Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hillary invokes armies of the dead to support her

Well, we all knew it had to come to this. "Hill" has rather ghoulishly trotted out poor dead Ann Richardson, former governor of Texas, and put her on the TV in support of her campaign. What next??? I can see the follow-on commercial:

"Hi everyone .... Jesus Christ here. I just wanted to take a moment to come back in clouds of glory and let you know that when it comes time to pull that lever in November, I'll be pullin' it for Hillary."

Richards was governor from 1991-1995. She died in September 2006 at age 73. The two-minute video on Clinton's campaign Web site comes a week before the Texas primary and targets women voters in the state.
"So many women around Texas and America are saying, `Wish Ann was here, for us and for Hillary,'" a female voiceover says on the video.
"Today Ann would be asking all of us to make a statement. She would be traveling to every small town and big city in Texas, urging us all to take a stand, be counted, to make a difference, to make history," it says while a picture of Richards and Clinton appears on the screen. "This one's for Texas. This one's for our country. This one's for Ann."
But sons Dan and Clark Richards, partners at an Austin law firm, say nobody can know who the outspoken and opinionated former governor would have supported in the race between Clinton and Barack Obama.
"As her children, we never presumed to know her mind when alive and we are not prepared to make a claim as to who she would endorse or what she would do if she were still with us," they wrote in an e-mail last week. "We are not granting permission for her name to be used in advertisements on behalf of either candidate."

Happy Birthday, Montaigne

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, born in PĂ©rigueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner and a devout Catholic, with innovative ideas about child rearing. He sent the infant Michel off to live with peasant parents, so that he would learn to love the lower classes. Then, when Michel was a toddler, his father required everyone in the household to speak Latin rather than French, so that Latin would be his first language.

Michel went off to college and became a lawyer. His father died when Michel was 38 years old, and so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. More than anything, he loved to write letters, but after a few years in retirement, his best friend died and he suddenly had no one to write to. So he started writing letters to an imaginary reader, and those letters became an entirely new literary genre: the essay.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Number 6 versus The Panopticon


Every episode opens with the same fragmented sequence, a sequence saturated

with the disjointed and implicit terror of a familiar nightmare:

‘Where am I?’

‘In The Village.’

‘What do you want?’


‘Who are you?’

‘I am Number Two.’

‘Who is Number One?’

‘You are Number Six.’

‘I am not a number! I am a free man!!’

In the classic television series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan plays a

nameless man who resigns suddenly from a top-level secret job. Before he can

leave the country, he is abducted, waking up in a fantastic village. He is unable

to find out where he is, or who has kidnapped him. All he knows is that they claim

to want ‘information’.

The Village is a complete community -- everything is accounted for. It is the

ultimate welfare state -- the perfect home for those prepared to cede their

individuality and liberty. It is Panopticism taken to its technological extreme.

Everyone is surveilled, videotaped, bugged, betrayed.

In The Village, everyone is known by a number -- the Prisoner, as we have seen,

is designated as Number Six. The Village is run by a large, infallible

infrastructure, under the supervision – but not the control -- of Number Two,

whose task it is to find the answer to one question -- why Number Six resigned.

Or so we are led to believe. The Prisoner's goal is to keep the answer from his

mysterious minders, to find the identity of the menacing and unseen Number

One, and above all to escape.

Or so we are led to believe.

In each episode, Number Six and the Village battle for power. Sometimes one

side wins, and sometimes the other side wins. But no one ever wins for long.

The battle, seemingly endless and epic to those of us who are old enough to

have watched the series every week when it was first on TV, actually only went

on for 17 episodes. There is a continuing controversy about what ‘order’ the

episodes ‘should’ be viewed in (the production sequence is known not to match

the original UK broadcast sequence, for instance), and most viewers were

disoriented by the non-linear and frankly surreal aspects of the series. The

Prisoner was full of bizarre and memorable features – the fairytale Village,

canopied penny-farthing bicycle, piped blazers and striped capes, golf umbrellas

and numbered badges, Mini-Moke taxis and the huge white 'Rover' balloons.

The series makes the viewer work – which, for many of us, is a large part of its

enduring worth. In the ensuing 35 years, there has been nothing on the tube to

compare with it.

Patrick McGoohan created The Prisoner from soup to nuts, as a follow-on to his

immensely popular spy show ‘Danger Man’ (release in the US as ‘Secret Agent’).

To get a sense of what McGoohan gave up in order to devote himself to The

Prisoner, one must imagine if Sean Connery, on top of his game as James Bond

and free to write his own ticket, chose to suddenly start adapting Franz Kafka to

the small screen.

The series asks more questions than it answers. Why is Number Six being held?

Why did he resign? Who is Number Six? Who are his jailers? Who is Number

One? The village is seemingly administered by Number Two, whose identity

changes from episode to episode (often the same Number two reappears in

subsequent episodes without explanation).

