Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman and assorted intellectuals of the “decent left” have earned their keep arguing that anti-imperialism is nothing but an echo chamber of nihilism, oedipal rage and tacit support for whomever the governing class declares the enemy. Once upon a time their kind derided the Communist left as window dressing for the gulag; now they argue with parallel duplicity that anti-imperialists are shills for “Islamo-fascist” death cults and suicide bombers. As the gate-keepers of acceptable dissent, that is to say “none,” they rarely take time to note what it is, this America, they’ve declared their loyalty to and what it is exactly the “anti-Americans” oppose.
Although his book isn’t dedicated to them, Ward Churchill’s On the Justice of Roosting Chickens is a necessary intervention into not just the debates on the “new imperialism,” but the plot and themes of the United States of America on the stage of world history. Extensive and carefully documented, Churchill’s chronology catalogues America’s genocides and conquests from the Indian Wars up through the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He wasn’t surprised they happened, just that it took so long.
Churchill’s impatience with the official delusions of eternal innocence, inherently “good intentions” and American exceptionalism goes beyond scapegoating the current cabal running the show. He approaches his atrocity list of American misdeeds from Malcolm X’s basic premise: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth rock landed on us.”
What emerges “is the portrait of a country which has not experienced a time when it was actually ‘at peace’ since its inception. Each and every year for the past 226 years, the U.S. military has been in action somewhere, and quite often in a lot of places simultaneously. Far from comprising the history of ‘the most peace-loving of nations,’ the record is that of one of the most constantly belligerent countries—perhaps the most—in the annals of humankind. Far from ‘fighting for freedom and democracy,’” Churchill writes, “the U.S. has with equal consistency fought to repeal it anywhere and everywhere, not excluding the domestic sphere of the U.S. itself. The American public may be conveniently oblivious to these realities, but the rest of the world is not.”
Did we have the attacks of September 11 coming? Well, it depends on who “we” are.
In the shadow of the towers on Sept. 10, all the inequalities and waste of the American empire were on triumphant display.
Entitled and oblivious, arrogant and thrilled that they owned the world, the ruling classes and their courtiers walked the streets at ease, drinking their Colombian coffee, sweetened with Haitian sugar, flavored with African cocoa, from cups made in China – all prepared by Mexican migrants in the back of the house. The neighborhood brothels were busy because times were good for the men with $200 for a lunchtime fuck from some recent Russian immigrant trying to buy her freedom in this, the best of all possible worlds.
Looked at from this angle, September 11 was the loudest alarm clock that ever went off. The battle between “us and them” isn’t the one advertised on TV.
“Americans will either become active parts of the solution to what they and their country have wrought, or they will remain equally active parts of the problem. There is no third option,” writes Churchill.
As with his prior books, particularly Pacifism As Pathology, Churchill reserves a special spite for the self-styled progressives who acknowledge some, or even all of imperialism’s horrors in order to demonstrate the ultimate justice of the system. Undercutting his critique is the strange satisfaction he finds in the idea of “two, three, many 911s” should we not rise to his standard of effective dissent.
That might make sense if millions of Americans weren’t horrified with the path the country is on or that the most obvious beneficiary of terrorism isn’t consistently the most reactionary elements of every society that has faced it. Some people got their karmic backlash on September 11. Some of us were collateral damage.
None of that matters to Churchill because he writes off not just “America” as an enterprise ever-drowning in its original sins, but the “unending ranks of average Iowa farm boys who have so willingly pulled the triggers, launched the missiles and dropped the cluster bombs.”
For all his righteous anger, the tragic flaw throughout his entire history as provocateur author is to discount, or at least seriously downplay, the possibility that everyday people can rise above the mendacity of our rulers.
If Iowa’s farmboys are beyond hope, even Churchill’s most damning evidence is little more than justification for the cynical paralysis of passive support for terrorism. Flipping America the bird might be satisfying, but it fails to engage the matrix of conflict within America or see any positive path those taking responsibility for the crimes of empire can engage. As Arundhati Roy recently put it, “Anti-americanism is the anti-imperialism of fools.”
In a sense, the Gitlins and Churchills of the world deserve each other. They agree that the only options for allegiance are between the same “us” and “them” that Bush served up.
Dealing With the Real
Emerging from the charnel house of the first world war, the most successful anti-war movement in history not only pulled Russia out of the war, but brought down the Tsar that turned farmboys from Ukraine into killers. If they could do that back then, then I’m not willing to give up on Iowa (or Brooklyn) just yet.
In that same spirit, Monthly Review Press’ anthology "Pox Americana" delivers a three-pronged analysis of the current situation: informative histories of U.S. imperialism, what has and hasn’t changed with the rise of the Neo-conservatives and a half-dozen well-grounded essays on the possibility and challenges of building a popular anti-imperialist movement inside the USA from some of the people who are trying.
The depth and diversity of the contributors, including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Immanual Wallerstein, Barbara Epstein and Bill Fletcher reminds us that we’re not starting from zero. America’s history isn’t just a slaughter bench, but a constant struggle. With eyes to the future, "Pox Americana" is ammunition for the coming war.