Retread

March 30, 2009

It sounds like O’Rourke’s started listening to the local pundits, and just prior to getting his head handed to him by his own inept witnesses (see the Steinhauer testimony in the 3:55 update, holy shit), decided to forground Ward Churchill’s 9/11 essay.

So, I’m posting the following. It’s a longish piece I typed up when the so-called scandal exploded, explaining why I so very much like Churchill’s essay, and trying to put it into some kind of context within American Letters.

Good luck staying awake.

The Ward Churchill Factor

Here in Colorado, we’ve spent the last three months living in the Ward Churchill Factor, to borrow Churchill’s assessment of his media coverage.  The local papers have run a daily assault, publishing unfinished paper prospectuses from enemy academics, the rambling charges of angry in-laws and ex-wives, and an endless barrage of editorials reiterating positions advanced by rabidly conservative radio jocks.  I have to admit, I’ve been a little surprised at the sustained level of fury.  I remember reading Churchill’s essay in its original form in September of 2001, and it seemed to me a pretty common-sense indictment of US exceptionalism.  One which, it’s worth noting, has been well borne out as the facts around 9/11 have unfolded.  Nor was I particularly dismayed at the Eichmann metaphor. I understood it to do everything a good metaphor should do.  It managed to convey new meanings to both the subject and the object, and to expand the discourse surrounding both. From Churchill we learned a new way to perceive the technocrats at the top of the World Trade Center, just as we learned a new way to perceive Eichmann. And from these perceptions, many of us learned something indispensable about the bureaucratic functioning of power.

If anything, the fury the Eichmann metaphor has ignited speaks to its power.  Churchill’s essay has captivated the national discourse in a way I can’t remember a piece of writing doing in my lifetime.  That conservative talk shows from O’Reilly on down spent a three-month chunk of airtime feverishly denying Churchill’s metaphor, only speaks to its uncomfortable aptness.  The same holds true of the left.  One hasn’t been able to open a leftist publication without finding a dozen essays, letters to the letter and etc. that (1) state general agreement with Churchill on principle, (2) provide a typically tepid criticism of US foreign policy, then (3), move to eviscerate him for the imperfection of his metaphor.  Of course, these betray more about the authors’ misunderstanding of metaphor than Churchill’s misuse of it.  A metaphor is imperfect by its nature.  That’s the point.  A perfect metaphor, after all, would be a synonym.

It’s also been disheartening to note the near total lack of contact with American literature evinced by our media pundits.  That the American people will pay a price for the actions of their government until they adequately affect change in US policy is hardly a new theme in American letters.  The theme of collective guilt with disastrous results runs throughout American literature.  If Churchill has gone beyond the limits of dissent, then so have Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau.  The incendiary nature of Churchill’s writing puts him squarely alongside many of the authors ensconced in the American literary canon; authors even Bill O’Reilly might defend, given the unlikely premise he’s read them. 

When I first read Churchill’s essay, for instance, I thought of Moby Dick, and its ship of state, the Pequod, named for an American Indian people exterminated by Puritans and described as a “cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.”  While writing the novel, Herman Melville was so profoundly disgusted with the American degradation from republic to empire, as described by biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant and literary scholar Richard Slotkin, that he created his ship of state’s captain as the ultimate Indian-hater, a monomaniacal Puritan descendent, driving his vessel on a genocidal course of expansionism.  And finally, when none on the ship were capable of altering the Pequod’s course, Melville sunk it, refusing to spare even good men like the Quaker Starbuck, who were insufficient to affect change in the face of atrocity. 

I also thought of William Faulkner, whose attempt to shock the South out of its dangerous romantic myth of Southern gentility relied on images and metaphors no less disturbing than Churchill’s, such as, in Sanctuary, the rape of a genteel young woman with a corncob.  And I couldn’t help but think of Faulkner’s stylistic successor, Cormac McCarthy, who summed up the American character by having its foremost representative, the judge, in the modern classic Blood Meridian, espouse the uniquely American credo, “if war is not holy, man is nothing but antic clay.” 

Then there’s Hemingway, who responded to our last series of political purges with a statement far more extreme than anything Churchill is accused of: directly endorsing the murder of an elected official.  As he wrote in Look magazine in 1954, “[there is nothing] wrong with Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin that a .577 solid would not cure.”  He later expanded the theme in a letter to Senator McCarthy, inviting him to Cuba with the following: “You can come down here and fight for free, without any publicity, with an old character like me who is fifty years old and weighs 209 and thinks you are a shit, Senator, and would knock you on your ass the best day you ever lived.” 

Most pertinent to Churchill’s essay, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” Lest we forget, prior to the Harper’s Ferry insurrection, John Brown orchestrated the butchery of several Kansans who had committed no other crime than obeying the law of the land.  Along the Pottawatomie Creek in southeastern Kansas, for example, Brown and his gang hacked the unarmed farmer James Doyle and his two sons, who had never owned a slave in their lives, into bloody chunks with broadswords and sabers – solely because they endorsed slavery on general principle.  In full awareness of this, Thoreau described Brown as “an angel of light,” and each of his followers as “a picked man, culled out of many thousands, if not millions; apparently a man of principle, of rare courage, and devoted humanity; ready to sacrifice his life at any moment for the benefit of his fellow-man.”

