Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Drunkablog interview: Pirate Ballerina's Jim Paine

Jim Paine started his blog Pirate Ballerina only in February, but almost immediately he was being linked by some of the biggest-name bloggers out there, including Michelle Malkin (just yesterday, in fact), Instapundit and Little Green Footballs. Why such quick notice? Since he started his blog, Paine has focused exclusively on the man many Americans love to hate, and love to read about even more: the plagiarizing, data- and heritage-faking, woman-threatening, art-thieving, revolutionary attitude-posing University of Colorado Professor of Ethnic Studies, Ward Churchill.

Paine comes by his antipathy to Churchill almost organically. Born and raised in Colorado, he served in the military towards the end of the Vietnam War and kicked around the country as a reporter, editor and publisher for a decade before graduating from college. He also started several internet businesses, and when those prospered returned to Colorado to raise Appaloosas on the ranch he and his wife built from the ground up. Oh, he’s also published (under the name Tom Elliott) a horror novel that was nominated for a Bram Stoker award and many short stories in the same field, and is currently working on a western novel.

So we’re talkin’ your basic all-American here, with maybe a little Freddy Krueger thrown in to liven things up. I talked to Paine via the magic of e-mail about Ward Churchill and those who defend him, how Churchill is a symptom of the anti-American orientation of ethnic studies departments, and, well, the horror of horror writing.

The interview was conducted earlier this month, not long after Churchill's case was referred to a CU faculty committee, entailing at least a seven-month wait for any resolution. Paine, nothing daunted, has just continued to pile up nugget after delicious nugget of Churchill, crispy-style.

What prompted you to start Pirate Ballerina?

PirateBallerina is actually a dead blog--or I should say, was dead for nearly two years, until I revived it to address the Ward Churchill debacle. The blog grew out of a notepad file I kept of interesting Churchill articles and opinion pieces while discussing him on Little Green Footballs. Many of the posters there are knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects, and that file just grew and grew thanks to the many links they posted. Eventually the file got rather huge--and this was after only three or four days--and I noticed quite a few re-postings of the same information for newer readers at LGF, so I decided to fire up PirateBallerina and post these links in a more organized fashion. And like Topsy, it jes' growed.

Churchill 'n me

What was it about Churchill that initially drew your interest?

The Hamilton College speaking schedule had just become national news. I was initially interested only because he teaches in Colorado. Then I started looking at his work, his publications, transcripts of his speaking engagements—all as impenetrable and wrong-headed as his infamous "roosting chickens" essay. But I'll be honest: the first thing about him that outraged me was the picture of him on his CU faculty website. The long hair and sunglasses just screamed "poseur." I know, pretty lame reasoning, but I'm talking about first impressions.

Churchill's "little Eichmanns" speech is akin to '"Tommy Smothers calling his brother a 'fascist' whenever Dick Smothers wouldn't let Tommy have his way. So ludicrous it's funny. I still can't read that essay without thinking of the Smothers Brothers."

Now, having read a great deal of his work--far too much, in fact--I can say he's probably been asking for what he's presently enduring for at least 20 years. His own chickens are coming home to roost. I will say that I was not outraged by his "chickens" essay. To me, his remarks were similar to Tommy Smothers calling his brother a "fascist" whenever Dick Smothers wouldn't let Tommy have his way. So ludicrous it's funny. I still can't read that essay without thinking of the Smothers Brothers.

And Churchill has written some dozen books where he basically calls everyone in the U.S. fascists. The Nazi comparison is endemic to his work. Now, I'm in no way excusing Churchill; I understand how hurtful the "little Eichmanns" comment would be to the families of the victims and survivors of 9-11. But Churchill's use of the comparison struck me as so absurd it had no emotional effect on me. As far as focusing on Churchill, it was patently evident within the first few days that Churchill is the poster child for leftist academia. Now, he has said he's the poster child for "academic freedom" and "freedom of speech," but that's disingenuous. No one is stifling his ability to do research or trying to limit his scholarship. Nor is anyone calling for him to be censored or gagged for his essay. He is being called on his apparent serial falsifications of data, his multiple plagiarisms (both artistic and scholarly), and his still-unconfirmed claims to Indian ancestry. He is being called on feeding at the public trough while condemning the public that keeps that trough full. To wax metaphorical, the "chickens" essay was just a careless match he dropped into the forest of his own distortions, frauds, and lies.

Is Pirate Ballerina your first blog?

