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Nicholas De Genova Explains What He Meant When He Called for a Million Mogadishus

At a teach-in at Columbia University in March Nicholas De Genova, assistant professor of anthropology and Latino studies, said that he wanted Iraq to defeat the United States and that he hoped for a"million Mogadishus." His comment ignited a storm of protest. The president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, called the remarks"outrageous." After a story in Newsweek 104 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a petition demanding that he be fired. (He is untenured.) University alumni threatened to withold donations.

After the fracas Mr. De Genova kept a low profile. But he broke his silence on two occasions, first in a letter to the student newspaper, second in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

  • Click here to read his letter to the Columbia Spectator.

  • Click here to read an excerpt from his interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Letter to the Columbia Spectator

    To the Editor:

    Spectator, now for the second time in less than a year, has succeeded to quote me in a remarkably decontextualized and inflammatory manner. In Margaret Hunt Gram's report on the faculty teach-in against the war in Iraq (March 27, 2003), I am quoted as wishing for a million Mogadishus but with no indication whatsoever of the perspective that framed that remark. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that your Staff Editorial in the same issue, denouncing the teach-in for "dogmatism," situates me in particular as the premier example of an academic "launching tirades against anything and everything American."

    In my brief presentation, I outlined a long history of U.S. invasions, wars of conquest, military occupations, and colonization in order to establish that imperialism and white supremacy have been constitutive of U.S. nation-state formation and U.S. nationalism. In that context, I stressed the necessity of repudiating all forms of U.S. patriotism. I also emphasized that the disproportionate majority of U.S. troops come from racially subordinated and working-class backgrounds and are in the military largely as a consequence of a treacherous lack of prospects for a decent life. Nonetheless, I emphasized that U.S. troops are indeed confronted with a choice--to perpetrate this war against the Iraqi people or to refuse to fight and contribute toward the defeat of the U.S. war machine.

    I also affirmed that Iraqi liberation can only be effected by the Iraqi people themselves, both by resisting and defeating the U.S. invasion as well as overthrowing a regime whose brutality was long sustained by none other than the U.S. Such an anti-colonial struggle for self-determination might involve a million Mogadishus now but would ultimately have to become something more like another Vietnam. Vietnam was a stunning defeat for U.S. imperialism; as such, it was also a victory for the cause of human self-determination.

    Is this a tirade against "anything and everything American"? Far from it. First, I hasten to remind you that "American" refers to all of the Americas, not merely to the United States, as U.S. imperial chauvinism would have it. More importantly, my rejection of U.S. nationalism is an appeal to liberate our own political imaginations such that we might usher in a radically different world in which we will not remain the prisoners of U.S. global domination.

    Nicholas De Genova
    March 27, 2003

    Interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (April 17, 2003)

    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 Vietnam.

    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 Iraq is 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 soldiers?

    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.