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Baghdad, Gaza aren’t Birmingham

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 4, 2008

I wonder if Condoleezza Rice was surprised by the headlines over her comment to The Washington Times that America suffers from a national "birth defect" — namely, the practice of slavery at the time of the nation's founding.

Make that the first founding. She said she considers the civil-rights movement to be the nation's "second founding." The secretary of state made another point. She said that "one of the primary things" that attracted her to the candidacy of President Bush "was not actually foreign policy." Really? Rather, she explained, "it was No Child Left Behind." She continued: "When he talks about 'the soft bigotry of low expectations,' I know what that feels like."

Miss Rice has actually said all of this before, including more emphatic remarks on "soft" bigotry. "I've seen it. Okay?" Miss Rice said in 2005 to the New York Times. "And it's not in this president. It is, however, pretty deeply ingrained in our system and we're going to have to do something about it." Miss Rice offered as an example her own high-school teacher who suggested she was junior college material.

Maybe someone should inform the secretary of state that being underestimated, turned down or shunted aside is, alas, part of the human experience, not the exclusive function of race. But it's probably too late for that. As secretary of state — not, say, secretary of education — Miss Rice has long been doing "something about it" on the world stage. Instead of different states and school systems, she's been working with different countries and belief systems. Suddenly, things about the Rice Doctrine — better, the No Country Left Behind Doctrine — begin to fall into place.

I've written before about how Miss Rice makes faulty comparisons between the evolution of democratic principle (all men are created equal) in the United States and the introduction of democratic procedure (ballot boxes) to the Middle East, always ignoring both the miracle of our 18th-century Constitution, which contained the blueprint for abolition, and the dispiriting reality of 21st-century Islamic constitutions, which charter Shariah states where freedom of conscience (among other things) doesn't exist.

I've written also about how she sees the transformation of her once-segregated hometown of Birmingham, Ala. as the blueprint for democratizing the Islamic world. Hers is a worldview personal to the point of autobiographical, as when she explains how, as a daughter of Birmingham (or "Bombingham," as she has called it), she can relate both to Israeli fear of Palestinian bombs, and Palestinian "humiliation and powerlessness" over Israeli checkpoints, which she sees as a form of segregation. What she never seems to realize is that such "segregation," far being the sort of prejudice she remembers, is actually an Israeli line of defense against the ultimate prejudice of Palestinian bombs.

Considering her remarks about America's "birth defect" — an egregious term for any secretary of state to use about a nation that has brought more liberty to more races, colors and creeds than any in history — I am struck anew how deeply Miss Rice's vision of race in America, or, perhaps, in segregated Birmingham, affects her vision of America in the wider world. It is as if Miss Rice sees American influence as a means by which to address what she perceives as disparities of race or Third World heritage on the international level.

This would help explain her ahistorical habit of linking the civil rights movement to the Bush administration's effort to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, in a 2003 speech to the National Association of Black Journalists, she argued that blacks, more than others, should "reject" the "condescending" argument that some are not "ready" for freedom. "That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham and it's wrong in 2003 in Baghdad," she said. In 2006, she made a similar point. "When I look around the world and I hear people say, 'Well, you know, they're just not ready for democracy,' it really does resonate," Miss Rice told ABC's Katie Couric. "It makes me so angry because I think there are those echoes of what people once thought about black Americans."

There's something shockingly provincial at work here. In seeing so much of the world through an American prism of race, Miss Rice has effectively blinded herself to historical and cultural and religious differences between Islam and the West. To put it simply, neither Baghdad nor Gaza is Birmingham. And nothing in all of history quite compares to Philadelphia.