“We are fighting a terrorism whose importance we never cease to deny or minimize. It is not a matter of fighting but of ‘trying to understand’ the other, because ‘knowing is fundamental’ and ‘the use of force leads nowhere.’. But these interpretive schemes suffer from a major problem: they confuse pretexts with causes…We must at all costs provide arguments for the killers, even if in doing so we seem to justify their acts.” -Pascal Brucker, The Tyranny of Guilt
Barely 3 years ago in the summer of 2010, a strange controversy emerged in the heart of Manhattan. The boring shell of a coat factory was about to be demolished; in its place would appear, as prepared in elegant blueprints, a 13-story edifice containing a mosque, theatre, swimming pool and food court- An Islamic YMCA. A string of objections arose, from the New York City Council to the microphones of cable news, insisting, for different reasons and in various tones, that this particular mosque should not be built- that proceeding to build it, as the mayor and then the president both suggested, would be not just unwise or offensive, but downright cruel.
The address, it was pointed out, was barely two blocks from Ground Zero, where 3000 people had been murdered barely a decade earlier. And the group that boasted its guilt in those murders, and the men who carried them out, proclaimed they had acted, been inspired to act, by the word of God, by specific lines in the Qu’ran that summoned the faithful to “jihad”. Of course that same book had also said, like nearly every religious scripture, that killing an innocent person was a horrible sin. As for the word jihad, aside from referring, in one context, to an internal battle for moral purity, came, when it did to refer to holy war, with some well-specified restrictions. It had to be used in self-defense against a real military adversary; an attack on random civilians certainly didn’t qualify. Even suggesting it did- that God’s last prophet on earth had left instructions for serial killers- was not rigid fundamentalism but its exact opposite; rather than emphasizing the fundamentals, a group of madmen had shunned them completely. Thus many people were naturally perturbed by why a controversy existed at alll. It had to be pure ignorance about Islamic theology, and a hateful contempt for Muslim Americans, that led certain vocal commentators to rally against Park51.
But of all the critics of the mosque, those who said it had to be stopped, by which they really meant moved, only a tiny fringe were singing the chorus of generic bigotry. The vast majority had no objection to a mosque, wherever it happened to be built, provided it be funded and run by genuine moderates. But Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who’d purchased the property, who would run the community center once it opened, was no moderate. Or rather he was not moderate enough. A man who condemned all terrorism, even that of Hamas, (which other supposed moderates, like Yusuf al Qaradawi are prone to defending), who authored a book titled “What’s right with Islam is what’s right with America”- such a man, surely, was no fire-breathing radical? It was claimed he’d been too hesitant in condemning Hamas- but he had, afterall, condemned it, so what was the problem?
Its true that uncomfortable rumors surfaced about how the mosque was being paid for- generous Saudi charities, which have built fundamentalist mosques from Morrocco to Chechnya, might be more than willing to help their brethren in Manhattan- which would raise the disturbing question of which Islam was being preached, the liberal Islam of the constitution-quoting Imam Rauf, or the brutal Wahhabi version of Muhammed Atta. But there was no conclusive proof of this Saudi funding, conceivable though it doubtless was. and it would’ve been rather hypocritical, not to say awkward, for the US to prevent its citizesn from taking Saudi donations, Saudi Arabia, afterall, being our most bizarre, unnatural ally- but a continuing ally nonetheless.
Of all the uncertainties voiced about Imam Rauf, whether he or his funding passed the litmus test of moderation, only one detail seemed truly unnerving- seemed to warrant, if not “stopping” the mosque, then at least discussing whether to stop it. On September 30, 2001- when the rubble was still being cleared, when the trauma was still at its rawest- he made a carefully worded statement crowded with ambiguities: the ambiguities, while making very clear what he didn’t mean, left a lot of uncomfortable doubt about what he did mean:
“I wouldn’t say the United States deserved what happened. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime”. The US was implicated, he added, in “millions of innocent lives dying in the world.”
Here, the critics began to point, was proof of how he really felt. “I won’t say the US deserved the attacks”- was that ever a serious possibility, a thesis to weigh and reject? Apparently, for some people it had been.
