Letter From America
The major political surprise of this summer was Democratic presidential canditdate AI Gore’s selection of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman, a socially conservative Orthodox Jew, had first become widely known nationally as the most prominent Senate Democrat to denounce President Clinton’s misconduct in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The media, for the most part, was overwhelmingly positive with the selection of the first Jewish candidate on a major party national ticket. The New York Post, for example, declared that Lieberman was ‘Miracle Man Joe.’’ The Miami Herald summed up the general media consensus: ‘‘Gore’s VP Pick Historic’’.
What was most unusual was the Republican response to Lieberman, which was also extremely positive. William Bennett, Reagan’s former secretary of education declared that even ‘‘conservatives acknowledged that the vice president had made a wise choice by picking a man of principle, intelligence and civility.’’ Republicans immediately noted that the Connecticut Senator was ideologically closer on many issues to Texas Governor George W Bush than to Gore.
The surprising selection of Lieberman by Gore raises three unavoidable questions, from the vantagepoint of African-American politics: (1) Who is Joe Lieberman?; (2) Why did AI Gore choose him? and (3) What does it mean for black people?
Who is Lieberman? To his credit, one of his earliest involvements in politics was during the summer of 1964, when he traveled south after graduating from college to participate in the ‘‘Mississippi Freedom Summer,’’ organizing and registering black voters. After a modest career as a state senator and Connecticut’s state attorney general, Lieberman stunned the political establishment by upsetting liberal Republican Lowell Weicker for the Senate in 1988. Weicker was generally a progressive voice on civil rights, and had even been arrested in 1985 for demonstrating against Reagan’s policies favoring apartheid South Africa. Lieberman defeated Weicker in part by attacking him from the right, on such issues as the Republican incumbent’s call to normalize relations with Cuba.
Throughout his twelve years in the US Senate, Lieberman positioned himself on the extreme conservative wing of the Democratic Party. He chairs the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the ‘‘centrist’’ group of elected officials (including Clinton and Gore) who have aggressively pushed their party toward more conservative public policy positions.
On a wide variety of issues, Lieberman is clearly to the right of both Clinton and Gore. On gay rights, for example, in 1994 Lieberman supported an amendment offered by reactionary Republican Senator Jesse Helms, which cut off federal funds to any school district that used educational materials that in any way ‘‘supported homosexuality.’’
Lieberman has a long record of hostility towards affirmative action that even his liberal apologists in the Democratic Party cannot hide. Back in 1995, when Lieberman took over the DLC, he declared, ‘‘you can’t defend policies that are based on group preferences as opposed to individual opportunities, which is what America has always been about.’’ Lieberman embraced California’s Proposition 209 in 1996, which outlawed affirmative action programmes in that state. When President Clinton, after months of hesitation, finally put forward the formulation that affirmative action programmes ought to be ‘‘mended, not ended,’’ Lieberman led the opposition within the Democratic Party. The DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute issued a report criticizing Clinton’s position, and called for abolishing it for government hiring and contracting, and making it voluntary in private business.
On issues of higher education, Lieberman has again played a conservative role. He was the only Democrat to vote against liberal historian Sheldon Hackney, the President of the University of Pennsylvania, to become head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He claimed that Hackney was too liberal on campus issues of ‘‘political correctness.’’ Lieberman then became co-founder of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a five-year-old group that rejects ‘‘radical preferences,’’ opposes ‘‘political correctness,’’ and defends ‘‘Western civilization.’’ Another co-founder with Lieberman is the notorious Lynne V Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, ideologue of the Far Right, and wife of Richard B Cheney, the Republican vice president candidate.
On Militarism Lieberman was one of only ten Senate Democrats (including Gore) to support President George Bush’s war against Iraq. He favoured a more aggressive use of US military force in Kosovo. Lieberman vigorously supports the deployment of a new missile defense system. On economic issues he’s generally pro-business, and he challenged Democratic leaders in 1989 by supporting a capital gains tax cut. Not surprisingly, he championed Clinton’s brutal 1996 Welfare Act.