Fans have been slammed over the years for paying the same amount of navel-

gazing attention to a TV program as traditional academics would to a

postmodernist tome. Fans have their get-togethers and newsletters and

‘Prisoner-based fiction’ offerings and bitter listserv wars over minutiae of meaning

(think Trekkies, except not as geeky and without the Spock ears). Still, to the

complaint, ‘Catch a grip, it’s only a TV program’, many contemporary thinkers

(Baudrillard comes to mind, for one) would say that this is precisely why it must

be taken seriously.

Television As Text

It is a genuine mystery: how did this television series, which was aptly described

at the time as a ‘puzzling failure’, mutate into something so complex? How did it

take on such a life of its own?

In order to answer this mystery, we must consider the possibility of treating The

Prisoner as a ‘text’.

As arguably the most ‘literary’ of television endeavors, The Prisoner can be –

indeed, must be – confronted and interrogated as a text. Can one over-read a

given text? If so, what does it mean to over-read it? Will we unpack layers of

mean that contain, as Goethe said of one of his own writings, more meaning than

the author himself knew? The Prisoner, taken as a literary artifact, contains

strata of significance that the series’ creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, never

imagined – and never intended. The text literally contains more content than was

written into it.

One of the more fruitful ‘reads’ of The Prisoner is as an exemplar of radical

Panopticism. Our nameless protagonist is drugged and transported to The

Village, where he is confined, disciplined, occasionally interrogated. Yet there is

something strangely tentative about the discipline and control which The Village

attempts to impose on Number Six. It is almost as though the interrogators feel

that Number Six must be somehow complicit – that Number Six is, in some

obscure sense, in control of his own nature as an object of discipline and


Prisons are merely the visible embodiment of a broader, all-encompassing

‘power’, the principles of which are defined in Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and

evolved by Foucault. In The Village, surveillance is both visible and unverifiable.

Number Six never knows at any given moment if he is being watched, but he

may always be under surveillance. This is the principle of Panopticism deployed

in a Village-wide scale.

Other than the unacceptable option of submission to the discipline of The Village,

there is only one course of action available to Number Six: escape. In the very

first episode (‘Arrival’), he stumbles across the Village old people’s home, a clear

signal that he and every other prisoner in The Village is here ‘for the duration’.

The Village is sort of like Guantanamo, only with more sumptuous living spaces.

Number Six attempts his first escape in this very first episode – without success.

He is issued conformist Village wardrobe and forced to wear his ID badge with

just ‘6’ on it. He goes to the Green Dome (the center of The Village as well as

the hub of the Panopticon apparatus) to force a confrontation with his captors,

only to discover that Number Two – who he met upon his arrival -- has been

replaced ( something which recurs in almost every episode, always without

explanation or any indication of surprise on anyone’s part).

Number Six is (understandably) obsessed with the project of escape. At a craft

show in ‘Chimes of Big Ben’, Number Six presents his work called ‘Escape’. It

wins first prize. He seems to escape in ‘Many Happy Returns’, making his way

back to HQ, where he organizes an expedition to find the elusive Village. He

spots it from the air, but the pilot is revealed to be a minion of The Village.

Number Six is ejected, and drifts on his parachute, slowly back down to The

Village. Our protagonist isn’t going anywhere, it would seem.


A second major subtext of The Prisoner (which synchronizes on several levels

with the subtext of escape) is the idea of Number Six as Other. Number Six is

excluded from the discourse of the Village. Why? Is he mad? Criminal? A sexual

deviant? Perhaps all of the above, and more. Number Six clearly and

persistently poses a threat, and that threat is ‘not so much the crime committed

(at least in isolation) but the potentiality of danger that lies hidden in an individual

and which is manifested in his observed everyday conduct. The prison functions

in this as an apparatus of knowledge.’ [1] Like the rebellious chess Rook in

‘Checkmate’, Number Six exhibits the ‘cult of the individual’, which simply cannot

be allowed to stand in The Village. Yet, the warders will not – or can not – let him

leave. From the point of view of The Village, Number Six is considered as a

‘rebel’, ‘reactionary’, and ‘Unmutual’ (the most heinous crime of all). ‘The

suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the

object of suspicion and be completely innocent.’ [2]

The most striking characteristic of Number Six’s ordeal is that it seems primarily

intended to simply regulate his body. They don’t particularly want him to believe

anything; they simply want to contain his body. Their claims that ‘we want

information’ ring hollow; they really don’t make any credible efforts to obtain any

information. There are the occasional odd interludes of torture, but one senses

that the interrogator’s heart really isn’t in it. Number Six breaks up the regime of

normalcy. Repeatedly, and with bitter gusto. Why don’t they kill him? Or at least,

put his body under some more draconian form of control?

His position in the Village is perhaps not quite what it seems. We are given a

premonition of this in ‘Checkmate’ when the eccentric Village inhabitant applies

his empathic ‘sixth sense’ on Number Six, claiming that he can tell prisoners from

warders because warders display a secret arrogance. The eccentric denounces

Number Six as one of the warders. Is the eccentric simply mad, or is his insight

based, on some level, in fact?

