Saturday, February 12, 2005

Putting my foot in it

I expect I'm being dangerously foolish here, but I'm going to revisit the Ward Churchill issue.

I mentioned it previously in another context, that of what really defines "political correctness," noting that he'd been denounced by two governors, the legislature of Colorado, and (I learned later) at least two members of the Colorado Congressional delegation - as well as being forced to resign as chair of his department at the University of Colorado and having his job threatened. By comparison, a general who about the same time called war "a hoot" and declared to appreciative laughter that it was "fun" to kill people was defended by his superiors.

I bring it up again now, as before, not so much to debate what he said or how he said it as to consider it in yet another context.

Ward Churchill wrote an angry, steam-of-consciousness essay in the wake of 9/11 vociferously denouncing the idea that the US was merely the innocent victim of an entirely unprovoked attack by people who were either insane or evil incarnate if not both. In fact, he argued, considering our history and the effects of our policies, we should not be surprised such an attack happened; rather, we should be surprised that it hadn't happened sooner.

Most of the reaction, ignoring his central argument, focused on a single phrase: "little Eichmanns." It occurs once in a roughly 5600-word essay but headed almost every bit of news coverage precisely because it was the most inflammatory thing in the whole work.

In the paragraph in which the phrase occurs, Churchill refers to
a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire ... braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants.
He insists now that those were the "little Eichmanns" he was referring to rather than, as he was accused, to everyone who died in the World Trade Center; Eichmann being one who didn't actually turn the nozzles on the gas chambers of the death camps but was responsible for making sure the whole system ran efficiently. It needs to be said that while the essay can easily be read that way, it is not abundantly clear - especially since Churchill also denounces the US peace and justice movement as collaborators:
[T]he "resistance" expended the bulk of its time and energy harnessed to the systemically-useful task of trying to ensure, as "a principle of moral virtue" that nobody went further than waving signs as a means of "challenging" the patently exterminatory pursuit of Pax Americana. So pure of principle were these "dissidents," in fact, that they began literally to supplant the police in protecting corporations profiting by the carnage against suffering such retaliatory "violence" as having their windows broken by persons less "enlightened" - or perhaps more outraged - than the self-anointed "peacekeepers."

Property before people, it seems - or at least the equation of property to people - is a value by no means restricted to America's boardrooms. And the sanctimony with which such putrid sentiments are enunciated turns out to be nauseatingly similar, whether mouthed by the CEO of Standard Oil or any of the swarm of comfort zone "pacifists"....
No one, in his view, is entirely innocent - including, in fact, himself.

With that background, this is the point I wanted to make now:

Since my post that mentioned him, I have seen several commentaries about this business on various lefty blogs. What struck me is that almost all of them followed the same pattern: "He was wrong, he was stupid, it was a terrible thing to say, I really really disagree, but hey, freedom of speech, y'know?" In fact and more importantly, both pattern and proportion ran the same way: They almost universally spent much more space establishing how much they disagreed with Churchill than they did defending his right to say what he thought; indeed, and this is the crux of the matter, it seemed they went out of their way to denounce him in order to lead up to a statement defending free speech. (No, I'm not going to link to any of them; the issue is not the particular content of any one of them but the pattern of argument they generally followed.)

I found that disturbing because it served as an example of something I raised almost two weeks ago:
[A]ll too often we [on the left] feel the need to demonstrate our right to express our ideas, the need to prove our right to speak.

When was the last time you heard some right-winger declare, for example, "I love my country but...?" So why do so many of us feel the need to make such pleadings? ... [S]till we do it, over and over. I can't help but fear that it's partly because we do believe, even unconsciously, that we have to establish that we are connected to the dominant power before our voices can legitimately be raised.
Relating that to the case at hand: Suppose someone on the left condemns, say, Ann Coulter for calling liberals of even the most moderate sort some variation of "traitors." Or suppose they get after someone who says - as I saw someone just yesterday say - that Howard Dean is a supporter of radical Islamic terrorism (Howard Dean??). Suppose they shout "How dare you say such a thing!" The reply they'll get from the right, to the extent they get a coherent one at all, will consist of "That's censorship! Censorship! Free speech, baby, free speech!" You will not hear them say "well, of course, yes, that was a foolish and wrong thing to say, oh yes, it was so wrong and never should have been said and oh yes, they are terrible people for saying such things but oh well, free speech applies even to jerks and idiots."

So why in hell do we feel the need to do it? Why couldn't we just say about Churchill, as the right would say to us in the equivalent situation, "hey, it's free speech; if you don't like it, go somewhere they don't have it?" Why do we continually feel the need to declare "oh no no no, they're not with us" whenever something like this comes up?

I want to reiterate here that what I'm talking about is not the idea of disagreeing with Churchill. It's rather that a good deal of what I read was structured in a way that denounced him as an excuse to, as a means to, justify his freedom to speak his mind, apparently out of a timorous fear of being accused - gasp - of agreeing with him, whether they did or not, if they failed to condemn him. It's just so frustrating that even with all the buzz about George Lakoff's notions about "framing," we still don't get it, we still don't get that this sort of duck-and-cover pre-emptive defense, let's call it, only serves to legitimize the very questions it imagines it's heading off.

