"Little Eichmanns" and the ‘Harrijan’

I admire what I know about Ward Churchill’s documentation of the oppression of Native American people, but I admit I’ve read his piece on 9/11 only in paraphrase so I may have got what he said entirely wrong. With that caveat, it seems that vox populi, or those who claim to speak for it, is enraged on three counts:

1. The comparison of the traders at the WTC to “little Eichmanns,” obedient cogs in a death machine.

2. The suggestion that the 9/11 terrorists were combatants.

3. The argument that if Iraqis infrastructure counted as military targets and Iraqi civilians as collateral damage, then the WTC and its denizens did too.

The right-wing attack-blogs, Little Green Footballs and Free Republic as well as noted falaphile Bill O’Reilly, have savaged Churchill as a latter-day Benedict Arnold but if these three statements are all they have against him, they are dining on thin gruel.

Churchill’s second and third statements are not too uncommon in left-wing invective about American foreign policy and the only reaction I had to the first was irritation. Not moral outrage, not sympathetic agreement, but annoyance. Of course, what he said was a supremely insensitive thing to say in public about your own country-men after thousands of them had just suffered a painful loss. But insensitive or hurtful alone does not equal morally unjustifiable.

Churchill’s real failing here is that he is not very persuasive. Mindless obedience – if that was what the reference to Eichmann was meant to imply – has nothing whatsoever to do with stock-trading, where thorough-going skepticism is a professional qualification. And if it’s obedience to an entire system that is the problem, then janitors and firemen shouldn’t get off scot free, as he insists later. If all the works of imperialism are legitimate targets, then so are all its sympathizers and sycophants, its minions and moghuls, from grandma to the joint chiefs. And yes, even tenured left-wing professors, though Churchill is apparently not radical enough to say that. What offends in his statement is not so much its outrageousness as its lack of intellectual strength.

Why Nazi, why Eichmann? How can anyone feel anything at all about such tired rhetoric? Some people will see the reference as simply a cheap way to provoke. Maybe so, but I’m willing to believe that Churchill was quite sincere. That’s perhaps the problem. Here’s a veteran activist, a man who’s spent decades painstakingly and largely obscurely documenting the exploitation and suffering of indigenous people, a scholar and teacher familiar with countless sagas of suffering which might yield more insightful comparisons, and he trots out the Nazis. It’s hardly thoughtful whatever else it is.

So why does he do it? The reason is obvious. The Nazis are the quintessential evil in contemporary American discourse and the supposed shock value of Churchill’s reference depends on turning what’s regarded as a paradigmatic instance of suffering – 9/11- into its exact opposite – a paradigmatic evil.

It’s an old magic trick turning white into black, pulling emotional rabbits out of rational thin air, “disappearing” the beauteous but gaunt lady – ratiocination, as Poe might say – with a star-spangled swirl. I say star-spangled because Churchill, playing the role of dark shadow to the attack blogs, may be the anti-patriot, all right, but his anti-patriotism is completely defined by their bellicose patriotism. After all, if you burn the country’s flag to make a statement, you reinforce the stage properties of flags.

In other words, Churchill isn’t as interested in telling us something insightful about 9/11 as he is in manipulating our emotions in a certain way. Of course that’s what rhetoric is all about. Still, Churchill’s rhetoric is of a special kind, a kind that reminds me in some ways of some one else who was also in revolt against empire – Mahatma Gandhi – though Gandhi, unlike Churchill, was a master of the technique and knew how to use it effectively. Gandhi turned what was universally despised into a talisman that focused the best rather than the worst impulses of people, and unlike Churchill, he transcended power politics and extended his critique not only to his British overlords but to fellow Indians, conveying an essential wholeness of vision lacking in the screeds of too many contemporary radicals. In the thick of Gandhi’s anti-imperial campaigns it’s notable that he also worked at reforming Indian society of its vices not just attacking the British.

Even so, his rhetoric had its failings. For instance, appalled by the unsanitary habits of Indians and the condition of the “untouchable” low-caste workers who cleaned toilets, Gandhi decided to elevate the latrine to a central position in his social activism, demanding that people clean toilets with their own hands. He set the example himself at Sevagram where no private loos were allowed and every morning the residents took turns cleaning the row of bucket toilets at one end of the ashram. On the erstwhile “untouchables,” Gandhi bestowed a new name – “Harijan,” children of god. (1)

It seemed at the time a brilliant idea. But while it made a psychological demand on the upper castes, forcing them to see both menial work and caste in a new light, in the long run, ‘Harijan’ was really not a useful label. India’s former untouchables criticized it roundly and quickly discarded it in favor of the indigenous word “dalit” for as one ‘untouchable’ put it, “if Dalits are the children of God, are the others children of the devil?” (2) More than seventy five years after Gandhi’s campaigns against untouchability, caste still remains an ugly fact of life in India.