Think what you will of the building permit at park51; it’s now a thriving community center, and the world has moved on. What is worth recalling now is Rauf was not in fact unique in his sentiments; a disconcerting array of prominent figures, in language even more ambiguous and much more insensitive than Mr. Rauf’s, echoed the same instinctive response to the scenes of horror in Manhattan. From French philosopher Jean Bruillard, saying all the terrorists wanted was to “change the rules of the game”, rebelling understandably against “technocratic machinery and the dominant way of thinking” (as if Bin Laden were a modern luddite,raging against the secular machine); to linguist-turned radical Noam Chomsky, who said the whole narrative was wrong: rather than evil terrorists hating us for our freedoms, “we hate them (the terrorists!) for their freedom”- a sizable list of not un-respectable people, writers of bestselling books and holders of prestigious titles, joined Mr. Rauf in hinting that Americans were an accessory to the crime. That crime, in fact had been partial punishment, however barbaric.
This thesis in its cruellest extreme was voiced by a man named Ward Churchill; his short furious essay Some push back: on the Justice of roosting chickens, propelled him from relative anonymity to a sort of infamy. That essay made the common contention, filled with woeful logical holes ,that as Mary Beard put it “we had it coming”. He repeated, with better diction but equal venom, one of the many charges made in bin Laden’s October 2001 video, the one where for the first time he admitted his role in 9/11. After his usual complaint about Americans in Saudi Arabia (invited by his former sponsors in the Saudi government), and after the passing mention of Palestine, he added a damning indictment of American sanctions against Iraq. Bin laden called those sanctions, designed in 1991 to prevent Iraq’s rearmament- “the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known”; Churchill concurred, saying they constituted genocide.
It is a surreal experience to read, in a few agitated paragraphs about modern Iraq, the word “genocide” used to describe UN resolutions- with no inconvenient reminder of what was, indeed, a real ‘Iraqi genocide”, the one the no-fly zones and sanctions were designed to end.
These allegations, though were hardly original- plenty of other voices on the far left, or what passes for the left in the years since 1989, have shown the same sloppy indifference to the grim facts about Iraq, content to indict the west and tacitly exonerate the Ba’athists. And that, in any event, is not what made Churchill reviled; its not what he says got him fired, and what, bizarrely, made him a cause celebre defended by Chomsky and Zinn.
The great shock of “roosting chickens” is that, in a perverse parody of logic, it revives a discredited belief in collective guilt. It implies the attack on America was not explainable, but explicitly defensible; that the 19 hijackers had- yes, he wrote this- the “courage of their convictions”; and that no- he wrote this too!- were not in fact motivated by the dream of an Islamic caliphate, but by the noble (and secular) motive of “pushing back” against the empire. And then his final point, the one that earned him the most disgust: that the 3000 civilians who were burned alive, rather than noncombatants whose deaths had been tragic- were “little Eichmanns” who’d gotten a “penalty befitting” their ‘crimes’.
This was of course the point where most people stopped reading, or where, if they did keep reading, they felt their earlier detached disapproval morph into something approaching nausea. Working in the world trade center, Churchill reasoned meant doing the work of American corporations, and that made them willful, guilty members of a “perpetrator population”. Every phone call they made perpetuated world hunger; every “stock transaction” implicated them in the “flesh of rotting infants”. Readers of novels are asked to suspend their disbelief; readers of this commentary should, for the moment, suspend their disgust- just long enough to consider what he’s actually saying, and how, aside from approaching sadism, its also achieved the height of irrationality.
Churchill’s dim view of capitalism- as a system directly guilty for the suffering and death of millions, as a paramount source of injustice around the world- is quite visibly reminiscent of the classic Marxist critique, capitalism in all its varieties was irretrievably brutal, it survived by exploiting the workers, and when need be killing them- and the moral appeal of communism, as distinct from its historical arrogance – rested on the bold promise to replace it was something more humane. And certain Communists, once in power, had acted much as Churchill said they should- suppressing the former capitalists with horrific violence, punishing whole families for their ties to the class enemy. hence the dismal fate of the Russian kulaks, slaughtered by Stalin after resisting collectivization, or the former industrialists in china who Mao initially urged to stay, offering them a role in the new china before purging them in the cultural revolution. But these were the actions of tyrants, not the prescriptions of philosophers.
Marx, and later Lenin and the Bolshevik party as a whole were quite vocal in denouncing the anarchists and Narodniks, and also their main rivals the Mensheviks, for using, on a smaller scale, the tactics al Qaeda would later update. The demise of the bourgeois state would come through organized, public action- either a revolutionary vanguard or the workers themselves; “individual terrorism”, spectacular random violence aimed at symbolic targets, was politically immature and tactically disastrous. In a different country and year, with different terrorists, Ward Churchill might’ve found himself arguing with a victorious Lenin; and might’ve lost a bit more than his job at a university.
