Thursday, March 10, 2005


On finding yourself dismayed

Okay, on now to the issue of my shoddy journalism. When I was writing a biography of vanished mountaineer Andrew Irvine, I had full access to his family, to his belongings, to other experts in the rarified field known as Everestiana, on which mountain he died in 1924. When Irvine vanished he was in the company of another mountaineer, a man named George Mallory. Irvine was, at the time of his death, 22 years old. There had never been a biography written about Irvine, and his family had apparently all but forgotten his very existence in the 75 years that passed between his death and my return from England to finish my biography. There had been volumes written about George Mallory, a man who was, to be kind to his memory, flamboyant. Much of the material now available on Mallory falls into the category of the fantastic, but it is nonetheless available and makes for good reading. Not one piece ever written about George Mallory leaves out the name of Andrew Irvine, in whose company Mallory too died on June 8, 1924.

I do have a point here, leaving a vast undercurrent of personal betrayals by the wayside. The woman who wrote me about my editorial on Churchill said (I have as always withheld actual names, locations and e-mail addresses):

1994 is a long time ago, and people's personal circumstances and motives change, as no doubt his have concerning his tenure. If he'd have left it, after deciding to make a new life with his wife of the time, then it would have been of his own volition, not to be fired from it for speaking what was essentially the truth about American foreign policy. As for whatever plans they had in terms of who would be the breadwinner, that was between them, and not for outsiders to judge.

By these conditions, no biography of anyone in history would ever get written. Period. After all, it's "not for outsiders to judge" anything that happened "a long time ago." Who am I to call Churchill to task for things he himself not only wrote but published, and not only published but profited by would seem to be the question here. How dare I use a man's own words against him? Who was I to wish to write a book about Andrew Irvine? After all, I needed to use other peoples' names extensively in my book, didn't I? People who were not there to tell me verbatim their side of the story. I had to rely on things George Mallory had written, on things Irvine's sister had written, on hearsay and family stories. All of which is apparently "poor journalism." I wonder how biographers do it who choose someone like Cleopatra for a subject? By my correspondent's view, I should have laid out in black and white only those things known to have been written by Irvine himself, and then not commented upon those items in any way whatsoever. After all, the people he himself wrote about in his own diaries (which I have held, and read, at Oxford) are not here to give their side of things.

"With great freedom comes great responsibility," I would argue, and those who do not wish their lives, their published words, their motives, held up to the glaring light of day would be best advised to remain out of the public arena. My point about Churchill's precious tenure was a simple one--in 1994 he did not give a flying damn about that beloved, sacred tenure, and was actively engaged in the pursuit of any Native credentials he could beg, borrow or steal. If he entered into tenure with that kind of attitude, I wonder what, precisely, made him change his mind to the point of now valuing that very tenure more highly than anything else. He has now been denied his Native credentials. I think that perhaps that alone has a great deal to do with how Ward Churchill views things that matter to him now.

My correspondent continues:

I understand Leah's family's motives for wanting their daughter remembered as they remember her, but even family aren't privvy to what goes on between a husband and wife, and that is my only objection to people using her has a platform to engage in attacking Ward Churchill. I have no problem with anyone taking the guy to task for his political speech, scholarship, or ethnicity, but as she isn't around to speak for herself, I think she should be left out of public commentary, regardless of whatever he writes about her himself. It seems as though claiming that he wrote about her publicly first is somehow a way of justifying using her, her relationship with him, and her tragic death, to oust him.

You cannot look at Churchill's "scholarship" without taking into account the things he himself has written about his personal life. It seems to me that there have been scores of books written against George W. Bush, every one of them using various platforms "to engage in attacking" Bush himself. Is this "poor journalism?" Granted, those on the Right believe so, but those such as Michael Moore believe that what they are doing is not only decent journalism, but necessary criticism. I can only repeat--if Churchill had not wished to make his private life available for public consumption, especially that part of it dealing with his third wife, then perhaps he should have kept pen in pocket and not written an online article about her as well as a lengthy book. He made claims in both that are now open to public debate by virtue of being published and available to anyone in that public sphere. Interestingly, loads with entirely dark-background web pages--one wonders why those in Churchill's circle are so afraid of daylight. Why his supporters would be "dismayed" when those engaging in "poor journalism" dare to use his own words against him.

For the record, my reply to my correspondent included the following sentence, and I stand by it: "That your dismay was directed at me for defending her, and not at him for planning on so callously using her, speaks volumes."


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