I had the misfortune to hear George W. Bush speak to the African-American National Urban League (NUL) at that organization's annual convention last week in Detroit. It was an unsettling experience.
"The Entrepreneurial Spirit": Business Ownership for All
If Bush's speech is any indication, he and his team like to pretend that all African-Americans are current or wannabe business owners. "African-American" and "entrepreneur" seemed practically identical in his oration. Again and again, Bush invoked the great American "entrepreneurial spirit" (a spirit that once brought many millions of Africans across the Middle Passage and covered the United States South with tens of thousands of slave plantations) and mentioned various administration schemes to promote "minority business enterprise." The chief promise Bush made to the Urban Leaguers was that they and their constituents can become prosperous capitalists if they join the Republicans in rolling back the alleged over-taxation and over-regulation imposed on America's heroic business class by the supposed anti-capitalist "class warfare" of the Democratic Party.
The McKinley-era message to black community activists was clear: quit agitating for an end to hiring discrimination, an expansion of job-training and educational resources, and a rollback of rampant racially disparate criminal marking for the one-fourth of young black urban males recently shown to be unattached to either the labor market or school. What those young brothers and other economically marginalized blacks really need is a more responsive Small Business Administration, "New Market Tax Credits," and expanded "Empowerment Zones" to "help people help themselves" - Bush's repeated description of the only proper role for government - onto the path of (legal) business development. Throw in some global "free trade" agreements, tax cuts, and related socioeconomic deregulation and the federal government will have given them everything they need to become successful proprietors in the great, color-blind American "land of opportunity." Cast down your entrepreneurial buckets, oh people of color, work up your business plans, help your white business class superiors smash the last remnants of the regulatory welfare state and riches will be yours.
Government "Hands Out Money" But Churches "Change Hearts"
The Bushies clearly see socially conservative Protestantism as a pivotal wedge to use against the black community's traditionally strong support for more positive, social-democratic government programs. Another key theme in the president's speech, intimately related to his take on state policy, was religion. He mentioned "faith-based initiatives" and programs again and again, repeatedly pushing spiritual buttons with phrases like "freedom is God's gift," "all of us need prayer," "the power of faith," and "saving America one soul at a time."
Especially interesting was Bush's repeated claim that the church but not government can "change hearts" in a way that leads to personal and community betterment. Bush said this at least twice, claiming at one point that "government can hand out money but it can't change hearts." This was a clever way of discrediting the better life-, community-, and (dare I say) soul- and heart-enhancing functions (quite poorly understood simply as "handing out money") - public family assistance, public education, workplace safety, environmental regulation, job-training, and much more - that the public sector has long provided (however imperfectly) to Americans of all colors.
Complimenting the "Dignified" and "Decent" Blacks
It was interesting to hear Bush open his speech by saying that "the people involved in the Urban League are dignified, decent American citizens." "As opposed to whom?" some audiences members were moved to ask. Did he mean to say, "unlike the people involved in the NAACP," who Bush refuses to honor with official state visits? In preparing their master's remarks, the Bush speechwriters were probably also attempting to appeal to class distinctions within the economically and culturally polarized black community (more internally unequal than white America) - differences that have received special recent attention in the wake of Bill Cosby's repeated public attacks on the behavior and values of those blacks he likes to call "the lower economic people."
Bush spent a good three minutes listing off all the good blacks he's rewarded for being "dignified" and "decent" - sufficiently unwilling to criticize the dominant white power structure at home and abroad, that is - by appointing them to high positions in his administration. We heard about the insufferable Rod Paige (Bush's Education chief, who used his presence on an NUL panel session to inform delegates that opposition to the administration "No Child Left Behind Act" [NCLBA] is motivated by greed and "not by any concern for children"), Alphonso Jackson (head of Housing and Urban Development), Kay James (who runs the Office of Personnel Management), Steve Perry (head of the GSA), Roger Ferguson (Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve), Michael Powell (head of the Federal Communications Commission), and Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, whom he referred to as "the architects" of U.S. foreign policy.
"I feel," Bush added, "I have an obligation to reach out to people from all walks of life." By "walks of life," Bush meant sheer skin color, not world view or ideology, for no black who questioned and openly criticized the moral content of his domestic and imperial policies would ever find a place in his administration.
