Hitchens was never innocent -- and neither were we
By Steven Salaita
(YellowTimes.org) – The pronoun "we" insinuates some type of communal affinity, familial relation, or political agreement. The pronoun is tenable in written discourse when a common interest is assumed between writer and reader, whether that interest is based on shared ethnicity, mutual social activism, or collective political ideology.
In this case, I assume a certain political association between myself and YellowTimes.org's core readership, generally a multiethnic, progressive community that sometimes overlaps with the readership of other non-corporate publications such as The Progressive, The Multinational Monitor, CounterPunch, Z Magazine, and The Nation.
With few exceptions, we have no reason to now disdain Christopher Hitchens. We have no justification for recently turning against him and branding him a modern Judas or, worse, David Horowitz. Nor do we make much sense when we decry his sudden and seemingly desultory support for American imperialism.
Our newfound agitation is all unjustified. It should have happened a decade ago.
Hitchens is a charlatan and sycophant. This is not in question. Yet we should have drawn such a conclusion years before 9/11, vis-à-vis Hitchens's discourse on Native America. In the past, Hitchens evinced deplorable views about Indians but retained his honored status in our community. What, then, does this tell us about our community? Nothing good, unfortunately.
Instead of decrying Hitchens's about face, we are better served by analyzing why we didn't decry it earlier. The failure to recognize his imperialism in 1992 reflects the unforgivable ignorance with which Native America is received in most progressive communities. If we continue in that ignorance, then we will ultimately render ourselves ineffectual. And if we continue overlooking Indians in our assessments of domestic and foreign American policy, then we will become hypocrites -- i.e., no better than Hitchens.
In a 1992 "Minority Report," Hitchens pillories Indians for "undertaking to protest the celebration of racism, conquest and plunder that impended on Columbus Day." Hitchens derides such claims, arguing that the anti-Columbus movement is "sinister…because it is an ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness, with an unpleasant tinge of self-hatred."
He later reinforces the most despicable stereotypes about Native American cultures: "[T]hose who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway."
Hitchens's obvious unfamiliarity with Native Studies notwithstanding, his reasoning is ignorant and arrogant, relying as it does on the assumption that more savage people should thank their conquerors for the technological progress that accompanied colonialism. Hitchens doesn't seem too concerned that in North America genocide also accompanied colonialism. One wonders if Hitchens would ever be obdurate enough to inform Jews that they should thank the Nazis for medical advances resulting from their use as living science experiments.
Jews, Hitchens's own ethnic group, do not deserve such viciousness according to the racism of his colonial taxonomy. Indians, on the other hand, are brown and by necessity subhuman, thus evoking the altruism of Hitchens's peculiar white man's burden.
Hitchens, like every colonial apologist, is unable to interrogate his position of privilege, which allows him to scold Indians for their "stasis" and "backwardness." He is, in other words, unable to honestly interrogate American history, for to do so would invoke his complicity in unspeakable horror.
This he makes clear in his closing point: "[I]t is sometimes unambiguously the case that a certain coincidence of ideas, technologies, population movements and politico-military victories leaves humanity on a slightly higher plane than it knew before. The transformation of the northern part of this continent into 'America' inaugurated a nearly boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation, and thus deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto, with or without the participation of those who wish they had never been born."
Hitchens corroborates all of America's founding myths, the same myths that have evolved into a national imagination that endows the United States with the manifest right to invade other nations at will (e.g., Iraq, the latest country to re-inspire the white man's burden). That The Nation would publish such nonsense is surprising, not because of its hatefulness, but because of its unoriginality. One can find Hitchens' position, with attendant variations, in nearly every liberal, centrist, and conservative American ideology.
Professor Michael Berliner, for instance, writing for the hyper-patriotic Ayn Rand Institute, seems almost to have plagiarized Hitchens a few years later. "It was Columbus' [sic] discovery [of America] for Western Europe," he suggests, "that led to the influx of ideas and people on which this nation was founded -- and on which it still rests."
Berliner, as is fashionable in colonial discourse, goes on to reinforce as truth those things that history has shown to be false: "Prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused, and undeveloped. The inhabitants were primarily hunters/gatherers, wandering across the land, living from hand to mouth and from day to day [does Berliner believe that Americans are able to skip days in their lives?]. There was virtually no change, no growth for thousands of years. With rare exception, life was nasty, brutish and short: there was no wheel, no written language, no division of labor, little agriculture and scant permanent settlement; but there were endless, bloody wars."
This argument, beyond its smug prejudice, totally ignores the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans, who all had developed what were by European standards highly advanced and sophisticated civilizations. (Those interested in Palestine, by the way, will surely be familiar with Berliner's argument; it is a palimpsest of the Zionist mythos reinforced on the American landscape.)
More important, it reveals to us that ten years ago Hitchens was no more interesting or insightful than a right-wing hack who constructed arguments knowing full well that he replaced well-crafted historiography with crude and disgusting myths. This isn't relevant so much because of what it tells us about Hitchens, but instead on what it exposes about our own failings, especially the reluctance of progressive forums to privilege Indian voices in their discussions of local and global politics. By "privilege," I don't mean writing about Indians; I mean inviting Indians to use those forums to write about themselves.
Not everybody let Hitchens off the hook; Indians certainly didn't, which only enhanced a longstanding wariness in numerous tribal communities about the utility and sincerity of what we broadly define as the American Left. That wariness, it should be mentioned, extends to every international indigenous community.
Sometimes, indigenous values are what the American Left would define as unacceptably conservative; American progressives thus demand a type of cultural transformation that indigenes are generally unwilling to make. Indigenes, in turn, often resent what is perceived as patronization or romanticization on the part of non-indigenes who find interest in their struggles.
Furthermore, the American Left, no matter how ardently it positions itself in opposition to America's imperial values, is ultimately an outgrowth of those values. This fact arises tacitly in all kinds of progressive discourse. Sometimes, as Hitchens illustrates, it also arises explicitly.
Keetoowah Cherokee scholar Ward Churchill observes that American progressives sometimes fail to "deviate appreciably from…naziesque diatribes, a matter evidenced by columnist Christopher Hitchens." He later claims, in response to comparable examples from the anarchist, socialist, and communist movements, that "[d]istinctions in perspective between right, center, left, and extreme left in the United States are quite literally nonexistent on the question of the genocide of indigenous peoples. From all four vantage points, the historical reality is simultaneously denied, justified, and in most cases celebrated."
Churchill is a contentious and polemical author whose methodology is sometimes questioned in the field of Native Studies. Therefore, while his claim may be an exaggeration or oversimplification, and while it may border on essentialism, it nevertheless should catch the attention of anybody interested in issues of justice and reconciliation.
Churchill's statement may not in itself be totally correct, but we made it correct by meeting Hitchens' original subscription to imperialism with conspicuous silence. The point here, I imagine, is obvious: Any serious analysis of American aggression needs ultimately to be situated in a domestic Euro-American context that examines the destruction of the North American continent. Our current habit of decontextualization is insensitive and counterproductive.
Let us then halt our belligerent attack of Hitchens. We should instead transform his duplicity into much-needed introspection. I say this not in a spirit of dialogue, but disappointment, because I suspect that, deep down, we are not upset that Hitchens abandoned us. We are more likely upset that we weren't perceptive enough to first abandon him.
[Steven Salaita is completing an English doctorate at the University of Oklahoma, with emphasis on Native, Palestinian, and Arab American literatures. A West Virginian with Palestinian and Jordanian parents, he splits his time between the United States and the Middle East.]
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