Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Durban", the global anti-racism movement, and placing Obama's politics in a realistic context

Naomi Klein has an important article in September 2009 Harper's with the provocative but somewhat misleading title "Minority death match: Jews, blacks, and the 'post-racial' presidency", which is unfortunately currently available online only behind subscription.

I'll say at the start that I'm leery of "purist" politics, which has its conservative as well as liberal and left varieties. For better or worse, the US currently operates on a two-party system and one of the two parties is going to control the Presidency, the Congress and (to a lesser extent) the federal judiciary. The situation at the state level is largely the same, though some localities have a more non-partisan politics. I'm not interested in showing political purity by trashing both Democrats and Republicans as being equally bad or as having "not a dime's worth of difference" between them, as George Wallace liked to say decades ago. Especially since today's Republican Party has become an increasingly authoritarian Party whose commitment to democracy, the rule of law and Constitutional government is dubious at best, as the renewed discussion of the Cheney-Bush torture program this week reminds us.

I use this as an introduction because Klein's article raises an important question about what Barack Obama's underlying political assumptions and goals are. And that's a valid and important thing to do. Just as it would be foolish to pretend that today's Democratic and Republican Parties are essentially identical, it would also be silly to imagine that the Democratic Party is deeply dedicated to reforms aimed primarily at benefiting the majority of Americans. Even with a tremendously popular cause like health care reform and the obvious deficiencies of the way the United States finances health care, it remains up in the air whether a minimally sufficient reform will be passed and signed at a moment of hide tide for reform sentiment.

Since our politics are not at all restricted to reality-based considerations, it's worth noting that to the Republican Party's main leader Rush Limbaugh, to most of Republican talk radio, to the pundits and "reporters" of Rupert Murdoch's FOX News, and to "Tea Party" activists, the Democratic Party is not just reformist but a downright revolutionary party. The fact that such critics don't seem to make the most elementary distinctions between liberals, leftists, socialists, communists and fascists is a reason not to take their political notions seriously as a description of reality. But, as an anonymously Bush administration source generally assumed to be Karl Rove told Ron Suskind, they are out to create their own reality. And in terms of actual effects on practical matters like health care reform, they are clearly making some headway in doing so. Which means we all have to keep in mind that a large part of the population is operating on a near-hysterical view of what today's Democratic Party is.

If the Republican Party's shaky commitment to democracy and the rule of law is a dangerous sign for the future of American democracy, the collapse in quality of our mainstream news media, especially the television versions, is an even greater danger to democracy's survival. And our celebrity press has some pretty kooky views of both parties, as well, though calling it driven by ideology doesn't begin to account for the eccentricity of the groupthink from which our alleged press suffer. For them, bipartisanship is the Holy Grail (for Democrats!) and Obama's biggest challenge is to prevent his Party's whacky "left" from driving his agenda. Salon's invaluable Glenn Greenwald addresses this strange notion in Bush critics: still evil, crazy extremists 08/23/09.

Klein's article is useful in understanding the larger political context in which Obama and his administration operate by focusing on an issue that - thanks in no small part to the dysfunction of our US news media - is little known or understood in the US. That is the politics around the awkwardly-named, UN-sponsored World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001, the resulting Durban Declartion and Programme of Action (DDPA) and the follow-up conference in April of this year which also carried the ungainly name of the United Nations Durban Review Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Geneva, Switzerland.

Klein argues that the most significant aspect of the 2001 DDPA was its statement that the international slave trade of previous centuries was a "crime against humanity". General Issue #13 says:

We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences ... [my emphasis]
This part of the DDPA had potentially far-reaching consequences because of its implications for the movement advocating reparations for slavery from the companies and countries that had profited from it over the centuries. As Klein puts it:

This language was more than symbolic. When lawyers had sought to win slavery reparations in U.S. courts, the biggest barrier was always the statute of limitations, which had long since expired. If slavery was "a crime against humanity," however, it was not restricted by the statute - something ... that State Department lawyers were very concerned about at the time.

On the final day of the conference, after Canada tried to minimize the significance of the declaration, Amina Mohamed, now a top official in the Kenyan government, took the floor to make a dramatic speech. "Madame President," Mohamed said, "it is not a crime against humanity just for today, nor just for tomorrow, but for always and for all time. Nuremberg made it clear that crimes against humanity are not time-bound." Any acts that take responsibility for these crimes, therefore, "are expected and are in order." The assembly hall erupted in cheers and a long standing ovation.
I've always been a skeptic about reparations for slavery for various reasons, although admittedly I've mostly thought about it in the internal American context. The legal issues are inevitably very difficult because slavery was legal in the US. Also, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment that formally freed the slaves and banned slavery constituted in a very real sense an expropriation of wealth by the federal government on behalf of the slaves, meaning that the Southern planters had enormous capital invested in the slaves and they were freed without compensation to their owners. I have little pity for slavemasters who bought and sold human and committed the largest act of armed treason against the US government ever staged in their war of secession. But in terms of a legal and economic calculation, that expropriation of capital would have to count in the calculations, it seems to me.

