Did you see that smack-down by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews of Los Angeles conservative radio commentator Kevin James? Matthews’ question to James was simple.
What did Neville Chamberlain do? This came up following President Bush’s speech before the Knesset in Israel in which he said, “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals… We have an obligation to call this what it is, the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
The White House later disowned the statement as a reference to Sen. Barack Obama’s stated willingness to hold talks with Iran’s leaders.
James said, “It all goes back to appeasement.”
“Appeasement” has been used as new-speak to virtually mean “surrender” or to “capitulate.” So what does it mean in the context of World War II, the way Bush had brought it up? Matthews had to ask James repeatedly — in every imaginable tone of voice — what was it Neville Chamberlain did that made him an appeaser? Finally James admitted he didn’t know.
Chamberlain was the British prime minister who signed the Munich Agreement in 1938 conceding part of Czechoslovakia to Adolph Hitler. Chamberlain’s appeasement was not for talking with Hitler but for conceding territory.
The encounter between Matthews and James matters a lot. It goes to the heart of the rhetoric used in the “cowboy” approach to dealing with other nations. Now perhaps we might be at a turning point when it’s not good enough to tell only part of the story and use dismissive sound bytes, like “appeasement,” to completely characterize a tough situation.
We have a shameful history of reducing important issues to Willy Horton or Swift Boating, and recently shutting down our minds with the use of phrases like, “What about illegal don’t you understand?” — which have passed as explanations.
Maybe not anymore.
In fact, it’s important to glean from World War II a lesson. Europe, after 500 years of wars and conflicts, finally sought a way to talk to each other as nations and cooperate in trade policy to reduce many of the reasons for conflict. After working at it for 50 years, the European Union brought lagging member countries to an acceptable standard.
Today Spain, Italy and Ireland are brilliant examples of national economic development. They were the economic laughing stock of Europe only two or three decades ago. Their gains came when their neighbors understood it was in their interest that they progress.
The lesson for us is similar. The advancement of Canada and Mexico is to our advantage too, or could be especially beyond the baby steps taken through the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA.
For example, in mid-May, Congress passed a farm-subsidy bill with enough incentives to U.S. producers to put Mexico and Canada at a comparative disadvantage. For our southern neighbor that means continued wide-scale farm unemployment.
Meanwhile, in a dramatic reversal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants an Iraq war spending bill to include an agriculture guest-worker plan. She says we need to give legal cover to 1.5 million unsanctioned ag workers already here with legal temporary status. This is, she explains, an “emergency situation” for our own agricultural good.
It’s an interesting proposal presented in an unconventional package, coming after the public has been brought to a froth by repeatedly being told only half the story. We have been led to believe Mexico’s problems come from their own lack of reform and inefficiencies. That’s true. But we aggravate the situation for them by subsidizing our own farm products so Mexico cannot sell its products in a competitive market. Hence, it produces surplus labor, which we call “illegal immigrants” or worse.
The problem is not that undocumented immigrants seek low-end jobs. Rather the issue is that we have forestalled major North American talks addressing labor-force needs and what are acceptable standards for us all.
We need to press our own “What-did-Chamberlain-do?” questions on the thick headed and reject dismissive words that pass for explanations.
And the way out is not by appeasement but by progressive proposals.
(Josi de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003), writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com)