Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ward Churchill's Real Sins

by Michael K. Smith

Ward Churchill's recent firing from the University of Colorado is a brazen act of political repression, a defeat for free speech, and further evidence that orthodoxy, not dispassionate scholarship, rules academia. His dismissal is not for the presence or absence of Indian blood in his veins, nor for his sins of scholarship, whatever those may be, but because he dared to compare the murderous operations of the U.S. national security state with the crimes of Nazi Germany. While resentment of Churchill's heavy-handed moralizing is perhaps understandable, applauding his termination is simply foolish collaboration in the destruction of everybody's rights.

Lost in the hysteria surrounding his essay comparing 911 victims with Adolf Eichmann is Churchill’s own view that certain perspectives are too reprehensible to see print. In his book A Little Matter of Genocide, Churchill is implicitly critical of Noam Chomsky for defending Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson’s free speech rights. Churchill calls Faurisson and others who question the existence of gas chambers in WWII “deniers,” which is an intellectual epithet as powerfully dismissive as “Nigger.” Churchill writes: “Faurisson became something of an international celebrity in 1981 when he was able to convince no less a figure than Noam Chomsky to defend his ‘right’ to publish denials that the Nazis had utilized gas chambers in exterminating Jews.” By placing the word “right” in quotation marks, Churchill suggests that Faurisson has no such right. In addition to the fact that Faurisson does indeed have an entitlement to free speech, which Chomsky properly defended, Churchill himself concedes to "ambiguity in the record" as to whether the complete elimination of European Jewry was ever "a fixed policy objective" of Nazi Germany, since the Third Reich pursued "a rather erratic and contradictory hodgepodge of anti-Jewish policies," which included an offer to trade a million Jews for 10,000 trucks in mid-1944. He dismisses as "irrational" the contention that the Nazis intended a "cosmic" total destruction of Jewry, pointing out that about two-thirds of world Jewry actually survived the Holocaust, as did around one-third of European Jews. [A Little Matter of Genocide, pp. 34-5]

In short, while roundly condemning Holocaust revisionists, Churchill has endorsed one of their main lines of contention, namely, that the exterminationist thesis flies in the face of the "hodgepodge" of Nazi actions against the Jews. His claim that this skepticism “in no way diminishes nazi culpability or Jewish suffering” will not likely convince anyone who believes that Jews were indeed exterminated as part of a “fixed policy objective,” commonly accepted to be an order from Hitler to physically annihilate every last Jew in Europe. The only way out of this dilemma is to drop the untenable view that one’s right to free speech should be proportionate to the acceptability of what one has to say. It is a bitter irony that Churchill has been fired for heresy, given his own belief in "criminal" speech.

Churchill argues that since assaults on truth and memory are a powerful part of the historical pattern of genocide, certain views therefore merit punishment, much as the infamous Jew-baiter Julius Streicher was convicted at Nuremberg for nothing more than publishing anti-Semitic propaganda. What he fails to indicate is by what logic we can condemn Pat Buchanan (who agrees with Churchill that Islamic terrorism is the fruit of U.S. Empire) for supporting Churchill’s dismissal on the grounds that his equating 911 victims with Adolf Eichmann is a form of “hate speech.” By Churchill’s calculation, sixty-nine percent of the twin towers dead were “little Eichmanns” dedicated to employments as objectionable as arranging transportation to Hitler’s death camps. Moreover, in the essay that got him fired Churchill asserts that American compensatory obligation for the crimes of the national security state would not be exhausted even if every last U.S. citizen were annihilated in future terrorist attacks. Those of a different political persuasion than Churchill’s might rather easily see this as more a prescription for genocide than anything Faurisson has to say on the existence or non-existence of gas chambers in World War II.

Furthermore, Churchill offers no critical comment on the jailing of Holocaust revisionists for their beliefs (such as Ernst Zundel, a case Churchill comments on), as though it were perfectly appropriate to try, convict, and sentence people to jail on the basis of their views of history. The highly elastic charge of historical falsification, worthy of every religious tyranny and military dictatorship in history, could be invoked against anyone and used to suppress all deviations from state orthodoxy; indeed, that is the only possible outcome widespread acceptance of its legitimacy could possibly lead to. Apparently, Churchill's passion for justice is so pure we need not worry about sentimentalities like free speech.

Churchill also cites Harvard political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen without offering a critical evaluation of this rather dubious source. One of Goldhagen’s books, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, advances the improbable thesis that all WWII era Germans were driven by pathological hatred and thus leaped at the chance to exterminate the Jews. A claim so contrary to common sense barely needs refutation, but suffice it to say that Norman Finkelstein correctly pointed out that “the historical evidence for a murderous Gentile impulse is nil.” Furthermore, it bears keeping in mind that the blanket indictment of entire peoples for presumed evil was the justification for the firebombings during WWII, wherein hundreds of thousands of civilians were incinerated in attacks having little or no military significance. In a letter to War Secretary Henry Stimson in September 1944, FDR explained: “The German people as a whole must be punished for the Nazis’ ‘lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization’” [my italics]. Today, Churchill correctly reminds us that the U.S. then staunchly believed in collective guilt, maintaining that German civilians and military personnel alike “richly deserved the death and devastation” unleashed on them by the U.S. War Department. But he neglects to point out that neither Germans nor Americans have ever deserved to be burned alive or otherwise treated like ants and bedbugs.