That's just one example of the complications. That's just one example of the complications involved. I also would be concerned that even if the solutions are collective ones such as designated amounts for educational programs or increased foreign aid, what's to stop the governments involved from cutting back other funding that particularly benefits the descendants of the victims of slavery?

Regardless of my own doubts about this approach, the international movement around slavery reparations, which includes African governments among the advocates, has become a significant front in confronting racism in the world, as Klein's article explains at some length.

It also included statements like the following, Issue #63:

We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign
occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion ...
And 2001 DDPA also included the following:

150. Calls upon States, in opposing all forms of racism, to recognize the need to counter anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism and Islamophobia world-wide, and urges all States to take effective measures to prevent the emergence of movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas concerning these communities;

151. As for the situation in the Middle East, calls for the end of violence and the swift resumption of negotiations, respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, respect for the principle of self-determination and the end of all suffering, thus allowing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom;
The 2001 conference featured efforts by some Islamic countries to highlight Israeli policy in the occupied territories, including demanding an official description of Zionism as "based on racism and discriminatory ideas." But in the preparatory negotiations and in the conference itself, those efforts were rebuffed in favor of the generally mild statement quoted above. Klein notes:

... Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres praised the Durban Declaration at the time as "an accomplishment of the first order for Israel" and "a painful comedown for the Arab League."
But neocons like Iran-Contra criminal Elliott Abrams persuaded the Bush administration to boycott the 2001 conference on the ostensible grounds that the conference was anti-Israel, though it was obvious that the positions advocated by the Islamic countries just described was likely to be rejected, which it was.

And in the years since, supporters of a hardline Israeli policy and of US support for those policies made "Durban" into a bogeyman of contemporary anti-Semitism. As Klein describes, the 2001 conference concluded on September 9. But any political momentum behind the reparations movement was quickly sidetracked by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration's "global war on terror" (GWOT). And supporters of a hardline Israeli policy linked their concerns about the anti-racism movement associated with "Durban" to the GWOT. Klein writes:

But Durban wasn't simply forgotten. It was radically reinvented, growing more sinister and grotesque in its collective hatyred of Israel with each apocryphal retelling. And "anti-Jewish diplomatic pogrom," as one writer put it in the Jerusalem Post. An event "hijacked by global harbingers of hate," in the words of a full-page ad that ran in many U.S. newspapers.
My former Congressman, the late Tom Lantos (for whom I voted repeatedly), played a role in linking the exaggeratedly negative portrayal of Durban with the 9/11 attacks, says Klein:

The most influential exponent of the Durban-0/11 illusory correlation was the late Congressman Tom Lantos. The only Holocaust survivor in Congress and a staunch Zionist, Lantos had been part of the official U.S. delegation in Durban. Here is how he described it in Fletcher Forum of World Affairs: "Hate is the thread that connects Durban and the terrorism of September 11 and it is the same ideology that produced terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. ... The terrorist attacks on September 11 demonstrated the evil such hate can spawn." Irwin Cotler, Canada's former justice minister and, like Lantos, a Zionist profoundly shaped by world indifference to the Holocaust, went even further: "If 9/11 was the Kristallnacht of terror, Durban was the Mein Kampf."
Fast-forward to 2009, when the newly-elected Obama administration decided to boycott the "Durban Review Conference" in Geneva, a decision which persuaded several US allies to also stay away. Klein's description of the process through which this came about are interesting in themselves. Even though prior to the 2009 conference, language for the final declaration had already been negotiated, with the Congressional Black Caucus taking the lead, which did not cross any of the "red lines" that the State Department had established. But the US decided not to attend anyway.

Klein suggests the possibility that Obama's decision not to have the US participate may not have been based on misrepresentations about the 2001 conference and how supporters of Likudnik Israeli foreign policies have used them, but rather on concerns about how the movement associated with "Durban" framed the issue of racism:

Obama may have known exactly what happened in Durban [in 2001], as well as what it meant to civil rights leaders and to anti-racism activists around the world. And it may have been precisely this discussion that Obama was determined to avoid. Because what happened in Durban in 2001 is that thousands of intellectuals, politicians, and activists got together and told a news story about the causes and cures of racism. The original Durban conference was not all about Israel ...; it was overwhelmingly about Africa, the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the huge unpaid debts that the rich owe the poor. It is a story with which Western governments have never been comforable, but there is perhaps no administration to which it represents a greater threat than the one headed by Barack Obama. Because the story that was told in Durban is a frontal challenge to the fairy tale Americans have been telling one another of late - the one about having entered a "post-racial" era, with their dashing president cast in the leading role. [my emphasis]
Klein is speculating here; she is not claiming to be reporting on sources saying that this was the administration's motivation. But it's an informed speculation, and a thought-provoking one.

