National Narcissism and the Racist, Neo-McCarthyite Assault on Ward Churchill

By now, ZNet readers are familiar with the reactionary witch hunt against the prolific radical indigenist professor, author, speaker, and activist Ward Churchill, who was mugged by fascist FOX News thug Bill O’Reilly and then prevented from making a speech at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Churchill has been ripped by New York’s moronic Republican Governor and the paleocon editorial page of Wall Street Journal. Taking their cue from the big authoritarians out east, local corporate media authorities in Churchill’s home base of Colorado have called for racist, neo-McCarthyite investigations of his ethnic ancestry and radical “anti-American” scholarship. Churchill has resigned his position as chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado.

The Churchill controversy has provided the hard American right with another opportunity to advance their bogus claim that the nation’s higher education systesm is suffering under the grip of leftist domination.

Currently the Board of Regents at the University of Colorado is taking a month to read all of Churchill’s voluminous writings to date with a fine-toothed comb, looking for flawed footnotes and the like. They’ve got their work cut out for them.

The charges revolve, of course, around Churchill’s comments two and half years ago on the day after 9/11, when he said that some of those who died in the towers were less than purely innocent “technicians of [US economic] empire” and that the attacks were an example of people “push[ing] back” against abusive US global power.

Personally, I wish that Churchill had not referred to some of those who died (stock traders) in the twin towers on 9/11 as “little Eichmans.” I also wish he had been more careful to avoid any implication that the jetliner terrorists represented some sort of just response to American imperialism. In the spring of 2002, I wrote a long essay critcizing those on the “liberal left” (ie Dissent Magazine crowd) who accused radical left (the so-called “the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein” crowd) of thinking that way about the 9/11 hijackers: “Towards a ‘Decent Left’ ?: Liberal-Left Misrepresentation and Selective Targeting of Left Commentary on 9-11,” Z Magazine (July/August 2002): 61-68, reproduced as the third chapter in my book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11).

Still, consistent with Churchill’s comments, I was completely unsurprised by the 9/11 attacks in the light of America’s lawless foreign policy. I didn’t know about jet planes as weapons but I had been expecting a major attack—- something much bigger, to be honest — on NYC and/or Washington DC and from the Middle East for quite some time. For most of the day itself, I sat in front of the television screen thinking “well, of course…what did people think was going to happen?” and reflecting that we’d gotten off relatively easy given the scale of our monumental criminality — like the 500,000 dead Iraq children (killed by essentially US-imposed United Nations sanctions) that Madeline Albright called a “price worth paying” to advance “noble” US objectives. Or like the many thousands of Palestinians killed with US-made weapons by the regressive, racist, and hyper-militarist US client-state Israel.

“Chickens,” as Malcom X pointed out after the coldly murderous imperial miltiarist JFK’s assassination, do “come home to roost.” There’s no reason to expect the roosting chickens to be pretty anti-imperialist heroines, romantic guerillas, and noble comrades from the South.

I agree with Churchill that massive numbers of Americans are willfully and intentionally ignorant about the lawless behavior of the US in the world, not to mention about the unjust and racist social structures that persist at home and feed imperialism abroad. I see and hear it every day, from Americans (and not always just white Americans) who don’t want to be bothered by thinking about foreign and domestic injustice and who don’t want to feel what that injustice is doing to others (and to themselves as well). Avoidance and denial…and then clueless surprise or outrage when something terrible inevitably happens to Americans in the wrong place at the wrong time: Pearl Harbor, the Tet Offensive, 9/11, the GI victims of roadside bombs in contemporary Iraq.

Some Americans have experienced 9/11 in authentically truth-seeking terms, taking it as a wake up call about US policy. But far too few have gone down this path. Too many of my countrypersons are using 9/11 not as a chance to learn about America’s role in the world but as red flag and a Reichstag fire: a justiification for the re-escalation of imperial criminality and an excuse for the embrace of mindless conformity and repression. As Noam Chomsky noted on the day, the jetliner attacks were a great gift to the hard jingoistic right, the enemies of civil liberties, and the servants of concentrated wealth and power.

I am personally indebted to Churchill’s massive, extensively documented research and writing on American war criminality and genocide. He has produced an exhaustive, morally informed and publicly engaged scholarship record that puts most of the nation’s narrow and conservative academics to shame. I used his work frequently in lecturing on native-American genocide back in the days when I was still permitted to inhabit the supposedly “left-dominated” academic world (for reflections on supposed radical hegemony in higher education, see my “Defending Civilization and the Myth of Radical Academia,” ZNet Magazine, July 15, 2002, [which is also the second chapter in my book Empire and Inequality], at http://www.zmag.org/content/ showarticle.cfm?SectionID=2116). I relied on his book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens to write a long essay titled “Those Who Deny the Crimes of the Past: American Racist Atrocity Denial, 1776-2004,” ZNet Magazine (March 11, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=40&ItemID=5135.

That essay, I might add, provoked a stream of right wing-hate mail and the accusation of ‘treason’ from diverse quarters —from people who have chosen to close their eyes to a record of racist imperial policy and often enought atrocity that makes tragedies like 9/11 all-too predictable.

Take a look at Churchill’s controversial post-9/11 book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (AK Press, 2003). Much of it is a fairly tedious read: an exhaustive catalogue of American lawlessness, amply documented and supported by the author’s detailed grasp of existing international statutes and codes.

Sure, the back has a picture of WC wearing a beret and carrying an AK 47 but the basic argument in the book is that the way to protect Americans from terrorism is to respect international law. Imagine.

Most Americans simply can’t be bothered to check the record of US conduct against standard international laws and norms of civilized decency. There’s a lot of reasons for this but a big one is the simple and widespread assumption that we are good by definition and therefore don’t have to look in the mirror like other nations and peoples in so-called “failed societies” and “failed states.”

The criminal diplomat Albright said that “American stands taller and sees farther than other nations.” After all, Kay Bailey Hutchinson (US Senator, R-Texas) says, America is “the beacon to the world of the way life should be.”

That sort of language reminds me of the “City on a Hill” rhetoric that the Puritans of New England used to justify their merciless slaughter of native North Americans. Their smug, over-proud, and self-satisfied racist narcissism informed diary etchings in which British New England’s fundamentalist un-”settlers” repeatedly thanked God for permitting them to kill the continent’s indigenous population with ease.

This belief that “we are good” does help make many Americans into accomplices in imperial criminality.

Americans can write hate-mail messages to authors who point this out. They can abandon their nation’s historic, justly cherished free speech traditions, and stick their heads in the sands of history and up the ass of a reactionary false patriotism. Or they can grow up and join the civilized world in trying to do something about the tragic and interrelated sorrows of empire and inequality. Neither choice is without risk.

Paul Street is a radical anti-racist writer and researcher in Chicago, IL


There’s been some excellent left commentary on this controversry, including:

Alex Cockburn at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=43&ItemID=7188

Robert Jensesn at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=43&ItemID=7248

Mike Albert at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=43&ItemID=7210

David Peterson at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=30&ItemID=7283

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