The scuffles between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks might seem irrelevant- those ideological battles are long over. But his rant about 9/11, beneath the veneer of vindictive rage, is in some ways a fitting symbol of how the far left has devolved. The demise of the soviet union- and long before that, the demise of belief in the soviet union- left the true believers of the left politically orphaned. Some disillusioned Trotskyists made a leap to the right, replacing Trotsky’s socialist revolution with a democratic one, proposing a massive political transformation of the middle east. (The neo-conservatives have been vilified more than they deserve, and history, I think, will be kinder than current public opinion.) Others, remaining on the left- and in the process transforming it- shifted their intellectual energy from creation to criticism. Before, they’d plotted the revolution, now, bemoaning its death, they attacked the society that had rejected it. A scholar named Andrei Markovitz, who wrote for years about the evolution of the left, and was a longtime supporter of the German Social democrats, devoted his latest book to the subject of anti-Americanism; among other interesting things, he argues that anti-Americanism- a total rejection of what the US stands for, not just politically but culturally- has formed an ideological glue to unite the post-socialist left. It is a negative ism, but a useful ism nonetheless, after all the positive utopian ones have gradually crumbled.
Thus the basic political categories that had mattered before- reactionary and revolutionary, theocratic and secular- were suddenly, loudly discarded for a simpler dichotomy: you were for the Empire, or against it. And if you were against it, it didn’t matter why. Its doubtful that Churchill is really convinced, abundant evidence to the contrary, that al Qaeda’s defining goals have nothing to do with political Islamism; but this little detail- al Qaeda’s basic ideology and long-term goals- are only at all relevant if you admit they are relevant. And in order to think they’re relevant, you have to bothered by political Islamism. You have to judge the Islamic emirate in Afghanistan and Sudan, governments guilty of mass murder and in sudan’s case of genocide, as not just political failures but human nightmares. Even if you are disgusted with all or part of American policy, you have to preserve the basic willingness to see other threats. That’s what the Italian communists decided back in ww2, when they welcomed the American capitalists who helped them bury Mussolini. And that’s what ward Churchill refuses to do, and he’s not alone in that refusal, when it comes to the modern crisis that started in may 1996, when osama bin laden formed the “global Islamic front against jews and crusaders.” the socialist dream is dead, but the capitalist nightmare remains, and the enemy of their enemy can never be worse than their corporate enemy.
But why, you’re impatiently asking, does ward Churchill really matter? He wrote a vindictive rant and called an essay, but both its tone and its thesis were too cruel to be taken seriously. And yet, it was taken very seriously, by Mr. Churchill himself, and according to some, by his university employers. For in 2005- a full four years after his hateful essay hit the press- ward Churchill lost his job at the university of Colorado. The officially given reason was research misconduct; but really, his defenders countered, he was fired because of his shocking views- or if you prefer, in the words of a “letter from concerned academics”, for his “radical critique of US history and present-day policy in the post 9/11 world”. An activist group emerged on Churchill’s behalf, calling itself Teachers for a Democratic Society, an obvious echo of students for the same goal- claiming, amazingly, the mantle of the 1960s far left, a movement that, for all its blunders, all its pleasant illusions, had still had a basic knowledge of what it wanted, and what it didn’t want. It might’ve condoned aggressive protests that often turned violent, and in the case of the weather underground, even terrorism, but it endorsed women’s liberation, not theocracies that kept women from going to school; its martyr were Che Guevara, not Mohammed Atta.
What is more important and compelling than Churchill’s own words is the vocal defense he received from much more moderate, or at least more polite voices. He was able to frame his loss of a job as a matter of free speech, charging Boulder’s ivory tower nearly Orwellian motives, getting a firm endorsement from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, being invited to argue his case on Democracy Now, and trying unsuccessfully to take his case to the supreme court. The world socialist website, online organ of the now-miniscule Fourth international- remember Trotsky, comrades?- described his firing as proof of a grim “McCarthyist witch-hunt”. (It also bemoaned his subsequent woes at the hands of nefarious republicans. his speech at Hamilton college in upstate college, a four hour drive from Manhattan, was allegedly cancelled after the intervention of “right wing elements”. Apparently if New Yorkers are uncomfortable with being lectured a Bin Laden apologist, they automatically belong in the same sentence as Bill O’Reilly.)
