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Richard Cohen

Giving In to the Mob

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page A27

Years ago a Catholic school asked me to speak at an awards ceremony. I agreed, waiving my usual fee ($87,436) and after intense negotiations accepted nothing. A bit after that, the school asked me not to speak, saying higher-ups in the Washington diocese had learned -- possibly by reading my column -- that I was pro-choice. I accepted that also.

I cite this instructive episode in reference to Hamilton College, a venerable institution of higher learning in Upstate New York, which has canceled a speaking engagement for Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For more than a week, Hamilton stuck to its guns, insisting that Churchill would speak no matter what -- no matter what being that he is an idiot. For some reason, Hamilton did not know this at first. It soon learned it in spades.


Professor Ward Churchill leaves a class Tuesday. (Rodolfo Gonzal -- AP)

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Churchill was supposed to speak about American Indian activism. He is the purported genuine article, an American Indian who, according to press reports, interrupted Denver's Columbus Day parade because Christopher Columbus was a racist enslaver of indigenous peoples. That happens to be true. It is also true that some of those indigenous peoples engaged in cannibalism and the dismemberment of living human beings. No one refers to this period as the Age of Enlightenment.

What finally got Churchill a measure of fame was not his Columbus Day exploits but an essay he wrote about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The victims, he wrote, were hardly innocent bystanders but rather the beneficiaries of an oppressive U.S. foreign policy and an exploitive American capitalism: "they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants."

Churchill was referring to the embargo then in place on Iraq and what it had done to that country's health system. For that reason, he called the victims of Sept. 11 "little Eichmanns," after the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Holocaust.

A more repellent, idiotic and badly written passage you're not likely to read. It probably does no good, but I'd like to point out to Churchill that if infants starved under Saddam Hussein, it was because Hussein chose to use relief money to buy arms and build palaces. As for the "little Eichmanns," a fair share of them were restaurant workers and deliverymen and clerical staff, and, of course, cops and firemen. They had packed their power lunches that morning.

There were reasons aplenty not to have invited Churchill and, once he was invited, to have rescinded the invitation. Hamilton would not do so. It flung around the First Amendment with abandon, as if Churchill was a faculty member whose job was at stake. Then Bill O'Reilly struck. The Fox TV commentator went to town on the controversy, finding the usual liberal idiocy at the usual liberal college perpetrated by the usual liberal morons. Having rounded up his usual suspects, O'Reilly ended a segment about Hamilton by providing the name of the college's president, Joan Hinde Stewart, her e-mail address and the school's phone number. Then, blood dripping from his evil heart, he asked his deranged viewers to "keep your comments respectable."

The school caved. Stewart reported getting 6,000 or so messages, and I know, because I get them all the time, that many of them were vile and obscene and even threatening. But this is the true cost of free speech. It is not some rarefied principle, not some slogan, not some trivial right for professors to abuse in comfortable distance from the targets of their ideas, but the most powerful and dangerous right of them all. And because O'Reilly had, in effect, organized an Internet lynch mob, a collection of cyber-goons -- one of whom threatened to bring a gun -- the school simply junked the program. It chickened out.

Hamilton should not have invited Churchill in the first place. His ideas are trash, cliches to boot, and the school could have -- as that Catholic school did with me -- changed its mind once it found out more about him. But once he had accepted, and once Hamilton had insisted by all that is holy that it would stick to its guns, it could not then collapse because those ideas, as loathsome as they are, might have real consequences.

Hire some guards. Frisk the audience. But don't cave to the mob.

cohenr@washpost.com


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