthrough.
The problem was that Henry A. Turner, a senior historian at Yale, and an arch-conservative to boot, was just then finishing what he viewed as his summative work, a weighty tome called German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, in which he sought to completely exonerate German industrialists from complicity with Nazism. On its face, the situation would seem to form an ideal basis for colloquy, that is, subjecting the two competing interpretations to the process of discussion and debate that supposedly constitutes the backbone of scholarly life. But Turner elected not to play it that way. Instead, he set out to cast the impression that his opponent was guilty of "research fraud," thereby not only eliminating Collapse of Weimar as a competitor to his own book, but destroying the reputation of a junior scholar he considered ideologically objectionable in the bargain.
Turner's approach is instructive in that it established the template for what the right has been doing ever since. Joined by Berkeley's Gerald Feldman, another senior and very conservative historian specializing in the German interwar period, he drafted graduate students to go through Abraham's annotation, line-by-line, citation-by-citation. And, of course, they found plenty of trivia: quotation marks missing in various places, inserted where they shouldn't have been in others, wrong dates here and there, and so on. These are the sorts of "endless, minor errors" you'll find in any book, including those of such "greats" as Sir Lewis Namier. But Turner and Feldman kept generating "reports" in which they cast Abraham's missing quote marks as examples of "plagiarism", his inserted quote marks, wrong dates and the like as "fabrications", and his resulting conclusions as "fraudulent".
In the end, Turner and Feldman's allegations against Abraham were shown to be sheer nonsense. All of the documents Abraham cited actually existed, although he'd misdated several. His inserted quotes attended accurate paraphrases. Attribution was given to sources quoted where missing quote marks were concerned, etc. Most of all, it was determined that none of his technical errors had any appreciable effect on either the quality of his argument or the validity of the conclusions he'd reached. But all that took years. Meanwhile, he was denied tenure and Collapse of Weimar was withdrawn by Princeton University Press. Feldman actively intervened in several search processes to prevent his being hired by other universities, and even attempted to have his Ph.D. revoked by the University of Chicago. The bottom line is that David Abraham was destroyed as an historian.
JF: What was the response of left historians while all this was going on?
WC: By and large-- there were few exceptions -- they sought to distance themselves from their colleague or, worse, adopted postures of utmost sanctimony, prattling on about the "sloppiness" of Abraham's scholarship and the need to maintain "the highest standards of scholarly integrity." Although Turner and Feldman had openly committed a broad range of professional ethics violations while pursuing their ideological vendetta, the "left-leaning" American Historical Association (AHA) declined to follow through with an investigation and censure of their conduct.
Even when a group of German historians finally took it upon themselves to document how Turner's German Big Business displayed a pattern of evidentiary distortion far more pronounced than any of which Abraham was accused, the AHA maintained a discrete silence. Thus was the issue of "academic integrity" gift wrapped for usage by the right.
And it didn't take long for right-wing ideologues to figure out what to do with the advantage just handed them. While I guess it's fair to say that the "Abraham Affair" was pretty much an in-house tussle among academics, what followed has been anything but. Consider the case of Michael Bellesiles, the young historian at Emory who wrote Arming America, a study devoted to debunking many of the more cherished myths of the country's thriving gun culture (for which he won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2000). It wasn't other academics who went after Bellesiles, but the National Rifle Association, which commenced a campaign alleging "academic fraud" even before the book was published (there were nearly 250 national articles published on the "Bellesiles Hoax" in less than two years).
Ultimately, the "fraud" claim hinged on a single footnote in which Bellesiles gave the wrong archival location for certain documents he cited to demonstrate that gun ownership in early America was much less common than those of the NRA persuasion -- which, by the way, includes me -- would have it. The documents actually existed, and they said pretty much what Bellesiles said they said. Nonetheless, in the face of an unrelenting barrage of negative publicity, the NRA was able to orchestrate nearly 250 articles on the "Bellesiles Hoax" in less than two years; a panel of "impartial" scholars commissioned by Emory to "investigate the integrity of Professor Bellesiles' scholarship" concluded that in this instance his handling of data was "less than professional." On that basis, although the university tried to put a happy face on the situation by allowing him to "resign", Bellesiles was effectively fired.
