Plantation Politics?
Mimes, Minstrels And Miscalculation

by S. Jeffrey Jones


December 13, 2004   


(Swans - December 13, 2004)   It is difficult, in our time, to reflect honestly and seriously on the expectations and codes occasioned by our "culture," in dramas staged and repressed, including those in the president's decisions on recent cabinet appointments. Attached to the secretary of state, more and less remotely, is the fate of foreign relations, national policy on war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and, lest we forget, the prospect of negotiations and peace. It is difficult to balance lingering codes, national needs, personal wishes, and questions of historical consciousness, when these are complicated by warmed-over renditions of political correctness, Republican style.

We are living in a moment when there are enough "new" horizons to be crossed that there remain many "firsts" to be announced, in which executives will take pride. Mr. Bush takes pride, choking-up, in announcing Condoleezza Rice as his selection to be the new secretary of state, to replace Colin Powell. The first African-American will be replaced by the first African-American woman, if the appointment is approved. And it will be, without question, according to some. We are living in a time when moves that were once progressive seem no longer as clear-cut as they were a generation ago. The aftereffects or need for a prescribed liberalism haunt us along with a number of burdens of national consciousness, often in contradiction with realpolitics as it plays out internationally.

Some of the codes began to unfold with the media's initial coverage, when fielding responses from senators and congresspersons. One senator was asked by Candy Crowley, on CNN, what he thought of the appointment, in a way that implicated his views on women and minorities. Astutely, the legislator reformulated the matter before answering. After hesitating, when asked if he would vote for confirmation, Crowley ventured, insistently: So you would not favor a first black woman secretary of state? Others posed questions and replied in a fashion that take for granted that, because Rice is black and a woman, of course she will be approved -- how can you vote against that package? And she must be "intelligent;" she worked at Stanford, which is noteworthy even if she has produced little scholarship to review. None of these assumptions is good, for anyone. One might assume, from the hubbub, that if Rice is approved, it is because she is an African-American and/or a woman. How could you turn down both? Otherwise, one might assume that only a redneck racist-sexist Neanderthal could vote against her.

The announcement was opportune for the Bush administration, which has done little of social consequence for any large portion of the minority populations, and nothing for the poor. The slight flutter over the politically correct race/gender of his appointee -- creating the compassionate cast for Bush -- takes the focus off of the failures of foreign policy, or lack of policy. That American involvement in the Middle East was the outcome of shooting from the hip was complicated mildly when some ventured that the president and his nominee are always together, "joined at the hip," another said. Not only would this nomination display (as the first Bush, with Judge Thomas, did) how the conservative might be compassionate, or apparently liberal, in the eyes of some. For many, it would silence the rhetoric about foreign policy, in which Powell has played no less of a role, until he was no longer a satisfactory mouthpiece. Now, a year and a half after Powell's speech to the United Nations -- during which he presented the sites of Iraq's putative weapons of mass destruction -- it appears that one source of misrepresentation and its consequences might be removed by the substitution of another figure while going one up on political correctness, chastening Democratic critique.

Now, with Rice, some topics will be diminished. For a while, it will appear that any criticism of US foreign policy will be construed as racist and sexist. Few are willing to do that. Those among us who experience repression, and take confirmation for granted, could only feel awkward. Crowley's reproach -- as though the senator was against blacks and women if he raised questions -- befalls many, in conscience, in what they fear will be thought of them, with stereotypes circulated about this type and that, white men, no less. It was journalistically courageous for Bill Moyers, on his show Now (Friday, November 19, 2004), to air a twelve-minute segment on Rice. It included a short documentary-type coverage that challenges her performance.

The Moyers commentary included the fact that Rice received three memos that warned of Bin Laden's attack on 9/11. One, delivered in June 2001, told of the coming incident as linked with a planned hijacking. Another memo from the CIA informed the president of the forthcoming danger. Bush and Rice ignored the warnings. The national security advisor might have convened a meeting of intelligence agencies, the report suggested. Rice did nothing. In reply to questions about the memos, Rice erroneously claimed that there were no warnings of hijacking. This would not disturb the president, who, like many middle-aged males, takes pride (or narcissistic comfort) in his "firsts," if it appears that he is correcting wrongs of the past (while garnering laurels). Mr. Bush nearly started crying when reminding us that Rice grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, once a seat of segregation. Narratives get embedded within narratives. Whether from the White House, or another already staged format, on many networks we were reminded that Birmingham was the place where four little black girls were killed in the bombing of a church during the year of Rice's birth. Any rhetorician might see that the design on hand conjured a pattern of identification. That encourages us to go along with Bush's wishes, which now appear to be saving little girls from racists bombing churches. If you oppose Rice, you . . . .