Foucault would argue that there are no bare facts, simply power relations. The

dominant power structure gets to define the facts. In effect, ‘to the victor go the

spoils.’ Knowledge is controlled in The Village through mechanisms of power.

Everywhere you find knowledge, there you will also find power. Though

imprisoned, Number Six is powerful and in control because he has the

knowledge – ostensibly the knowledge of why he resigned.

The village is a prison, but it is also something from which Number Six is

voluntarily excluded: a discourse, which enables behaviors that Number Six is

unable or unwilling to perform. One realizes that he suspects, correctly, that to

do so would invalidate his power.

Number Six realizes what none of the other inhabitants of The Village realize:

that surveillance is a two way street. This is explored throughout the series by

means of the constant salutation ‘Be Seeing You’, which courtesy prescribes as

the thing to say when taking one’s leave of another prisoner. Form the thumb

and forefinger into a circle; look through the tube thus created (the lens of a

camera, perhaps?), and toss off one’s hand in a salute while chirping ‘Be Seeing

You’ with manufactured congeniality.

Number Six throws it back at them, bitterly, angrily, from between pinched lips.

When he performs the gesture and spits out the words, he turns ‘Be Seeing You’

into a threat. You may be watching me, he seems to say --- but I’m watching

you, as well. And biding my time.

I Am Number Two

Number Two gives every appearance of being the administrator of the Panoptic

apparatus, as well as the on-site delegate for the elusive Number One. Yet

Number Two’s primary function is that of an observer, and the constant,

obsessive object of his observation is Number Six. Number Two is really a

function rather than a person, changing in every episode (and once during an


The power structure of The Village, personified by Number Two, seems geared

towards forcing Number Six to ‘make his honorable amends’. Yet there is

something almost tentative in the ongoing interrogation. One senses that Number

Two is, on one level, not particularly interested in results. Number Two is, in

computer terms, ‘interrupt-driven’; he awaits detailed work direction from Number

One, who is unseen but instantly aware of every twist and turn in the

interrogative project. Number Two is a classic example of ‘supervisors,

perpetually supervised’. [3] Underneath his veneer as interrogator and master,

Number Two is fundamentally a researcher. ‘The investigation, the exercise of

common reason, lays aside the old inquisitorial model and adopts the much more

subtle model (doubly validated by science and common sense) of empirical

research.’ [4]

It is important to keep in mind that The Village, like the Panopticon, ‘was also a

laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter

behavior, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and

monitor their effects. To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to

their crimes and characters, and to seek the most effective ones.’ [5]

Regardless of the actual content and practice of the various ‘science

experiments’ inflicted by the various Number Twos on Number Six, we begin to

notice that, as the series ‘evolves’, Number Six seems almost in cahoots with

Number Two. Number Six seems to be somehow complicit in his own


Fall Out

This possible complicity becomes more and more obvious, once one knows to be

on the look-out for it. The episode ‘Living in Harmony’ deploys a key element,

one carefully hidden in most of the other episodes but present as a subtext. The

episode opens with a Western parody of the normal pre-titles resignation scene.

Riding out of town, the ex-sheriff is dragged by a mob into a town called

‘Harmony’. He tries several escape attempts, but he cannot get away. The town

judge wants him to be the new Sheriff – but the man refuses. This theme

resonates through the series – the powers that be in the Village want Number Six

to do something, something involving stepping up to some responsibility. Number

Six refuses, avoids. His efforts to do so become more heroic, more frantic.

Things continue to slip into … what? Dementia? Dadaism? Some sort of neo-

Freudian thing? In ‘Once Upon a Time’ we see Foucault’s proposition that the

prison structure can be deployed in all aspects of modernity when we see

Number Two morph into Number Six’s father, then his teacher, coach, employer,

judge, officer, and prison guard. Number Six plays the parts of the son, student,

athlete, employee, accused, soldier, and prisoner. After this mythic rewind/replay

of power relationships, Number Two drops dead at Number Six’s feet. ‘The rule

was that if the accused ‘held out’ and did not confess, the magistrate was forced

to drop the charges. The tortured man had then won.’

A door slides open and a Supervisor enters the room.

‘What do you desire?’

‘Number One.’

‘I’ll take you.’

As ‘Fall Out’, the final episode of the series, begins, Number Six has won.

You Are Number Six

The final episode of The Prisoner is difficult to describe, even more difficult to

unpack. But we need to do it, because the final episode, more than all that has

come before, validates our Foucauldian read of this text.

As ‘Fall Out’ begins, we are in a sort of surreal courtroom. There is a judge, who

gives a long speech to the effect that all the inhabitants of The Village are

‘gathered together in a state of democratic crisis’ and that ‘Number Six has

survived the ultimate test and will therefore no longer be called by a number.’

This speech is followed by an interlude of strange Absurdist theatre that puts one

in mind of Number Two’s advice in ‘Dance of the Dead’: ‘if you insist on living in

a dream, you may be taken for mad.’ Indeed.