We are so screwed.

Thanks to Harry at Scratchings for the link to Churchill's original essay.

Footnote One: What I'd be interested in hearing is some reactions to Churchill's central contentions. That is, strip away the overheated rhetoric, strip away the vituperation and vitriol, just get down to the bare bones of his root claims, which I see as these:

1. The US was not the innocent victim of an entirely unprovoked attack on 9/11.

2. In fact, such an attack was a logically predictable outgrowth of our policies. The only surprise is it hadn't happened before.

3. All of us here benefit to some extent from those exploitive policies and so none of us are entirely innocent because none of us have done enough to oppose them - although some are clearly more guilty than others.

From my perspective, the first two contentions are unarguable. They are simply, factually true. It should be unnecessary to say - but I will anyway because "should be" and "is" are unfortunately not the same - that does not in any way approve of the attacks, any more than predicting the catastrophic consequences of global warming is approving of them.

(In the episode "A Taste of Armageddon" of the original Star Trek series, two planets are fighting a centuries-old war that they have turned over to computers which engage in a virtual war. People on each side who have been determined by the computers as having been killed in an attack are required to report to disintegration chambers. After hearing it explained, Mr. Spock says to Captain Kirk "There is a certain scientific logic about it."

"I'm glad you approve," replies the leader of the planet they're on.

"I do not approve," Spock comes back. "I understand.")

As for the third, well, I suppose it's true in a sort of disconnected, free-floating, philosophical way, but it's not really of any use applied to real people living real lives in a real country. In fact, it can become dangerous, as a similar argument was used by some to excuse civilian deaths in both Afghanistan and Iraq: Because those people had failed to overthrow their oppressors, they deserved what they got. (As one person wrote to me in the wake of Gulf War I, "they brought in on themselves.")

At the same time, I do have to agree, unhappily, that I think we who oppose our nation's wrongs and inanities have not done enough to change them. The fact that they haven't changed is proof enough. That, however, may arise from our inability to do so, our inadequate political power. What's more important is that I also have to agree, guiltily, that we - and I include myself here - have not done what we can to that end. Yes, we all have commitments, requirements, demands, all sorts of limitations on our freedom to act, yes, some of us are held back by obligations to others, by health reasons, by let's say it fear. But even given all those constraints, we have some freedom to act, some leeway to operate. Are we using it to its full extent, to the extent the situation demands? Are you?

I must confess that I know I am not. Part of my reason is discouragement. No, not the election, no, not that Shrub got a majority, even if a thin one. No, it arises from other causes, one of I've laid out here: the continued stupid willingness of the left to adopt the right's terms of argument. Until we change that, we will continue to be so screwed.

Footnote Two: I'm going to toot my own horn a bit. I'm going to egotistically note that Lakoff's notions about framing are old hat to me. In April, 1991, I wrote that "No one in a political dispute should ever allow their opponent to frame the terms of debate - but that tactical sin is one of which the peace movement has been repeatedly, egregiously, guilty." Even earlier: In 1987 there was a controversy over a miniseries called "Amerika," which told the story of resistance to a Soviet invasion of the US which had been abetted by "liberals" and the UN. SANE (now called Peace Action) had first called on ABC to cancel the series but then changed its mind in favor of calling for "counter-programming" on the network. In January of that year, over 18 years ago, I wrote to SANE in response, saying in part
[t]he statement "the organized peace movement should not position itself in a way that will be construed as wishing to censor what Americans see" is an example of sloppy thinking or sloppy writing, one that tacitly accepts the reactionary notion that there is an absolute division between "the organized peace movement" and "Americans," that we of the peace movement are somehow not quite truly American.

Finding such attitudes in "National Review" (or even "TV Guide," which once said "If you know your customers, you'll never confuse the War Resisters League with Americans") is to be expected; finding them in a SANE memo is appalling.

You may regard my concern as hypersensitivity, but the fact is the words we use, the characterizations we accept or even endorse, can define and control the debate on the issues about which we care. If we continue to allow the right wing to define the terms of the argument, terms under which they are "American" and we are somehow not, they are of the people and we are somehow outsiders, then we consign ourselves to a perpetual uphill struggle, repeatedly wondering anew "how to reach the people we want to reach."
And finally, even earlier than that, in October, 1981, I said in a speech on conducting a third-party Congressional campaign that
[w]e Americans like to think of ourselves as a rational, clear-headed people. For that reason, Americans have a very low tolerance for what they perceive as slogans or rhetoric. Now, of course the Democrats and Republicans engage in rhetoric all the time, but the point is most people don't recognize it as such. It's part of the genius of the major parties that they can make their slogans sound like analysis, while we all too often make our analysis sound like slogans.

The message here is: Avoid rhetoric! Avoid lefty slogans! Avoid buzzwords! It's altogether possible with a little thought to express the most radical positions in a non-rhetorical fashion.
A couple of years later I was able to refer to a newspaper reporter who told me that I had "the ability to make the most radical positions sound like a voice of sweet moderation."

Too bad I didn't write a treatise on it. Maybe I'd be famous! now. : sigh :

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