Putrid punditry

June 21, 1994|By Susan Douglas

WHILE the corpses of toddlers and babies -- lashed to their mothers' bodies -- wash up on the shores of Lake Victoria, the commentators of America sit giggling over a White House aide's use of a government helicopter.

While China continues to amass an appalling human-rights record, TV pundit John McLaughlin describes granting most-favored-nation status as "the most enlightened move Clinton has made."

And while President Clinton floats a "welfare reform" proposal straight out of Oliver Twist, the Paula Jones case is touted as the key "woman's issue."

The focus on so-called private morality, individual lapses and peccadilloes, image over substance and misadventures inside Washington, dominates punditland.

But various disasters don't even merit a comment.

And this isn't just a matter of "giving the people what they [allegedly] want" -- titillation over analysis, domestic over foreign news.

There is a racism here so thorough, so naturalized and so subtle that it takes work to recognize it. It is a racism that justifies turning our backs and applauding cruel heartless policies.

The same few weeks in which newspapers described butchery in Rwanda and terrorism in Haiti, "The McLaughlin Group" had other concerns.

When not analyzing Paula Jones' credibility or predicting the outcome of the 1996 elections, the show's commentators were saying H.R. Haldeman's diary entries on Richard Nixon's racist, anti-Semitic, paranoiac ravings were of no historical importance.

On "Inside Washington" the discussion soared to the stratosphere of speculation: What kind of a Supreme Court justice would Stephen Breyer really be?

Would Dan Rostenkowski cop a plea? Would Hillary Clinton ever run for president?

Anyone could answer these questions to which the correct response, at the time, was "Who knows?"

The self-indulgent frivolity of these preoccupations was revolting in the face of those photos from Lake Victoria.

Most of us know little or nothing about Rwanda; I'm sure the pundits are no exception.

And with President Clinton dismissing the crisis as outside the American national interest, why bother?

It took more than a month for the news media to stop dismissing the conflict as tribal warfare and acknowledge that there were political and economic reasons for the bloodshed.

But given the sensationalized obsession with the carnage, without any more in-depth analysis, the media reinforce Americans' sense that with people like these -- you know, savages -- nothing can be done.

For the crises in Rwanda and Haiti, we have a failure of information and a failure of morality.

And it is a failure excused by an unspoken but powerful notion of white supremacy.

Over here in America, we're civilized. We don't skewer black babies on spears. We just let the ones born to poor mothers live in cordoned off, domestic war zones.

It has become a cliche among some that race relations in this country are at a new nadir.

Less discussed is how the media's treatment of black Africa still as a "dark continent" where nothing happens except coups, massacres, famines, disease and drought justifies racist foreign and domestic policies.

For when we ignore and dehumanize black people from Africa, it's much easier to ignore and dehumanize them in the United States.

In the case of Bosnia, and now Haiti, Mr. Clinton has been bashed for his indecisiveness, wavering, talking big and turning tail.

But what we're seeing is larger than indecision. It is the moral collapse of American policy at home and abroad.

Dismissing Africa isn't just isolationist; it's corrupt and corrupting.

And when we have white mothers unable to think of other mothers, black mothers, in the next town or neighborhood as sisters who need help, we see how ignorance and racism have numbed our spirits.

Susan Douglas writes for the Progressive

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