Once again, the performance of the left was something less than exemplary. Although there were a few progressive scholars who publicly defended Bellesiles -- Gary Wills comes to mind -- I can name none who expressed a sense of outrage that their colleagues on the left weren't joining in. The unfortunate reality is that where a thundering silence didn't prevail among anti-gun liberals, the target quickly found himself as apt to be assailed on "scholarly" ground in The Nation as in the Weekly Standard or the New Criterion.
Then there's the case of Mike Davis, who was accused by real estate interests in Los Angeles of having fabricated much of the data upon which he based his 1998 Ecology of Fear. The allegations, which turned out to be false, precipitated a media frenzy surpassing even that to which Michael Bellesiles was subjected, especially on the front and editorial pages of the LA Times. The upshot was that Davis, a major scholar by any defensible estimation, was not granted so much as an interview by either USC or UCLA, both of which had openings for senior historians specializing in California. He had in fact left Southern California altogether in order to secure a faculty position, teaching at SUNY-Stonybrook for several years before finally landing a job at UC Irvine (a decidedly second-tier school in the California system).
Davis received more coherent support from the left academy, as did Edward Said, during the 90s, when Lynne Cheney's ACTA was making him a priority target. But these are exceptions. And Chomsky is by and large always -- as he should be -- defended at a bedrock level. The rule will be found in the Abraham and Bellesile cases, as well as the current right-wing campaign to drive a number of Arab and Arabist scholars out, not only of the academic context, but of the political discourse more generally. Shahid Alam at Northeastern University and the junior faculty members targeted by Zionist students for elimination at Columbia -- Joseph Massad in particular -- are good examples of what I'm talking about.
JF: The establishment left seems to ignore all of this history, as well as ignore what's really going on now.
WC: A lot of this is glossed on the left with the rather pious pretense -- which a lot of the people saying it may actually believe -- that, whatever else may be said, progressives are "ethically obliged," uniquely so, to uphold the very highest standards of scholarly integrity. A standard variation on the theme is that the "credibility" of oppositional politics itself is contingent upon our maintaining an impossible degree of precision in our work. There's a degree of truth to both propositions, of course. We are bound by ethical and factual considerations. We, no more than anyone else, are not entitled to simply invent convenient "facts", suppress inconvenient information, engage in plagiarism, or any of the rest of it.
The way this plays out, however, is that the right, which predictably treats such matters in an utterly cynical fashion, has long since learned that it can use the pretext of "scholarly integrity" to discredit and thus neutralize oppositional scholars on a selective basis, and that it can do so without serious opposition from, and often with the active complicity of, so-called leftists. The right has refined its techniques accordingly, having discovered that all it usually takes is a set of highly-publicized allegations, not just to silence particular voices it considers particularly objectionable, but to deter others from engaging in the kinds of research and articulation that caused the selected individuals to be targeted. Meanwhile, right-wingers are routinely exempted -- by the Marc Coopers of the world no less than by the Billy O'Reillys and Newt Gingrichs -- from adhering to the standards imposed upon oppositionists.
JF: Can you give examples?
WC: Take the issue of plagiarism, for example. I'm currently -- and falsely -- accused of it. The allegations have been advanced in a tone of tremendous indignation from the right and attended for the most part by endless tongue clicking on the left. Everybody's suddenly worried about whether I gave proper attribution to a left environmental group in Canada when using material included in a 12-page pamphlet they produced in 1972. Well, I did. But here's the key. While you've got a feature on this weighty "controversy" in the Rocky Mountain News, a follow-up editorial in Boulder's Daily Camera, and the area Clear Channel stations having devoted maybe 24 solid hours to it over the past couple of weeks, you've not had a single word said in any medium about Michelle Malkin.
JF: Why Malkin?
WC: Well, she came out with a book titled In Defense of Internment in 2004, highly touted in hard right circles, that not only seeks to justify the mass internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, but argues that the same procedure could be used against Arabs and Arab Americans today. Setting aside the squalor of her thesis, and the gross distortions of data to which she resorts in "supporting" it, the fact is that the bulk of her argument on the World War II internment derives from a fairly obscure right-winger named Lillian Baker. Yet Baker's material is cited nowhere in Malkin's book. In fact, she isn't so much as mentioned (perhaps because Baker, who passed away some years back, was exposed by Deborah Lipstadt in Denying the Holocaust as having employed the same "scholarly methods" as neo-Nazi holocaust deniers).
