The funny thing about Ward Churchill's essay is how much response it got in the mainstream media and how much political furor it aroused. The essay was not that original or insightful, and would have been dismissed on most parts of the web. On Everything2, it would have had some "All Your Radical Ideas..." softlinks attached to it, and then been deleted. On Slashdot, it would have been modded -1, Flamebait. If Slashdot had a rating for -1, Godwin's Law, it would have earned that. I imagine that in some Usenet groups, it would attract some attention.
The essay was written shortly after September 11th, and placed the blame for the September 11th attacks on the United States of America's aggressive foreign policy. It does so in language and arguments that infuriated many, because it basically said that Americans were responsible for their own deaths. While I can understand why this would infuriate so many people with its callousness so soon after the attacks, what bothers me is that Professor Churchill seems to not know about Godwin's Law, or more traditional rules of writing, such as the need to avoid straw man and ad hominem attacks. I was further bothered by the subtext of ethnocentricism and an Aristotelian view of active and passive agents.
First, Godwin's Law: Churchill parallels America's overwhelming massacre of the Iraqi Army in the First Iraq War to Hitler's drive into Russia during World War II,and thus says that Americans bear the same collective guilt that the Germans did for supporting the Nazis. It's an interesting shell trick: the Nazis were not as reviled as they were because they launched aggressive, brutal or even illegal wars that killed soldiers and civilians. They were reviled because they rounded up and killed innocent civilians by the millions. Churchill seems to be purposely or accidentally confusing the fact that America's army did one thing the German army did (win a battle in a brutal manner), with the fact that the Nazis unleashed a genocide. He makes the same mistake, or trick, when he calls the employees at the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns". Their connection with Eichmann is that they were not directly involved in the negative damage they did. Although his absence and refusal to directly involve with what he did did make Eichmann repugnant, it was what he did indirectly that was terrible. The people at the World Trade Center and Eichmann were both absent from their crimes. But I am going to go way out on a limb here, and say that global capitalism, while having many negative consequences, is not the same as ordering millions of people tortured and gassed.
His straw man attacks are even worse cliches: Americans ignored the suffering of Iraqis because they were busy
Getting "Jeremy" and "Ellington" to their weekly soccer game, for instance, or seeing to it that little "Tiffany" an "Ashley" had just the right roll-neck sweaters to go with their new cords.
Yes, the American crime of having yuppie kids with dumb names and driving them to soccer games means that America is responsible for any bad things that happen in the world. Also, apparently, Americans refer to Iraqis as
"towel-heads" and "camel jockeys"; or was it "sand niggers" that week
And, American pilots
The men who flew the missions against the WTC and Pentagon were not "cowards."
That distinction properly belongs to the "firm-jawed lads" who delighted in flying stealth aircraft through the undefended airspace of Baghdad,
Does this really sum up all of America's culture: driving kids to soccer practice, while muttering racial epithets and delighting in bombing people? According to the essay's emotional tone, it does.
These misrepresentations are not my major worry: my major worry about the essay is something I have noticed so prevalent in American culture, and in liberal culture, that it is hidden in front of our eyes. Fascism is a cultural system that divides the world into strong and weak, and says strength is only of value. Liberalism is a cultural system that divides the world into strong and weak, and says that only weakness has value. Churchill seems to divide the world into America, full of strong jawed, persecuting lads, and all the little brown people that they are constantly hurting. The fact that he chooses to identify with the persecuted rather than the persecuter doesn't make this dichotomy any less disturbing to me.
Attached to this is the fact that Churchill seems to be embracing the Aristotelian dichotomy between the active and the passive, that has prevailed for so long and still exists in a hidden form today. In Aristotle, the male was the rational, the actor, and everyone else was subject to his whims, matter waiting to be formed. Churchill seems to go into detail about how American's actions have added misery and death to the world, focusing on the truly devastating effects of the US blockade, and the rising rates in child mortality it caused. While the United States was responsible for this, the government and the people of Iraq were not helpless clay waiting for our decision. There were things they could have done to alleviate the situation.
But not, apparently, in Professor Churchill's world. Professor Churchill seems to think that American technocapitalism is the only active agent in the world, and everyone is waiting for its action. America is the leading player in the world today, but its actions did not come about in a vacuum. America, its capitalist system, and the World Trade Center, for that matter, are results of a rough global consensus among many different groups of people, an increasing amount of them not of European heritage.
Right after he talked about square jawed lads delightfully bombing Baghdad, Churchill talks about
including tens of thousands of genuinely innocent civilians affected by the bombing. Why do the citizens of Iraq seem to escape Churchill's scathing judgements? Are they shapeless clay, waiting to be formed, that can escape the moral agency? Don't they have some crimes to answer for, including supporting Saddam Hussein as he invaded Iran, gassed the Kurds, oppressed the Shi'ites and invaded Kuwait? Perhaps there were even some Iraqi citizens who committed the terrible crime of giving their kids stupid names and encouraging them to play football.
If there was a spirit of compassion in Ward Churchill's essay, perhaps I would forgive his anger. But all I get out of it is a kid yelling "you (or in this case, "we") started it!"
The original essay, and some back and forth commentary on it, can be found here: