WASHINGTON -- After months of deliberation and suspense, Secretary of State Colin Powell has announced he will not attend the U.N. World Conference on Racism, which opens this weekend in Durban, South Africa.
What a shame.
Certainly the most powerful nation on Earth -- a country that owes much of its supremacy to slavery, second only to genocide in vileness -- would have something to contribute when the whole world gathers to discuss how and why to stop racial discrimination, exclusion and abuse. After all, the United States knows a thing or two about these matters.
It knows how many lives can go to waste while policy and lawmakers are talking about phasing out or toning down the practices.
It knows the toll racism takes on the public peace, personal prosperity and the national reputation.
It knows the danger of pretentiously defending the practices on false or misguided religious, economic and social grounds.
It knows how those old evils will haunt and haunt and haunt, if ignored and unexorcised.
As America's spokesman to the world, Secretary Powell should have been one of the first to sign up for the conference, where the United States could have been the wise old expert at the table. But as this administration would apparently rather talk a good game than play one, the United States has chosen to shout its denunciations from afar and, like every good hypocrite when it's time to pay up or shut up, refuses even to show up.
The Bush administration's rationale for boycotting the conference is its distaste for two particular agenda items: an excoriation of Israel for treatment of the Palestinians and other Arabs; and a proposal that prescribes reparations for slavery.
It should be noted that neither of these items is set in stone; hence the conference where, by definition, the participants will confer, discuss and debate. If the administration believes the proposals are wrong-headed, where better to make the point than at the source? By drawing the curtains around the United States and pretending the rest of the world is either not there or doesn't count, the State Department is abdicating its foremost duty -- to stay in touch with other powers on the planet.
In reporting Powell's decision, The Washington Post quoted "a senior State Department official" as saying it had been vital to Powell that the conference be "forward-looking."
In the peculiar rules of Washington interplay, that "senior State Department official" may well have been Powell himself. But even if it is someone else, let us presume the quote fairly reflects the secretary's sentiments. In that event, one must ask, whatever has happened to your critical thinking and analytical skills, Mr. Secretary? Was abandoning them part of the job description?
Surely Colin Powell knows better. Surely he did not get as far as he has without developing an appreciation for perspective. Surely he understands that you cannot gain good perspective without looking at all angles, especially the past. How can he reasonably argue that we can fix what's wrong without, first, assessing what's wrong. And how can he do that without getting real?
It's like treating a coronary patient by telling him to swear off any further heart attacks while ignoring his medical history and what he may or may not be doing now to aggravate the condition. That's "forward-looking" too, I suppose. But it's no way to get well.
Deborah Mathis is a columnist with Tribune Media Services.
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