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Rhetoric Versus Reality

Michael Albert


Last Halloween Yosihiro Hattori, 16, a Japanese exchange student in Louisiana, stopped at the wrong house looking for a party he had been invited to. As I've heard the story, the woman of the house answered the door and was frightened by the Halloween-dressed Hattori. She screamed for her husband, Rodney Peairs, who came out with his gun and shot Hattori to death. Peairs was subsequently tried for murder. His defense attorney told the jury, "In your house, if you want to do it, you have the legal right to answer everybody who comes to your door with a gun." Spectators clearly agreed. The jury then found that it was not a crime to kill someone who comes to your door without so much as a word of warning.

In the article I read decrying this occurrence, the columnist places her emphasis on the cost in lost tourist dollars that might accrue from the growing violence in our cities. After noting that the Japanese media was outraged by the Hattori slaying and, especially, the verdict, the columnist points out that "in Japan in 1991 only 74 people--67 of them involved in organized crime--were killed by guns. In the United States, guns kill one person every 16 minutes."

She then reports, "The Germans are also concerned about the safety of their tourists in the United States, especially after a woman was beaten to death in front of her children and her mother after she made a wrong turn leaving the Miami airport in a rented car."

It is predictable, of course, that our country should be spiraling into a dementia of increasing interpersonal violence. It is also predictable that a journalist, feeling distraught over this dissolution, would feel compelled to make her argument based on the possibility of lost tourist revenue, understanding, no doubt, that in our market economy the only thing that counts is the bottom line account, not the blood, sanity, or dignity of human beings.

You might wonder about foreigners, however, if they don't want to spend their vacation dodging bullets in Baton Rouge or Miami, why would they consider inviting U.S. soldiers, armed to the teeth, into their own overseas communities? Imagine the potential for mayhem. Well, the European Community understands this point and is in no hurry to see U.S. troops in their part of the world. But, elsewhere, that's a different story. Third worlders have no real say.

So what's happening in Somalia? An occupying army is slowly but surely entering battle with the civilian population. Why? Because when the U.S. force went into Somalia in the first place, months back, the purpose, as reported at the time in these pages, was PR. By rolling through still another relatively defenseless domain, ostensibly to reduce tensions/hostilities and thereby create a climate conducive to the distribution of food needed to curtail starvation, the U.S. could again legitimate the use of force, advertise its wares to the world arms buyers, provide grist to stem the public sentiment for curtailing military expenditures, etc. Of course, the fact that food aid had begun working pretty well just before U.S. troops entered Somalia, and that our entry created so much turmoil and violence that the much-needed aid was thereafter reduced, didn't matter at all. The humanitarian aspects of the endeavor were, in any event, only rhetorical. As long as one could claim concern for Somalis, the fact that there was no such concern was irrelevant.

There was, of course, no effort to seriously enlist Somalia leaders from more stable and orderly parts of the country in creating social mechanisms that might restore a degree of order and legality to the hostility zone, primarily in and around the capital, Mogadishu. Why bother undertaking such complex diplomatic tasks when there was no long-term agenda of any kind and the only real aim was PR anyhow.

The ensuing problem, of course, is that the UN forces, and soon ours as well, are sliding steadily into a familiar quagmire. Once in Somalia, as elsewhere, to escape by cutting and running would say to the world, and even to the U.S. public--we lost. There is, after all, only so much corrective spin one can place on bad news. If the UN/U.S. troops leave now it will be obvious that we had to get out because the people of Somalia have decided they don't like us around. It will be obvious that we have not only not left the place better off, we have aggravated its problems. This is no way to legitimate international adventurism. It is no way to bolster arguments for unabated or enlarged military spending. So, we stay, and, in all likelihood, expand our involvement. And we try to annihilate some despot or other as an indication of progress so that at some point down the road, if we manage a sufficiently violent cleansing of some clan or other, we can find a way to disengage from the area that seems like a victorious leave-taking. Heck, we may even find a remaining warlord to ally with, for example Aidid's chief rival for power, Ali Mahdi Mohammed, who held a rally in support of the most recent carnage, aimed at Aidid, as it was occurring.

But, for now, in staying in Somalia we, the UN and us, become an occupying army. And occupying armies invariably find themselves in difficult to end wars with local populations. Look at Northern Ireland. Look at the West Bank. Or, closer to home, imagine an Italian, French, or Turkish regiment entered New York or LA to keep order and help the homeless. Even if the occupying troops weren't from the land of violence where "it was not a crime to kill someone who comes to your door without even asking a question," surely there would be a rush to conflict. That's what we are facing. Viva Bill Clinton.

