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The Gag Reflex

Or, Pogrom’s Progress

Bill Maher next to his star at a ceremony on t...

Bill Maher next to his star at a ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, University of Colorado professor of ethnic studies Ward L. Churchill published an editorial essay entitled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Called by its author a “stream-of-consciousness interpretive reaction to the Sept. 11 counterattack,” it challenged in incendiary terms the mantra about the destruction of the Twin Towers: that it was done out of a motive of pure evil because the terrorists hated our free society. Churchill alluded to deeper reasons, better attested elsewhere in works like Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies: our long legacy of self-serving meddling in the oil-rich Middle East, our willingness to deal with oil-rich authoritarian regimes, etc.

Churchill’s essay had been overlooked until recently, when a pack of bentright watchdogs needed a pretext to keep him from speaking at Hamilton College, to which he had been invited. Catching the most attention in Churchill’s piece was his justification of the attack on the Towers and even, apparently, of the death of its inhabitants. These were, in his opinion, not really victims but soldiers of the system — or as he phrased it “little Eichmanns” — and thus logical targets in this global culture war.

Not surprisingly, he faced vehement outrage. One did not have to be a rightwing superpatriot to find such remarks problematic, although — also not surprisingly — it is voices on the right that have screamed loudest for his scalp. Since the essay’s publication, demands have come from the Colorado legislature for his dismissal. Because a professor cannot be fired just for having opinions or expressing them offensively, the hunt is on for another pretext. Allegations have surfaced from a couple of fellow scholars about Churchill’s skewing of fact in his treatments of Native American history. One Colorado Regent considers this to be evidence of academic fraud, which offers potential and legitimate grounds for flunking him.

Let’s face it: if the objective of his essay was to get people riled up, Churchill succeeded. If, on the other hand, he was hoping to change minds, he may have fallen short. He may even, in certain respects, have been wrong.

But worst of all, from the standpoint of his strongest critics, he was politically incorrect.

The week this fecal blizzard hit the Rockies, Eason Jordan — CNN’s chief news executive — left his job under fire. At the end of January, the 23-year veteran of the network let loose some allegations about U. S. troops targeting journalists in Iraq during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Although his exact remarks were not released, this inkling was enough to prompt the elephantine ire of bentright bloggers, radio blowhards, and Faux News bullshippers like Sean Hannity. Jordan surrendered rather than let CNN face more martial music.

Jordan may well have misspoken or been mistaken. It could be that the shooting episodes on record were accidents, and that Al Jazeera cameramen face no more danger in Baghdad or Fallouja than do black men with videocams from L.A. police.

But the real issue, once again, is that he was politically incorrect.

Since the right wingnuts declared their “culture war” in the early 90s, “political correctness” has been deemed the McCarthyism of the left, engineered in the sacrilegious preserves of academe — albeit one squints in vain to find the liberal witch hunts, the national blacklists, the federal prisons stuffed with conservative nay-sayers. We all recall Bill Maher’s ABC show waggishly titled Politically Incorrect, but Maher, who supported the first Bush but not the second, didn’t learn the real meaning of the term until he dared suggest that it took more courage to fly a jet into a building than it did to drop smart bombs from 30,000 feet. The jingoists jangled, and Bill’s learning curve lobbed him right off the networks.

Topical comedians aside, it is of course good to hold academics and journalists to the highest criteria of proof and truth, bearing in mind that naturally no one is right all the time, and little is universally true for everyone.

The crux of this conundrum is that such standards are being enforced only against those the Thought Police have branded enemies of the state. Fact is a rare commodity indeed on wingnut radio and Faux News, where Truth descends only from Heaven, not from an empirical valuation of events and data on our sublunary terra firma. The Orwellian use of the term in Swift Boat Veterans for Truth makes one question exactly how swift those boats were, and if they were even boats. No White House administration — not even Nixon’s, as John Dean has attested — has been more at odds with honesty than the current one; indeed, not only are they not on speaking terms, honesty has been declared an enemy combatant.

Like Der Führer, who upon taking over banned all parties to the left of his as not Teutonic enough, our current crop of Goerings and Godlings believe only the Far Right has rights, and only the True Believer speaks Truth, no matter how abstracted from reality it may be.

Their sort of truth was on full monty at the recent Conservative Politics Action Conference, the largest annual convocation of the reality challenged. Regard, for example, the comments of California Representative Chris Cox, wingnut extraordinaire. In his introduction of keynote speaker Dick Cheney, Cox sneered at all the America-haters who had questioned Bush’s motives for going into Iraq since “we continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to the make them inside Iraq.” So — a case for WMDs that the administration does not even bother to tender anymore (we spent all those billions of dollars and thousands of lives to whip some democracy on them Iraqis, remember?) persists in re-fantasized and color-enhanced form as justification for jihad against liberal infidels. Our stubborn — nay, traitorous — refusal to affirm what they counterfactually KNOW, in their hollow little heads and hearts, manifests PROOF of our abhorrence of all things red-white-and-blue.

If our cable is not hooked up to Fantasy Central, however, how can we doubters and skeptics, who do not worship Bush Our Lord, be persuaded to swallow and regurgitate their Truth? Historically, there is only one way — the way of the Inquisition and the Star Chamber, of the purge and the pogrom. The opposition must be shut up, shut down, and if possible wiped out. Which brings us back to the recent attacks on the media and the university, two institutions that the Right perceives as ghettos of resistance.

Over the last year, a handful of state legislatures have entertained attempts to put universities directly under political control, so that apparatchiks, not academics, could determine course content and campus policy, and thus ultimately even hiring and firing. Colorado experienced a near miss last year, well before the Ward Churchill incident; California’s Assembly saw a doomed push of the same legislation by a GOP godling. Currently Ohio is wrestling with the beast, introduced by state senator Larry Mumper, who proclaims that too many professors are “Democrats, liberals or socialists or card-carrying Communists.” No doubt he has Joseph McCarthy’s famous list to prove it.

This legislation, by the way, is the brain-embolism of David Horowitz, one-time 60s radical who swung all the way to the other extreme in the 80s without touching down anywhere in between. Horowitz’s organization, with the typically Orwellian name “Students for Academic Freedom,” anticipates nothing less than a complete polar reversal of academe, morphing it from the assembly of scrappy skepticism it is now to a tool of pro-American orthodoxy. His historical predecessors called this Gleichhaltung — “levelling” or “bringing into line” — and commenced in exactly the same way, working through spuriously independent Studentenbünde to out, accuse, and intimidate professors.

Horowitz solicits “evidence” of classroom anti-Americanism and posts it on his website, where one can find professorial calumnies averring that Bush ignored intelligence warnings about potential postwar disarray in Iraq and that previous Republican presidents actually snuggled up to Saddam. Never mind the photo of Rummy hugging Hussein that Oprah flashed on her TV show. (As a member of the media, I guess she’s next.)

Given such standards of fact, we can only hope Horowitz stops short of encouraging collegiate brownshirts to toss the occasional offender off a balcony.

Both the media and the university have their flaws and flim-flams, but they are at least philosophically committed to empiricism and a free exchange of ideas, on the optimistic assumption that even error can refine our understanding. We cannot say the same for the 2005 class of faith-based autocrats.

This time we can’t let intimidation work.

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