What's the payout for Malkin? Let's start with a stint as a regular commentator -- read, pet "minority" (she's Filipina) -- on Fox News and Clear Channel. And let's end with an all but total silence about her "scholarly integrity" from the left. Why? Because she is paid by a right-wing think-tank [ed.'s note: Malkin worked at the Competitive Enterprise Institute until 1995], rather than holding a regular faculty position somewhere? Gimme a break on that one. Her book is used in classes, and she speaks regularly on campuses across the country. If the left is going to indulge in condemning scholarly lapses -- real or imaginary -- where its own are concerned, it has at the very least an obligation to hold the right accountable to the same standards, and to do so to the best of its ability -- through alternative media, if nothing else -- using the same tools as the right.
But for the most part it doesn't, and it hasn't even tried for the past quarter century or more. Look at the record. Michael Bellesiles was destroyed on the basis of what amount at most to trivial mistakes while, on the other hand, you've got John Lott, a right-winger who was revealed to have fabricated an entire survey with which to underpin his contention that the use of firearms reduces social violence. His book, More Guns, Less Crime, has never been revised to eliminate the fraudulent material, yet it's still listed under the imprimatur of the University of Chicago Press and I don't hear any resulting chorus of outrage from left academics about Goth U's "lack of scholarly integrity." Do you?
Take the case of Allen Weinstein as another example. A few years before David Abraham came out with Collapse of Weimar, Weinstein, an unabashed anticommunist, came out with a supposed breakthrough volume of his own. The book, entitled Perjury, purported to use "new evidence" -- both documents and taped interviews -- to "prove once and for all" that 1940s State Department official Alger Hiss was actually a Soviet spy (and, by extension, that wholesale repression of the American left during the "McCarthy Era" was therefore justified). Having thus made his case, with the result that several of his interviewees complained that they'd been badly misquoted, Weinstein simply refused -- and continues to refuse -- to provide access to his research data, as required by the AHA's ethical canons. Nonetheless, Perjury is a text routinely assigned -- especially by conservative professors purporting to be devoted to nothing so much as preserving the "highest standards of scholarly integrity" -- in classes on the Cold War.
So well did the gambit work for Weinstein in "confirming" his thesis on Hiss that he wrote a sequel titled The Haunted Wood in which he covered a broad range of Soviet espionage operations in the U.S. In this instance, he actually arranged for his publisher to pay $100,000 for exclusive access to KGB archives, meaning that other scholars would be barred from confirming the accuracy of his citations and translations (a translator he employed has indicated that some of the documents he ostensibly quotes don't actually say what he claims they do). This embodies another glaring -- and obviously calculated -- breach of the ethical canon, but, like Perjury, The Haunted Wood has seen wholesale adoption as a course text by right-wing faculty members across the country.
So esteemed is Weinstein's handling of primary source materials by the right, in fact, that in 2004 George W. Bush nominated him to become the U.S. National Archivist (the appointment is still pending). There is a number of other striking illustrations of "patriotic" historians not being held by either the right or the left to the "strict standards" imposed on dissident scholars. Before his death it was thoroughly demonstrated that the late Steven Ambrose regularly engaged in plagiarism throughout his career, yet neither his reputation nor his book sales appear to have been damaged in the least. The biographer Doris Kearns Goodman, to offer another example, was proven not only to have plagiarized a lesser-known writer, but to have paid her victim a substantial sum to keep quiet about it. As a "penalty", she was hired as a political commentator by both NBC and CNBC (you can see her regularly on Hardball and Meet the Press).
The list of such examples goes on and on. My personal favorite, however, is Edward Pearson, chair of History at Franklin and Marshall College. In 1999, he published Designs against Charleston, a book purportedly analyzing the "transcript" of the 1822 Demark Vesey trial and proving thereby that not only was Vesey the linchpin of a conspiracy to initiate a slave revolt that would slaughter whites in the coastal area of South Carolina, but that the alleged conspirators had ultimately received something resembling due process before being hanged from the nearest tree. This was big news, because no copy of the trial transcript had been previously known to exist.
