History and Falsification Again

The Ward Churchill matter, as I’ve mentioned before, raises some interesting issues. One issue is that of free speech, which Norm and I along with Eve and, later, Jonathan, kept disagreeing about a few months ago. I still disagree with all of them – but I think the disagreements may have rested on various confusions among terms. The terms kept shifting, I think, back and forth between legal and moral, law and principle, without being nailed down often enough. Still…I think my point stands: there is no free speech right to falsify evidence. There is no free speech principle that protects Churchill’s right to falsify evidence. Falsification of evidence is not always a criminal offence (although it certainly can be), but that doesn’t make it a protected right, or a principle. It’s not usually something that people can or should be punished for (though there are plenty of exceptions), but it is something people can be prevented from doing. Academics who get fired for scholarly malfeasance are not being punished (though it is a punishment in fact), they are being prevented from doing their job the wrong way.

One key instance of “falsification and fabrication” was Churchill’s writing about the Mandan…In an essay titled “An American Holocaust?,” he wrote that the U.S. Army infected the Mandan with smallpox by giving them contaminated blankets in a deliberate effort to “eliminate” them. Churchill footnotes several sources as providing evidence for this claim, including UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton’s book American Indian Holocaust and Survival. But Thornton’s book says the opposite: the Army did not intentionally give infected blankets to the Mandan. None of Churchill’s other sources provide support for his claim.

There is no free speech principle that protects that. It’s not a crime, but it’s also not protected. It’s neither.

Many of the comments are also very interesting. This one is particularly fascinating:

The committee peremptorily dismisses Churchill’s contention that his interpretation of the epidemic was influenced by the Native American oral tradition. This is treated as no more than an ex post facto defense against the allegation of misconduct. The committee also discounts Native American witnesses who support Churchill’s interpretations as well as his fidelity to oral accounts. The centrality of the oral tradition is evident in many of Churchill’s writings. His acknowledgments frequently include elders, Indian bands, and the American Indian Movement.

His fidelity to oral accounts – oh well then.

7 Responses to “History and Falsification Again”