No, I actually started two other blogs a few years ago, thisiscountry.com and thataintcountry.com (both inactive now). I grew up listening to country music, and at the time I was annoyed tremendously at what the new "country" artists like Faith Hill and Rascal Flats were doing to country, i.e., obliterating it under a wave of predigested twang-pop. Now I have XMRadio and I listen to the old stuff; I figure that makes more of a statement than preaching the glories of Loretta Lynn to the choir. I voted with my feet, I guess.

Did you ever have any professors like Churchill?

Nope. I had a few who may have been certifiable (one philosophy professor played tapes of whale noises during class on the theory that it somehow aided in the learning process), but never anyone like Churchill.

What was your military experience?

I was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, at the very end of the war, anyway. I should point out that I don't denigrate Churchill's actual Vietnam service (whatever that turns out to be); I question his own conflicting accounts of that experience. He has claimed variously to be a "Public Information Specialist," and a LRRP (long-range reconnaissance patrol) point-man; his military records say only that he was trained as a truck driver and a projectionist, and don’t show the award of the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge), which Vietnam veterans tell me he would have received had he actually participated in any "action."

Are you a "political" person?

I guess a good way to describe my political and philosophical beliefs would be to call myself a member of the Reformed Church of Ayn Rand. I don't pretend to defend Rand's own inconsistencies--the dichotomy between her private life and her writing. I do believe that the government's only salable product is force, and when it attempts to amend racial imbalances, or finance education, or protect various businesses, or finance the retirement of our seniors--it can only do so via force, and that is wrong, not to mention incredibly prone to corruption. And when you have the government involved in patently non-governmental enterprises, you end up with the Ward Churchill debacle, wherein the American people are required to finance the tenure of a lying bully and braggart with spurious academic credentials and an even more suspicious personal history.

What do you think of ethnic studies in general? Is it a legitimate field of study?

I believe that ethnic studies as it exists is pure "Victim Studies"--emotion-driven invective masquerading (poorly) as scholarly inquiry--and a survey of what the professors of these departments have published bears that out. And while defenders of these departments claim their influence on the public is minor (as if that's a defense), I disagree. What intellectuals think eventually trickles down through the general public; I considered a few years ago writing a book called A Nation of Victims that would examine this sorry state of affairs, and I may still do it. In any case, every course of study within the "Ethnic Studies" purview, whether it be Chicano, women, black, Asian, or Native American, could and should be under the auspice of anthropology, psychology, history, or sociology departments.

"The hand-wringing over what a 'chilling effect' the Churchill case will have on so-called 'academic freedom' is wrong-headed, since the actual chilling effect will be that scholars will be more hesitant to invent facts, whether about their field of study or themselves."

Not to say that these departments are less infested with idiots, but their standards and methods of inquiry are more stringent. It's been pointed out that since their formation in the early 70's, Ethnic Studies departments have often served as a place to dump otherwise unqualified minority students. The theory is that while these students clearly weren't scholastically prepared, they improved the university's "affirmative action" profile by earning an easy degree in "ethnic studies." I'm not certain that that is a valid argument, but I suspect universities didn't mind the perception of equality.

What can be done to cut down the number of embarrassments like Ward Churchill in the academic fields you mentioned?

A good start would be the rebirth of academic administrative integrity, or the complete dissolution of ethnic studies departments--either of which events would result in the other. It doesn't matter whether academic bias is Right or Left, the system as it exists today is essentially corrupt, and expecting universities to clean their own houses is as naive as believing Kofi Annan is working hard to get to the bottom of the "Oil for Food" scandal. I'm reminded of the Mel Brooks character in "Blazing Saddles" when he says "Gentlemen! We've got to do something to save our phoney-baloney jobs!"

From journalism to (greater) horror

How has your journalism experience informed your approach both to your blog and to Churchill?

Well, I think I know enough about good journalism to know the difference between libel and slander, and to protect anonymous sources. An advertising manager for one of the papers I worked for told me once that editorial was just something to wrap around the ads. Now, this was blasphemy to me; I'd wanted to be a reporter since I was in third grade, and this ad manager was spitting on the cross. Then, a few years later, I bought a weekly newspaper and learned that he was right. I was a good editor and reporter, but I was just awful at selling advertising--so I sold the paper before I managed to kill it. I later learned salesmanship while working my way through college (at the tender age of 29) and became a very good salesman.

And writer, apparently. Tell me about your horror novel, The Dwelling. You didn’t mention that it was nominated for a Bram Stoker award.