It would of course be natural for free speech advocates to voice principled concern, if Churchill’s free speech were actually being threatened- like a holocaust denier in Germany, or a communist in South Korea. But there’s no evidence, except Churchill’s own allegations, that his angry essay had anything to do with him being fired; if the “little Eichmanns” theory was the real catalyst, then why wouldn’t he have been fired back in 2001? It is of course a humiliating experience to be accused of research misconduct, which implies afterall a breach of academic ethics; being fired for incendiary comments, and thus claiming in a strange way, the moral high ground, would be much a more desirable fate for a self-styled radical, or indeed for any professor who enjoys the prestige of his job. But why has Churchill’s minor loss- of a job at a state university- transformed him, in the eyes of the left- the very respectable eyes of Howard Zinn, the gentle intense eyes of Amy Goodman, the erudite eyes of professor Chomsky- into a virtual martyr for a poorly defined cause?
Churchill is a free man, his books are available nationwide, no less than 4 can be checked out, irony of beautiful ironies, at the university of Colorado’s own library. Very few societies, now or in human history, would be so tolerant of a man who celebrated the massacre of his fellow citizens, who in what is afterall a time of war, wrote a ringing endorsement of the enemies and even their character. The civilians he equates with Eichmann were citizens of the country that defeated Eichmann, that forced him into a doomed exile until the Mossad dragged into a courtroom; and that after losing countless lives defeating the likes of Eichmann, still let its citizens buy copies of Mein Kampf, write books denying the holocaust, organize a completely legal American Nazi party.
If the once-socialist left has dwindled to minute proportions, its historical importance and seriousness ensures it will always matter- probably not at election time, but certainly in the world of ideas and arguments and theories. A peripheral world, you can say, but one of surprising endurance and often vocal persistence. The fate of the far left, in other words still matters- because it alone defines what it means to be radically discontent, to find gaping Marxian holes in the corporate wall, to learn that American history is not in fact, a normal Rockwell painting, and to translate these realizations into a way of responding- to current events, to current problems, to current disasters. In its much happier past, the left was quite good at this- it looked at the fascists and Nazis and said- we have to fight them in Spain or we’ll be fighting them in Hawaii. It took one look at Stalinism and leapt away, looking to Trotsky and Mao for alternatives; then it discovered the cultural revolution and there was another idol, smashed. There were always a fair number of self-deceivers, fellow travellers who stuck with Stalin till the end, but a moving majority of the far left, which called itself democratic, and really tried to be- was unafraid of facing the dark historical truths, and thus by 68, the faith in the party was over- they were Situationists, anarchists, Third Worldists, not the dogmatic Marxists who fell for the Soviet ruse.
But after decades of clear sight, however difficult; after the self-criticism of repentant Maoists, the anti-capitalists had nothing to lose but their hope- and lose it they did. George Galloway, the British parliamentarian, said the saddest day of his life was December 8th, 1991, the day the soviet union was officially dissolved. And like Galloway, defending everyone from Saddam Hussein to Mahmoud Ahmedinjad (never mind what they thought of each other), the far left as a whole, in Europe and America alike, has found no replacement for its revolutionary hopes- no replacement except the fear of American empire, the knee-jerk aversion to its any and all of its policies, even when, as happened in 2001, they went through a seismic shift one that made the old assessment hopelessly dated, the old assumptions and labels inapplicable.
The war on terror should not have been a conservative project; calls for womens’ liberation in Afghanistan, for minority rights in Iraq, should not have been the exclusive slogans of George bush. But, as it turned out they were, because while the centrist (democratic) party nodded in bipartisan agreement, the antiwar movement had something quite different to say. And this antiwar movement, in effect, was an heir of the other, nobler one- only now, it had no illusions left. Just complaints and objections and a general discomfort with empire. Instead of feeling in Manhattan, the rage Neruda had felt in Spain, telling his still neutral readers to come and see the blood in the streets; instead going to Madrid, in the footsteps of Orwell, to document how the new fascists were repeating the crimes of the old ones, turning the same city into a bloodbath just like Franco; instead of mourning Faraj Fodha, assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood, just as they’d mourned for Lorca, shot by the Catholic Falange- instead of doing what they had done before, fighting the obviously good fight, the American and western left equivocated, stumbled, squinted- were things really what they seemed? Was a war on terror really required? Or was the real evil empire- ours that is, bent on finding new enemies and testing more weapons?