Fortunately, the Moyers report, which was balanced, as a matter of fact, set aside emotional appeals. This journalist, known for feature stories and shows on American culture, probably felt that he did not have that much to risk, given his pending retirement in December. Others have careers if not convictions on the line.

The banter, obviously, could be a little more flexible after the Moyers report. Still the appointment has been ideologically obscured. A number of legislators follow the assumption that "Of course, she will be confirmed," being, as she is, a woman, black, and now associated with dead children, "after all she has overcome." Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, in a token measure, indicated "She will be asked some tough questions," following which you could almost hear the guarantee of confirmation. What liberal middle-aged woman in government will stand in the way, ultimately, of another woman? We are steeped in a time when the politics of identity, along lines of race and gender, overshadow other sorts of clarification, and the promise of good policy.

What gets overlooked is how any legitimate discussion of foreign policy is silenced or circumvented through the appointment, a brilliant strategic maneuver. If you criticize foreign policy, the assumption goes, you must be against Rice, from which ensues, you must be against black women. . . ., etc. The appointment, from the administration's standpoint, is a great cover, and a slippery slope few want to climb. If "liberals" question or oppose Rice, they, typically supporters of her race-gender, will be going against their good causes. Anyone who challenges Bush's appointment risks seeming against civil rights, women, against progressive recognition for minorities, even if the appointment purchases silence or installs one more dark hole in the cabinet. We could try to get back to the fundamental matter, of what qualifies a secretary of state. That seems unlikely, for all of the subtexts.

A strong secretary of state must know policies and attitudes throughout the world, inside and out. S/he might be cosmopolitan, capable of establishing rapport and due identification in negotiations. With luck, s/he would be fluent in the languages of negotiation and be aware of the horizon of expectations by which innuendos will be shuffled. It would be significant if s/he had published a recent book exemplifying the capacity for reasoning about foreign affairs in times of terror and globalisation.

There are further complications, which might be silenced, but which should not be repressed, when all but one European ally has deserted the American cause. This, about the intercultural dynamics of race, is nearly unmentionable in view of American ideology, where political correctness and some rather skewed visions of democracy now cover past indiscretions, or bloat the thought of such into reason itself. We do not readily and ably face the fact that, for much of the world, especially Europe, there is active resentment of darker populations, because of how many make their way into what had been largely a white continent for most of its history. I do not mean race in the sense many Americans know it, having to live down a past filled with civil rights problems, slavery, etc., but its normative perception in civilization, as constructed elsewhere. One might in principle want to dispute the validity of the perception; still it figures into realpolitik. There are changes under way in Europe; many have not, however, sunk into the public sphere. Behind the changes lingers a political unconscious that permits and prohibits developments. That blacks are not politically part of civil society in other countries (including, by the way, African-Americans in Africa) is a point other nations would not hesitate to face, reflecting on a prospective diplomat. This failure of due acknowledgement -- actually lack of identification -- among peoples should not be overlooked, arguably, any more than you would think twice, legitimately, about sending a rabbi to Iran, if the secretary happened to be a rabbi who, for all other reasons, merited the position. US claims to democracy are fabricated to repress its history; that, however, is likely to diminish prospects of rapport with some allies and in talks with some nations (Korea, Iran), in which Rice may not be taken seriously, for all of their prejudices.

Because of racism, at the global level, we must understand race as a social fact, rather than bury it domestically, as Bush does, as something over which neo-conservatives might experience guilt yet, more, deliverance. This quagmire is difficult. No Arab will be convinced by Colin Powell to refrain from persecuting hundreds of thousands among darker populations, in Darfur and other situations where genocide and purification take place. Beyond these nearly unmentionable and seemingly intangible problems - of which domestic consciousness in America would purge itself -- there are disturbing facts, for which I ("liberal," generally) feel in need of offering an apology, but which merit mention. This is an instance where American ideology, and what it must cope with in its own history and in its current figurehead differs from international perception. The perception of a nation's secretary of state is important when the president is (mis)taken widely for a cowboy; wild, willful, not moved by wisdom. This nearly unarticulated problem is not our racism, which is otherwise alive and well, as recent decisions about Alabama's constitution (and the Brown decision) remind us. At the same time, it is an American problem when virtually all of the European nations except Britain have withdrawn support from military efforts in Iraq. Spain, Poland, and Italy have all planned withdrawals; others who are normally allies, France and Germany, refuse the mission. The viability of American causes internationally is not the same thing as our proper sense of justice -- or political correctness -- in the U.S., where Rice's appointment might seem progressive for the same reasons. The reasons, in both cases, are beyond reason, of course, because we are dealing with ideology and how it figures in the "clash of civilizations" (as put by Huntington). Reckoning with ideology and forms of resentment, as we must, internationally, if the case for US causes would be made, we should ask why the U.S. has nearly lost the support of Asian nations, too: Japan, The Philippines, Malaysia, all on the verge of withdrawing. Powell brought the reputation of military prowess to the position. That will be diminished with his departure and replacement by Rice. Beyond this quagmire, there are other more legitimate problems.