Number Six is given traveler’s checks, his passport, and the keys to his London

flat. He attempts to address the throng in the courtroom, but he is drowned out by

their inane chanting of ‘I, I, I’ (or could it perhaps be ‘Eye, Eye, Eye’?).

Things happen quickly now.

Number Six climbs a circular metal staircase and at the top finds himself in a

room full of globes, presided over by a masked and hooded figure wearing the

‘Number One’.

Number Six rushes over to him and rips off his mask.

Under the mask, Number One wears another mask, a monkey mask. (‘I’ve made

a monkey out of you’, perhaps?)

Furious, Number Six rips off the monkey mask, and is confronted with his own

face. His own laughing face.

So it is not until the last seconds of the last episode that we encounter the true

nature of the regimen imposed on Number Six. It is only then that we discover, to

our shock (but not really to our surprise) precisely how ‘all-seeing’ The Village’s

Panopticon really is.

We are now in a position to deploy an alternative – and more productive – read

of the dialog in that dreamlike opening sequence. To the question ‘Who is

Number One?’ the response

‘You are Number Six’

is really

You are, Number Six.’

The prisoner and the jailer are one and the same. This bitter vision of our entire

internal landscape as ‘The Village’ is what we arrive at after all of our

protagonist’s struggles and heroics. As the Village saying goes, ‘Questions are a

burden to others. Answers, a prison for oneself.’ Finding the answer to his

screamed question, ‘Who is Number One???’ reveals a prison inescapable.

In a construct where every person is constantly and completely surveilled,

Number Six’s parting words – ‘Be seeing you!’ – can be fully understood as both

a promise of revenge and a cry of despair.

The Prisoner is ‘an account of individuality, the passage from the epic to the

novel, from the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the

internal search, from childhood, from combats, to phantasies.’

The last episode ends in a phantasy, a dream sequence. The Prisoner’s little life

is rounded by a sleep.

So, at the end of it, does Number Six imprison himself? Do we all?

Appendix: Episode Guide With Original Air Dates

1. Arrival (10/1/1967)
2. The Chimes Of Big Ben (10/8/1967)
3. A B And C (10/15/1967)
4. Free For All (10/22/1967)
5. The Schizoid Man (10/29/1967)
6. The General (11/5/1967)
7. Many Happy Returns (11/12/1967)
8. Dance Of The Dead (11/26/1967)
9. Checkmate (12/3/1967)
10. Hammer Into Anvil (12/10/1967)
11. It's Your Funeral (12/17/1967)
12. A Change Of Mind (12/31/1967)
13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (1/7/1968)
14. Living In Harmony (1/14/1968)
15. The Girl Who Was Death (1/21/1968)
16. Once Upon A Time (1/28/1968)
17. Fall Out (2/4/1968)

[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 126

[2] Foucault, 42

[3] Foucault, 177

[4] Foucault, 97

[5] Foucault, 203

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Army, Flag and Cross" in April 2008 Free Inquiry

My essay "Army, Flag and Cross" will appear in the April issue of Free Inquiry. I recommend this magazine highly.

Quote of the Week

"If there is a sin against life, it consists not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life. "
Albert Camus

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nietzsche: The Most Crusty Polemicist Of Them All

At the age of 14, I sat in the cavernous balcony of the Stanley Theatre in Jersey City, waiting for the science fiction movie with the odd title to begin. The house lights went down and I settled deeper into my seat, ready to begin the familiar, beloved ritual.

The screen was completely dark. Slowly I became aware of a strange, deep bass rumble coming from the enormous Dolby speakers on the walls. The floor itself, the seats, were vibrating. On the screen, the camera was panning up over the dark side of the moon. Three brass notes sounded, rising; the music suggested infinite distance and enormous possibility. On the screen, Earth broke above the curve of the moon, and an enormous orchestral outburst slammed me back into my seat. As the fanfare continued, I experienced something I’ve never experienced since: the hair on the back of my neck and my arms stood up. I had to know what this music was, what it meant. The subject was not open for discussion. It was an obsession, you understand.

My investigations took me to the King Kullen record store in one of the sleazier neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan, where I bought the sound track for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I played that LP until it became unplayable, its uneven grooves reamed smooth by the needle. The liner notes told me that the piece that possessed me had an odd title, in a language I didn’t recognize: Also Sprach Zarathustra. The liner notes explained that it was composed by Richard Strauss as homage to a book with the same strange, incomprehensible title, written by some man with an equally comprehensible name. How exactly should I pronounce that name? Nye-chy? Nitch-key? Nysh?

Another (warning: bad pun ahead) odyssey to Manhattan secured me a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, which contained Zarathustra and several other works. And so I started reading.

Let me be clear: had it not been for Nietzsche, I would have wound up just another dead junkie in the low, dangerous, feral neighborhood where I grew up. I damn near wound up that way anyway, which is a whole other story. I have a t-shirt that reads, “Friedrich Nietzsche Saved My Soul.” People tell me how witty and totally post-modern it is. I tell them I'm dead serious.

