March 27, 2009

Historical truth helps minorities

What John Hope Franklin could teach Ward ChurchillFranklin understood that social justice demanded rigorous attention to historical fact, detail and logic. To fight American racism, which was built upon fantasy and deception, minorities needed to keep a steady grip on their only real weapon: the truth. And that's precisely the lesson that seems to have eluded Ward Churchill.

Last week, as his tragic-comic lawsuit unfolded in a Denver courtroom, most of the attention focused on Churchill's admission that he ghost-wrote a book for another scholar and then cited it in support of his own work. That's unusual and probably unethical, but it's not nearly as bad as Churchill's real sin: pawning off rumors as facts.

Most notoriously, Churchill wrote that the U.S. Army intentionally spread smallpox among the Mandan tribe of Native Americans by distributing infected blankets from a St. Louis infirmary. His account was "self-evident," Churchill blithely told a university investigative committee. "Such stories have been integral to native oral histories for centuries," Churchill explained. "I've heard them all my life."

So that makes them true? Consider the steady stream of lies that has plagued racial minorities, all of them equally "self-evident" to the people who repeat them.
And: Churchill says he was fired because of an essay he wrote after the 9/11 attacks, describing the victims as "little Eichmanns." Maybe he's right. But he's wrong about the Mandan Indians and about history itself, which shouldn't be fabricated to fit our present-day political whims. That echoes the worst excesses of white supremacists, who distorted the past to prop up their own power.

And by replacing their falsehoods with a new set of myths, we injure America's ongoing struggle for racial equality. If an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, to quote Gandhi, a lie for a lie makes us all into cynics. You can't speak truth to power if nothing is true.

No matter what happens to Ward Churchill, then, let's make sure we set the historical record straight. And let's tip our hats to John Hope Franklin, who reminded us why it matters. For America's least fortunate citizens, indeed, the truth is often all that they have.
Comment:  Some people agree with Churchill that we shouldn't scrutinize Native beliefs and claims. Naturally, I disagree. Whether it's that the Army distributed smallpox-laden blankets, the Chumash weren't "fluffy kittens," or "redsksins" isn't a slur, I say, "Show me the evidence."

Don't just expect us to swallow your claims as if you're some sort of holy figure. I.e., a Ward Churchill type who thinks he's God's gift to Indians. If you're going to assert something, do your best to prove it.

For more on the subject, see Educating Russ About Historical Accuracy.

Below:  "I'm an Indian and I'm right because I said so."


Stephen said...

The smallpox blankets myth makes me laugh; why on earth would army members risk infecting themselves just to whipe out a defenseless Mandan group? It makes no sense whatsoever.

Rob said...

Good point. But if soldiers who had already had smallpox handled the blankets, couldn't they have carried out the scheme?

Stephen said...

True but your average soldier would have preferred to massacre them; more 'fun' after all.