Big White (House) Lies
After joking around with the African-American big shots seated in the specially reserved front rows in Detroit, Bush got down to the serious business of lying to them and to the mass of African-Americans whose interests the "big" leaders claim to single-handedly represent. Following some endearing repartee with Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Miami, Florida Urban League's Republican CEO T. Willard Fair, the Radically Regressive Republican (RRR) president-select proceeded to pollute the NUL conference air with a large number of blatant falsehoods, claiming that:
The American economy is strong and growing stronger under a wise White House economic policy of broad, democratic, and universal tax cuts
His administration is an advocate and agent for affordable health care for all Americans
His administration is positively transforming "minority school achievement," advancing "local control of schools," and creating meaningful educational "choice" options to black students under the NCLBA.
His administration is vigorously enforcing civil rights laws
"Ours is a solid record of compassionate conservatism"
His administration is creating "safe streets" in the crime-ridden ghettoes of America
His administration is in "the vanguard" of the struggle against the AIDS epidemic in Africa
"I've got a strong foreign policy"
"We're doing everything we can to protect our homeland"
The imperial U.S. military is an "army of liberation" around the world
The terrorists who attacked the American people on 9/11 and who may attack again are motivated to assault us primarily by hatred of American "freedom" of speech, and worship.
The Opportunity Costs of Empire and Inequality
There is not space here to list all the many lies of omission and contradictions that poisoned Bush's Urban League address, but one such deletion and related contradiction deserves special mention in light of Bush's comments on church, state, and voluntarism. If Bush is so convinced that "decent" Americans need to move from taxpayer "hand outs" to voluntarist and faith-based self-help inspired by a Christian impulse towards social betterment, then why, pray tell, has he spent so much time and energy handing out the taxpayers' money to his already filthy-rich class comrades at the very disproportionately white pinnacle of the industrialized world's most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society?
The answer, of course, is that the RRRs are speaking out of two sides of their overstuffed mouths when they claim to want to roll back the evil welfare state. Their ideal American public sector is weak and cash-strapped when it comes to social democracy for the people but its cup runs over in powerful ways when it comes to meeting the needs of wealth, racial disparity and empire.
It's useful to keep that distinction in mind when we hear people like the powerful Republican tax cut maven and political strategist Grover Norquist say that the in-power right wing's goal is, in Norquist's lovely terminology, "to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Norquist and his followers say they want to "starve the beast" of government, but they target some parts of "government" for malnourishment a lot more energetically than others. They are most concerned to dismantle the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority of the American populace. They want to de-fund what the late French sociologist Pierre Bordieu referred to as the left hand of the state, the programs and services that embody the victories one by past struggles for justice and equality.
But they reserve the right hand of the state, the parts that provide service and welfare to the privileged few and dole out punishment to the poor, from the budgetary axe. Hiding beneath the rhetoric of "compassionate conservatism," Christian progress, national narcissism and the "war on terror," the agenda that reflects and enacts this stealth plutocratic vision is a form of unmentionable top-down class warfare that seeks not to dismantle the "handout" state but to reserve all the "handouts" and services for the economic and (hence) political "elite."
It's all quite elegantly crafted, but honest, morally engaged reflection should compel us to ask ourselves what could be done for real community betterment and social and racial inclusion and equity if the many tens billions of dollars that Bush has directed to empire and inequality at home and abroad were applied instead to the needs of America's crisis-ridden and disproportionately black and Latino inner city communities and the mostly non-Caucasian global poor. According to one widely cited recent calculation, by 3:08 PM on Monday July 26th, 2004, Bush's war on Iraq - worth many billions of dollars to the likes of Bechtel, Haliburton, Lockheed-Martin, and Boeing, among many other strategically placed beneficiaries of the corporate warfare-welfare state - has already sucked up as much public money as might have:
* Added 2,373,489 public school teachers to American classrooms
* Built 1,779,371 additional housing units in the U.S.
* Paid for the enrollment of 17, 610, 030 children to Head Start pre-school programs
* Given 3,159,310 students 4-year scholarships to public universities in the U.S.
* Fully funded global anti-poverty efforts for 5 years
* Fully funded worldwide AIDS programs for 12 years
Talk about your "opportunity cost"!
Too close to the awful truths and human tragedies beneath White House deceptions to swallow Bush's lies, the great majority of the NUL's delegates sat on their hands for most of Dubya's speech. Good for them. Hopefully, audience went home with an intensified sense of the need to organize their communities for defense against the masters of war, racism, and inequity both before and after the November elections.
Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers.com) will be published in September, 2004. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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