To date, Colin Powell and his presumed replacement, Rice, have arguably been contributing causes to problems in US foreign relations. This is frequently pushed aside for ideological reasons. Powell, by advocating in 1991 that the U.S. not enter Baghdad, permitted the provocateur, Saddam Hussein, to remain in place, when he could have been arrested or killed without the likely charade of a hearing or being turned into a martyr. At that time, in view of what most acknowledge was Iraq's unjust invasion of Kuwait, there would have been support for the removal. The US turn from Baghdad was a questionable decision then; its consequences have become a disaster since. US forces were deployed implausibly, many argue, after Powell presented a dishonest and/or misinformed account, about WMD. His evidence was of the sort one learns to question in a course on critical thinking. Powell was not, then or now, a brilliant general, nor arguably a figure who merits wide respect for actual professional accomplishments, though his awards are many; he was accorded stature by over-compensation. So anxious is America about the other code, civil rights, display of respect to compensate for earlier harms, that Powell had no problem during the 1990s drumming up the notion that he must have a "good character," which was quickly turned into the notion that he might even be the first black president. Because of his good character, he would leave the Clinton administration and go on speaking tours earnings hundreds of thousands of dollars, much collected from the Promise-Keepers: men pledging to family values, to refrain from violence against women, in a religious organization that is the repressed badge of shame, for those who need such.

There is widespread agreement that morals and values influenced Bush's re-election. So did the demand for security. Curiously, the figures who misdirected foreign policy over WMD, who contributed to 9/11 by oversight and neglect, and misled the UN and US citizenry on the need for the war -- these are the ones nominated and, already, it appears, confirmed as secretary of state. They are qualified, we might guess, by compounding errors, previous misjudgments, no skills in foreign languages, and dearth of scholarship.

There are differences between bureaucratic ambition, putting on character, and performing with a presence that encourages respect for world peace. When current international relations have not been turned into tribal warfare, on the model of the Old Testament ("my god beats yours," Ba'al vs. Yahweh), or turned into Uncle Tom's split level, they have been constructed on the model of a minstrel show that might placate the domestic webs of American ideology. The Rice appointment should be understood in view of the president's narcissistic extension of a will to power, and the needed silence of subordinates, as distinguished from achieving a promising future, which he owes to the nation. What the nation needs, security against terrorism, has been overlooked as the president wipes up behind the mediocrity of his father and the dubious wisdom of the General.

If the re-election of Bush was the outcome of concern for security and morals, the constituents of this democracy need to ask if multi-billion dollar debts and the death of innocent Americans rank high in their moral outlook. If the electorate now feels guilty about past indiscretions, one wonders whether now is the time to pledge support to affirmative action and maudlin self-indulgence in high cabinet posts. Those who prefer to avoid bad outcomes need to ask, too, about the confused nature of "democracy" today (and the rhetoric of "freedom" and "liberty") when better appointments could be made; appointments more feasible in terms of achieving likely success.

Only in America are the notions of opportunity and freedom so ideologically confused that its executive officer would flaunt the needed inversion of one-time prejudices while forsaking prospects for merging horizons with allies. By appointing to high office the contributing causes of US deaths, debt and domestic destruction, the president flaunts his "who gives a damn?" and self-righteousness internationally, and on those terms forsakes responsible international relations, no less readily than he would hush discussion of foreign policy altogether. Such generosity -- of "opportunity" on domestic fronts, through his paternalism -- should bring us to reflect on how the passing and prospective secretaries of state earn a place in the puppetry. It is the silence and the appearances of liberty that are being served, domestically, while terms for American death and debt are perpetuated, by Bush's servants. Appointing Rice guarantees that there will be no solution to international crises, no new alliances, or even talk of such. In selecting Rice, Bush responds to domestic imaginings about race, women, while assuaging his own remote guilt, and staging himself in the image of a salvific figure, to the neglect of solving international problems. All the while, the real concern -- "terrorism" -- is nearly forgotten.

Bush testified that Ms. Rice had been his mentor on foreign policy since the late 1990s. Previously, he knew nothing. Most of us can believe that unequivocally, but that is reason not to confirm her appointment. Consider the outcomes: The U.S. is losing lives, dollars, and respect internationally because of problems with terrorism, poor strategy for armed combat, lack of planning, and the failure of communication with one-time allies. These figures, Powell and Rice, have served miserably and neglectfully, and have been ventriloquized, rather than given to ameliorating circumstances. Powell and Rice are not solely to blame; they are actors in a White House minstrel show, constructed by others. (Even Powell's autobiography, creating his good character, was written by someone else.) This is a time to recruit first-rate minds capable of striking international resonances, not the time to honor or misrecognize one set of obligations in another.

