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April 2004
Dismantling the Politics of Comfort

The Satya Interview with Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill is perhaps one of the most provocative thinkers around. A Creek and enrolled Keetoowah Band Cherokee, Churchill is a longtime Native rights activist. He has been heavily involved in the American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. He is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado and has served as a delegate to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

One of Churchill’s areas of expertise is the history of the U.S. government’s genocide of Native Americans—the chronic violation of treaties and systematic extermination of North American indigenous populations. His many books include A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas: 1492 to Present (1998) and The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the U.S. (2nd edition, 2002). His new book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality, was just published by AK Press (www.akpress.org).

As a member of a people who have been on the receiving end of violence, Churchill has a rather distinct perspective of the U.S. and the effectiveness of political dissent and social change. Ward Churchill recently shared some of his views with Catherine Clyne.

This issue of Satya is trying to push the debate about whether or not violence is an appropriate means for a desired end. With animal activists, there’s a growing gap between people who feel it’s not and others who feel that, for example, breaking into laboratories to liberate animals or burning down property is an effective way to stop abuse.
Well, that’s an absurd framing in my view. Defining violence in terms of property—that basically nullifies the whole notion that life is sacred. People who want to elevate property to the same level of importance as life are so absurd as to be self-nullifying.

Some people feel that those who abuse animals or people negate their right to consideration and open themselves up to physical violence. What’s your response to this?
The individuals who are perpetrators in one way or another, the “little Eichmanns”* in the background—the technocrats, bureaucrats, technicians—who make the matrix of atrocity that we are opposing possible are used to operating with impunity. If you’re designing thermonuclear weapons, you’re subject to neutralization, in the same sense that somebody who is engaged in homicide would be, in terms of their capacity to perpetrate that offense. One or two steps removed should not have the effect of immunizing. Otherwise, only those who are in the frontline—usually the most expendable in the systemic sense—are subject to intervention. None of the decision-makers, the people who make it possible, would be subject to intervention that would prevent their action in any way at all.

That brings me to one question, which is, in general, people like to think they’re pretty decent. They don’t like to think of themselves as violent or complying with a system that is oppressive...
Heinrich Himmler viewed himself in exactly that way. He was a family man, he had high moral values, he’d met his responsibilities, blah, blah, blah—a good and decent man in his own mind.

Do you think that applies to most American people?
In the sense that it applied to most Germans [during the Third Reich].

Your recent works detail the documentable history of the consequences of U.S. imperialism. After reading On the Justice of Roosting Chickens and listening to your two CDs, what do you want your audience to walk away with?
A fundamental understanding of the nature of their obligation to intervene to bring the kind of atrocities that I’ve described to a halt by whatever means are necessary.

The predominating absurdity in American oppositional circles for the past 30 years is the notion that if one intervenes to halt a rape or a murder in progress, if you actually use physical force as necessary to prevent that act, somehow or other you’ve become morally the same as the perpetrator.

What do you think those oppositional circles need to do to really effect change?
Stop being preoccupied with the sanctity of their own personal security, on the one hand, and start figuring out what would be necessary. That might require experimentation with tactics and techniques. Not how, like an alchemist, you repeat the performance often enough to make yourself feel good in the face of an undisturbed continuation of the horror you’re opposing. If your candlelit vigil doesn’t bring the process you’re opposing to a halt, what do you do next, presuming you actually desired to have an effect.

Let’s just presume that, in this case.
That’s not a safe presumption. There’s a whole feel-good ethic out there. It’s not [to] effect any substantive change. It’s to bear moral witness to make the person feel good, to assuage their conscience in exactly the fashion you were talking about: they can then posture as good and decent people, while engaged in active complicity in the crimes they purportedly oppose. Complicity of acquiescence: that’s the “Good German Syndrome.”

You move on. Rather than a vigil, you hold a rally. When that doesn’t do it either, you march around, do petitions, letters, you hold alternative educational fora, you try to build bridges with people; you do whatever. None of that works.

The obligation is not to be personally pure. The obligation is to effect a measurable change.

Some argue that the ten million people who gathered last year on February 15th to stop a U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t really amount to much in terms of tangible results. Is there a precedent of experimentation you think people are not looking at?
If you conduct your protest activities in a manner which is sanctioned by the state, the state understands that the protest will have no effect on anything.

