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Reflections on Empire and Uppity Indians
I should have known better than to listen in to the conversation immediately to my left, sitting as I was in the Northwest Airlines World Club, in Detroit. Unlike most of the folks who have paid their $450 for an annual membership–which entitles one to little more than some free booze, cheese, crackers and coffee, along with a comfy chair between flights–I am hardly, after all, the typical "business traveler." I usually spend my time in such places, hastily composing one or another radical screed (like this one), while waiting to fly somewhere to deliver a speech that will, in some small way, move forward the cause of social transformation.
This is not the purpose for which the guy talking about mutual funds in the cubicle next to me, is here.
But this time, I couldn’t avoid hearing the discussion between the two men, appropriately white and with matching blue suits and red power ties, whose familiarity with a bottle of scotch had apparently reached intimate proportions.
They were ruminating on the recent goings on at the University of Colorado, where Ethnic Studies professor, Ward Churchill is under siege for an article he composed back in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; an essay in which Churchill sought to explain that a nation really ought not be surprised when its policies abroad–which have resulted in the slaughter of millions of innocent civilians–cause some in those nations to "push back" and seek to exact a similar collective death upon the people of that first country.
While Churchill’s essay was indelicate in places, it was hardly more so than any of the bloodthirsty things said by representatives of the state or the denizens of talk radio around that same time–folks who were itching to level Afghanistan, turn the Arab world into a parking lot, or, as Bill O’Reilly put it, put a bullet to the heads of any Afghans who weren’t sufficiently supportive of our ousting the Taliban for them.
I remember reading Ward’s missive at the time, and being bothered by the "little Eichmanns" reference (for those who worked in the World Trade Center), not because I thought Churchill actually believed these folks deserved to die, but because I knew the statement would be taken out of context and used to smear not only him, but the larger left of which we are both a part. In other words, Ward was perhaps guilty of naiveté, assuming that people are far more capable of discerning nuance and irony than they really are.
But to the two men in the World Club, he was guilty of a lot more than that. To them, Churchill’s most egregious crime was not having died, "like all the other Indians."
I shit you not. One of the men, fuming about the article that now has Ward facing down the barrel of a Board of Trustees looking for any reason to fire him, despite tenure, turned to the other and said: "Just when you thought we’d killed all the Indians, one pops up talkin’ some shit like this, and reminds you that we didn’t finish the job after all."
White guy number two laughs, in fact, damn near spits Dewar’s and soda all over the leather barca lounger he’s plopped down in, finding this affable romanticizing of genocide to be the funniest fucking thing he has apparently had the luxury of hearing, at least since the last time he and his buddies sat around in a sports bar, farting, and trading jokes about fags, or some such thing.
I was stunned, because just one day before, I had speculated, only half-seriously, during an interview with KPFK in Los Angeles, that this anti-Indian sentiment might lay beneath some of the vitriol aimed Ward’s way. After all, the attacks on him have seemed so personal, so vicious, so much worse than even the histrionics normally leveled at white leftists like Chomsky, or Parenti, or Zinn, who said much the same thing about 9/11 after that fateful day. The bombast has seemed to include an unhealthy dose of racial resentment–absolute rage–at the notion that a person of color and an Indian no less, should dare to condemn the American empire.
"Didn’t we get rid of those people years ago?" One can almost hear the refrain, as if broadcast from a loudspeaker.
"Goddamit, be silent," comes the stare from others, or the words themselves.
"Don’t make us go all Trail of Tears on your ass. Don’t make us send out those smallpox-infected blankets again. Remember, we still got some of that stuff in a vial at the Centers for Disease Control. Do NOT make us break that shit out, ‘cuz we’ll do it."
"Oh the ingratitude! Here we are, honoring your ancestors by naming sports mascots after your people, and this is how one of yours repays us? Oh, hell no, not today Chief!"
Even having concluded that racism was part of the reason for the overwrought reaction to Churchill, I was utterly unprepared to hear my suspicions confirmed in such a manner; probably because I’ve grown so accustomed to white people lying about their racist views, going out of their way in fact to deny them, at least around others. As such, I couldn’t even think of what to say. My inclination was to ask for the guy’s business card, pretending to have liked his comment, and then send his address and phone number to the American Indian Movement, so they could harass his pretty white ass for a few months. But in the end, all I did was glare, a gesture the meaning of which I’m sure was lost on them both, lubricated as they were on second-rate blended whiskey.