None of this was logical to ask, let alone easy in the weeks and months- and then the era- after 9/11. But if many concluded that date was the start of a new era, a significant portion of the left perceived it as an extension- and product- of the old one. They avoided the gratuitous cruelty of Some push back: but if they were nice enough to reject its verdict- equating the innocent dead with so many Eichmanns- they were much more open to pondering its less original starting point- that the attacks were a terrible indictment, less of al Qaeda than of America. That a healthy resentment of imperialism, taken to unhealthy extremes, had been the motive, if only subconscious, of the self-styled jihadists. That, as Ani Difranco put it, America had fallen to its knees- but only after a whole century of “not saying thankyou or please.”
We should’ve been quicker to thank our allies around the world, and ask please from the UN and the citizens of Okinawa; and we should’ve found the moral courage to utter a public sorry, to the people of Chile, Iran, and Nicaragua, to name a few of the countries where America had a less than positive influence. We should’ve also have been quicker and louder in saying no and stop- to Trujillo, to Saddam, to Assads senior and junior. But none of these changes in policy, let alone changes in word choice, would’ve been of any use in preventing 9/11, convincing Mohammed Atta that our people didn’t deserve to be slaughtered, preventing bin laden from issuing his fatwa against Jews and Americans- all Jews, all Americans, no exceptions. Nor would it have stopped the Tsarnaevs from killing an 8 year boy in Boston, and planning to blow up times square. And while it’s a perfectly good idea to say please to countries, and governments, and waiters and teachers, it won’t be of any help to say please to al Qaeda, to plead, come on, be reasonable.
A basic requirement of war is knowing the enemy- not just tactics or battle plans but the reasons he declared war in the first place. Misunderstandings about the former can be quickly corrected through experience; misunderstandings about the latter can prove far more trenchant, especially when a society is suffering, like a reader of a cheap novel, from the unremitting tendency to disbelief. It is not pleasant to learn that people hate us enough to kill us- and to realize the plural “us”, as defined by our would-be killers, known none of the normal distinctions we take for granted- between soldier and civilian, old and young, Christian, Buddhist or Atheist, corporate lawyer or janitor. The human attempt to cope is defined by a search for rational explanations. Hatred, however, defies these, and always will. There was no rational grounds, for instance, for the KKK’s hatred of black Americans; one could blame political context and the ruin of the devastated South, the perceived humiliation of the defeated Confederates, for the century of lynchings and segregation that followed the civil war, but this would not, in the end, explain the reality of hatred itself, let alone make it less deadly. One can choose, or decline, to attribute some genuine grievances to Al Qaeda, to agree or argue with Arundhati Roy, who said the 19 “boys” were motivated by- yes, injustice. That will allow a useful confidence in a rational universe- at the price of increasing, blissful detachment from the terrible facts of the real one.
An anecdote from the Cold War describes a European diplomat in Moscow; in his own country he regarded himself as a committed leftist, and had come to the Soviet east with a cautious sympathy. Then, one night in his room, he heard a sharp, bizarre sound, which he eventually recognized as a scream. Thus ended his sympathy for the KGB, and also, one’s prone to suspect, his knee-jerk contempt for American imperialists, who maybe, he started thinking, were not the real imperialists after all. The anecdote, its worth observing, could’ve been much less simple and optimistic; our leftist diplomat could’ve dug up some earplugs in his suitcase; could’ve taken a walk in the park until the screaming stopped; or could’ve told himself the person screaming was not innocent, that he was a kulak, an American spy- or a typist for a major corporation, a cell-phone-owning technocrat.
It has been stated, again and again, with understandable emphasis, that Ward Churchill’s essay was- to put it mildly, insensitive, and to put it bluntly, disgusting. Something else should be said of it, something much more fundamental and damning: it was wrong. Willfully wrong, and despite offending, hurting, and taunting, it also reassured, because its still possible to think, incessant evidence to the contrary, that Al Qaeda, like the Viet Cong, is doing nothing more sinister than striking back against the empire.
The Left has squashed its other illusions; I think, in due time, it will squash this one too. Then it can fill the difficult role that it did in the still memorable past, calling a totalitarian evil by its proper name, conveying the clarity and urgency of the need to fight it. It can also, with a sort of humility, succeed where it once failed, invoking something more modest, but in the end greater, than revolution. A society like the one we’ve created, where men like Ward Churchill can write essays like “Some push back”, is the best argument one can find that America has succeeded- not yet in defeating Al Qaeda, but certainly in preserving what that organization wants most to destroy: a liberal democracy with unparalleled levels of human freedom.
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