Monday, January 31, 2005

We're All In The Machine, But Some Are More In Than Others?

Both sides in the debate over Ward Churchill's 9-11 comments--calling those who perished in the WTC "little Eichmans"--have a preference for hyperbole over science. While there is a place for outrage over both the "efficient" destruction wrought by capitalism and the barbaric "kill-em-all-and-let-god-sort-it-out" tactics of Islamic terrorists (and both east and west alternate between efficient and barbaric killing as it suits them), both sides of the debate are guilty of talking largely out of their butts when it comes to making points about scale, magnitude, intent, and tactical justification. Even those who also condemn both Al Qaeda and
American imperialism don't always do so consistently or carefully. It seems as if everyone (and I am not excusing myself for the past couple of years) is off-the-cuff across the board at a time when it would greatly benefit all of us to rigorously study the relationship between a system and its subjects. Indignant hyperbole, the reduction of a mass of people to an emotive label like "Eichman," and conservative blather about leftist professors ought to be transformed into informed comparisons, serious confrontation of the spaces we all occupy, and fair-minded criticism of Churchill's blind spots.

Although few activist-writers are as disciplined as Ward Churchill when it comes to recording the history of colonialism's crimes, and the Native American case for recognition and reparation are irrefutable and immediate, Churchill's failure has always been in coherently describing the enemy, and in so doing, tying the indiginist struggle into the larger struggle against capitalism. There are reasons for these limitations beyond his own rhetorical and political choices, and even with those choices, he is a valuable political ally, and his writings are invaluable resources especially for people from all walks of life who are just learning about the magnitude of colonialism. But as I read Churchill's "little Eichmans" phrase, and the entirety of the work in which it appears, I can't fight the feeling that such deliberate phrasing is symptomatic of a rhetorical commitment that is judgmental, presumptuous, and bourgeois. The phrase itself is an inaccurate metaphor. What is worse is that its composer likely knows it to be so.

[Churchill may reply, has replied, that he doesn't give a crap about tying the indigenist struggle to other struggles. He and M. Annette Jaimes* and others have eloquently pointed out that the indiginist struggle is unique, a foundation for other struggles, and requires an indigenous vanguard. I sympathize with all those arguments, but Churchill has always made the choice--a valid choice--to enter into dialogue with others on the left, and it was Churchill himself who once said that all peoples are and were colonized. More importantly, it's as foolish for indigenists to take other struggles for granted as for those on the anti-capitalist left to ignore indigenous struggles.]

Andy Liu pointed out, many of the so-called Eichmans weren't even in the building yet, but many poor working people were. Now, there is a certain type of trendy lefty who delights in being harshly dismissive about this fact, displaying a kind of hardheartedness that seems impressive to the cadre; they get to appear tough on "collaborators" at little personal and political cost. But for me, our struggle makes little sense if we don't look at how innocent conscripts and custodians and couriers are casualties in 1944 Berlin, 1991-2003 Baghdad, 2001 New York City, etc.--and how unacceptable that always is. One gets the impression that Churchill wouldn't blink if he learned that some of those who died cleaning the offices of the alleged little Eichmans were poor, indigenous workers. There's a war on, he'd say, people are gonna die if they take jobs working for the bad guys. The problem is that the other side is saying that too, and in both cases it's true: War is what happens when powerful people--whether renegade sons of rich Saudis or rich transplanted Texans--make casualties out of the powerless in order to make money and promote regressive, distopian visions.

Still, to say that Churchill's declaration is insensitive and unwarranted (and bad for the cause of righteous resistance) is not to excuse or affirm the predictable conservative condemnation of that declaration. It's even more ignorant to simply dismiss all questions of the way citizen-subjects are constituted in the dialectic of hegemony and resistance, to just say "Can you believe it, that commie called 'em all little Eichmans...for shame!"