The solution to problems in Iraq is likely to benefit with the mediation of former European allies and through the potential contributions of regional powers, Turkey and Pakistan, both Muslim and quasi-democratic. Rice exhibits no talents or connections in this sector, in the way, say, that Madeline Albright did, with a native connection to Eastern Europe. It would be prudent to replace Rice with a nominee who brings actual achievement and intercultural expertise to the table. The next secretary of state should be able to articulate the advantages of free trade, and bargain on how future oil assets might offset the bill for state-building in Iraq, rather than be distinguished as the president's confidante. Beyond any simple-minded appeal to free trade, however, the next secretary of state should have the scholarly equipment for international trade and resource planning that will eventually alleviate the need for such battles. More important than native status, or token value domestically, is our comprehension of the symbolic action of the culture and its prospective relation to economic globalization.

Being secretary of state involves genuine skills: high literacy, negotiating power, hermeneutic pursuits, intercultural rapport. Knowing the languages of negotiation, scrutinizing innuendos and evaluating the customs of other nations, all contribute to decision-making in the international order. The administration's confusion of priorities needs to be shocked into attention, if peace and prosperity are to return to US shores.

War, inattention, endangerment of lives, debt, race/gender promotions -- these are not my family's values, nor the outcomes US citizens seek from a secretary of state or their president. The politics of replacement do not call for sequential appointments today (à la Thomas after Thurgood Marshall), i.e. that blacks must replace blacks, or that the next goes one-up on a previous appointment -- "a first black woman" -- when real outcomes are at stake. African-Americans who are sensitive to the nation's future know that; many understand, no less, how they have been situated by circumstances, historically, domestically and internationally. The position of secretary of state should not be turned into a feather in the president's cap when people are dying and debts are mounting, when the international feasibility of the U.S. is threatened by those appointed.

If these circumstances were not real, the situation might make for a pathetic physical comedy: boing, blop, blip. The conflation of codes and masks, the ventriloquism and calculated silences, are evidence of repression in America's political unconscious. The hyperbolic way of formulating the situation, posed by Crowley, the CNN reporter, represents the conscience yet also the paralysis of reflection that "liberal" media puts upon politics, not to mention the burden it often foists on public consciousness. The secretary of state's position requires attention to detail, of the sort missing when warnings about attacks were given, and capacity for theory, of a sort missing from this administration and from Powell, when assessing global movements and prospective solutions.

What we must fear are self-indulgence and yesterday's designs for responding to race in the international spectrum. Pragmatism in world politics is always compromised in principle, if not moderately immoral to someone. American ideology must be turned inside out, to know itself and its problems on the world stage. Executive decisions should be made in terms of how patterns and people fit into a difficult puzzle: politics and global movements. We cannot let the U.S. and this president fail the world further while exploiting "democracy" as an ideological foil for willful and questionable outcomes, at home and abroad.

· · · · · ·


US Elections & Democracy on Swans

America the 'beautiful' on Swans


S. Jeffrey Jones teaches english and humanities at Compton College and the University of Southern California. His essays have appeared in several journals, including boundary 2, Works and Days, and Rhetorica. He has recently completed a book, Mixing Memory and Desire: Discourse, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Social Forms, on Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Marcuse, Bloch, Adorno and Jameson.

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number. If we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.

Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting a few paragraphs or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. © S. Jeffrey Jones 2004. All rights reserved.
· · · · · ·

This Week's Internal Links

2004: A Case Study In Forensic Irony - by Phil Rockstroh

2004: Diary Of A Man In Despair - by Michael Doliner

Empire Of Amnesia, 2004 - by John Steppling

2004: Reality in Perspective - by Jan Baughman

2004: Another Best and Worst Year - by Joe Davison

2004: The Lost Year - by Eli Beckerman

2004: Perspectives And Opportunities - by Louis Proyect

2004: The Insurgent Word - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Retrospective On 2004, Or Why I Need More Sleep - by Joel Wendland

Beyond The Beyond: Reflections on a November Visited Upon us . . . Again - by Milo Clark

2004: We Could Use Some People Power In The U.S. - by Frank Wycoff

2004: The Superpower Kept Sinking - by Philip Greenspan

The Message Of 2004 - by Charles Marowitz

2004: A Year Of Frightening Regression - by Edward S. Herman

2004: The Year Of Disillusion - by Manuel García, Jr.

Death Genes: The Second Coming - Book Excerpt by Walker Percy

Libertad Bajo Palabra - Poem by Octavio Paz (also in French and in English)

Blips #8 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor


Published December 13, 2004
[Copyright]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Main Page]