You can gauge the effectiveness—real or potential at least—of any line of activity by the degree of severity of repression visited upon it by the state. It responds harshly to those things it sees as, at least incipiently, destabilizing. So you look where they are visiting repression: that’s exactly what you need to be doing.

People engaged in the activity that is engendering the repression are the first people who need to be supported—not have discussion groups to endlessly consider the masturbatory implications of the efficacy of their actions or whether or not they are pure enough to be worthy of support. They are by definition worthy. Ultimately, the people debating continuously are unworthy. They are apologists for the state structure; [and] in [effect], try to convince people to be ineffectual.

Nonviolent action can be effectual when harnessed in a way that is absolutely unacceptable to the state: if you actually clog the freeways or occupy sites or whatever to disrupt state functioning with the idea of ultimately making it impossible for the state to function at all, and are willing to incur the consequences of that. That’s very different from people standing with little signs, making a statement. Statements don’t do it. If [they] did, we would have transformed society in this country more than a century ago.

What do you think holds people back?
For all the rhetoric, there is no nonviolent context operating here—not at all. The more you become in any sense effectual, you’re going to be confronted with the violence of the state to maintain order of a sort that perpetuates its functioning. So nonviolence renders one vulnerable to the lethal counter-force of the state. So there’s tangible fear. It’s basically, politically a consecration or concession of physical force to the state by those who purport to oppose the state.

Even if there is a sort of inchoate understanding of a position of privilege in society, coming from an economically affluent background, if you’re not going to face physical violence, ultimately, you are subject to consequences which are not physical: an erosion of your privilege, a making of your life more uncomfortable. Basically, nonviolence as it is practiced, espoused in the U.S., is not Gandhian. Gandhi never articulated anything that precluded personal sacrifice. This is a non-Gandhian appropriation of his principles for the purpose of confirming personal comfort. So it’s a politics of the comfort zone.

What are some of the solutions? Extreme events, like 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, have mobilized people out of such complacency, albeit temporarily.
I don’t have a ready answer for that. One of the things I’ve suggested is that it may be that more 9/11s are necessary. This seems like such a no-brainer that I hate to frame it in terms of actual transformation of consciousness. ‘Hey those brown-skinned folks dying in the millions in order to maintain this way of life, they can wait forever for those who purport to be the opposition here to find some personally comfortable and pure manner of affecting the kind of transformation that brings not just lethal but genocidal processes to a halt.’ They have no obligation—moral, ethical, legal or otherwise—to sit on their thumbs while the opposition here dithers about doing anything to change the system. So it’s removing the sense of—and right to—impunity from the American opposition.

In the case of the Germans during the Third Reich, outside influence could have altered their course. Do you think there’s any place for that in terms of the U.S.? From Europe or Canada, to kind of kick things along? I’m thinking of systems that have power and leverage with the U.S. administration.
That’s looking for a painless fix again. Power and leverage in the traditional sense are not going to bring fundamental change into being. Each of those entities is a projector of the same kind of violence, but on a quantitatively lesser scale than the U.S. However, the nature of their intervention, based upon their perception of self-interest, is convincing the U.S. to [change] in a way that will not visit undue consequences upon them. You’d get cosmetic alterations—policy adjustments and so forth—a refinement of the system, thus the continuation of the status quo. It would ultimately create illusions of change and keep people confused.

Third world opposition on the other hand understands this dynamic much more clearly. You have to have an eradication of the beast, not a retraining of the beast’s performance.

I can give a talk to a university in North America, to students and professors, and they are fundamentally confused about things that are automatically self-evident to people when you go to a village in Latin America, where the average educational attainment is third grade. Now why can these “peasants” automatically grasp concepts that are just beyond the reach altogether of your average university audience in North America?

Why do you think?
Partly because it’s this fostering of illusion—and it’s self-imposed—that repeating the same process yet again will somehow lead to a fundamentally different result. We can go through the charade of ‘let’s elect John Kerry instead of George Bush,’ do things which are essentially painless to us, and the outcome is going to be different. You don’t have politics, you have alchemy. That’s delusional behavior. It’s a state of denial in a social maybe even cultural sense. And that’s what’s masquerading as progressive politics.

Is there a historical example of what could happen here?
There is absolutely no historical precedent that I could name. We’re [within] the belly of the beast. When you destabilize, when there is genuinely significant fracturing, the actual disintegration of the social and political order. Everybody goes on about the end of the 60s, but there nonetheless were conditions indicating substantial instability. The ability of the U.S. to project power didn’t exactly evaporate but it was very sharply curtailed. But a complete curtailment of the U.S. ability to project power on a global basis has no historical precedent.