Miraculously, I escaped to a small Jesuit college, where I majored in Philosophy and went head-to-head with the priests, full of the sort of tedious, humorless sincerity that only Humanities undergrads can muster. Nietzsche led me and my college peers to Camus and Sartre, and we all styled ourselves as engaged, indignant Existentialists, determined to change the world or at least change a few lives. You were either a Camusien or a Sartrean, and your life wasn’t worth a plugged franc if you got caught after dark on the Sartre gang’s turf with a copy of L’Etranger in your back pocket. We all wrote boatloads of philosophy, but in the spirit of our heroes we also wrote novels and plays and short stories. All of what we wrote was completely awful, of course, full of trite, portentous bathos and strident poseur bravado. What the hell; we put our hearts and souls into it, and we lived and wrote like we meant it.

You know the next chapter: life got in the way, as it always does, and I got waylaid, sidetracked, stopped ... for 30 years. And then one day five years ago, I found myself working on a software development project far from home, driving hours to and from work in the dark. With nothing in front of me but the cone of headlight, and no radio stations that far out, my quotidian mind slowed down and finally became quiet for the first time in decades. And that’s when I heard the little voice. Lethargically at first, as if struggling to wake from a long, drugged sleep, and then with increasing urgency, the small still voice said: Become who you are! At that moment, I felt something slip. It was a sensation, an actual physical sensation of a deep slippage inside my head. Something broke free, some great inner dam gave way and ideas poured through the breach and into my mind. An enormous flood of ideas, each demanding not only that I pay attention to it, but that I help it on its way out into the world.

And so, this blog. A place in the world for those ideas that are unlikely to grow into full-fledged essays, or books. I write constantly now, and am having some modest success in placing my work. But this place here, this is the place for the runts of my litter, my beloved runts.

So I found my way back, at the end, to Philosophy, to all of it, and when I’m grinding out the miles on the treadmill at my gym I wear my t-shirt proudly. And last March, I made an important pilgrimage, and stood at the head of the “Nietzsche Trail” in the mountaintop Hobbit village of Eze, the trail he walked up and down every day when he was writing Zarathustra. Standing there, I finally understood Nietzsche’s poetry of the great heights, his poetry of over-coming and under-going.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"The Suicide Bomber and the Leap of Faith"

My piece on Kierkegaard and humans who detonate themselves around other people is available at the Council for Secular Humanism web site. I'd be interest in people's opinions.

The Suicide Bomber and the Leap of Faith

opening para:

Suicide bombing is the targeted use of self-destructing human beings against noncombatants (“soft targets”), most often with the ostensible purpose of effecting geopolitical change. It is a psychological weapon, aimed not so much at a given bombing’s immediate victims but rather at the larger audience made to witness it. This deep understanding of the need to force others to witness makes the suicide bomber, by definition, a modern protagonist.

There are other levels of this modernity that bear close investigation. Why? Because to explain suicide bombings with reference to any single, overt “cause”—poverty, the Palestine question, or a reaction to Islamic eclipse—is to miss their essential nature. There are other things going on here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Quote of the Week

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good. -- Samuel Johnson

On this date in 399 BC ...

... the Athenian gadfly Socrates was sentenced to death for "corrupting the youth of Athens." I firmly believe that Socrates was guilty as charged, but also believe that the elders of Athens had no understanding of the nature of this corruption. Socrates was -- and remains -- a much more dangerous man than they could have imagined. I shall have a lot to say going forward about this man. For starters, I accuse Socrates of hating life more than any human being before or since. For this crime alone, he deserved the hemlock.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A short fiction piece accepted by Broad River Review

My short story, "Hump in a Field" (get your mind out of the gutter, that's not what it means and we're looking at another title ... :-) has been accepted for publication in Broad River Review 2008. I'll let you know when it's available, I know everyone will want to buy several copies for stocking stuffers, birthday presents, etc etc etc ...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Land of Taboo

The Strange Case of Ward Churchill

The United States has no meaningful legislation restricting what its citizens can and cannot say. But what it has developed, over several decades but with increasing intensity after 9/11, is the much more potent and effective concept of discursive transgression. America is a land of taboo, where laws against saying certain things are unnecessary

because the power structure that guards against discursive transgression are increasingly accepted – even embraced – by the citizens. It is understood by these citizens that to speak of certain things is to put oneself outside the bounds of civilized behavior, and beyond the protection of the State.

It is taboo to suggest that the United States’ oldest ally in the Middle East may havedevolved since 1967 into a rogue state and destabilizing influence that, were it a Muslimcountry, would be at the top of the U.S. list of ‘outposts of tyranny’. It is taboo to state ‘I am an atheist’. Even among purported ‘liberals’, saying this out loud causes the same sort of furtive, embarrassed glances one might expect if someone suddenly said the word ‘fuck’ at an academic conference. It is taboo to call into question the mantra of ‘Support The Troops’. It is a major transgression to suggest in any way that ‘the troops’ are professional soldiers, and therefore complicit in what they do abroad in America’s name.