And while these two guys might not be representative of the masses of people so driven to distraction by Churchill’s commentary, I have little doubt but that, like the rest of the teeming hordes out to see him fired, they regularly shrug off comments about civilian deaths being justified, when made by representatives of their own side. More to the point, they glibly accept, as a consequence of war, the deaths themselves (not merely talk about them) as justified, as in Iraq, where even the lowest of low-ball estimates places the numbers of these around 15,000, and where the highest reach above 100,000.
So what? they might say, in a tone and manner little different from that echoed in the caves of Afghanistan that have served as a home for bin Laden all these years.
They surely are not bothered by pundit Ann Coulter’s recent comments, to the effect that we should "nuke North Korea," so as to "send a message" to the rest of the world, and because it would be, in her words, "fun."
They are not bothered by the comments of nationally syndicated talk show host Jay Severin last year, to the effect that the U.S. should tell the Arab world that unless "they" stop killing our troops in Iraq, we will drop nuclear weapons throughout the region, destroying all of the holiest sites of Islam, and killing ten million people, without batting an eye.
They were not bothered when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright rationalized the deaths of a half million children in Iraq as a result of Western sanctions, by saying that those deaths had been "worth it."
Dead people of color, the world over, or right here in the U.S., whose ashes they step over every time they walk out the door of their homes, mean nothing to them. Their deaths are cause for no tears, no contrition, no recompense, and certainly have never served to disqualify those responsible (or those who applaud the carnage) from positions of authority, in colleges, or government. Nor will schools now move to block dear Madame Albright from speaking on their campuses, as happened to Ward; nor will Ann Coulter find herself a pariah for fantasizing about the incineration of folks whose only crime was to be born North Korean.
But Ward Churchill, who has merely laid out the facts about America’s murderous ways around the globe–facts that have not been disputed even once by any of his critics–is to be silenced. Those who do the deed are cheered, re-elected and get buildings named after them. Those who merely tell of their exploits and suggest that perhaps there may be consequences, get crushed.
This is what happens, in a nation built on lies from the beginning; whose empire has been constructed on the sands of self-delusion; whose inability to tell the truth about itself has now become the stuff of farce. Our lack of self-awareness, not to mention the way in which Americans pride ourselves on how little we know about the world, and how reflexively patriotic we can be, would all be funny were it not so miserably pathetic, and ultimately so dangerous.
The sickest irony of the entire episode with Churchill is this, of course: namely, if there is anyone whose views and actions lead to the inevitable conclusion that the civilians in the World Trade Center were legitimate, if unfortunate targets, it is the President of the United States. It is he, whose doctrine of "preventative" warfare, assumes by definition that it is acceptable to target buildings that house offices tied to the government and military apparatus of one’s enemy, which, indeed the WTC did, and which of course describes the Pentagon in its entirety.
It is Bush whose "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq was planned, even though all agreed that thousands of civilians would die in the process. And if such a mentality is acceptable for Americans–one that reduces innocent civilians to mere collateral damage and shrugs at their untimely demise as if they were the sad but inevitable consequence of modern warfare–then surely we must extend the same courtesy of barbarism to every nation or group on earth with a bone to pick.
So the squealing of those on the right when it comes to Churchill–persons who wholeheartedly endorse the notion of America’s right to bomb other nations, even if innocents will be killed, and knowing full well that they will be–does nothing so much as call to mind the line from Shakespeare, that "methinks the lady doth protest too much." Or perhaps the psychological concept of projection, whereby the patient displaces their own sickness onto others, finding in them the very flaws and pathologies to which the patient him or herself has been given over.
We’re sort of like the national equivalent of a child, whose mommy and daddy are trying desperately, against all hope, to maintain the child’s belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny, or even the tooth fairy. And we rage against any who seek to dispel the myths out of a desire to protect our children’s "innocence." While such deceptions are perhaps excusable when dealing with the fantasies of real children, one would hope that a nation run by full-grown men and women would ask a bit more of itself; would find truth more valuable a commodity than innocence; would recognize that, as James Baldwin explained, "Those who insist on maintaining their innocence, long after that innocence has died, turn themselves into monsters."
And so we have: a monster that sees no evil and hears no evil, unless it comes from the despised "other," and who in the process perpetrates its own version of the thing daily.
TIM WISE is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org