Questions of culpability and collaboration seem like a distraction to me unless they are contextualized by serious inquiry into who is truly culpable. The relationship between capitalist/colonialist exploitation and terrorist forms of resistance is relatively simple: When one side oppresses, it allows and invites cynical manipulators to align themselves with the oppressed and commit further destruction. Both sides are scoring their points on the backs of the poor and powerless. Both sides have successfully brainwashed large segments of their populations into carrying out their dirty work. Being brainwashed doesn't make someone an Eichman. Stepping into the shoes of the poor and powerless--whether those be fireman's boots, the shoes of Iraqi conscripts, those of Afghan women, or the kids from Wyoming who've died in Iraq--may not always yield comfortable ideological lines, but it is an absolute prerequisite to fighting for a world in which people are treated as means and not ends.

And somewhere, under all of this, there's a way of thinking, a radical understanding of how precarious we constituted subjects are, that says even little Eichmans are victims. That kind of radical love may not be historically possible, but it wouldn't hurt to allow its impossibility to haunt us a little.

*"For the great mass of non-Indian Americans, those who wish not to be Nazis or heirs to Nazism , and whose collective conscience might bestir itself to compel some positive alternation in the colonial relationship were the facts known to them, our present realities remain as far from sight and mind as the history upon which they are predicated...we are mutually confronted with the specter not of simply a present determined by the unrelenting horror of America's past, but a future dictated by the never-quite-acknowledged ugliness of America's present. ...To a very real extent, the key to reversing this process may be fond in achieving the liberation of Native North America, the empire's first victim and in whose ongoing victimization the empire finds the cornerstone upon which the whole of its continued existence ultimately rests." (M. Annette Jaimes, "Sand Creek the Morning After," The State of Native America, 1992)

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Bill Gates on Chinese Workers

I'm not going to write a lengthy comment about this. Just listen to how he sees working people:

Bill Gates says China has created brand-new form of capitalism
Saturday, January 29, 2005 10:07:24 AM

DAVOS, Switzerland (AFX) - Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates said China has created a brand-new form of capitalism that benefits consumers more than anything has in the past.

"It is a brand-new form of capitalism, and as a consumer its the best thing that ever happened," Gates told an informal meeting late Friday at the World Economic Forum here.

He characterised the Chinese model in terms of "willingness to work hard and not having quite the same medical overhead or legal overhead".

Manufacturers have created "scale economies that are just phenomenal", in part owing to companies there and elsewhere on the planet designing good products, Gates said.

Looking ahead, he added: "You know they haven't run out of labor yet, the portion that can come out of the agriculture sector" was still considerable.

SUU Debate Slashed

The trustees at Southern Utah decided to fund the new MA program in communications by cutting debate--which is like cutting a writing lab to fund a grad program in English.

This morning, I sent the following to the opinion pages of The Spectrum, Salt Lake
Tribune, and Deseret News:

To the Editor:

I am not merely saddened by the SUU Trustees' decision to eliminate funding
for Southern Utah's century-old forensics program. I am also intellectually
and morally disappointed in their reasoning. By framing the funding of both
forensics and a Masters Program as a zero-sum game, the Trustees are guilty
of an "either/or" fallacy that will ultimately hurt SUU's academic

Hundreds of Communication Studies programs around the country, including
some of the most top-ranked programs, consider forensics a vital
complimentary component to a strong Communications graduate program.
Eliminating funding for speech and debate to fund a Communication Masters
program is like eliminating funding for a writing lab in order to fund a
graduate program in English. Moreover, research overwhelmingly concludes
that speech and debate increases academic achievement across the curriculum.
The presence of a debate team on campus is an intellectual barometer for a

Twenty years ago, as a young member of the speech and debate team at West
Jordan High School, I attended my first summer debate camp at Southern Utah
University. I would not have gone to college had it not been for my
involvement in debate, nor would I (and thousands of others like me) have
completed a graduate program in Communication Studies.

It's a sad day for speech and debate in the West; not merely because we will
miss our friends from Southern Utah. It's a sad day because the Trustees at
SUU ended up eliminating the very program most likely to aid them in their
quest for academic legitimacy. They ought to reconsider, and restore
funding to, the SUU Forensics Team.