As it turned out, there wasn't. Pearson had combined two different post hoc summaries as being a single "transcript" of what may have been a nonexistent trial (the "conspiracy" itself is also in doubt, but that's another story). Compounding this gross fraud, Pearson was shown to have misquoted or otherwise misrepresented the contents of his documentary sources in "5,000-6,000" separate instances. Acknowledging only that he was guilty of "unrelenting carelessness" -- rather than a deliberate deception designed to reinforce a white supremacist historical interpretation -- Pearson retained not only his professorship, but also his departmental chairmanship. On this, as always, the silence on the left -- most conspicuously among "liberals" of the Marc Cooper/Paul Campos variety -- has been absolutely deafening. That, perhaps, is because they've been far too busy building "cases" against oppositional scholars on behalf of the right to say much of anything about the right itself.
JF: Okay. It seems to me that you've laid things out pretty thoroughly in a lot of ways. But, there are still some things left dangling, like why you think the left, especially people like Campos and Cooper, conduct themselves as they do. You've gotten to part of it, I think, but it's still not entirely clear. And then there are still questions of substance in regard to the allegations against you. Regardless of the double standard involved, you agree that plagiarism, for example, remains a serious issue. Am I right? You addressed some of that earlier when you explained how you'd actually written some of the material you're now accused of plagiarizing. But there's still the allegation concerning Fay Cohen's essay, and now, as you mentioned, the environmental pamphlet. Would you care to respond to those?
WC: Sure. The short version of Fay Cohen is that I didn't write the piece in which her essay was supposedly plagiarized, and I'm not entirely sure who did. I was asked by my ex-wife, Annette Jaimes, to go over a manuscript she had -- it was a cut-and-paste job that looked to be collectively authored -- and tie it together for style and consistency. In other words, I agreed to serve as a combination copyeditor and what among journalists is called a "rewrite guy."
That's way different from being the author, or even a coauthor. It was in effect Annette's piece, although I'm sure she had collaborators. In any event, the finished product was destined for inclusion in a book Annette was putting together, The State of Native America, in which her by-line already appeared several times. She was worried that another piece by her wouldn't look right, so she used the name of a by then defunct research institute I'd founded along with Winona LaDuke (who has nothing to do with anything concerning the offending essay).
The whole thing is peculiar at a number of levels. Annette's book came out in 1992 and has always enjoyed a reasonably broad circulation. Fay Cohen seems never to have said a word to anybody about any plagiarism for five years or so. Then, in 1997, at a point when by her own account she was pursuing a grant -- and, I'm told, was up for promotion -- she suddenly "discovered" that she'd been plagiarized. Having your work stolen is a kind of backhanded compliment, if you think about it, because it means somebody out there is taking what you're saying is good enough to want their own name on it. Especially if the someone doing the taking has name recognition, such validation can actually enhance a scholar's prospects of research funding, promotion, or both. Soooo...
Cohen took an essay she contributed to a book in 1991 and the piece in Jaimes' book to the legal counsel at her university -- she's at Dalhousie, in Nova Scotia -- asking him to do a comparison and render a legal opinion as to whether plagiarism was involved. He then wrote up an internal report concluding that there was. It's important to note, I think, that although it's implied on the first page of the "Dalhousie Report," as the document's been called in the press, it's nowhere stated therein that I myself actually plagiarized anything. If it did say that, Fay Cohen would presently be the named defendant in a defamation suit brought in the Queen's Court of Nova Scotia. But it doesn't.
In any event, that was the end of it for quite a long while. Cohen used the report internally, at Dalhousie, for whatever purpose, and never said another word. Not to me, not to Jaimes, not to the publisher. Nobody. Hell, she didn't even forward a copy to the granting agency to which she was applying when the report was written in 1997. It wasn't until the campaign against me was kicked off in late January 2005 -- that is, eight years after the report, thirteen after the supposed plagiarism -- that she suddenly felt "obliged to come forward." Actually, I can document the fact that she felt no such "need" even then. Not until John LaVelle and Dan Caplis from Denver's Clear Channel KHOW radio went to work on her.
Caplis has reputedly received substantial funding from Christian right organizations in Colorado Springs to convert his daily program -- which he hosts along with the earlier-mentioned "liberal" Craig Silverman -- into what he calls "All Churchill, All the Time." He's been spending rather lavishly in the effort to get me fired, and I'm not shy about suggesting that that had a little something to do with Cohen's curiously timed surge of "moral obligation" in sending the Dalhousie Report to the University of Colorado.
