Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sterilizing History : Ward Churchill at The New School

By Nicholas Allanach

“It’s a great big white world, when we are drained of our colors” –Marilyn Manson

I’ve recently been trying to forget about the past and move on. I suppose we all sterilize “history” in some way? After all, why relive yesterday’s painful reminders that we’re wretched, worthless, vicious creatures? Why not wipe the slate clean? Start over on one big blank canvas. Create something new. The dilemma…what if someone has already painted on the canvas? What if another artist has already made their mark? Oftentimes, getting rid of history—like those pesky marks on a canvas—takes a lot of energy. Some may choose to paint around the image, others over it. Then there are those who, regrettably, lose all inspiration and violently bust the shit out of the painting. I guess some events push people to destroy things. Erase things like love, history, and people.

Ward Churchill is well versed in power’s propensity to violently destroy (as well as erase) things like history and people. As a scholar, Churchill has written on American Indian culture and is particularly concerned with the genocide inflicted on the indigenous people of North America by European settlers and the repression of such native peoples which continues to this day. Professor Churchill’s writings and lectures have made him a rather contentious and outspoken speaker; of course, much of this controversy is not spawned by his studying of the violent imperialist components of U.S. History (or perhaps it is?) but more so from reactions he has received (predominantly from the O-Reilly-Right) concerning an essay Professor Churchill wrote after 9/11, in which he compared those killed in the Trade Center and Pentagon as “little Eichmans.” Churchill claims those who stabilize and perpetuate the U.S. led technocratic empire—whether this support be direct or indirect—are “not innocent.”

Such statements are bound to pick at the scabs of those who’ve lost a loved one on 9/11, and for good reason –nobody likes to be called the bad guy. Of course those so enraged by Professor Churchill’s statements are likely blinded by their emotion. The point Churchill makes (for those willing to listen) is—whether we like it or not—all of our hands are stained with the blood of empire. “Truth isn’t always comfortable.” Accordingly, neither was the lecture Churchill delivered at The New School this week, but it was, nevertheless, true.

Ward Churchill’s lecture (sponsored by the Women of Color student committee) began with Professor Churchill’s initial reactions he had to the attacks of 9/11 and how these events were then subsequently framed by the media. Such machinery positioned words and images so that they would be remembered tomorrow as historical “truth”. Admittedly, such “truth” is not the same kind of truth Churchill describes as making one uncomfortable. In fact, this “truth” is usually the exact opposite –it is manufactured “truth” that selectively chooses to mention and/or frame an event so as to stabilize American interests. The problem of course with this machinery is that it deceives us and does so by aggressively covering its own tracks. Like erasing marks on a canvas, American power must maintain a certain image of itself (no matter how violently); it is no secret, the most effective way to sustain this image is through the media (and history).

The second half of Churchill’s lecture was a detailed blow-by-blow of American power and how this power is not now, nor has it ever been “innocent”. In fact, there could never be enough flags to soak up the blood spilt from the gruesome and deplorable acts meted out against people in service of our “innocent” interests. I’m not equipped to go over the many scenes of depravity that can be traced back through Vietnam, to the Jim Crow South, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the genocide of the Native American peoples. Of course, I’d like to assume people are aware of not only the commendable but also the vicious acts that make up the American narrative; unfortunately, they are not. In fact, more people would rather ignore such uncomfortable truths. Unlike your standard U.S. History textbook, Professor Churchill doesn’t shy away from these gruesome details and countless acts of violence that have constituted American empire (often confused with “our way if life”).

Certainly, any responsible scholar and/or teacher should never fear telling the good-news alongside the bad. When we ignore the lessons of history we’re doomed to repeat them. The only solution Churchill offers his students is to “hold oneself accountable.” Obviously, “holding oneself accountable” can happen on many levels of social action, but it is important to begin at the individual level by first asking and then admitting what has come before us to make this moment possible –no matter how bad it makes us feel. I know such statements will not rest or resolve our troubled conscience, but why should they? We are all guilty and nothing will ever change that, what can change is tomorrow and how we approach it. Ultimately, if we approach the future without first truthfully acknowledging our past, than the “spirits” from these unsettled moments will come back again and again like “chickens coming home to roost” or “spirits riding on the wings of a plane.” What is worse is that if such actions are never acknowledged than the illusion remains, history will—as Churchill notes—be forever sterilized and we will all be not only apathetic to our place in this history but in danger of having our own canvases wiped clean from it.