There are many other examples that anyone living in the U.S. could add to this random list. There is a hierarchy of transgression at work here, and some ideas out on the perimeter are unanimously experienced as so dangerous that they evoke an automatic societal immune response. Among the most dangerous of these is the idea that the victims on September 11 ‘had it coming to them’ and ‘got what they deserved’. The affair that most dramatically transgresses this most serious of taboos is the case of Ward Churchill.

In a self-described ‘stream of consciousness’ essay written in the hours immediately after the attacks of September, Churchill described the World Trade Center victims as ‘little Eichmanns’ who deserved their fate. This sophomoric little rant disappeared into deserved obscurity until early in 2004, when Churchill was invited to speak at a small college in upstate New York. The topic, ironically enough was, “The Limits of Dissent”. Relatives of the 9/11 victims, along with the Governor of New York, denounced Churchill in strident terms. The speech was eventually cancelled because of the volume of death threats against Churchill and the head of the college.

Conservative media picked up the story, and began stroking it for all it was worth. The Colorado Assembly piled on and passed a resolution denouncing Churchill, eventually pressuring Colorado University to apologize publicly on Churchill’s behalf. For most Americans, Churchill’s case was the ‘flavor of the week’, a flickering shower

of pretty colors on the TV. But for those of us whose business it is to interrogate the implications of the Churchill affair, we need to reconstruct what Churchill said, and what he meant.

While Churchill has never retracted his ‘little Eichmanns’ statement, he has stated that he wished he had phrased it differently. Let’s see if we can’t manage to do the job for him, constructing a coherent framework of his ideas that will draw on various interviews that Churchill gave during the height of the controversy.

Churchill’s project revolves around the idea that the attacks of September 11 are not unprovoked assaults on an innocent people, but as the consequences of years of U.S. policies. He condemns the almost knee-jerk attempt by the average American citizen to claim the moral high ground in any given confrontation. That won’t stand, Churchill argues; not when the U.S. has Dresden and Hiroshima and the decade-long starvation of Iraqi civilians on its conscience.

‘All I've done is make a pronouncement comparable to what is done every day at the

Pentagon with regard to massive civilian fatalities here, there and everywhere... I did a

framing that was comparable in its purported insensitivity to what the Pentagon does as

business as usual with no complaint at all from the American public. In order to get at the target, the dead bystanders were ‘worth the price,’ to quote directly from Madeline Albright. [The terrorists] used the exact same logic used by Pentagon planners and U.S. diplomats - ‘This is an unavoidable consequence of getting at the target.’‘

Churchill criticizes the American people for their breathtaking ability to avoid thinking about these issues. To think about them would force the average American to confront his or her passive -- and, at times, active -- complicity in these policy objectives and methods.

Churchill does not accept the concept of the ‘innocent civilian’. The idea that American civilians could be unaware of their country’s actions a bit suspect. ‘You will not ignore this, purport to innocence while applauding genocide. You may not be directly culpable, but you're not innocent.’ He sees the Iraq situation – the current war, but even more importantly the twelve-year period between America’s two wars with Iraq – as an important object lesson to the entire world on exactly how American power will be deployed in a world without any significant ability to resist America’s actions. In Churchill’s view, the long starvation of the Iraqis was America’s way of saying to the world, ‘What we say goes - that's freedom. Do what you're told. And if you don't, basically the way this works out is we'll starve your children to death.’

Churchill argues that the civilian population of America has blood on its hands, explicitly and directly.And there is where things started to go over the edge, where Churchill entered the realm of American transgression and began to spend his days (and nights) as a shunned member of the Land of Taboo. Feeding off his ‘just like the Germans’ proposition, he elaboratedon what he meant by ‘little Eichmanns’. Churchill characterized Eichmann as ‘this nondescript little man, a bureaucrat, a technocrat, a guy who arranged train schedules, who, as it turned out, ultimately didn't even agree with the policy that he was implementing, but performed the technical functions that made the holocaust possible, at least in the efficient manner that it occurred, in a totally amoral and soulless way, purely on the basis of excelling at the function and getting ahead within the system.’

In a country where no one is innocent and the simple act of being part of the system is de facto complicity, Churchill is enraged that the functionaries are able to so blithely avoid ‘the taking of responsibility for the outcome of the performance of one's functions. That's exactly what it is that is shirked here, and makes it possible for people to, from a safe remove, perform technical functions that result in (and at some level, they know this,

they understand it) in carnage, misery, the death of millions ultimately. That's the Eichmann aspect. He symbolized all of these people who didn't directly kill anybody, but performed functions and performed those functions with a certain degree of enthusiasm and certainly with a great degree of efficiency, that had the outcome of the mass murder of the people targeted for elimination or accepted as collateral damage.’

