So Ward Churchill is the latest target of right-wing outrage, and all over the online punditosphere liberals are taking up the banners of free inquiry and leaping to his defense.
Oh, wait. No they’re not.
I’ve read the specific instance of Churchill’s writing that has prompted all the outrage, and the most I can say about it is that it is too imprecisely worded and rather inflammatory. Churchill addressed the imprecision to my satisfaction in a subsequent clarification. As for the flamethrowing, well, I interviewed Churchill a dozen years ago, and have read much of his writing since then, and I’ll just say the incendiariness comes as no surprise.
And as far as I can tell, there isn’t any phrase in the First Amendment that says anything like "unless, of course, you’re impolite."
Others have addressed the nature of what Churchill actually said in the piece at issue, an ironic (if ham-handed) attempt to extend the accepted logic of wartime to the events of September 11, 2001. I would observe that no matter how liberals may object to the notion of American exceptionalism, nothing makes them angrier than pointing out that the American standard of living has less to do with democracy than it does with empire. My house, and most likely yours, sits on land that was stolen at gunpoint. I can drive to the train station as cheaply as I do because people are tortured and enslaved on the Arabian peninsula.
Quick definition of an American liberal: someone who opposes torture when it makes page one of the New York Times.
Did you know that September 11 had a profound meaning for millions of people before 2001? That the date was already a symbol of the relationship between the United States of America and the rest of the world? That it commemorated the brutal deaths of thousands of people? If you can name the country I’m thinking of, you are probably either a leftist or a non-American.
Randi Rhodes asked recently on her radio show whether her listeners knew anything about Iran. It was a rhetorical question. No one called to answer. No one said, for instance, that Iran had lived through a CIA-backed coup that deposed the country’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and saw the return of the despotic Shah, or that the coup had happened shortly after Mossadegh embarked on a plan to nationalize Iran’s oil fields. No one called to recall the demonstrations of the 1970s, in which Iranian students in the US and other countries wore masks for fear of repercussions from SAVAK, the Shah’s US-sponsored and -trained secret police. Here’s a passage from the Federation of American Scientists’ website describing SAVAK’s historic activities paid for by your (or your parents’) tax dollars:
"Over the years, SAVAK became a law unto itself, having legal authority to arrest and detain suspected persons indefinitely. SAVAK operated its own prisons in Tehran (the Komiteh and Evin facilities) and, many suspected, throughout the country as well. SAVAK’s torture methods included electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails."
Quick definition of an American liberal: someone opposed to all torture not done by a subcontractor.
Bush is certainly the worst president, the most callous and murderous president, this country has had in a very long time. But he has not betrayed the country. He has merely ripped off the mask. America has not jumped the shark: it is the shark. The America that Bush describes is not a new perversion of a shining ideal. Bush’s America was there in 1971, 1968, 1954, in 1848. Iraq is not the new Vietnam: it is just another in a long string of Kentuckys, Massachusettses, Colorados. America’s history of wars of expropriation goes back all the way to the beginning of European encroachment on the North American continent. In his life’s work, Churchill’s has limned the Colonialist American Through-Story. I strongly dislike his throw-away characterization of CIA and Raytheon employees as "little Eichmanns," though I find I cannot really refute it. But he is right about many things, and for what it is worth I stand with Ward Churchill.
Of course, Churchill is not at all important here. Not really. We could be talking about Chomsky here, or Sontag, or any number of articulate leftists whom liberals decry without actually reading their work. What is important here is the mechanism by which these things work; the identification of the right’s demon of the moment, and the inevitable liberal rush to condemn.
It will help to remember that it is not the liberals’ function to oppose the right. An actual opposition would have programs, positions, ideologies and strategies that stood on their own. And yet when we look at the canonical core values of present-day American liberalism, we find not a single one that was not taken from the left and watered down, or adopted once the tide of public opinion had turned. Not a single one was initially supported by the liberals of the day. Social Security, a neutered version of the socialist guaranteed income, was FDR’s way of deflating an increasingly militant poor people’s movement in the 1930s. Access to contracepton and abortion was pioneered by radical feminists, and condemned by liberals until the 1960s or later. Martin Luther King, who is dead and therefore safe for adoption as a liberal icon, told a group of liberals of his day (then called "moderates"):
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
Students of Hegel will point out the dialectical inevitability of all this. Ideas are first ridiculed, then violently opposed, then accepted. And this works in more than just one direction. Who would have thought, twenty years ago, that a mainstream free trade advocate like Paul Krugman, whose politics diverge not too far from those of Nelson Rockefeller, would be vilified as a representative of the hard left? Or that Bill Clinton, a handsbreadth to the right of Eisenhower, would be smeared as a socialist? Little wonder that liberals take such pains to distance themselves from any vestiges of the actual left.
And little wonder that they have proven so singularly ineffective in their attempts to defeat the right: for almost a century, the function of American liberalism has been to DEFEAT the left, to adopt just those tenets of the left program necessary to keep Americans content in their jobs, and then to vilify the people whose ideas they stole to use as crumbs to sate the masses. Now that the old left is in tatters, an array of sects and ego-driven posturing, liberalism has little reason to exist.
The left is in tatters organizationally, but there are more leftists than at any point in US history. We are diverse. The left is irreducibly complex, comprising social democrats and anarchists, union socialists and environmental decentralists, anti-globalization activists and ethnic studies professors and millions of others. And complex as we may be, our core ideas can be summed up rather succinctly: Tyrants should not be given support. No one should go without when others have more than enough. People should be free to express themselves and to love whomever they want.
Contrast that with the camps on either side of the great divide now rending American politics. On one side are those who would put US foreign policy in the service of corporations, the spoils of the world’s resources going to further enrich those already engorged with wealth. On the other side are the liberals. Outraged, they demand that more of the take be given to the middle class.
CHRIS CLARKE is Publications Director at Earth Island Institute. His personal website can be found at http://www.faultline.org/place/pinolecreek