Maybe it should be mentioned, here, that if you were to ask her about her politics, Fay Cohen would no doubt describe herself as being a "progressive" (just like Cooper, Campos and, for that matter, Craig Silverman).
There of course still had to be some explanation of why, if she actually believed I'd ripped off her material, Cohen had waited well over a decade to mention it. That was given -- and on this, the stench of Caplis is unmistakable -- with a fable about how I'd called her up in the dead of night and threatened her. With what, was never made clear. But whatever it was, it was apparently so traumatizing that, when asked about my alleged phone call by a relatively independent reporter, she couldn't even come up with the year in which she'd supposedly received it. But, whenever it was supposed to have been, it was years before the Dalhousie Report was prepared and -- although it would obviously have served to strongly reinforce the impression that it was me who plagiarized her -- she apparently "forgot" to mention it to the university counsel or anyone else.
Pretty compelling stuff, eh? You can see why "progressives" have their undies all in a knot dithering about the implications of my "character". I mean, really, how transparently false does an accusation have to be before it becomes self-discrediting?
Actually, this became something of a media fad for about two weeks or so, back in February. Once Caplis surfaced Cohen's allegation that I'd threatened her via a late night phone call, the Denver press corps went into overdrive, suddenly it turned out that I'd done the same to anybody and everybody with whom I'd ever had a personal or political dispute, most of them self-styled "progressives". Hell, even that famous AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt weighed in, claiming to have been "intimidated" by a message I left on his answering machine about ten years ago. This, from a guy who, according to police intelligence documents released in the Denver "Spy Files" case, appears to have tried to have me and a couple of his other opponents shot during the summer of 1995, and who is generally believed to be responsible for the murder of Anna Mae Aquash back in 1976.
Anyway, the bottom line with the Fay Cohen business is no, I didn't plagiarize her. And, in fairness to Jaimes and anyone else who might have, at least in a technical sense, it should be emphasized that the whole thing has been vastly overblown in the press. About two weeks ago a lawyer specializing in such matters, solicited by the Rocky Mountain News to give his opinion on the matter, concluded that there were only three places where what was done might "rise to the level of plagiarism." That must have really dismayed Vincent Carroll and the rest of the editors at the News, who've been spinning it as if Cohen's essay had been more or less copied, verbatim. Any way you want to slice it, there's nothing on the order of Ambrose's or Malkin's offenses at issue, and, for all the hoopla, there never was.
JF: And the environmental pamphlet?
WC: Yeah, that one's a real giggle. First of all, the "issue" is being fronted by Dan Caplis, who's postured himself so far to the right that he makes Rush Limbaugh sound like a leftist. So, plainly, Dannie-boy's tremendously concerned with protecting the proprietary interests embodied in the texts of left-wing pamphleteers. The sheer ludicrousness of that proposition appears to have dawned on administrators at the University of Colorado, so the interim chancellor, Phil DiStefano -- yet another "liberal" weasel -- referred Caplis's allegation that I plagiarized this pamphlet, which was put out in 1972 by a Canadian group called Dam the Dams, to the faculty committee charged with investigating my supposed "research misconduct" under his own name.
So here's the story. Along about 1988, I testified on the Peltier case before an international tribunal in Toronto. While I was there, I met a guy named John Hummel who worked with the Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples and, as I recall, was part of an environmental group called Dam the Dams. He asked if I could help publicize the rather vast water diversion projects underway in northern Canada and their impacts on indigenous peoples, especially in the west. I readily agreed, and a little later he sent me a whole big box of material: not only pamphlets and xeroxes of newspaper and magazine articles, but copies of official documents, correspondence, and so on.
Since the initial emphasis was to be on western Canada, I locked in on a pamphlet by Dam the Dams covering NAWAPA (the North American Water and Power Alliance), a grandiose scheme to move massive amounts of water from the Yukon River all the way down to the Rio Grande, which had been initiated as a U.S./Canadian collaboration during the 1960s. I took the pamphlet, substantially reorganized it, rewrote parts of it, added a few more recent cites, and included it in the first volume of my Critical Issues in Native North America in 1989. Authorship was listed as a collaboration between Dam the Dams and my own research group, the Institute for Natural Progress (INP), and the address Hummel had provided for Dam the Dams was included at the end of the piece for those seeking further information.