Ah, the Stoker. Back in the 80s, I was just as enthusiastic about horror (this was back in the day when Stephen King wrote good scary stuff) as 50 billion other people, and like those 50 billion others, I wrote a bunch of horror fiction. Got published in a number of small press magazines (Festering Brainsore was probably the smallest [and most quaintly named—ed.] as well as a couple of the "mid-sized" small press genre pubs like New Blood and Cemetery Dance. Prior to that I'd had no success in publishing my work; I did get a rejection slip back in the 70s from an SF editor who said "This is perhaps the most disgusting story I've ever read." It was a story of a subsonics researcher who discovers the resonant frequency of the human anus, sells a device that emits these subsonic sounds to the police for riot control, but fails to mention that low frequencies are omni-directional). Now that I think about it, it was a pretty disgusting idea, though the wording was pretty tame [Uh-huh—ed.]. I think the title was "The Brown Button." You can see, I think, why I drifted over to horror. The gross-out is more germane to horror than to SF, plus, you don't have all that pesky science to learn.

I sold a second novel on the heels of The Dwelling to Leisure Books--this time with an agent. The sale was for less than I'd received for my first novel, which pissed me off no end. I got into an argument over the title (it was Posthumous, which the editors at Leisure claimed was "too erudite"); they wanted to name it Beware the Night Sky--which had absolutely nothing to do with the book, but the cover they picked was excellent: a close-up of a creepy clown's face with the make-up cracking--again, with absolutely no connection to the content of my book. Great cover, though, and they later used it for somebody else's book. In any case, that experience (plus not making much money) turned me away from writing as a career and toward working to pay the rent. So I gave up on being a starving artist and went out and made some money.

Let’s get back to Churchill (and away from that brown button) for a moment. What was your reaction to the findings of the CU committee looking into Churchill’s behavior?

I recall saying that I doubted he'd be fired, or even slapped on the wrist. As it turns out, I was right, and with a seven-month review staring us in the face (and with his outrageous claims of ethnicity very cleverly moved off the table!), I'll make another multi-part prediction: Churchill will keep his position at CU, but only until the Ethnic Studies program there is dismantled (within two years), at which time Churchill will be free full-time to lecture to anarchists on the most effective way to kill whitey. The rest of his fellow ethnic studies kin will A) join more stringent fields of inquiry, such as anthropology, or B) learn from the pimply-faced assistant manager at their new place of employment how to properly salt the french fries."

In light of the Churchill mess, do you support David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights?

No. Or, to clarify, no, I think Horowitz is generally well-intentioned, but in most cases his academic bill of rights covers territory that "academic freedom" has already staked out. What we need is not another law or "bill of rights" subject to interpretation, corruption, and of course, the ever-popular unintended consequences. We need a re-commitment to integrity and fact. I firmly believe that the eradication of "Victim's Studies" departments will go a long way toward that goal. The present hand-wringing over what a "chilling effect" the Churchill case will have on so-called "academic freedom" is wrong-headed, since the actual "chilling effect" will be that scholars will be more hesitant to invent facts, whether about their field of study or themselves. That's a "chilling effect" we can live with, and one that obviates the need for Horowitz' bill of rights.

Several successful single-issue blogs (the two main Rather sites most notably) are attempting the transition to new subjects. Do you plan on doing the same if and when the Churchill saga comes to some sort of conclusion?

I've considered what will happen to PirateBallerina once Ward Churchill goes the way of all flim-flam men. I think there's a need (though not necessarily a desire) out there for a website that concentrates on "the ministry of silly walks" that is college Ethnic Studies. And I've already started a separate forum wherein people can discuss other members of these victims' studies departments. As I mentioned before, Horowitz has it wrong--we don't need more laws to protect "True" academic freedom or academic freedom of speech. We need to eradicate whole departments wherein victims congregate and share strategies to suck dry the public teat while fomenting hatred for the public. I believe they call us hoi polloi or "the great unwashed" or the "petite bourgeoisie" or, most recently, idiots. I don't know about you, but I think it's time for us idiots to do some housecleaning. Firing Churchill will be a good start. Ending Ethnic Studies would be an excellent second course of action.

Update: Jim Paine writes to inform me that I am an idiot. First, he was not born in Colorado, but moved there at a year old; second, and more egregiously, I failed to mention that his novels and short stories were written under the pseudonym "Tom Elliott." I've incorporated that correction in the interview.

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