Dismissive of class analysis, Churchill is rather too free about equating the entire American people with the elite institutions that have such a catastrophic impact on the world. He alleges that “Americans have in effect collectively lost their grip,” that a “preponderance” of the citizenry rejects the rules of civilized behavior (rules it may not even know exist) and has “enthusiastically embraced” a war on terror based on “massive perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” all of them well hidden from mass audiences in the U.S. In speaking of Newsweek casting an aura of “wide-eyed innocence” about the motive behind the 911 attacks, Churchill claims that this deceitful posture is one “the country” is perpetually eager to embrace. While conceding that relevant information about the murderous nature of the national security state is “distorted beyond recognition,” he nevertheless complains that “Americans greeted [Madeleine] Albright’s haughty revelation of genocide [by sanctions] with yawns and blank stares.” He follows this up with the claim that “the U.S. citizenry as a whole” was “willful and deliberate” in its ignorance about Iraq sanctions, as opposed to being excluded from political discourse on principle and bombarded with commercial and government propaganda on a scale that nearly defies description. Churchill refers vaguely to “Good Americans” in the same vein as stereotypical “Good Germans” and concludes that the problem in both cases is not their subordinate position and attendant distorted world view, but their own “not caring.” While castigating progressives for keeping guilt at arm’s length by latching on to “handy abstractions” such as “capitalism”, “the state”, “structural oppression” and “the hierarchy,” he makes reference to “the country,” “faceless bureaucrats,” and “Americans” in similarly vague ways.

In general, Churchill’s blanket indictment of the whole culture would be better directed at the intellectual class he has been fortunate enough to represent. Most working people in this country can only dream of the kind of income and unstructured time professors like Churchill have been granted as a professional prerogative, and rubbing their noses in atrocities they have rarely even heard of, let alone been given a chance to properly respond to, cannot possibly be a fruitful path. When dissent and popular organization has given it the information and analysis it lacks, the American public has come to reasonable conclusions, such as that the Vietnam War was “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” believed by a large majority of the population to this day as the result of popular organizing and education by anti-war activists decades ago.

In short, rather than demonize Americans with inflammatory comparisons to hopelessly caricatured Germans, it seems more humane, accurate, and promising to debunk the very notion that entire peoples are wicked or criminally indifferent. Though Churchill makes brief reference to Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler in an effort to substantiate his claim that “a lopsided majority of Germans were quite comfortable with -- and to a considerable extent openly celebratory of -– nazism’s 'triumphs and accomplishments,'" he ignores Kershaw’s documentation of considerable popular opposition to the Nazi regime in his Popular Opinion & Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945. In the latter book Kershaw summarizes the pre-war situation among German workers as follows: “The glimpses of worker attitudes which we have extracted from a mass of documentation suggest strongly that workers not only were unfree, in the Third Reich, but that most of them felt they were unfree, exploited, discriminated against, and the victims of an unfair class-ridden society in which wealth and opportunity were unevenly divided. Far from being won over to Nazism during the boom years of 1937-9, the signs are that Nazism was further losing ground among workers during this period.” These attitudes, not at all unfamiliar to working Americans today, became more entrenched when the bitter costs of war came home in subsequent years.

In the countryside, resentments were much the same. German peasants turned against the Nazis, resenting the obligation to produce food without enough helping hands, after which they were forced to sell only to Nazi appointed middlemen who paid far less than what was charged to the ultimate consumers. There was, says Kershaw, an “acute sense of exploitation among the peasantry, prompting deep antipathy towards the Party and regime, aloofness from the ‘great events’ of the war itself, and overwhelming preoccupation with material self-interest -- above all else the difficulties of acquiring sufficient farm labor.” In the fall of 1941, reports Kershaw, “Detestation of the Nazi regime was by this time almost universal in country areas.”

Nor can anti-Semitism be fairly said to have carried popular endorsement. Kershaw maintains that the Nazis recognized its unpopularity and did not even attempt to mobilize mass support for persecution of the Jews. Although the stereotype of the "Jewish Bolshevik" was used to galvanize support for Nazi policies, anti-Semitism did not resonate with anything like a majority of the population. Churchill, of course, indicts passive acquiescence as well as active collaboration, but in the context of a conflict in which entire continents were reduced to smoking ruins by policies poorly understood by the populations ordered to carry them out, it is not clear that the accusation carries much moral weight.

It is certainly true, as Churchill emphasizes, that international law requires Americans to find some way of making their leaders cease and desist from their criminal aggression and other lawless behaviors. But countries are populated by human beings, not demons. If we are to succeed in transforming Empire into a society within which a decent person might want to live, we would do well to recognize that prevailing arrangements are sustained by a false and manipulated consensus, not the enthusiastic endorsement of wickedness by conscious majorities.

Michael K. Smith is the author of Portraits of Empire and The Madness of King George (illustrations by Matt Wuerker), both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at An earlier version of this article was published in 2005 by Press Action and Dissident Voice.


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