So if it takes eradication of the beast from within, how would you see that happening?
Well, first the withdrawal of consent, people imbued with consciousness to withdraw altogether from an embrace of the state.

If I defined the state as being the problem, just what happens to the state? I’ve never fashioned myself to be a revolutionary, but it’s part and parcel of what I’m talking about. You can create through consciousness a situation of flux, perhaps, in which something better can replace it. In instability there’s potential. That’s about as far as I go with revolutionary consciousness. I’m actually a de-evolutionary. I don’t want other people in charge of the apparatus of the state as the outcome of a socially transformative process that replicates oppression. I want the state gone: transform the situation to U.S. out of North America. U.S. off the planet. Out of existence altogether.

So what does that look like?
There’s no U.S. in America anymore. What’s on the map instead? Well let’s just start with territoralities often delineated in treaties of fact—territoralities of 500 indigenous nations imbued with an inalienable right to self-determination, definable territoralities which are jurisdictionally separate. Then you’ve got things like the internal diasporic population of African Americans in internal colonies that have been established by the imposition of labor patterns upon them. You’ve got Appalachian whites. Since the U.S. unilaterally violated its treaty obligations, it forfeits its rights—or presumption of rights—under international law. Basically, you’ve got a dismantlement and devolution of the U.S. territorial and jurisdictional corpus into something that would be more akin to diasporic self-governing entities and a multiplicity of geographical locations. A-ha, chew on that one for awhile.

There’s no overarching authority other than consensus or agreement between each of these. There has to be a collaborative and cooperative arrangement rather than something that’s centrally organized and arbitrarily imposed.

Is there any precedence for that in human history?
Well, partial precedence at least. It’s not worked out.

My ancestors did, in fact, generate their agreements voluntarily, serving their own interests to do so; they did cede territory. Not the territory that’s been taken, but the territory that’s been ceded is legitimately in the ownership of someone else. So there is, in that sense, a place for different populations, and accommodation arrangement can be made for others.

It’s not a case of returning to things as they were in 1619 or 1606 or whatever you want to pick from history as being the “pre-here.” It’s a matter of reasserting or sustaining the values and understandings that came with the disposition of things that applied at that time, and reapplying it or continuing to apply it in a contemporary context. It’s a reordering of relations both between people in the singular, and the rest of the natural order in a way that is coherent now. It’s not everybody who’s not in some sense discernibly native needs to leave in a physical sense. It’s that everybody who is not in some sense native needs to figure out how to accommodate themselves to life in either a native jurisdiction (as natives have been accommodating themselves) and existing under somebody else’s jurisdiction. Or, living in a jurisdiction of their own, but one that is constrained to that legitimate jurisdiction. In other words, not having arbitrary authority over anybody else’s lives, land or resources. To exist on the basis of the resources available to them in this constricted land base. A whole reordering of consciousness goes into that.

A self-defined spirit group in other words cannot assign itself a superior right to benefit from somebody else’s property. That property, I’m using in the broadest sense, includes their very lives.

What gives you hope?
What gives me hope is that people are imbued innately with consciousness and you can potentially reorder that to arrive at an understanding of what needs to be done. Once the understanding is there, the capacity to do what necessary is obviously present. So despite the fact that my experience tells me that it is unlikely (because of the vast preference of the bulk of the people to indulge themselves personally, rather than engage in something that might be effective but personally uncomfortable), the possibility of an alteration in that consciousness, remains always present. There’s where I find hope. That was a somewhat muddled response.

What would I do in the alternative if I were completely divested of hope? Collect stamps. The reason to go on with the struggle is why it’s work. It’s not an event; it’s a process. And if one understands one’s place in the world properly one is obligated to struggle. Struggling, you’ve got to have hope that you can succeed. If not in the immediacy of my lifetime, then to plant the seeds that can reach maturation at some point. Now I have an obligation to my children and my children’s children and generations out into the future, as do we all, whether we understand it or not.

 

 

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For differing viewpoints, we suggest:

Interview with 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai: The Tree Ambassador

Finding Another Way
The Satya Interview with Michael Nagler

Malcolm and Martin: Still Teachers of Resistance
The Satya Interview with James H. Cone

In Search of Global Justice and Harmony
The Satya Interview with Medea Benjamin

From Satya's
two volume discussion
of Violence and Activism


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