There are many other instances of Gandhi’s iconographic inversions – the burning of British cloth, the adoption of the spinning wheel or charka, the use of homespun cloth. They were part of the political theater he used to show solidarity with the suffering or challenge oppression. In each case the technique was to elevate the despised and bring down the elevated, providing emotional catharsis for all and venting the moral outrage of the masses. In that sense, while his method seemed to abjure power politics, it was really a very adroit manipulation of power at the psychological level using what Nietzsche would have identified as the weaponry of the weak and it anticipated what military theorists today call “4th Generation War.” Understood at that level, Gandhi was a master propagandist who knew his audience and how to get it to move in his favor. Obviously Ward Churchill is no Gandhi in that regard.

Still, even with Gandhi, there was also always the danger that such tactics would degenerate into totemism for by creating a new name for untouchables he was still upholding their set-apartness and by burning Lancashire cotton he was simply reinforcing its distinctiveness by other means. Churchill’s trader/Nazi analogy, intended to invert the role of the attackers and cast them as victims retaliating, has similar dangers. Were Churchill as insightful as Gandhi, he would recognize that despite the justifiable anger and outrage of Muslim and Arab societies against American policies, there are also pathologies in those societies – perhaps created by the same policies, perhaps not – that are as much in need of remedy as imperial hubris even if their scope is more limited. Casting the hijackers in the role of paradigmatic and complete victims therefore only completes and reinforces their demonization in the eyes of war-supporters.

That’s the perverse logic of binary inversions of black and white and it’s what the radical rhetoric of the right and left both miss. In the immediate aftermath of an event as emotional as 9/11, was the public debate really served by comparing ordinary money managers to the arch-Nazi Eichmann? Would Churchill also be willing to argue that some Iraqis citizens in Fallujah may have tacitly supported Saddam’s oppressive policies and might therefore also be little Eichmanns meriting extermination?

The greatest danger of magical thinking is not simply in the likelihood of such inversions boomeranging to hit you in the face – witness “reverse discrimination” and white or Brahmin backlash – but in the strengthening of exactly the passions and irrationality on which public support for war feeds in the first place. In wartime, government propaganda manipulates symbols and images to arouse in us fear, hatred and all the other dark emotions needed to sustain a belligerent policy. Our best safeguard at such times is sustained rationality and the refusal to be swayed by emotion unsupported by reason. In terms of persuading the opposing camp, this is not only a good approach, it’s the only approach for with passions running high on both sides inflammatory rhetoric is highly unlikely to convert anyone and serves no purpose except to stir up one’s own troops. If the antiwar movement expects to have more effect than that, it needs to rethink such rhetoric. It does not need to be toned down so much as grafted with enough of an intellectual spine that it stands firmly on its own feet. Facile and emotional inversions that appeal to people’s aesthetic sense and passions rather than their rationality do nothing toward that end.

It was for that reason that the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore often took Gandhi to task for his political theater. Tagore recognized that Indian culture, weighed down for centuries by accretions of superstitions and ritual, was in sore need of more rationality not more magical formulations. In 1932 in response to a public statement by Gandhi that attributed the Bihar earthquake to divine retribution, for instance, Tagore wrote:

“We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasize the elements of unreason in those very minds – unreason, which is a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect.” (3)

From that eminently sane point of view, Churchill’s refusal to back down from his position should not be encouraged by thoughtful opponents of the war. If we mock the hard-headedness of the government in persisting in a policy long ago shown to be bankrupt in morality and prudence, we should also criticize those opponents of the war who make statements that are both morally suspect and intellectually weak even if we support their general position. That does not mean wavering in support for academic freedom and the rights of professors to express their political opinions. It also does not mean deferring to the venomous bullying of the right-wing propaganda machine. It should be an apology not from servility to power but from deference to truth and largeness of spirit.

Anyone, after all, can make an ill-considered statement in the heat of the moment. Rephrasing it and offering a sincere apology to the victims of 9/11 for insensitivity is not “backing down” as some see it but a proof of maturity and the ability to take merited criticism with dignity. It would not only take the wind out of the sails of the professional patriots who want to whip up hysteria over the matter, it would move the antiwar movement away from its largely symbolic and self-indulgent posturing in the direction of political debate and action that actually have an effect greater than catharsis.

If we can’t be rational and generous in the war of ideas, there’s little hope that we will be able to do much about that other war out there.

LILA RAJIVA is a free-lance journalist and author of “The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American media,” (Monthly Review Press), 2005

(1) “Weaving a Universal Thread,” Arun Gandhi, M. K. Institute for Non-Violence.

(2) Dalit chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, quoted by Saslin Salim in “Why Gandhi is a soft target,” Sify.com.

(3) The Mahatma and the Poet : Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941, compiled and edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, National Book Trust, Second Reprint, 2001, cited in a review by Venu Govindu, India Together, May 2003.