The author Paul Johnson once described anti-Americanism as an “intellectual disease” similar to antisemitism. Mr. Johnson is correct. Each ideology uses the same intellectual and rhetorical tropes to lay all the world’s problems at the feet of its chosen enemy. Inter alia, both are totalistic: they offer a comprehensive explanation of human events. Both are also pitiless and, ultimately, genocidal. If you talk to their adherents long enough, you will eventually hear them propose some kind of final solution to the eternal problem.
It’s worth bearing this in mind on September 11, the day on which, thirteen years ago, the United States learned what kind of fate its enemies had planned for it. It was to be brutal, public, brazen, and theatrical. It was to disrupt the rhythms of America’s free life by attacking its civilian centers. It was to be relentless, totalistic, and, ultimately, genocidal.
I was sixteen years old when 3,000 of my fellow Americans were murdered on that Tuesday. It was, I can say with certainty, the beginning of my education in Western masochism. The 9/11 attacks brought out all the career critics of the United States. Some of them badly needed a new tragedy to deny or demystify. The 1990s were a bit boring, after all. Noam Chomsky had spent the decade losing whatever relevance or credibility he had enjoyed during the West’s existential stand-off with Communism. The Cold War over, the linguistics professor had moved on to defending the likes of Slobodan Milosevic. (Chomsky’s former co-author, Ed Herman, eventually concluded that neither the Srebrenica massacre nor the Rwandan genocide ever took place.) It was a time for words like “blowback” and exhausted phrases like “chickens coming home to roost.”
Which brings me to the eternal clown known as Ward Churchill. He will forever be most well known for his post-9/11 remarks about Al Qaeda’s victims, to whom he referred as “little Eichmanns.” The idea was that the workers at the Twin Towers—the bond traders at Cantor Fitzgerald, for instance—were all little worker drones in the machinery of American empire, much as Adolf Eichmann was a cog in the engine of the Nazi Holocaust. Such people stamp their forms, push their papers, and, in Churchill’s view, contribute in their own mundane, bureaucratic way to the murderous juggernaut that is the United States.
In this logic, identical in all its particulars to Al Qaeda’s, everyone is guilty; therefore, no one, not even the intern or the janitor, is to be spared his just deserts. It is this logic that compels Churchill to say that those 3,000 Americans deserved to be incinerated on September 11, 2001. Indeed, Mr. Churchill recently emerged from his catacomb to declare just that in a Fox News interview with Megyn Kelly.
Now, some people might say we ought not to take this man’s remarks seriously. We ought not to bother ourselves with them. Ward Churchill is one of those people whose only hope of relevance comes from bad press. He has contributed precisely nothing to our understanding of the world. His dim academic career produced no real scholarship, just the tenth-rate polemic that is the standard fare of the “ethnic studies” salesmen.
“Just ignore him,” you might say. This was my initial response to hearing that Churchill had crawled into the public light for some fresh controversy. But after some rumination, I have changed my mind. The American academy is full of people like Churchill. Their intellectual disease is now the sole offering in most departments of history, literature, and social sciences. They may be marginal figures in our everyday lives, but when it comes to the distribution of ideas in the United States, they are central players.
But we have become too complacent to realize it. I have long thought that the West actually lost the Cold War in several meaningful ways. It won geopolitically; of this there is no doubt. The Soviet Union unraveled with amazing rapidity, and the old-fashioned planned economies of the Eastern bloc lost all credibility. None but the most hopelessly fringe partisans of the hard left see Cuba or North Korea or Belarus as models for the future.
Culturally, however, the West had already lost significant ground. (The cultural element of the Cold War is woefully ignored in studies of that conflict. I recommend Peter Coleman’s book The Liberal Conspiracy as a primer on the subject.) The Ward Churchills had already burrowed themselves into the cultural infrastructure of the West. They began their long march through the institutions in the 1960s; they are still there, and their younger successors, armed with critical theory and “whiteness studies,” have turned the American academy into a fever swamp of diverse hatreds. They have taught masses of young people to hate America—and therefore to identify with anyone, however ruthless and reactionary, who wishes to destroy it. No KGB active measure ever came close to effecting this kind of outcome. Consider: a sizable chunk of ISIS fighters come from middle-class Western backgrounds. These are people who have lived their entire lives in the comfort of the United States, France, Britain, and other prosperous countries—often as a result of their families’ having emigrated from the countries whose failed radical cultures they wish to recreate.
Having been reared on freedom, tolerance, and luxury, they conclude it’s now best to go to war against them. Where did these young people get these ideas? Well, it might partly be the culture of their families or the ethnic enclaves in which they grew up. For instance, the vast majority of British Muslims are not Arabs but Pakistanis. Pakistan’s political culture is rife with the most vile kinds of conspiracy theory. Whereas conspiracy theories in the U.S. are the preserve of the radical left and right, in Pakistan they are rather mainstream, believed by “respectable” people who wield significant power. It is not uncommon, for instance, to hear important Pakistani officials proclaim that the U.S. or Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks—Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistani intelligence, believes just this. Imagine growing up in an unassimilated Pakistani quarter in London, surrounded daily with sub-literate mutterings about “imperialism” and “Zionism.” What effect would that have in the long run on certain impressionable young minds, even just a very small percentage of them?
Then they go to the universities, which reinforce these hatreds with their immune response against anything Western. Remember, for instance, that Osama bin Laden once recommended Chomsky’s work to the world. And why not? Radicals like Chomsky always appeal to alienated and disaffected youth—the target demographic of jihadis. Any recruiting tool will do.
So this is what we face 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet empire and 13 years after the global jihad came to our shores. The war abroad is partly a reflection of the war we have been waging against ourselves. Over the past half century, Western anomie has created an entire legion of people who want to see their own culture obliterated.
We’re still standing. But can we walk forward?