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The Minority Position on Bill Clinton's ADC Address

By Will

Kabobfest, June 20, 2009

One of the most notable features of this year's American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's annual convention in Washington, DC was the appearance of ex-President Bill Clinton. This was a major development for the Arab-American community. It reflected ADC's re-energization as well the Obama administration's openness towards consulting a wider variety of stakeholders, probably. Symbolically, it stands for a sign of legitimation that a former president speak to the group.

Even if I detested his policies towards Arabs, I can understand the need for political engagement by our institutions.

I was too curious to see what he would speak about, especially in the hope he would deliver some message from the administration or suggest something that offers substantive support for our foreign policy positions. But now, we are not THAT strong, yet.

He arrived with a grotesque fanfare, with Arab-Americans jumping from their seats to grab pictures of him and to shake his hands like we are trained Pavlovian fans. Instead of giving him the cool reception he deserves as the butcher of Iraq, via sanctions, and the proposer of the anti-terrorism legislation that paved the way for the PATRIOT Act.

His speech was the subject of much debate afterward. I felt it was barely relevant, elementary, and yet implicitly condescending. Others suggested we could not expect anything better or more, and even asked why should he cater to his audience?

Most refused to read between the lines of his speech. Many were compelled by the soft ambiguity of his talk to take away some positive message. I could not help but read the speech at a deeper level. So what I saw was an implicitly insulting lecture, one that boosted a dangerous misperception of Arab-American political issues.
His talk focused on the reality of global interdependence. The world is so connected that what happens in one part, impacts the other. Swine flu outbreak and the financial crisis are two examples; and the environment is the most urgent issue perhaps, with a disaster possible resulting in a breakdown in social order such as the world depicted by a Mad Max Road Warrior film (his example, not mine).
The way the world system is structured, the world is "unstable, unequal and unsustainable."

Most conflict in the world, he argues, is driven by identity, even though divisions are blind to the fact that we all share 99.5% genetic commonalities. Therefore, we can be proud if our identities and celebrate our diversity, but not let pride in identity turn to hate: "You teach your children their ethnic heritage; their religious heritage; their cultural heritage with no negative reference to anyone else because it's the only shot we've got to make the most of our interdependent world."

The speech contained some insights, and was mostly full of textbook liberal politics and current world events. Who would disagree with his emphasis on AIDs and the lack of health care systems in the underdeveloped world, the demonstrated shortcomings of unimpeded free market capitalism (despite the Washington Consensus underhis administration), the urgency of the environment, that Muslims and Arabs were among the victims on September 11, 2001, and the dangers of hate?

Sounds reasonable and bland enough, right? If taken out of context, the insult is missed.

First, the focus on identity trivializes the material bases of our positions and politics. We are not angry at U.S. foreign policy and Israel because of identity differences, but because of invasions, occupations and displacements. While he acknowledges the inequality of the world system, he does not consider that our resentment may come from being on the receiving end of oppression. Talking about identity while ignoring this crucial context is in line with analysis that considers Arab resistance to American and Israeli agenda as `civilizational' or `cultural,' or based on ancient hatreds.

Second, I felt he belittled our concerns with the fate of the Palestinians when he mildly encouraged the Arab-American community's efforts on it after talking about the big issues such as the prospects of environmental apocalypse. So silly was his analysis, he compared the outcome to a mad max road warrior movie then he excoriated the crowd for laughing? "It's not funny." I think his juxtaposition was intended to suggest we are over-concerned with this problem. He was trying to shift our agenda to care about nebulous problems, while discrediting our issues all implicitly, meaning without direct intents.

Third, he tried to disclaim his failure to say anything substantive, of interest to us, by suggesting he is limited since whatever he says reflects on Hillary, and he will not say anything not within her talking points. That is understandable, but he could have won important points by tying in the administration's opposition to the settlements to his rudimentary analysis of identity. Does anyone deny interdependence and exhibit negative identity more than the Israeli settler movement?

Like I said, he was not interested in giving the community ANYTHING. And why should he, we're not powerful enough to get more than a visit. Sadly, that was a major development in and of itself.

Fourth, I read his remarks on identity, especially the last one as suggesting that Arab-Americans should be proud of who they are, without hating others, i.e. Jews. Who else could that refer to?
He may have softened that insinuation with an anecdote about a tall Egyptian-American who he saw after September 11, 2001. He had tears in his eyes in fear of the backlash. He told Clinton he was afraid his country would never accept him. It was a compelling story until he said he thought about that story every two or three weeks, which seemed too much like a politician's feigned nostalgia.

He also referenced Flying while Arab, winning applause, and thereby further camouflaging the speech's intents. Did the crowd remember that he proposed using secret evidence in deportation proceedings against Arabs and Muslims? And that many of those cases targeted political involved members of communities with minor immigration violations? This is far worse than most of the humiliations and discrimination suffered by many Arab-Americans at airports.
He also sounded silly when he defended the Lebanese elections which "no one thinks was rigged" based on his conversations with his "Lebanese friends." It almost sounded like the classic racists' defense.

It was vague enough to leave divergent interpretations, I admit. So some progressive activists were pleased with the speech and were gald he did not get into hard politics, since we would have been angrier with the content. That makes sense, but we cannot accept the content of the speech he did give uncritically.

It seems that by not reading between the lines, we miss the richness of a saavy politician's work. In terms of politicians, he is great. There he was as a president who authored the Oslo illusion, led a sanctions regime that left one million dead in Iraq, bombed Sudan and Afghanistan unilaterally, sponsored anti-terror legislation and, in sum, paved the way for Bush in many respects. After giving a 35 minute low-energy speech, he wandered out to hordes of conference attendees and fanfare that only comes from his former position, rather than what he did with us.





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