It is clear that Churchill views the attacks of September 11 as military operations, rather than as the ‘senseless, horrific acts of terror’ framed by the American government and the American media. In his view, this was a counterattack against a superpower that had been committing equivalent acts against civilians around the world for decades. ‘It occurred to me at the time that somebody was finally kicking U.S. ass for the way the U.S. had been comporting itself. Rather than, ‘Why do they hate us?’ my initial response was, ‘How could they not?’ And as to who was doing it, the problem is how many contenders there are out there … if you're going to do it to other people on these pretexts and pretend it's OK, then you can't complain when it comes back to you in the same form.’

Churchill ruthlessly refuses to endorse the premises that allow American citizens to gain ‘personal benefit and profit’ from America’s actions abroad while simultaneous claiming ‘innocence and impunity from any consequence.’ From Churchill’s point of view, one could say that American civilians ‘had it coming’ in the

same sense that many Americans at the time felt that the civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima ‘had it coming’.

When Churchill moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, things start to get a bit spooky, and one begins to wonder about Churchill’s ability to make sense. What he seeks, what he desires most devoutly, is for the U.S. to be ‘gone: transform the situation to U.S. out of North America. U.S. off the planet. Out of existence altogether.

What’s on the map instead? Well let’s just start with territoralities often delineated in treaties of fact—territoralities of 500 indigenous nations imbued with an inalienable right to self-determination, definable territoralities which are jurisdictionally separate. Then you’ve got things like the internal diasporic population of African Americans in internal colonies that have been established by the imposition of labor patterns upon them.

You’ve got Appalachian whites, etcetera…’ It is when Churchill starts talking like that one realizes that one is dealing with a Romantic. And after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, after Iraq, a Romantic is a sad, laughable figure indeed.

His ‘stream of consciousness’ essay that bought him his fifteen minutes is something that every radical intellectual really has an obligation to read. But not because of its insightful analysis and scholarship. It is essentially a disorganized rant, written with the simple goal of appearing to be ‘controversial’. A sloppy scholar, Churchill wraps his unbalanced and ill-formulated writings in the sort of ‘latte radical’ verbiage that continues to be popular in the U.S. (though, thankfully, it appears to be dead or dying elsewhere).

He is a very confusing and exasperating man, a man who flirts with transgression without any real sense of deep engagement with the consequences of that transgression. If it hadn’t been for the hysterical reaction by the Right, be would have deservedly remained a non-event. Sadly, he did not remain a non-event, and American intellectuals need to start figuring out what they’re going to do about the Churchill issue.

There seems to be a deep schism, bordering on schizophrenia, amongst the remnants of what might have once been called ‘American intelligentsia’. American intellectuals seem to have run aground on a simple matter: whether to defend Churchill on a pure free speech basis, or whether to also defend his message. As so often happens amongst American intellectuals on the Left, this sort of predicament puts them into a full blown funk of analysis paralysis. We saw this same problem in the months prior to the Iraq war: American intellectuals on the Left seemed incapable of deploying a strong anti-war message while simultaneously speaking out against Saddam. It almost seems as if maintaining two even potentially contradictory ideas causes their brains to lock up.

The American Left must re-learn the talent of being able to defend controversial issues, while hanging on to its critical facilities and its ability to make subtle distinctions. It is really not all that difficult to make the mental commitment to the idea that Churchill is an unpleasant person, while simultaneously being willing to go to the

wall in defense of his right to be unpleasant. The problem – and, let’s be honest, it really isn’t all that complicated – is to find methods for defending academic freedom without endorsing Churchill as a man or as an educator, and above all avoiding the itch to buy into the man’s view of himself as a martyr. Expressing ideas that many find despicable does not make one a martyr – it simply makes one an American citizen, exercising one’s

basic right to speak one’s mind in as inflammatory a manner as one chooses.

American intellectuals in particular have a vested interest in defending Churchill’s basic right in this affair. Churchill is on the money when he tells us that ‘all of these death threats, and the forced cancellations of gigs and stuff, has been under threat of violence. And that's terrorism … It's the opening round of a general purge of the academy of

people who say things they find to be politically unacceptable’. We need to understand that it is easy for those who are using Churchill to advance their agendas to start with him; because they know that very few Left intellectuals will stand in solidarity with someone who is so unsavory. They know that Churchill is standing essentially alone. He is indeed, as he astutely observed, ‘the kick-off.’

One would be hard-pressed to find a less attractive poster boy for the simple, fundamental right to speak one’s mind in America. But ultimately it is neither the quality nor the content of his ideas that is at issue here. Neither is the content of his character. What is of paramount importance to us is, and must remain, his unconditional right to say what he said. Ward Churchill has an absolute, unfettered right to deliver his sad little

rants. Let me be clear on something: I don’t like Ward Churchill much. The more deeply I

looked into the man and his background, the more he seemed to be an intellectual fraud and a faux-ethnic. But the simple, frustrating fact of it is, to paraphrase a Rumsfeldism: sometimes you defend free speech with the poster boy you have, not the poster boy you would like to have.

