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.

No comments: