Reading Khomeini in Colorado

When I first heard of the Ward Churchill controversy I was a little taken aback by his reported ‘little Eichmanns’ remark, although after reading his explanation I did understand the context. Then there was the news of Prof. Shahid Alam who also was in trouble for his writings — a man clearly traumatized by the threatening letters, phone calls, and the experience of his name being bashed about by self-anointed high-priests of tinsel patriotism in the media.

I had never before read Prof. Churchill’s writings. I had read a few of Prof. Shahid Alam’s articles, and often found myself in strong disagreement with his views.

None of this altered the bottom line as far as I was concerned: it doesn’t matter what either Churchill or Alam wrote; they have the right to do so — this is America.

Is this not the most significant thing that sets America apart from the rest of the world? There may be countries wealthier per capita, better educated, better fed or healthier. But the fact that 200 years ago a small band of men, who had just secured a victory over their world’s sole superpower, chose the unfettered right of free–expression as the first thing to add to their constitution, is nothing short of awesome.

Surely anyone would be stunned by the fact that this is the one country where shredding the flag, or burning the Constitution, are acts upheld by the Supreme Court as protected exercises of Free Speech. As long as such a system of constitutionally protected free speech exists and such protection is enforced, America will continue to stand out among the nations of the world.

Perhaps only people from other countries can truly appreciate what Americans (used to?) take for granted — that everyone has a right to express their opinion; and that everyone else has the right not to agree with them. This simple fact, which has always been an elementary precept of American life, assumes extraordinary significance when you realize that it is an alien concept in much of the world.

It is this ingrained notion that had Americans confounded when Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on Salman Rushdie’s head. They honestly couldn’t understand why anyone would want to kill somebody for writing a book! That was less than two decades ago. Are we so different today that not one establishment figure (at least as far as I’ve noticed) will stand up to declare that Churchill has a right to say what he wants, even though his views may be repugnant? Where has that quintessential American voice disappeared? If this is what 9-11 has wrought, then Round 1 has gone decisively to Bin Laden. [1].

An interesting related question was raised by a friend, who found the shrill parrotting of the First Amendment in this matter, without a broader view of the overall circumstance with not enough introspection on the content of Churchill’s article, disquieting. He asked, “What would Gandhi have said?”

Let us first take a purely practical view. No one questions that we have rights, but if we want to use them to good effect, as Mark Antony demonstrated, an element of judiciousness is vital. Shortly after 9-11, a writer illustrated this point as follows: if a young girl has just been molested and her family is in a state of shock, was that the occasion to remind them that she was, after all, quite free in her ways, dressed provocatively, etc. and was thus, to put it politely, ‘inviting trouble’? Perfectly true, perhaps, but if intended to have any corrective impact, rather counter-productive.[2]

Gandhi, whose own language lacked neither strength or directness, went beyond considerations of pragmatic expediency argued above, seeing his writing as an extension of his nonviolent approach [3]:

“I have taken up journalism not for its sake but merely as an aid to what I have conceived to be my mission in life. My mission is to teach by example and precept under severe restraint the use of the matchless weapon of Satyagraha which is a direct corollary of non-violence and truth. … To be true to my faith, therefore, I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write idly. I may not write merely to excite passion. The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise from week to week in the choice of topics and my vocabulary. It is a training for me. It enables me to peep into myself and to make discoveries of my weaknesses. Often my vanity dictates a smart–expression or my anger a harsh adjective. It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds.

Prof. Churchill, on the other hand, had this to say about his essay:

“Ugly? Yes. Hurtful? Yes. And that’s my point. It’s no less ugly, painful or dehumanizing a description when applied to Iraqis, Palestinians, or anyone else.” He also added somewhere that it had not been very well thought out.

By this token, Gandhi should have had a similar retort when Britain fell under German bombing. After all, a country to whose rule of India he applied the term, ‘satanic’, should expect no sympathy at all from Gandhi. Yet in a letter to Mira Behn, his associate, he wrote, “The news about the destruction in England is heart-rending. The Houses of Parliament, the (Westminster) Abbey, the (St. Paul’s) Cathedral, seemed immortal…”[3]. But he pulled no punches in his criticism of British Imperialism: “I have said more than once in these columns that the Nazi Power had risen as a nemesis to punish Britain for her sins of exploitation and enslavement of the Asiatic and African races.”[4]

Almost an echo of the ‘chickens coming home to roost’ theme, you might respond. There is a subtle but vital difference. Gandhi points out the phenomenon, taking no evident satisfaction in specific tragedy. Prof. Churchill notes an important similarity between America’s approach to other countries, and remarks that 9-11 represents the repercussions. Such a reflexive tit-for-tat-ism would surely have been rejected by Gandhi — indeed, he came under severe criticism because he asked the British not to emulate the German war machine but to follow a pacifist path instead [5].

Further, Prof. Churchill’s logic, if intellectually defensible, has a deeper problem. If you accept his action-reaction proposition, how could you fault an Ashcroft for arguing that when fighting terrorists without rules, we too must jettison ours…? Was this not the central argument against Alberto Gonzales? The only way out of this paradox is to say that we will judge ourselves by higher standards, regardless of what others may do. This is why comparisons to Ann Coulter’s literary excesses, or Rush Limbaugh’s hateful rantings, while illustrating media bias, do nothing to help get Churchill’s central point across. This was clearly understood by Gandhi. [6]

Anyway, Ward Churchill’s thesis is neither original nor complicated — when America has killed so many people in so many countries over the years, he argues, why is she surprised when some of the killing returns to her own shores? So why has his argument produced such a virulent response? Because most of us, in every country, are willing to listen all day when someone tells us what is wrong with the next person, but take immediate umbrage when they start on what is wrong with us. Churchill’s only fault was to sharply point out our own moral culpability — and in rocking some of our most cherished myths. As in the old Persian saying that Sherlock Holmes quoted to Watson, “There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” What Holmes said of women is as true of nations.

Myths make a nation and in many ways sustain its very idea of itself. Just as the Saudi King is given the title, “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, the American President should probably be called the “Custodian of the Nation’s Myths”. Then, the Ward Churchill controversy presents the Mythmaker-in-Chief with a unique opportunity to showcase to the entire world what the American idea of freedom means.

All he has to do is declare that while he finds Ward Churchill’s views abhorrent (assuming he does), he totally supports his right to do express them. That would be exemplary use of political capital. [7]

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.


[1] Little Minds and Large Empires by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN, April 2004

[2] Where is the Outrage by Chandy, November 2001

[3] All Men are Brothers A compilation of Gandhi’s writings, by Krishna Kripalani (see chapter on Self-discipline)

[4] My Appeal to the British by Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, April 26, 1942

[5] To Every Briton by Mahatma Gandhi, June 1940, quoted in “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi by Robert Payne, p. 490.

[6] The Great Trial of 1922 by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN, Counterpunch, March 20/21, 2004

[7] Open your Wallets, not your Mouths by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN, Swarajya, Oct 2001

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/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

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