The Churchill Doctrine

by A. Jay Adler on September 23, 2010
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No, it’s not his but you never heard of it. It’s mine. I’m naming it for him. I think he’d be pleased. If not, I’m sure he’ll let me know.

Thinking back to Newt Gingrich’s recent plunge through the previously known floor of debased political rhetoric (he’s an explorer, that one, of perpetually undiscovered depths of cultural depravity), there is significantly more to be observed than I offered in Ship of Fools II. As a reminder, here is what Gingrich said to National Review Online, widely quoted, building on a Forbes article by Dinesh D’Souza:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

“This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” Gingrich tells us.

“I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating — none of which was true,” Gingrich continues. “In the Alinksy tradition, he was being the person he needed to be in order to achieve the position he needed to achieve . . . He was authentically dishonest.”

“[Obama] is in the great tradition of Edison, Ford, the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates — he saw his opportunity and he took it,” Gingrich says. Will Gingrich take it back in 2012? “The American people may take it back, in which case I may or may not be the recipient of that, but I have zero doubt that the American people will take it back. Unlike Ford, the Wright Brothers, et cetera, this guy’s invention did not work.”

“I think Obama gets up every morning with a worldview that is fundamentally wrong about reality,” Gingrich says. “If you look at the continuous denial of reality, there has got to be a point where someone stands up and says that this is just factually insane.”

What I am interested in today, actually, is the less obviously contemptible stuff, rather than the demon-seed “outside our comprehension” phraseology, and all of the insidious assertions about deceit, opportunism and alternative, defective world views. Suffice it to say about all of that commentary that it is pure ideological antagonism, an intellectual shell masquerading as substantive analysis. Like psychoanalyzing the Iraq War as Bush II’s enacted usurpation of the father, Bush I, it is nothing more than a projection of political opponents’ own inability to dignify ideas contrary to their own. They reduce them, then, to pure psychological drive or flawed, corrupted personality.

There is, though, amid all the garbage that is Gingrich’s long-term deposit on the American Main Street, the one personal attack that connects to the one genuine idea in his National Review comments. Bill Clinton, of course, was trashed just as savagely by the Right as is Obama. But like any good fighters, the Right’s shock troops attack areas of weakness. We needn’t review what those were for Clinton. For Obama, it is the opportunity, despite his, in fact, quintessential Americanness, to portray him as “the other,” the foreigner, the alien. This effort is all over Gingrich’s pretense of political critique. While Obama’s election was a tribute to the current best in America, conservative opposition to him has been a reflection of the worst. No, it hasn’t been as bad as this kind of thing. But because it is so widespread, so prevalent among segments of the national commentariat and leadership, and so rationalized and thus unrecognized, it is like an undiagnosed disease. The Ku Klux Klan is a wart. This disguised xenophobia is a cancer.

What is the idea? “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.” Let’s examine that. Why Kenyan? You ever hear of Kenyan anti-colonial behavior, particularly, as a phenomenon, as a concept? Is it different from Congolese anti-colonial behavior? Or Malaysian? Or Vietnamese? Well, obviously, it was Kenyan for Gingrich only because that is Obama’s paternal home country, his African home country – another opportunity, while actually getting at an idea, to invoke Obama the alien. Interestingly, though, amid the general dismay over Gingrich’s comments, no one has taken him on regarding that idea. There are reasons, to be analyzed on some other occasion, for the Left’s – and I mean a sane Left – avoidance of this debate. I’ll touch on it now only briefly to make a different point.

Was Kenya not a colony of Britain? Should Kenyans enjoy a historic pleasure at their past as a British colony? How’d we feel about ours? Kenya has only been free of British rule since 1963. That’s 47 years. Forty-Seven years after American colonists declared their independence from England, the United States was only eleven years past a second war with England. Just that year, it told European powers to stay out of its hemisphere. Monroe stated in his Doctrine

as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

He further stated,

We owe it, therefore, to candour and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.

Have the Kenyans, the Africans in general, and all once colonized nations not the same right to reject not just colonization as a prospect, but colonization as an idea, as did once the former American colonies? From where does it come, this idea that “anti-colonial behavior” is some dark force,  product of a foreign idea that Americans should fear and reject? Was not the American Revolution anti-colonial behavior?

Here are two enabling causes of Gingrich’s treatment. One, of course, is the full extent of postcolonialism as a Far Left analysis and ideology as it has developed over the post World War II ear – the kind that leads people to sympathize with the Iraqi insurgency or with the cultural norms of societies that oppress women. But extreme, even perversely contrary manifestations of an idea are not grounds to negate the idea, only the extremity itself. Though conservatives would love to have it so, Communism as a system may have provided empirical refutation of many ideas, but the ideas of social justice and economic equity were not among them. The excesses of Far Left postcolonialism do not wipe from world history the record of European colonialism, its abuses and devastating long-term consequences. The Right would like always to minimize the sins of Western civilization, in part by pitching them far into a past it will argue we should maturely move beyond, but as we see, for the youthful United States, forty-seven years was not so far in the past.

What is the other cause of Gringrich’s behavior? Why, of course, that it is African postcolonialism of which he speaks. The Untied States, as now a long-time great power, is not aligned in the world political mind, or in the conservative mind, with one-time colonies, but with the civilization of their colonizers that it leads – and (here, now, is the point) their European, Western culture. However independently American culture may have developed from its European origins – so that Europeans themselves love to hate it and hate to love it – there are its origins nonetheless.

