Thursday, March 10, 2005

Ward Churchill's Analytical Failure

Unlike Ward Churchill, I really am part Cherokee. A good number of the old Ozark families are part Indian, usually Cherokee since the Ozarks were part of Indian territory when the tribe was removed from Georgia and North Carolina during the Jackson presidency in the early 19th century. Knowing these things, I have from early on had a double perspective on American history. When I was only about five years old, my maternal great-grandmother, who had married my half-Cherokee great-grandfather, informed me that I was part Indian, that I should be proud of this, and that nobody had been treated worse than the American Indians.

Be that as it may, I feel no resonance with any of Ward Churchill's statements in his article "'Some People Push Back': On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." On a few points, I might concede agreement. "The men who flew the missions against the WTC and Pentagon were not 'cowards.'" I agree. They did not fear death.

And on September 11, 2001, when I turned on the television and saw the destruction, I (like Ward Churchill) recalled Malcolm X's statement about chickens coming home to roost. It even framed part of my analysis -- except that I intended the expression in the sense of "blowback." I thought that our support of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union coupled with our subsequent neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviet Union's withdrawal had together catalyzed the growth of radical Islam worldwide and had blown up in our faces. In part, I think that this is what happened. But not entirely.

Precisely one year later, on September 11, 2002, I gave a presentation at Hanshin University in which I strove to understand the 9/11 attack. I noted there Malcolm X's remarks and acknowledged that Al-Qaeda doesn't like American foreign policy. But I then pointed out that:

"The flaw in an approach limited to this sort of analysis is that it makes the actions of the other purely reactive, as if Newton's third law of motion applied to political or religious movements, as if the other were not an active agent in world history. . . . 'Al-Qaeda didn't order the Taliban to destroy the Bamyan Buddhist statues because they hate America.'"

Following these words, I presented what I saw as some religious dimensions of the attack, citing Islamic tradition and commentary as well as the Qur'an itself as part of what motivated the terrorists.

Ward Churchill, however, had done some research and analysis of his own and had already concluded that the terrorists were:

"[not] 'fanatics' devoted to 'Islamic fundamentalism.' One might rightly describe their actions as 'desperate.' Feelings of desperation, however, are a perfectly reasonable -- one is tempted to say 'normal' -- emotional response among persons confronted by the mass murder of their children, particularly when it appears that nobody else really gives a damn (ask a Jewish survivor about this one, or, even more poignantly, for all the attention paid them, a Gypsy). That desperate circumstances generate desperate responses is no mysterious or irrational principle, of the sort motivating fanatics. Less is it one peculiar to Islam. Indeed, even the FBI's investigative reports on the combat teams' activities during the months leading up to September 11 make it clear that the members were not fundamentalist Muslims. Rather, it's pretty obvious at this point that they were secular activists -- soldiers, really -- who, while undoubtedly enjoying cordial relations with the clerics of their countries, were motivated far more by the grisly realities of the U.S. war against them than by a set of religious beliefs."

I don't know how soon after 9/11 Churchill published this, but his reference to "the FBI's investigative reports" suggests that some days had passed. If so, then he surely had time to read the text of the terrorists' last letter, which includes these words of guidance to prepare Mohamed Atta and the others for their act of sacred terror:

"6- Increase your mention of God's name. The best mention is reading the Qur'an. All scholars agreed to this. It is enough for us, that [the Qur'an] is the word of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who we are about to meet.
7- cleanse your heart of sins, forget and try to forget something called life. The time of play is over, now is the time of the true promise [of God]. How many [years] we have wasted [!] shouldn't we use these hours to present [to God, our] sacrifices and obedience."

Given these words, there can be no reasonable doubt that Atta and the others attempted to place their actions within Islamic tradition. The entire letter reads like a script for performing a sacramentally pure ritual. The terrorists were, despite Churchill, "'fanatics' devoted to 'Islamic fundamentalism.'"

In short, Ward Churchill, besides being morally obtuse in describing the 9/11 victims as "little Eichmanns," is also intellectually obtuse, even on a point as simple as this one.


At 7:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree, Jung, that part of Al-Qaeda's motivation was dislike of American foreign policy.

But Al-Qaeda isn't targeting only America and Americans. If we place Al-Qaeda in the larger context of current Islamic radicalism, then we see that Islamists are attacking a lot of different groups, e.g., Black African Christians and animists in southern Sudan, Hindus in Kashmir, Buddhists in Thailand, atheists like Theo van Gogh in Holland ... and the list goes on.

But you could be right that Ward Churchill isn't really intellectually obtuse. Perhaps he had read the hijackers' letter and knew that they were Islamist terrorists but chose to deny this and portray them in a different way.

Given Churchill's apparent lies in his claim of Indian identity, his selling of plagiarized works of Indian art as his own, and his deceptive use of footnotes to cite information that does not exist, then his ignoring a letter that would prove him wrong wouldn't surprise me.

Thanks for writing. Your comment reminds me that I need to finish reading "Through Our Enemies' Eyes," by Sheuer (though it's a bit dated by now).

At 4:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Bubba, for the comment. Good to hear that there are more of us "mixed" folk around.

I once asked my grandmother if her father had ever encountered any prejudice. She replied, "Not here, but he might have in Oklahoma."

The "not here" meant not where he grew up, around the Sylamore Hills region of the White River. As for her remark about Oklahoma, I take it to mean that he must have encountered some prejudice there. Otherwise, she would not have mentioned it.

Whatever the prejudice was, it seems not to have been very significant.

Jeffery Hodges

At 11:52 AM, Blogger lirelou said...

Regarding "part" Cherokee etc. I prefer the Latin American definition of "indian-ness" myself. So many Latins have mixed ancestry that any definition based on "blood" would be ridiculous. They define "Indians" or "campesinos" (the euphamism used in heavily Indian countries) as a persone who speaks an indigenous language, lives in an indigenous community, and practices an indigenous form of religion. Such people normally also adhere to a specific indigenous form of dress or hair style. Under this definition, even a person with white or black features can be counted as Indian, while many who have the "blood" will not be.
I remember a conversation with a friend of mine wherein I suggested that his daughter apply for a scholarship in the United States based upon her "Indian" ethnicity (the family were full blooded Guarani, but only the parents spoke it). His reaction was one of disbelief. His daughter was not an Indian, she was a Bolivian! Punto.
THe point to be was the being "Indian" is not a matter of race. It is a matter of culture, religion, and language. Those who do not meet those requirements are not "Indian". Which really doesn't matter, since none of us ever took any test devised by our Creator to determine our race or racial mixture. Being "Indian" makes no one any more than an American than anyone else. We are all immigrants, even if some of our ancestors walked in across the Bering Strait.
ps. Nice to see Churchill "outed", but maybe we need to question the utility of "ethnic" studies in the first place.


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