Monday, February 11, 2008

ACTION ALERT: Oppose nomination of Richard H. Honaker to U.S. District Court

Feb. 11, 2008 - The Secular Coalition for America opposes the nomination of Richard H. Honaker to the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming and urges the Senate not to take up this nomination. On Tuesday, February 12 at 10:00 a.m. the Senate Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing on his nomination.

Honaker advocates that the U.S. Constitution created a Christian nation. In a speech to the 2005 Homeschoolers of Wyoming convention, he claimed that "As Americans, if taught accurately, history can teach us that the greatest American patriots and leaders were Christians, and that there is indeed a Christian basis for American institutions of law, government, and business."

From statements like "I came to know that if the Bible is true, if Christianity is true, then it is true in family life. It is true in economics. It is true in law, and it is true in all facets of human endeavor," it is clear that Honaker’s religious beliefs would take precedence over the U.S. Constitution.

Contact your Senators to voice your opposition to this dangerous nomination.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Forget Guantanamo" in the March 2008 Monthly Review

My essay "Forget Guantanamo" will be published in the March 2008 issue of Monthly Review. For those not familiar with MR, I recommend it highly.

Horror has a face

I like to present myself as pretty resistant to horror. It is difficult, after all, to maintain my crusty persona (The Crusty Polemicist, after all) if I am constantly being brought to outbursts of pubescent blubbing by the endless smorgasbord of mundane nightmares that life serves up to us with such seeming gusto. So I’m surprised at how horrified I was – and how horrified I remain, days later – by the latest outrage out of Iraq.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Two mentally disabled women were strapped with explosives Friday and sent into busy Baghdad markets, where they were blown up by remote control, a top Iraqi government official said.

The bombs killed at least 98 people and wounded more than 200 at two popular pet markets on the holiest day of the week for Muslims, authorities said.

As the parent of a mentally-disabled child, this incident has got hold of me, and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind. For several days, I've also been unable to shake the feeling that this reminded me of something. And this morning, I remembered what it was, and I remembered the words of poor, mad, doomed Colonel Kurtz.

It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God... the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that. These were not monsters. These were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that.

Polemic: The Art of War

The role of “public intellectual” never really took hold in America. Specifically, the public intellectual as political and cultural polemicist has been absent from the American scene. There have been exceptions (Mencken comes to mind) but they stand out precisely because of their status as “exceptions.” There has always been an enormous gulf between the “pointy headed intellectual” and the rough, broad-shouldered “man of action.” Say what one will about Teddy Roosevelt (and, dog knows, the man contained within his doughy body a breathtaking variety of uniquely American intellectual and emotional defects), the guy was always good for a useful quote.

"Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind."

In America, action has always trumped reflection, and the wellspring for action has always been emotionalism rather than reason. But can’t we advocate another view, the idea that thoughts can be a form of action, if they are communicated? Friedrich Nietzsche (someone I will trot out often on this blog as he so often suits my purposes) never really “did” anything in any sense that an American would understand. He had thoughts, he wrote them down and he got them out into the world. And yet Europeans – and civilized people in general – would have no problem with the idea that Nietzsche’s thoughts moved the world. Karl Marx also comes to mind, with his endless sedentary ruminations in the libraries of England: the thoughts he put to paper moved the world.

For rational, civilized people, there is no dichotomy between thought and action. Right thinking is seen as a form of action, and leads in a natural and unforced way to even more right action. And right action completes the loop by helping to shape more right thinking. This view of things is met with slow, blinking incomprehension in America. It’s time for us to engage in a bit of intellectual education. It’s time for those Americans who I refer to as “the sane, the secular, and the sensible" to go to war. Time to fight the most important war of our century, the war of ideas against the obscurantists, the fanatics, and the purveyors of offhand murder in the name of some “higher cause,” whether that higher cause be religion, some idealistic “ism,” or that most pernicious of alibis, “the spread of democracy.”

Who am I at war against? I am at war against “isms” of all kinds. Specifically, I am against those “isms” that seduce humans to yearn for some “Beyond” at the expense of this world. Because it is those who are focused on some “other life” that seem to find it all too easy to commit any outrage in this life, the only life there is. All those people who want to “change the world” scare the hell out of me. I’m with Camus: I don’t want to change the world; I just want to change lives. I think changing lives has much more value.

In America, we have an uphill slog, to say the least. American “thinkers,” such as they are, tend to be the sort of people that inspire a sort of bemused contempt in the typical American “men of action.” The enemies of reason have long known that we lovers of reason just don’t “get it.” Well, we need to “get it,” and sooner rather than later. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s time; long past time, maybe. Time for an end to the kind of ingrown, masturbatory self-regard that is the defining characteristic of the American intellectual. Time to move beyond the cowardice of excuses and alibis and “other priorities.” Time to stop asking our enemies to hold our hands and sing “Kumbaya” with us. It’s time to marshal our intellectual resources and go to war.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Open for business

The Crusty Polemicist is officially open for business.