To the Editor:
I read Arch Puddington’s article, “Jesse Jackson, the Blacks & American Foreign Policy” [April], with disappointment. Mr. Puddington’s approach is simply to compare, disapprovingly, the foreign-policy attitudes of a number of black leaders and organizations with conventional American foreign-policy attitudes. It would have been more useful to consider the reasons for the differences.
As the subjects of discrimination, black Americans have a special sensitivity for the plight of oppressed peoples elsewhere and an ear specially attuned to the hypocrisy that justifies such oppression. Black Americans are aware that economic security is a fundamental underpinning of meaningful political liberties. Black Americans also realize that the freedom to choose among the many roads to self-sufficiency is itself a precious right.
Obviously these attitudes are in good part hard-won perceptions growing out of the unique black experience in America. That they do not entirely agree with conventional, i.e., white, perceptions cannot be unexpected.
Given these valid perceptions, there is bound to be a certain tolerance among black Americans for the Cuban revolution, or the Sandinistas, or the New Jewel Movement, or the PLO. There is also bound to be a certain doubt about the sincerity of American motives in opposing Castro (against the backdrop of his predecessor in power), in opposing the Sandinistas (against the backdrop of their predecessor in power), and in opposing the PLO (against the backdrop of the undeniable sufferings of the Palestinian people over the past forty years). To go further, the assistance that Communist governments have given many Third World efforts must stand in marked contrast to the ties between the United States and South Africa. Black Americans are far more likely to label South Africa the “evil empire” than the Soviet Union. And who can blame us for that?
Mr. Puddington does not claim that black American leaders or organizations deny the need to defend Western Europe from Soviet imperialism. He does not claim that they urge black Americans to refuse to bear arms in Europe, Korea, Grenada, or Lebanon. What he should have understood is that black Americans are skeptical of our nation’s commitment to human rights, at home or abroad. In light of this skepticism, black Americans may well counsel that the United States should be slow to intervene abroad before it has demonstrated at home that it is dedicated to the cause of freedom.
The foregoing, I think, goes to the heart of the deficiencies in Mr. Puddington’s article. There remains only the need to comment briefly on the evident distaste and disdain with which he speaks about most of the black leadership he discusses. This dislike is especially evident in his discussion of blacks and the American Communist party. How warmly he describes the number of blacks in prominent party positions before he reluctantly concedes that as a population black Americans have never shown much interest in the party’s message.
The undertone of Mr. Puddington’s article is that black Americans are unprepared to consider the rigors of international politics. Instead I conclude that Mr. Puddington is unprepared to come to grips with this topic.
Richard H. Porter
To the Editor:
Arch Puddington showed generous restraint in his article on Jesse Jackson’s foreign policy. Additional light would be shed on Jackson’s kindness toward totalitarianism by acknowledging that he follows more in the anti-democratic tradition of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X than in the democratic tradition of his early mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. It isn’t yet clear that the anti-democratic tradition will prevail, but Jackson’s popularity among black people and his nearly complete exemption from criticism are indications that the civil-rights movement may take a turn that will make King’s severest critics seem like prophets.
Arch Puddington writes:
In his relatively brief letter, Richard H. Porter has touched on many of the attitudes and assumptions that appear to instruct the foreign-policy positions of influential segments of the black political leadership. Let me examine his points one by one.
1. Mr. Porter speaks of a fundamental connection between economic security and political freedom. The link between a successful economic system and the flourishing of political liberties is too obvious to warrant lengthy comment. The problem emerges in Mr. Porter’s apparent belief that Marxist or Communist economic models can perform as effectively as the mixed economies of the democratic West, at least where the Third World is concerned. To begin with, the political rights which Mr. Porter obviously values simply do not exist in the Communist world, and they are carefully limited, if they exist at all, in the majority of those revolutionary regimes which are so often cited as models for Third World development. More to the point, the economic achievements of radical Third World regimes have been notably unimpressive, especially when compared with countries which have adopted a market approach. Mr. Porter would do well to examine the record of Grenada, whose economy was left a shambles after four years of the New Jewel “experiment.”