But we know that the nation is changing, if not in its origins – which cannot literally, and should never in its ideas and cultural foundation, be altered (we are always unalterably, in part, what we have been) – in its current and developing character. As much as the Right would seek, in its unceasing reactionary nature, to stave off modernity, the waters of the world flow and mix with ever diminishing impediment, to form new seas and spring new rivers, and nothing in the geopolitics of the earth, or the Untied States, will stop it.

Nothing represents the change more visibly than the election of the first Black president, a president whose father was born in Africa, not emigrant Europe, and whose place of birth was colonized in the post-Columbian era, not a colonizer in it. That is profound change. This president – this son of a man born in the colony when it was still a colony – takes office and (ah, you were wondering what Churchill had to do with any of this) returns to Britain a bust of Winston Churchill that had been lent to George W. Bush, as a symbol, after 9/11.

Now Churchill was a great man, a man almost beyond human dimension – but he was not beyond human dimension, and he was not always, in all things, so great. People are like that. They are contradictory and complex, admixtures of so many different elements. Literary people usually have little difficulty accommodating this human reality. Literature humanizes. Politics lionizes or demonizes. For the narrow-minded Right, Churchill must be a lion always, and nothing provided a greater symbol of Obama’s cultural threat, from the start of his presidency, than the return of that bust. Why did Obama return the bust? There was never an official explanation, beyond the fact that it was a loan, made specifically to one President who had expressed admiration, and now there was a new President. One person sagely anticipated the return, and the reason, before its occurrence.

As it is often the case, family history cuts both ways. In Kenya, the land of Obama’s father, the signifier “Churchill” carries nothing but negative connotations. Several times in his long political career, Churchill was responsible for Britain’s empire, which until 1963 included Kenya. It was his government which in 1952 declared the so-called Kenya Emergency – an attempt to quash a rebellion against colonial rule known as Mau Mau. For the next eight years, suspected rebels were routinely detained, tortured, hanged and shot. According to Caroline Elkins, the colonial soldiers killed between fifteen and twenty thousand Kenyans in combat, while up to one hundred thousand perished in the detention camps. One of those who endured torture in a British prison was Hussein Onyango Obama, US president’s Kenyan grandfather. Traces of this story can be found in Obama’s memoir Dreams from my Father as well as in a few interviews; much more is sure to come. For now, it behooves us to remember it when Obama sends his Churchill packing. The time for the Anglo-American “special relationship” to move beyond Churchill is long overdue.

If it were your father’s homeland, and this were the history, how would you feel about the person responsible for it?

When I visited the shtell of my father’s birth in Ukraine, I visited, too, the medieval city of Kamianets-Podilskyi, to which, my father told me, he had sometimes made the ten-mile walk as a little boy. One of his aunts lived there. The Jewish population of the city, as well as many thousands of Hungarian Jews who had been transported there, was executed in August 1941. But in the several decades before my father’s departure around 1920, well over one hundred thousand Jews were murdered in Ukraine in pogroms conducted by Cossacks. When one crosses the bridge spanning the deep canyon that forms a natural defense for this one time fortress city, one is greeted at the gate of the city by an imposing twenty-five foot statue of a dashing Cossack, his twin pistols crossed in either side of his belt, his dramatic mustache flowing. Should I find it on loan to the White House on the day I assume office (you didn’t know?), what shall I do with it?

One day, we should dream, there will be a President of the United States who is American Indian. He or she will have a choice of complex and conflicting emotions, but if she should find that the previous president was an admirer of Andrew Jackson, and had his portrait on loan from the National Gallery of Art, what shall she do with it – Andrew Jackson, who brutally waged war against several Indian nations and who abrogated existing treaties and forced the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, and the Muscogee from their lands and onto deadly trails of tears?

The President of the United States is a symbol of the nation, and has responsibility to more than his personal history. Yet he is a person, too, and his personal history becomes part of American history. This is what the Right seeks to forestall. But all this is part of the complexity of human history and human being. I say that the American Indian President gets to send Andrew Jackson packing, for another President to retrieve if she wishes. Maybe he even tells the nation why, and a historically mature and wise people understand, as I hope they’d understand my rejection of the Cossack. As they should understand Obama’s silent turn from Winston Churchill.

That’s the Churchill Doctrine, not very grand, and pretty simple to understand, it seems to me. We come to terms with the truth and legacy of colonialism. And until we do, until the Right and the likes of Gingrich do, they continue to live in The Dominating Mentality of Conquest.

AJA

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3 comments

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Silke September 24, 2010 at 9:36 am

as it happens Churchill was the man who tried his best to bomb toddler me in Nuremberg’s bunkers to smithereens. The Zeitgeist of today says that was a warcrime and futile. On the first I am not qualified to judge on the second I disagree. But even if I agreed totally with current PC would I still be allowed to admire Churchill the writer not only for being a really really good one but also for what he teaches me about his view of the world?
Before you decide how I might and should feel about a Churchill-bust on my desk, take into consideration that I, having spent my early years frequently in the company of frightened out of their minds adults, am left with some tics and knee-jerks which I, since I amuse myself these days by trying to find out why I am the way I am, have taken to call my bunker-syndrome (which is of course exclusively the guilt of my forebears). Knee-jerks btw which made me fit quite well into the work place.

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