Her account of the disappointment of reparations advocacy groups with the US boycott of the 2009 meeting in Geneva reminds me of one of the things that concerns me about the reparations movement. It's understandable and inevitable that the various political and legal precedents around the Holocaust would be a major part of the discussions over slavery reparations. But it's also hard to avoid having supporters frame those arguments as, "Well, if the Jews can get reparations ..." Klein describes of this year's Geneva meeting:

As the week wore on, and the devastating impact of Obama's boycott set in, these tensions rose. "What this is really about is whose issues trump," an African-American delegate told me in the corridor outside the Assembly Hall. And on one level that's the story of Durban: Jews vs. blacks, a struggle between America's two most powerful minority groups. The rivalry long predates the conference, of course. Reparations activists frequently point out that there is a Holocaust Museum in Washington but not a single major monument to the slaves who helped build the White House, or that many schools have far more detailed curricula about the Jewish genocide than they do about the transatlantic slave trade. Moreover, it was the example set by Jewish organizations in winning Holocaust-reparations lawsuits against Swiss banks and insurance companies in the late Nineties that convinced prominent African-American lawyers that they had a shot at winning slavery reparations in U.S. courts. For many civil rights leaders at the conference, it seemed that Jews - more than any sector of society - should have been their natural allies in the reparations call. Instead, it was large Jewish organizations and the state of Israel - itself a form of reparations, as Roger Wareham pointed out - that successfully undermined the one international forum in which reparations for slavery were on the agenda. [The reference here appears to be to the 2009 event] That reparations were collateral damage, and not the intended target of the campaign, was of little comfort.
In a footnote to that paragraph, she writes:

Almost everyone who spoke about the tensions between blacks and Jews asked not to be identified. "I have never felt so nervous about speaking on an issue," a civil rights leader - hardly known for timidity - confessed to me. One person who has been quite open on the topic is Glen Ford, the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. "Blacks get nothing from Obama's White House except permission to worship him as the ultimate role mode!. Less than nothing, as the unfolding Durban outrage demonstrates."
This provides some good examples of why reparations can be such a problematic issue. (Not that any important issues are ever easy.) Characterizing the existence of the State of Israel as "itself a form of reparations" is ridiculous. I would also say that Klein is a bit sloppy in that description. Making up lies about the 2001 Durban conference or maliciously mischaracterizing its results is not a good thing and participants in the anti-racism movment around "Durban" are right to be critical of that. But it's not irrational for defenders of hardline Israeli foreign policies to worry that such conferences may be unhelpful to their cause.

But is there any evidence that Jews as a group, or American Jews in particular, are especially hostile to the concept of slavery reparations or less open to the idea that others? Not that I'm aware, and Klein doesn't provide such evidence. We know from many opinion polls over years that lobby groups like AIPAC which favor hardline Israeli policies do not represent the views of the majority of American Jews, who favor a two-state solution and greater diplomatic efforts for peace. So the fact that Likudnik lobby groups can't be taken as Jewish opinion. Since the concept of slavery reparations is still an largely unfamiliar one to many people in the US, it's hard to think that informed opinion on the subject is that great. Though the polemics against the 2001 Durban conference surely had some effect on opinion in the US about this UN-affiliated anti-racism process.

What is clear is that African-American civil rights groups considered this year's "Durban II" event in Geneva important and that they were disappointed by Obama's decision not to have the US participate:

These resentments were deepened by the fact that many African-American leaders were convinced that the review conference did not need to be fought as a winner-take-all minority death match. In Durban in 2001, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights — the largest civil rights coalition in the United States, representing roughly 200 organizations including the NAACP and the ACLU - formally withdrew from the NGO Forum in protest of the anti-Semitic incidents. Similarly, in the lead-up to the Durban Review Conference, the Leadership Conference, the NAACP, and the TransAfrica Forum attempted to broker the compromise that would ensure there would be no repeat of [2001] Durban's anti-Semitism, while still salvaging what was important about Durban, particularly the historic discussion on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
Klein wonders if Obama's reticence to address racially sensitive issues as President may be part of what I would describe as an excessive optimism about the nature of today's Republican Party. Party head Rush Limbaugh has been hanging the reparations issue around the President's neck anyway, as Klein reports:

Obama, Limbaugh claimed [in the spring of 2009], was deliberately trashing the economy so that he could give more handouts to black people. "The objective is more food stamp benefits. The objective is more unemployment benefits. The objective is an expanding welfare state. And the objective is to take the nation's wealth and return it to the nation's 'rightful owners.' Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on."

The outburst was instructive. No matter how race-neutral Obama tries to be, his actions will be viewed by a large part of the country through the lens of its racial obsessions. Since even his most modest, Band-Aid measures are going to be greeted as if he is waging race war, Obama has little to lose by using this brief political window to heal a few of the country's racial wounds. [my emphasis]
See also:

Robert Reich, The Limits of Likeability The American Prospect 08/17/09 (Sept 2009 issue)

AIPAC raps Robinson pick for freedom medal JTA 08/04/09

Gustavo Capdevila, Rights: Racism Conference Caught in the Crossfire Inter Press Service 04/20/09

Barbara Crossette, America's UN Boycott Backfires The Nation Online 04/20/09

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