The Most Hated Professor in America
Chronicle of Higher Education via Independent Media Center - San
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
IF YOU CALL Columbia University's main switch- board and ask for Nicholas
De Genova,you will not be connected to his office. Instead,you will hear
a recording of a statement by the university's president, Lee C.
Bollinger, saying he is "appalled" by the anthropology professor's
When a reporter calls back and says he wants to speak to the professor
rather than lodge a complaint, the operator replies, "So you're not going
to call me a bastard or a whore?"
"No. Have other people called you that?"
"Oh, yeah," she says. "They need to understand that he's the one who said
that stuff, not us."
The stuff he said continues to elicit angry denunciations, demands for
his dismissal, and death threats. During a teach-in last month at
Columbia, Mr. De Genova, a 35-year-old assistant professor ofanthro :.
pology and Latino studies, told 3,000 students and faculty members that
he hoped Iraq would defeat the United States. He also wished for "a
million Mogadishus," a reference to the 1993 battle in Somalia in which
18 U.S. soldiers were killed.
After Newsday reported his remarks, the backlash was swift and strong. A
letter from 104 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives
demanded that the university's president fire the untenured professor.
(While distancing himself from the comments, Mr. Bollinger has supported
the professor's First Amendment rights.) A group of alumni has promised
to withhold its donations so long as Mr. De Genova remains at Columbia.
He has been lambasted in newspaper editorials and on television programs
in the United States and abroad. A columnist in Australia described the
Mogadishu comment as "the poisonous fantasy of an obscure American
After a week of maintaining a low profile, Mr. De Genova returned to
class on April 8,albeit with two security guards. He has written a letter
to the Columbia Daily Spectator, the student newspaper, but he has
refused requests for interviews until now.
Q. Were you surprised by the reaction to your speech?
A. I certainly was not expecting anything on the scale of this
controversy. ...It so happens that a single journalist from a tabloid
newspaper who was interested in scandalmongering was present at the
event. In a way that was fairly devious, he tried to solicit comments
from me the following day, and in a manner calculated to generate the
most inflammatory possible effect, quoted me out of context...
Q. But many of those present have condemned your comments. One organizer
of the teach-in called what you said "idiotic."
A. I certainly would never deny that my perspective is controversial. My
intervention was intended as a challenge among people who share a certain
set of basic premises concerning the fact that this war is unjust.
Unfortunately, there has been no dialogue concerning the substance of my
speech and its meaning for the antiwar movement. To defensively denounce
what I said as "idiotic" merely contributes to the pro-war campaign of
vilification. There are people with a very vested interest in exploiting
this issue and manipulating it for their own ends, and attacks against me
are therefore attacks against the entire antiwar movement.
Q. If that's the case, then didn't you play right into their hands?
A. I think that it's healthy to generate debate and controversy if there
is the possibility of clarifying positions, elucidating and elaborating
positions in order to provoke more critical thinking?
Q. So you would argue that your comments have been healthy and helpful?
A. There is an impulse to jingoistic, patriotic hysteria during wartime
that will seek to discredit the antiwar movement. And that is to be
expected. Those of us in the antiwar movement need to confront the really
concerted power, money, and resources that have been devoted to trying to
narrow the range of possible speech. The real discussion of the
substantive issues that I raised has yet to begin and is long overdue. In
that sense, I don't think that there's any conclusive way to judge what
the effect has been at this point, either for the antiwar movement or for
the forces that would be invested in silencing us.
Q. Your comment about wishing for "a million Mogadishus" has attracted
the most attention. I read your letter in the "Columbia Daily Spectator,"
which gave some more context, but I have to confess I don't see how the
context changes the meaning of that statement.
A. I was referring to what Mogadishu symbolizes politically. The U.S.
invasion of Somalia was humiliated in an excruciating way by the Somali
people. And Mogadishu was the premier symbol of that. What I was really
emphasizing in the larger context of my comments was the question of
Vietnam and that historical lesson... . What I was intent to emphasize
was that the importance of Vietnam is that it was a defeat for the U.S.
war machine and a victory for the cause of human self-determination.
Q. I'm a little hazy on the rhetorical connection between Mogadishu and
A. The analogy between Mogadishu and Vietnam is that they were defeats
for U.S. imperialism and U.S. military action against people in poor
countries that had none of the sophisticated technology or weaponry that
the U.S. was able to mobilize against them. The analogy between Mogadishu
and Iraqis simply that there was an invasion of Somalia and there was an
invasion of Iraq.
Q. Just so we're clear: Do you welcome or wish for the deaths of American
A. No, precisely not. That's one of the reasons I am against the war. I
am against the war because people like George Bush and his war cabinet
are invested in needlessly wasting the lives of people who have
absolutely no interest in perpetrating this war and should not be there.
And any responsibility for the loss of their lives will rest in the hands
of the warmakers on the side of the U.S.
Q. There are millions of people in this country and elsewhere who share
that point of view. Why did you choose to express it in those terms?
A.Because I was interested in contesting the notion that an effective
strategy for the antiwar movement is to capitulate to the patriotic
pro-war pressure that demands that one must affirm support for the
troops. It really is a disguised form of pressuring people who are
antiwar to support the war.
Q.You've certainly heard from detractors. Have you heard from any
A. Yes, absolutely.
Q. Would you characterize the support as fairly strong?
A. There is an important and growing movement to defend me and to affirm
the important role I play at this university for the students who have
had contact with me, and to support my right of free speech and the
invaluable place of critical perspectives like mine in the larger debate
Q. The comment you made linking patriotism and white supremacy has also
caused controversy. Can you expand a bit on that?
A. It's an oversimplification, and a crude one at that, to say that I am
simply calling anyone who is a patriot of the United States a white
supremacist. But I did trace a historical relationship between U.S.
invasions and conquests and colonization to the history of white
supremacy and racism in the U.S.
Q. You don't have tenure yet. Are you worried that this could interfere
with your chances of achieving tenure at Columbia?
A.I really have no comment on that question.
Q. If you had it to do over again, would you make the same remarks?
A. There is a lesson here for all of us, far and wide, beyond my
immediate circle of colleagues and this particular university. There is a
message for all people who affirm the importance of free speech and the
freedom of thought and expression
Q.I guess my question is, would you have attempted to be clearer?
A. Had I known that there was a devious yellow journalist from a tabloid
newspaper among the audience,1 certainly would have selected my words
somewhat more carefully. But I would not have changed the message.
Unfortunately, that message has been largely lost on people who were not
at the event.