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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Free Speech in Wisconsin

This week the Wisconsin Assembly passed a resolution condemning “anti-American hate speech” by Prof. Ward Churchill, and strongly recommending that the UW-Whitewater cancel his speaking engagement next week. According to the press , the sponsor of the resolution has also asked that the University of Wisconsin examine it's own policies on professors who use what he calls ''hate speech.'' This controversy is only the latest occasion (and a marvelous one) to show how history enriches our lives. For the most fundamental questions that historians ask - - “How do you know?” and “Why does it matter?” - - are also the most useful way to approach this controversy.

How would we know if what Prof. Churchill actually said was “inflammatory, offensive and lacking in academic foundation,” as the resolution claims? Press coverage has generally given only sound bites and snippets, but to make up your mind you may want to read the supposedly offensive essay in its entirety. It was called “Some People Push Back” and was first published in the obscure journal Dark Night Field Notes in 2001. Its argument was elaborated in Churchill’s book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. (That link is to Amazon, where you can find a wide range of opinion about the book).

How would we know if Churchill’s perspective on world affairs is accurate or inaccurate? We can compare it to a host of opposing interpretations, begining with President Bush’s public statements and the official report of the 9/11 Commission. We might also consult statements by Al Qaeda itself, summarized in this brief State Dept. memo, to see if he represents their motives accurately in his work.

Why does it matter? If you conclude that Prof. Churchill’s view of recent American history is wrong, you may in fact be deeply offended by some of his comments. If you conclude that he is right, you may be offended by the actions of your government. Because policy makers are only human, our history contains many well-intentioned blunders at the national , state , and local levels.

In a democracy, the collective wisdom of citizens is founded on a free marketplace of ideas. To minimize our blunders, we must each be able to gather knowledge, evaluate evidence, reach informed conclusions, and advocate our viewpoint. Our cultural institutions -- libraries, schools, museums, universities, news outlets, and Web sites -- play a crucial role by giving us access to a wealth of facts and opinions. The rest is up to us.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 24, 2005
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