Matt Stannard
Director of Forensics, University of Wyoming
Rocky Mountain Regional Representative, Cross Examination Debate Association

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Two Fond Farewells

At the end of Fall Semester 2004, both Michael Owens and Joshua Wilkerson said their goodbyes to the University of Wyoming and the Cowboy Debate Team; they'd stopped competing in the Spring of 2003, but had provided us with valuable coaching after that while finishing up their degrees. Both of these remarkable young men have incredibly promising futures ahead of them, and both will leave a gap that we won't even try to fill. Talk about retired jerseys, retired numbers, hall of famers, no metaphors can possibly come close to explaining what Mike and Josh meant to our team, or what they've left behind not only in unprecedented competitive success but also in subsequent coaching and their own unique visions of an already unique squad and philosophy of debate.

Josh was a transfer student, one of the rare out-of-state students that actually stayed on the team and endured the culture shock of Laramie. He won around five extemp tournaments his junior year (and remember, we don't officially "do individual events" at UW...), along with innumerable debate elims with multiple partners, and although he didn't clear at the NPTE his junior year, he did take 4th speaker. He was glib, driven, a brilliant researcher, a tireless peer coach, and a bar hopper worthy of legend, perhaps the one thing that made him feel at home in Wyoming. As we got to know him, we also learned of his genuine friendliness, sensitivity, undying honesty, and team spirit.

But more than all these things, and more than being a brilliant debater --an incredible speaker and a walking lexis-nexus database who would overwhelm you with well-processed research worthy of a first-round NDT debater--Wilkie was different from most of us, because he was, and is, an unapologetic Republican and capitalist. And top that off with his preference for classic rock and long, dirty blues jams (on a team that's 60% hip hop and 40% punk or post-punk), and you had a large, brilliant, loving, gregarious, generous, winning, and very unique soul. Randy DeBerry called him the "LSM"--the Large, Smoking Man. And in spite of his unbending (and I dare say, at times, brutish) Republicanism, Wilkie was one of the best political conversationalists I've ever come across. Josh loves the game of politics and I doubt we've heard the last of him on that level.

In Josh we had a debater who could be as good as he ever had to be; who gently bested less experienced teams and ruthlessly pounded away at rival greats until they fell, relieved to be done with the experience. He could argue "capitalism good" and convince even me. But he could also argue "capitalism bad" and provide reasons I hadn't even thought of. He was a parli purist's dream, speaking slowly and eloquently and always placing accessibility before theory. But he never lost to any of the "faster" parli teams and grew to develop a genuine love for the UW policy squad and their arguments.

There was no question that in 2002-2003, Wilkie would be the appropriate partner for Mike Owens. Mike had walked on the UW squad mid-semester his freshman year amidst the praises of skilled senior Beth Gasson (later Worthen) who promised me he would eventually win nationals. Although Mike had the benefit of four amazing partners, each of those four people also stood in awe of Mike. He has been called one of the best ever. His style was totally unique, completely accessible, terribly intimidating, disarmingly sincere, wildly passionate, completely his own. He was top speaker at both the 2002 and 2003 NPTE's, third speaker at NPDA nats twice, an NPDA finalist as a sophomore with James Worthen, an NPTE semifinalist with Worthen and then with Justin Racette, and with Josh Wilkerson won both nationals his senior year.

Like Josh, Mike could advocate just about any reasonable position, regardless of whether it cohered with his compassionate libertarianism. But where Josh found his strength in economic and political empirics, Mike found his soul in philosophical and rhetorical critiques of statist and collectivist arrogance. Watching him debate helped me understand rhetorical theories of enactment. The speaker became the position he was arguing, and frequently, that position called for the rebellion of individual integrity, the responsibility of one person for another, transcending and encapsulating the foundations of state and law. These were philosophical perspectives that deeply influenced the UW squad. He won those debates because we'd watch and listen to him believe his arguments so much that we believed them too.