Thoreau assumedly didn’t condone the butchery of unarmed civilians.  It wasn’t his interest to condone or condemn, the slaughter was done.  Instead, he used the incident to make a greater argument regarding the evil of slavery.  “The slave-ship is on her way,” he wrote, “crowded with its dying victims; new cargoes are being added in mid-ocean; a small crew of slaveholders, countenanced by a large body of passengers, is smothering four millions under the hatches, and yet the politician asserts that the only proper way by which deliverance is to be obtained is by ‘the quiet diffusion of the sentiments of humanity,’ without any ‘outbreak.’”  Because of this greater evil, Thoreau went on to write of the US government: “[w]e talk about a representative government; but what a monster of a government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, and the whole heart, are not represented!  A semihuman tiger or ox, stalking over the earth, with its heart taken out and the top of its brain shot away.”  Nor did Thoreau reserve his disdain for the government.  Like Churchill, he sat the brunt of guilt on the collective head of the American citizenry, who allowed their government to commit atrocity with impunity.  “The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterward,” he writes, “. . . [h]e shows the whites of his eyes on the Sabbath, and the blacks all the rest of the week. The evil is not merely a stagnation of blood, but a stagnation of spirit.”

To Thoreau, slavery was an unsustainable condition, just as a US foreign policy contingent on illegality and brute force is to Churchill.  As such, Thoreau defended the use of violence – indeed, the use of violence against unarmed civilians, as is implicit in any defense of John Brown – in overthrowing slavery.  “I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharp’s rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharp’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause.”  Then, in a rhetorical move far more extreme than anything in Churchill’s essay, he called for right-minded citizens to directly emulate John Brown and crew.  “These men, in teaching us how to die,” he wrote, “have at the same time taught us how to live.”   One can only assume the surviving members of the Doyle family were outraged by Thoreau’s statements, just as the family members of the WTC dead are outraged by Churchill’s.  However, in the face of the horror of slavery, Thoreau’s speech was necessary to provide some context for John Brown’s actions, as well as to provide a consciousness of the continuing consequences of maintaining a slave state.  I submit that Churchill’s essay is equally necessary, and equally important, for nearly identical reasons. 

By 2001, anyone who was paying attention had heard of the 1996 UNICEF report claiming a half million Iraqi children had died as a result of the sanctions.  We’d heard the same from Dennis Halliday, who resigned as head of the UN’s humanitarian program in Iraq in protest of those sanctions.  After confirming the number with the WHO, he’d presented the information in a number of interviews, as well as in a speech on Capitol Hill.  We’d also heard it on 60 Minutes, when Lesley Stahl asked Ms. Albright, “we have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died when in Hiroshima.  And you know, is the price worth it?”  Ms. Albright infamously responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.” 

Even from folks who opposed the Iraq sanctions, I’ve heard that Churchill’s essay is too extreme.  That carries all the sense of a sack of hammers.  Condoning government policy that causes the starvation of a half million children is extreme.  Enjoying profits made off those deaths is extreme.  And contrary to what many of our ever right-leaning leftist media figures would have us believe, shilling for political figures who have maintained that those sanctions were right and proper is most certainly extreme.  Picking up a pen and giving voice to one’s outrage in an essay isn’t extreme in the least.  If anything, within the context of American letters, it’s, well, patriotic. 

Melville ends another of his novels, The Confidence Man, with an image of apocalypse incurred by the collective guilt of the American people similar to that found in Moby Dick.  In what may be the core of that novel, Melville writes of a pro-slavery character: “[y]ou are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man.  You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but are useless for right.”   You can agree or disagree with the sentiment.  But Churchill’s expression of it is firmly rooted in the tradition of American literature.  We have a proud heritage of incendiary authors.  The status quo is the moderate author’s ground; their job is to ensure nothing changes, but by very small degrees.  There are plenty of them out there, and there always have been.  They’re always sensitive, their metaphors are as close to perfect as one can get, and if we’d listened to them we’d still live in a slave state.  Our incendiary authors like Churchill have a different project; they work to ensure change comes, and quickly.  Yes, they’re going to be controversial, and yes, they’re going to hurt some feelings.  But they’ve always been necessary to inspire the US citizenry to a consciousness of necessary change.

3 Responses to “Retread”

  1. Louis A. DeCaro Jr. Says:

    With all due respect, your facts are all wrong about the men who were killed by John Brown and his men in Kansas territory in May 1856. These men were collaborators with invading pro-slavery thugs (terrorists, really). The free state people were apprised that some of these pro-slavery neighbors were in communication and “cahoots” with militant pro-slavery invaders. Brown himself had specific names provided him and he investigated personally and found that his family were marked for attack and that these “neighbors” were going to collaborate in their demise, probably acting as guides. Brown and the others were definitely alarmed at the likelihood that their free state town of Osawatomie was going to be attacked shortly.

    I have no interest otherwise in debating or affirming your views and themes. But I’m a biographer of the man, and I not only know that much of this story has been misrepresented as to facts, but that there is a long history of twisting Brown profile by people for political and social reasons. Your information is flawed and you are engaging more in the hearsay repetition of alleged facts. Keep in mind that in 1856 there was no “law and order” operating in the territory and anti-slavery pro-black people like the Browns were specifically targeted. Brown was no vigilante. He and his men (who volunteered because they too shared the same concerns) did not take the law into their own hands. There was only prevailing pro-slavery law. So really their “crime” was far more a matter of self-defense or at least a preemptive strike that is at least arguable. Your take is flatly wrong.

  2. Ben Says:

    I haven’t seen how it was flatly wrong. I was presenting one interpretation, in this case the rightwing interpretation, of John Brown.


  3. I thought that this essay was excellent. Far from being unable to stay awake, I wished it was longer. Ben, flattery and friendliness aside, I think you have the idea for a good book on this subject.


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