Lieberman’s most recent conflicts, prior to his nomination as vice president candidate, have been over public schools. He has consistently promoted voucher schemes to divert funds from public education, claiming that voucher would ‘‘give poor kids and their families a lifeline out of failing schools’’.
Given this remarkably conservative record, for a Democrat, why did Gore select him as his running mate? I think there were several factors at work. Gore felt he had to distance himself from Clinton’s scandal and impeachment fiasco. What better way to separate himself than by embracing Clinton’s chief Democratic critic? Second, the selection of a Jewish candidate gave Gore the image of being independent-minded, or as one Democratic pollster put it, ‘‘much more strong-willed than most people realize.’’ Lieberman’s selection was calculated to help the Democratic ticket in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and possibly Florida, and should assist Hillary Clinton to win a New York Senate seat. But the primary reason Gore selected Lieberman is because they basically agree on nearly all important issues. Both men are centrist, ‘‘New Democrats.’’ Gore’s 2000 party platform soundly rejected liberal positions on literally every major issue including capital punishment, health care, military, spending, and assistance for the poor. Under the so-called ‘‘party of the people,’’ the Gore-Lieberman ticket supports globalization, the death penalty, limited expansion of health coverage, and the allocation of federal resources for debt reduction rather than to rebuild inner cities or reduce black infant mortality.
Where does all this leave African Americans? I looked at the staged New York Times photograph of Senator Lieberman standing before the meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus at the recent Democratic National Convention. Standing on either side of Lieberman are Labour Secretary Alexis M Herman and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Only hours before, Herman and Waters had engaged in a spirited public disagreement over the selection of Lieberman. In the photo, Herman looks relieved, and Waters appears sad. Perhaps Maxine reflects the grim realization of other black Democrats, who are now forced to campaign for candidates and a party platform they privately oppose. All they are left with is to frighten black voters to the polls with the spectre of a Republican victory.
They don’t realize the obvious: the Republicans have already won. By accepting Lieberman onto the ticket, as Nation writer David Corn states,Gore ‘‘has accepted or surrendered to the Bush terms of battle.’’ Bush, Cheney, Gore and Lieberman, in the end, only reflect variations of the same bankrupt political philosophy.
The greatest struggle of any oppressed group in a racist society is the struggle to reclaim collective memory and identity. At the level of culture, racism seeks to deny people of African, American Indian, Asian and Latino descent their own voices, histories and traditions. From the vantagepoint of racism, black people have no ‘‘story’’ worth telling; that the master narrative woven into the national hierarchy of white prejudice, privilege and power represents the only legitimate experience worth knowing.
Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, makes the observation that the greatest triumph of racism is when black people lose touch with their own culture and identity, seeking to transcend their oppressed condition as the Other by becoming something they are not. Under colonialism and Jim Crow segreagation, people of African descent were constantly pressured to conform to the racist stereotypes held of them by the dominant society. Some succumbed to this pressure, assuming the mask of ‘‘Sambo’’ in order to survive, or to ensure that their children's lives would go forward. Others sacrificed themselves to achieve a higher ideal, the struggle to claim their own humanity and cultural traditions, and to build communities grounded in the integrity of one’s own truths. The knowledge of balckness is not found in genetics, and only indirectly in the colour of one's skin. It is found in that connection to symbols, living traditions and histories of collective resistance renewal and transformation.
We now live in a time when legal segregation, colonialism and even apartheid have been dismantled. The ''white'' and ‘coloured’’ signs across the South that I remember so vividly in my childhood have been taken down for over a generation. Perhaps it is not surprising that a growing number of our people casually take for granted the democratic victories achieved the right to vote and hold elective office, access to fair employment, the abolition of racially segregated public accommodations, opportunities in higher education through affirmative action — failing to recognize that what has been won over centuries of struggle can be taken away. Although they are the prime beneficiaries of the freedom struggle, they distance themselves from it. They have come to the false conclusion that what they have accomplished was by their own individual talents and effort. And they actively attack the thesis that blackness, in and of itself, has any cultural value, outside of the uplifting affects of whiteness.