Mike's taste in music was much better (in other words, closer to mine) than Josh's. Those who know Mike won't be surprised to learn he prefers cheesy-but-edgy underground pop and has a special place in his heart for the avant gard. But to give credit where credit is due, Josh was much more responsible than Mike. Mike's irresponsibility is only slightly less legendary than his debate skills. If there is an irresponsibility hall of fame, he might get in except that he probably bet money on his irresponsibility. It is only when you see his long list of accomplishments at UW--including editor of the school newspaper, student body officer, representative to the Irish Debates AND national debate champion--that you wonder how he could do all of these things while never getting up before about 1:00 PM except at tournaments. And I'm sure the NPTE committee would agree that Mike's most impressive (immortal, really) work came the year after he won the title. Enough said about that. Too much probably.

In NPDA finals, Josh and Mike defended the Iraq war in front of a panel and audience who largely opposed said war (Rob Klingler's post-final round discussion of this phenomena in last year's NPDA journal is particularly enlightening on this point) doing so they overcame a bias in the debate community in the same manner that they, along with so many of their colleagues here at UW, transcended expectations of what debate was, is, and could be. More than that, they are good friends of mine, people who survived the transition from being coached by an insufferable S.O.B. to befriending said S.O.B. But that's like them. They were and are genuine friends of many in the debate community. Part of the reason for that is their honesty and genuine-ness. In an activity where many participants are chameleons and players, Mike and Josh have always been Mike and Josh, what you see is what you get. Amidst some rather disappointing public displays of competitive jealousy, and more than one unsuccessful attempt to smear their reputation, Mike and Josh just kept on winning and hanging out with their friends.

I was lucky enough to be one of those friends, and as is the case with so many successful debaters, coach learned a little more from them than they learned from coach. So this missive might serve as a little farewell nod and wink to two very unique debate immortals who, we hope, will keep visiting and helping out from time to time. But no words could ever do justice to what they've done for UW, or for this activity. Goodbye, Wilkie and Mike, and thanks, and best of luck.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

death, proportionality, and memory

If a friend hadn't started a thread about the recently departed Susan Sontag, I would have missed that piece of news amidst the stunning cataclysm of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

There's not a doubt in my mind that Susan Sontag would point out that her death occurred around the same time as around 150,000 others, that she died in relative comfort, and these folks didn't, and that the tsunami was as much a social disaster as a natural one. She'd be right, as she mostly was.

I read Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors as an undergraduate. As a student teacher of a philosophical writing course I caused some trouble among some religious conservative students who reported to their parents that they were forced to read Sontag's calm, intelligent ridicule of those arguing AIDS was God's punishment. I was angry at the way these college students ran crying to their mommies and daddies, but more disappointed at their failure to appreciate a method of close reading and extensive literary review that would have been a great model for them in any kind of philosophical, political, or polemical writing. Sontag's Metaphor works were treasure troves of reference, analysis, and review. Her conclusions only came at the end of amazingly long and original lines of reading the work of others. From what little I know of the rest of her writing, this was the rule, not the exception.

Currently, a few conservatives are pissing on Sontag's grave, pointing out that she had the audacity to criticize America. Yawn. Didn't see that coming. She was a brilliant writer, a mostly careful thinker, and like so many intelligent Americans, was disappointed with how thorough and self-deceiving the American ruling class could be with its various corruptions and imperial designs. I have no idea if everything she said was factually correct or appropriately timed, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that conservatives have been reminding us for the last two years that Bush's factual misstatements about Iraqi WMD should not be called intentional lies, that we should give Bush the benefit of the doubt. The truth is, we dwell in a post-ethical public sphere, where the charge of lying is a post-hoc construct and even obituaries are politicized.

Again, I'm drawn back to what Sontag might herself say. Don't we have better things to do?

Some socialist tsunami analysis, then, because it's important, and I'll bet you need something important to read. Oh, and if you can, give some money to an aid organization. Andrea says to remind everyone they don't need your clothes or cans of tuna, bro. They need money, because it's difficult to get stuff over there.