The idea being to publicize the issue as broadly as possible, I also sent a somewhat contracted version of the piece to Z Magazine, then called Zeta, to which I was at the time a regular quarterly contributor. Z's procedure was, when possible, to have several articles by given contributors "in the can" at any given moment, and run whichever piece seemed most appropriate, or in which they themselves were most interested, or which conformed most closely to their available space -- or whatever -- when each contributor's turn came up in the rotation. They also mucked around with things a bit from time to time, for production or editorial reasons. The upshot in this instance was that the NAWAPA piece, titled "The Water Plot," didn't actually come out in Z for nearly two years, and, although I'd submitted it as coauthored, it appeared under my by-line, solo, with Dam the Dams included only by way of the contact info being included at the end.
I wasn't especially happy about authorship of the article being presented that way, and said so, but the magazine was already on the stands before I was aware of the alteration. It was an accumulation of that sort of thing that caused me to stop writing for Z altogether: it was supposed to be a collective effort, but it never really was, a couple of years down the line. Anybody wanting to know more about the decision-making involved should feel free to contact Mike Albert or Lydia Sargent. It was, and, so far as I know, still is their show.
One thing, though. Z is not an academic venue (I don't claim anything I've published therein as "scholarly writing"). It's always been explicitly political. "Movement work," so to speak. And the rules in that arena are very different than they are in academia, or even in the realm of commercial publishing. I'll give you a classic example. In 1975, Pathfinder Press (that's an organ of the Socialist Workers Party) came out with a book titled COINTERLPRO, edited by Cathy Perkus. In 1987, Pathfinder re-released the book. Same title, same content. Identical. But, this time, for whatever reason, they listed the editor as being Nelson Blackstock. Why? Who knows. Some sort of internal political calculation, no doubt, but you'd have to be a member to the SWP to be privy to it.
Be all that as it may, nothing more happened with regard to "The Water Plot" for several years. Then, in the late-90s, while preparing the 2002 edition of my Struggle for the Land, I wrote a whole new and far more comprehensive essay on Canadian water diversion projects, covering not just NAWAPA but GRAND, James Bay I, Great Whale, and so on. The result was vastly different from the little piece I originally cobbled together as a collaborative effort between Dam the Dams and INP. With regard to NAWAPA itself, I drew on a much broader range of materials, but -- and let's be clear about this -- I made attribution to Dam the Dams, not once but four times.
So what's the problem? You tell me. It appears that Caplis and his liberal friends are arguing that since I once coauthored a piece on NAWAPA with Dam the Dams, any time I mention NAWAPA forever after, I'm obliged to list the group as coauthor. Otherwise, I'm "plagiarizing" them. They're treating co-authorship like it constitutes something akin to marriage, till death do us part. The whole thing is absurd on its face.
Here, let me show you just how absurd it really is. I've been relying on Jon Wiener's new book, Historians in Trouble, in offering a lot of the examples I've used in this interview concerning plagiarism and fraud (Wiener's subtitle is “Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower”). He has a whole chapter on the David Abraham case, and in the annotation to that chapter, he cites Peter Novick's 1988 book, That Nobel Dream, three times. Now, read pages 612-21 of Novick, where he discusses Abraham, and compare it to Wiener. What you'll find is that Wiener is in large part virtually paraphrasing Novick.
So here's the deal. By the "standard" they're trying at this point to use on me, the guy who just wrote the book on plagiarism is himself guilty of it. Either he is, or I'm not. One or the other. The matter can't be had both ways. And if the decision is that he is, too, well then look out, because I can find -- and I suspect he can, too -- any number of comparable "plagiarisms". Actually, I almost wish it would work out that way because there are more than a few pompous jackasses that I'd not mind hoisting on the petard of their own insufferable sanctimony. Since Wiener is a contributing editor to The Nation, it might also be interesting to watch Marc Cooper do a bit of wriggling on that score.
In other words, if there's going to be a standard applied in circumstances like these -- and I'm not arguing that there shouldn't be -- it's going to be one size fits all. It's not going to be situational, with the "bar" raised and lowered, depending on your politics or popularity. I never set out to be the poster boy for issues like academic freedom, tenure and such -- I really do have other priorities -- but since I've been sort of forced into that position, I'm going to use it to confront some of this bullshit. Follow?
