The Name Game
"Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me."
So much for simple nursery rhymes. This past week, Ari Fleischer, the voice of the president of the United States, and Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, each played a very public version of the name game. No, not the imbecilic song ("The Name Game") made famous by Shirley Ellis. I am referring to the political game with politicians using words loaded with history to direct or deflect political criticism. Name-calling is the bully's way. To observers, it is a sign that communication has broken down. That is dictatorship, not leadership.
Fleischer went ballistic in response to a comparison by the German Justice Minister, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, of Bush's political tactics in his campaign against Iraq to those used by Adolf Hitler in Europe in the 1930s. Based on Fleischer's reaction, names do hurt. Lost on Ari was the irony that the Bush White House and its mouthpieces in the press have been trying to build support for Bush's Iraq policy by comparing him to Winston Churchill. The thing Churchill and Bush share most in common is an addiction to alcohol. Bush, unlike Churchill, proved over time that he was stronger than the bottle, no small feat. However, the attempt to compare Bush's campaign to oust Saddam with Churchill's resolve against Hitler is an insult: to Churchill and to all of the brave men and woman who resisted and overcame fascism in Europe. Europeans understand the horror of war. It would behoove the Bush administration to respect that understanding. Reverting to unilateral action and associating that action with names like Churchill leaves Bush open to comparisons like Däeubler-Gmelin's.
In response to a petition calling on Harvard to cut its financial ties to Israel, a political protest against Israel's violation of Palestinians' human rights, Summers called the group's actions "anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent." He went on the attack, using words to stigmatize the petitioners. Divestment is a touchy subject in a university with an endowment as large as Harvard's. Divestment is a powerful political tool and challenges the prerogatives of leaders like Summers. It also threatens to disrupt donations. In the 1980s, a campaign for divestment in South Africa helped end apartheid in that country. Today, few would dispute that the campaign for divestment in South African apartheid was both morally just and effective. History tells us that Harvard fought signing on to South African divestment. Summers should study that history.
Instead of calling people names, he should be bringing together a forum to debate whether Israel practices apartheid against Palestinians. America's most famous university should not be afraid to engage in that debate. Harvard and Summers need to speak to the historical precedent. If divestment by Harvard was the right policy for South Africa, is it also the right policy for Israel? By answering that question honestly and openly, Summers will do more for Israel and its supporters in the United States than he ever can do by resorting to name-calling.
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