After the Gulf War, by 1991, the U.S. had captured 57 percent of the market for all arms deals with Third World countries, totaling $17 billion a year. Moreover, according to Anne Detrick and Caleb Rassiter, the executive assistant and the director of the Project on Demilitarization and Democracy of the Institute for Policy Studies, 90 percent of the $17 billion sales went to unelected governments. Also according to Detrick and Rossiter, it was liberal democrats like Sen. Chris Dodd and Reps. Dick Gephardt and Sam Gejdensen who greased the skids for many of these sales. But how do we keep our customers eager? We have to have a showroom somewhere. Why not Somalia?

Remember the parade of progressives for Clinton telling those of us eager for peace and justice that we had surely come part of the way and were now in position to influence matters of state because we had a friend of the people in the White House? Clinton would care about the people and that would translate into an open debate educating and rallying the public on the real issues of health care, housing, and even income distribution. Human rights would attain priority importance. The Clinton administration wouldn't be a revolution, of course, but there would be real gains and room to press for more, even from within.

Well, of course, none of this was to be, as was evident to at least a few commentators well before his election. First, in the absence of highly conscious, well organized, committed mass movements with their own means of information dissemination and agenda development and with well-conceived and supported action programs, even a president who wanted to "serve the people" could do little or nothing. Long before such a President faced a threat of capital flight, for example, even mere media pressure, legislative recalcitrance, and corporate anger would reign in his or her fledgling efforts. But, of course, Clinton doesn't even fit that scenario. He is, on the one hand, a wimp who jettisons past positions at the first hint of even a breeze of resistance. And, on the other hand, he doesn't care a whit about dignity or integrity or, of course, the people. He claims to care about the hunger of Somalia's population, while his embargo forces hunger on the people of Cuba. He claims to care about the hunger of people in Detroit while he tries to find ways to expand the freedom of operations of U.S. corporations. Instead of a public debate about the content and purpose of social programs, we have had endless prattle about style and process and even haircuts.

So far, Clinton has been abysmal on just about every issue he has touched. Haiti. Somalia. Government appointments. The economy. The minimum wage. The Gergan appointment. The health care system. His campaign proposals were enough of an improvement on Bush's Neanderthal business as usual so that their implementation, especially if it could have followed upon a public debate that built broad support for still stronger stands, would have improved the lot of various deserving constituencies. But it was all mere rhetoric to attract voters. In no case has Clinton stuck to campaign promises, instead, opting across the board for retreat whenever there is the slightest mainstream corporate or even far rightist opposition.

Consider Lani Guinier. Her appointment might actually have been a domestic breakthrough of sorts had her nomination prevailed. She's no radical, but she is at least an intelligent person who actually paid some serious attention during her career to real problems of race, gender, and other dynamics in our society, seriously trying to discern possible avenues for change. The heart of her ideas is a recognition that one-person, one-vote, winner take all elections nearly invariably leave dissident or oppressed minorities without representation or viable influence on policy. As best I can tell, her antidote is proportional representation plus "cumulative voting." The idea is that in an election for, say, five city councilors, people should have five votes which they could then cast for from one to five of the candidates running. That way, minorities--whether racial, district, or ideological--could put all their votes behind candidates favoring their views, thereby gaining a much better chance for at least a degree of representation. For this, and some rhetoric displaying a seemingly sincere concern for the plight of the excluded, Guinier was pilloried, and Clinton, her life long friend, left her out to whither in the wind. Had he stood by her through a confirmation hearing, and rallied the public on her behalf, there would necessarily have been a substantive discussion which could have provoked plenty of consciousness raising. But no. Viva Bill.

So then Clinton finally gets around to the Supreme Court and what do we get. Instead of the Neanderthal that Bush would have given us, merely a "centrist" Republican. All right. I suppose that's some kind of progress. Though the sight of Orrin Hatch welcoming the Clinton nomination leaves one wondering.

The irony of all this is that it makes one wonder if there isn't something to the demented argument that by electing clear-cut conservatives you limit the carnage because at least the left provides some opposition and, as a result, the public learns something about what's going on and potentially takes a stand. In contrast, in electing someone who looks and sounds concerned but is really just another emissary of capital, you risk unlimited, unobstructed assaults on worthy programs. It is arguable, that is, that before Clinton is done he will have done oppressive things to working people--to Medicare or pensions, for example--that even Ronald Reagan wouldn't have had the nerve to try.

On the flip side of the coin, Clinton's rhetoric was supposed to open up the possibility of spirited and informative public exchange, in turn creating space for a resurgent left. This is still possible, of course, but the inability to translate the Guinier fiasco into useful discussion suggests that in the absence of serious national progressive media, even this limited gain is going to be hard to come by.

What do we do? Over the long haul there is no substitute for developing sustained, multi-issue and multi-focus, grass-roots organizations as well as our own mechanisms for local and national public debate and agenda development. In the short run, if would help, at least somewhat, if we didn't pretend that Bill Clinton and his administration are something that they are not--a significant departure from business as usual.