2. Mr. Porter speaks of “the freedom to choose among the many roads to self-sufficiency” as a “precious right.” (Presumably he means self-determination.) We have heard variants on this theme for years. Usually it is formulated: “If people choose to have a Marxist system, then that is their right.” The obvious answer is that people never choose to follow the Marxist path, with its absurd economic system, regimentation at the workplace, repression of religion and the press, and persecution of political dissenters. On those few occasions when people have initially welcomed the emergence of a Marxist leadership, the reason is that the leaders dishonestly portray themselves as democrats committed to expanding individual rights and strengthening the economy. Inevitably, the people turn against the revolution; the tragedy is that very often the elite leadership has by then built up an efficient police-state apparatus powerful and ruthless enough to obliterate all manifestations of resistance. At this point the people are repressed, coerced, collectivized, displaced if they happen to be minority groups, and in some cases massacred—all in the name of defeating the “counterrevolution.” The Grenadian people escaped this fate only through an accident of geography.
3. Mr. Porter justifies black sympathies for regimes of the revolutionary Left as the consequence of “perceptions growing out of the unique black experience in America.” I suggest that the opposite is in fact the case, that the history of the civil-rights struggle demonstrates that it is democratic societies which are most open to movements demanding fundamental justice for oppressed minorities. On the other hand, the persecution of ethnic or racial minorities is far more likely to continue unabated in undemocratic systems, particularly in those of the revolutionary Left. Where democratic guarantees do not obtain, minority struggle is futile, as evidenced by the examples of the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, the Ukrainians and Baltic peoples of the Soviet Union, and Jews under Communism everywhere.
4. My concern is not the tolerance exhibited by segments of the black leadership for authoritarian regimes of the Left, but the frequent instances of outright preference for radical regimes. I do not ask that blacks ratify the policies of the American government, but simply that they not reflexively endorse any regime which adopts an anti-American, anti-Western stance.
A good example of what I’m speaking of is Jesse Jackson having repeatedly singled out the late Sékou Touré as a model Third World leader. By all standards, the Guinean dictator’s rule stands as one of the great catastrophes of modern times, the most damning evidence being the fact that an estimated one-third of the Guinean people fled the country to escape his tyrannical rule. The facts about Sékou Touré’s despotism had been thoroughly documented well before his death. Yet until the end he was extolled by Jackson and many others as a paragon of Third World strength and independence, a man who took the challenge of “self-determination” seriously. By all accounts the Guinean people were glad to be rid of their dictator, just as the Grenadians were relieved to see the last of the New Jewel Movement. The same, unfortunately, is not true for many Americans, black and white, who count themselves in the progressive camp. These people are guided by an abstract concept of self-determination in which the opinions and sufferings of real people count for nothing.
5. Mr. Porter’s favorable reference to the PLO raises an obvious question: why, given the many political conflicts in today’s world, do Jesse Jackson and other black leaders single out the Palestinian issue for special attention? And what possible “special interest” (Jackson’s phrase) do American blacks have in the future status of the Palestinian Arab refugees? Clearly the notion that blacks have a particular kinship with the PLO is absurd on its face. The tactics and philosophy of the PLO are the antithesis of the values elaborated by Martin Luther King during his career. Today the protest struggle which most closely adheres to the nonviolent King tradition is Poland’s Solidarity movement. Concerning Poland, Jesse Jackson has been largely silent; at the same time, TransAfrica, the most prominent black foreign-policy organization, has published an article belittling the Solidarity struggle and deriding the United States for paying too much attention to the events in Poland. I would suggest that the obsessive focus on the Palestinian issue has its roots in American domestic politics to a much greater degree than in any genuine sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian Arabs.
6. Black Americans are entirely justified in their abhorrence of South Africa; in this they are joined by many whites. But to link American policies toward South Africa with Communist assistance to the Third World is ludicrous. The recipients of Communist assistance include a high percentage of the most repulsive dictatorships of recent times, including Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Syria, Sékou Touré’s Guinea, and the Bouterse regime in Suriname. To a substantial degree, the aid provided by Communist governments comprises military equipment designed to enable the local dictator to defend himself against his own people. And, of course, there are political strings attached. To wit: the Grenadian government’s shameful vote in the United Nations against a resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
7. I have a great deal of respect for the political achievements of black Americans. Nor do I believe that the opinions expressed by those blacks most intensely involved in the debates over foreign policy reflect the views of the majority of black officeholders, civil-rights leaders, or black people generally. The few polls which have sampled the foreign-policy attitudes of the black community suggest that while blacks do not agree with the policies of the Reagan administration, they also do not subscribe to the Third World-ist philosophy embraced by Jesse Jackson.
On one issue blacks have made themselves altogether clear. They have a strong appreciation for democracy, and are determined to utilize the civil and political liberties engrained in the American system to their fullest. It is altogether unfortunate that some prominent blacks have accepted the view that democracy and Third World development are incompatible, particularly when the evidence suggests that dictatorships deprive the people both of their liberties and of their economic well-being.