Social Justice


A few news items have come to my attention today.

First, the City Council of Berkeley, California, voted unanimously to endorse the German-led lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes. The measure is purely a symbolic gesture, although it actually could have had more impact; apparently, the Council considered signing the city on as a co-plaintiff, but it feared that there could be liability issues if they did so.

Meanwhile, Hilary Clinton, ever the moral coward, refused to answer a simple question that was put to her in response to a statement by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When asked if she thought that homosexuality was immoral, she answered, “Well I’m going to leave that to others to conclude.” She certainly wouldn't want to take a stand on a social justice issue, now would she? (Imagine, by analogy, a reporter asking a politician if African-Americans are inferior to whites: "Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude.") This is, of course, the same Hillary Clinton who voted for the war resolution in 2002; who, while thousands of us took to the streets to protest the war, continued to support it; and who, even now, refuses to apologize for having voted for the war.

Politicians are not noted for moral courage. Let's be honest. Even the Berkeley City Council didn't really exhibit any great courage by taking a position that most people in Berkeley probably agree with. The only way we ever get the political establishment to promote social justice is by popular pressure from below. It's one thing to see this at the level of city government. But the higher up the political ladder we go, I believe the more entrenched are the relationships between powerful interests and the political establishment. How many politicians at the national level--Senators, for example--would seriously endorse prosecuting Rumsfeld for war crimes? My guess is that the number would be small indeed. Certainly we would never see Hillary Clinton do that.

Meanwhile, and this is the most amusing item of all, George Bush has actually had the temerity to use the term "social justice" to describe US foreign policy in Latin America. Naturally, he managed to use those words in the same sentence in which he praised the free enterprise system. The irony abounds.

What can we conclude from Bush's misuse of the term "social justice" to describe his policies? My theory is that when right wing politicians try to appropriate progressive terminology for themselves, you know that they are starting to get nervous. In Latin America, there has been a wave of resistance to the political and economic imperialism of the American Empire. Hugo Chavez has taken up the banner as a leading force of opposition to the Bush Administration. Bush may try to ignore Chavez, but he can't ignore the forces that lie behind his rise as an important figure in Latin America. Supporting social justice in Latin America has a long history that precedes Chavez--Latin America, as we might recall, was the cradle of Liberation Theology--and often the movements for justice get in the way of the interests of Empire. Supporting social justice often requires courage. Sometimes it leads to one's death--just remember what happened to Oscar Romero. Or the four American nuns assassinated by Salvadoran death squads. Not to mention what happened to Jesus when he stood up to the Roman Empire.

Politicians may abuse and misuse the concept of social justice to pursue injustice. Let us not let them get away with that. Social justice does not belong to the politicians of the Empire. It belongs to us.