JF: Yeah, I follow. This should take us to your views on the left, but it seems that you're on something of a roll in terms of rebutting the allegations against you. Would you like to address the charge that you "invented history" when you accused the U.S. Army of deliberately infecting Indians with smallpox in 1837? There's that, and the allegation that you did the same thing when you claimed that the U.S. imposed a racial definition of their identity upon Indians in the 1887 General Allotment Act.
WC: My response is that I was basically correct on both counts, although I probably should have said "War Department" rather than "Army" with regard to the smallpox. It's important, I think, to point out that, although I've mentioned both matters in several places, I've never done so other than in passing. I've never really stopped to spell out why I was saying what I was saying, or to flesh out the annotation, partly because I mentioned them in the context of developing broader arguments, and partly because I considered what I was saying to be more or less self-evidently true. So, I glad-handed things a bit. Mea culpa.
I'm now preparing in-depth essays, both on what happened at Fort Clark in 1837 -- it turns out to have been much worse than I originally contended, involving not just a couple of low-ranking army officers but the Secretary of War himself -- and the identification criteria pertaining under provision of the Allotment Act (I never said the criteria were articulated within the Act itself). Those will be in print within the next year -- I've already got a publisher for both pieces -- and I think I'd just as soon let them speak for themselves. They'll be far more thorough than anything we'll be able to go into here.
I'd like to say, however, that I don't mind colloquy in the least. Challenges to his or her facticity always prompts a scholar to go back and look at what s/he's said -- or it should -- and sometimes you find you were wrong about something, in which case you correct the error, and that strengthens your argument. Other times, and this is one of them (or two of them, I guess), it turns out that you were correct in the first place, but you usually learn more about why in the process, and that, too, strengthens your argument. So, in a perverse sort of way, I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to Thomas Brown for having raised the smallpox issue, and John LaVelle for having advanced his ridiculous claims about the Allotment Act.
That said, however, let's take a peek at my accusers. LaVelle, I've already talked about to some extent, so let's take him first. To begin with, he's a long-time political adversary, having served as a flunky for Carole Standing Elk, Vernon Bellecourt's designated northern California "AIM leader" before finally landing a job at the University of South Dakota law school and then moving on to the University of New Mexico. He's got precious few publications: five essays, I think, and two of them are devoted to attacking me. In a sense, it's fair to say that I am his career at this point. It might be flattering if it weren't so pitiful.
More pitiful still is the nature of the argument he employs in trying to prove that my interpretation of the Allotment Act adds up to a "hoax". In effect, he claims that the government was bent upon reinforcing Indian self-determination during the 1880s, at least in terms of setting the criteria for tribal membership. It follows -- no kidding, he actually says this -- that Indians imposed racial definitions upon themselves, the federal government being essentially powerless to prevent their doing so. You can see why his stuff hasn't achieved much resonance. In academia, you measure the influence of your publications via what's called the "Citation Index," that is, a literal count of the number of times your material is cited by others. Neither of LaVelle's essays on the Allotment Act, the first of which came out in the American Indian Quarterly almost a decade ago, has ever been cited by an Indian legal scholar. Not once.
In fact, LaVelle's Allotment Act stuff has been cited exactly three times by any legal scholar, and two of those citations were by the same author, Carole Goldberg, a UCLA law professor who also happens to be the only person the Rocky Mountain News could get to vet LaVelle's junk during the current "controversy". Needless to say, the News didn't quote people like Robert Porter, a tribal jurist who was on the law faculty with LaVelle in South Dakota, and who has publicly described the whole thrust of his former colleague's legal interpretation -- all of it, not just the essays on the Allotment Act -- as being designed to "put a happy face on colonialism." Let's just say that his "scholarship" is not particularly well regarded, either by Indians or by anyone else I could name other than the Denver press corps and administrators at the University of Colorado.
Maybe it's appropriate to point out by way of contrast that I was, as of mid-2001, the most cited ethnic studies scholar in the country. I've not checked lately, but that's likely still true. My interpretation of the Allotment Act alone has been cited well over a hundred times, way more, if you add in the stuff I published under Jaimes' name and pseudonyms. And nobody has ever described my work as being in any sense an apologetic for colonialism. Quite the opposite. Which is why the right, including sell-outs like John LaVelle, is so avid to discredit it.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted rate at www.brickburner.org. Joshua can be reached at Joshua@brickburner.org.
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