Monday, March 31, 2003

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How to make Michael Moore look subtle

There is a growing media flap over a Columbia University teach-in about the war in Iraq that took place last Wednesday. According to the Associated Press:

A Columbia University professor told an anti-war gathering that he would like to see 'a million Mogadishus' ?Ereferring to the 1993 ambush in Somalia that killed 18 American servicemen.

At Wednesday night's 'teach-in' on the Columbia campus, Nicholas De Genova also called for the defeat of U.S. forces in Iraq (news - web sites) and said, 'The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military.' And he asserted that Americans who call themselves 'patriots' are white supremacists.

De Genova's comments about defeating the United States in Iraq were cheered by the crowd of 3,000, Newsday reported. But his mention of the Somali ambush -- 'I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus' -- was largely met with silence.

Needless to say, De Genova's apparent desire to see 18 million Americans and -- according to Marc Bowden -- more than a billion Somalis die horrible deaths has prompted something of a backlash in the Blogosphere and in media outlets. Today's Columbia Daily Spectator notes concerns among Columbia's anti-war movement that De Genova's comments will overshadow the more "mainstream" parts of the anti-war perspective:

[Columbia University undergraduate Leigh] Johnson worries about the damage done to the anti-war movement by the strong reaction against De Genova's remarks.

'I think we have to resist every attempt of pro-war and conservative reactionaries to turn what De Genova said into an indictment of the anti-war cause, and we have to instead shift the debate to his constitutional right to say those things,' Johnson said.

[Professor of Political Science Jean] Cohen had similar concerns. 'I don't think what he's said is some kind of formalistic liberal freedom of speech,' she said. 'This kind of thing is reprehensible. if he were paid by the [political] right to do this, it could not have been more effective.'

But De Genova has not been the only target of criticism. The teach-in's organizers, as well as some other faculty members and students, have also criticized media coverage of the controversy, calling it sensationalistic and one-sided. Poornima Paidipaty, a graduate student in anthropology, spoke for many of her colleagues in an e-mail distributed among graduate students this weekend.

'It is curious to me that only his speech was picked up by the press,' she wrote. 'Keep in mind that there were 30 some speakers, who covered various topics and political positions over the course of 6 hours. But somehow, the remaining remarks hardly raised an eyebrow.'

Cohen and Paidipaty are 100% correct, so let's take a good hard look at the other speakers' comments, culled from this Columbia Daily Spectator story on the event (There's also first-person accounts here, here, and here, but let's stick with the journalistic descriptions for this post). And let's make it clear at the outset that a) none of the other speakers endorsed anything remotely resembling De Genova's comments; b) several of them have forcefully condemned what De Genova said (as has Columbia's president); c) I fully support their right to say these things and condemn efforts to censor their comments, and d) journalists tend to quote the sensationalistic portions of the speech and ignore equivocations.

That said, I do think the other speakers' comments are worthy of raising an eyebrow. Some assorted quotations:

"This is an administration that mistakes coercive power for consent ... and is willing to flirt with a new form of colonialism,' [Professor of Political Science Ira] Katznelson said. [Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology Yehouda Shenhav compared the war to 'Israeli act of aggression in the West Bank,' citing them as 'acts of colonialism' led by 'crude military men.'"

"Bush and his administration also took personal blows. [Professor of English and Comparative Literature Bruce] Robbins called them 'shameless liars and hypocrites.'"

"'I would be careful in promising wrath, shocking and awesome, to those who dismiss and ignore legitimate election results,' Associate Professor of Anthropology Rosalind Morris told the absent Bush. 'People might take you seriously and respond.'"

"Robbins offered a different approach to coping with the current administration. 'Lately, I have taken to sitting around fantasizing about being liberated at any moment by the European invasion,' he said. 'I figure the Europeans will realize that I live under an unelected government that has no respect for the rule of law, and that nothing short of violence can lead to regime change. Maybe they'll call their operation 'American Freedom.'"

"[Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies Hamid] Dabashi was excited by the teach-in format. 'Because there are no answers to our questions about this war, we just get angrier and angrier," Dabashi said. "But this is where the blessed thing called 'teach-in' comes in handy. Tonight, we think for ourselves. Revenge of the nerdy 'A' students against the stupid 'C' students with their stupid fingers on the trigger."

By all means, read the entire article. Views like these should certainly be publicized beyond the ivory tower.

Back to DeGenova. Let's reprint his letter to the Columbia Daily Spectator editor in its entirety, so no one can accuse me of distorting his views:

To the Editor:
Spectator, now for the second time in less than a year, has succeeded to quote me in a remarkably decontextualized and inflammatory manner. In Margaret Hunt Gram's report on the faculty teach-in against the war in Iraq (March 27, 2003), I am quoted as wishing for a million Mogadishus but with no indication whatsoever of the perspective that framed that remark. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that your Staff Editorial in the same issue, denouncing the teach-in for 'dogmatism,' situates me in particular as the premier example of an academic 'launching tirades against anything and everything American.'

In my brief presentation, I outlined a long history of U.S. invasions, wars of conquest, military occupations, and colonization in order to establish that imperialism and white supremacy have been constitutive of U.S. nation-state formation and U.S. nationalism. In that context, I stressed the necessity of repudiating all forms of U.S. patriotism. I also emphasized that the disproportionate majority of U.S. troops come from racially subordinated and working-class backgrounds and are in the military largely as a consequence of a treacherous lack of prospects for a decent life. Nonetheless, I emphasized that U.S. troops are indeed confronted with a choice--to perpetrate this war against the Iraqi people or to refuse to fight and contribute toward the defeat of the U.S. war machine.

I also affirmed that Iraqi liberation can only be effected by the Iraqi people themselves, both by resisting and defeating the U.S. invasion as well as overthrowing a regime whose brutality was long sustained by none other than the U.S. Such an anti-colonial struggle for self-determination might involve a million Mogadishus now but would ultimately have to become something more like another Vietnam. Vietnam was a stunning defeat for U.S. imperialism; as such, it was also a victory for the cause of human self-determination.

Is this a tirade against 'anything and everything American'? Far from it. First, I hasten to remind you that 'American' refers to all of the Americas, not merely to the United States, as U.S. imperial chauvinism would have it. More importantly, my rejection of U.S. nationalism is an appeal to liberate our own political imaginations such that we might usher in a radically different world in which we will not remain the prisoners of U.S. global domination.

Nicholas De Genova
March 21, 2003
The author is an assistant professor of anthropology and latina/o studies

Well, I certainly feel better now that he's contextualized his comments.

UPDATE: Another student-run publication, the Columbia Political Review has its own blog -- the Filibuster -- with more on this issue. This post quotes one of the other speakers, historian Alan Brinkley, on De Genova: "Abhorrent, immoral, a disgrace to intellectual life and to the University."

A first-hand source for all of the speakers' comments, including the repudiations of De Genova's commments, comes from Timothy Waligore at this group blog (for specific posts, go here, here, and here)

posted by Dan on 03.31.03 at 10:30 AM