The Debate over Empire and the Feud It Caused

The Fresno Pacific University Web site mentions that Fresno became part of the United States as a result of the U.S.-Mexican War.1  Although not advertised as such at the time, historians now agree that U.S. forces, led by General Zachary Taylor, engaged in a war of conquest for territorial expansion that was ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The war was rationalized in the U.S. by the “patriotic” belief that it would bring Anglo-Saxon institutions into an unenlightened area.

Sound familiar?

On April 17, 2010, Fresno Pacific University’s Sunbird Conservatives, a nascent student group generally at political odds with the liberality of the Mennonite college, hosted a debate on American foreign policy at the University’s Special Event Center. The contenders were the ubiquitous former classics professor and scholar of ancient war, Victor Davis Hanson, a local hero who gives thin intellectual cover to the Valley’s indigenous tea party and hate-radio conservatives, and Michael Parenti, a respected leftist historian and author of numerous books on American imperialism.

Anticipation of the debate whipped up a frenzy of political passions among community groups. The local progressive movement was split between those who actively supported the debate and those who felt revulsion at the very thought of having to listen to Victor Davis Hanson again. After all, isn’t he in the Fresno Bee every Sunday, saying the same thing over and over? Badly.

Hanson cheerleads for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as if Socrates himself would enlist. His latest piece of propaganda, A War Like No Other, a dark retelling of the story of the Peloponnesian War analogized to America’s recent war escapades, made even the New York Times call him the “Zenophon of Fresno.”2

Michael Parenti

Those of us who live here know better.

Others thought it was quite remarkable that the Sunbird Conservatives had set up their fans to hear Michael Parenti.3  These progressive groups, the Community Alliance, the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and Peace Fresno, actively supported the debate by sponsoring it, selling tickets and encouraging progressives to
attend.

Three members of Peace Fresno resigned in protest of the organization’s support for the debate, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Board voted not to support the event. The Peace Fresno membership called a special meeting to cast a near-unanimous vote of confidence in its leadership. The good news is that the progressive community in Fresno can afford to splinter into pieces, just like in a big city.

It was assumed by this writer that the debate was of much less import to Hanson and Parenti than it was to the community. Hanson seems to be arrogantly emboldened by his brushes with greatness at confabs with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, so much so he’s careless with his thoughts and his words. He has been called the Bush administration’s “tamed academic and house historian.”4  And Parenti once told me, after a speech to the progressive community here, that he didn’t think anyone in the audience understood what he was saying. Both got a fat check for $3,000 from the Sunbirds and quickly moved on to the next remunerative talk. Parenti had to be in Ventura by 6 p.m. for his second round of talking to a more like-minded audience.

Victor Davis Hanson

We who listened to them ever so carefully discussed it heatedly for days, with varied opinions on their performances and who won in the end.

For all the excitement in the run-up to this event, the scene was deadly dull. Tables along the walls were covered with free literature, but no one seemed interested. I picked up David Horowitz’s little pamphlet, Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model, and learned that Rachael Carson murdered 100 million black African children under the age of five by writing Silent Spring,5 which caused the ban of DDT and thereby enabled a vast and deadly spread of malaria (Id., at p. 21.)

A one-page handout informed me that CampusReform.org is teaching students how to monitor their professors for the spread of left-wing ideas. Perhaps CampusReform.org is the source for the Sunbird Conservatives planned “Campus Watch” program, which will call on students to report to parents, churches and university donors if their teachers espouse leftist ideas or debase conservative traditions.

There were books and more books about Ronald Reagan; Ronald Reagan calendars, t-shirts, mementos; and Ronald Reagan movies about Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush had disappeared from the face of the earth, as had his father. As Tina Brown said on public radio, “You would think Ronald Reagan was the cure for erectile dysfunction.”

The debate itself was the keynote event of an all-day gathering with a lineup of conservative speakers – radio talk-show hosts (you know them), pastors (you don’t know them) and Republicans (all running for what appeared to be the same office since they all said the same thing). At lunch, the audience watched impassively as the Hannah Boys played and sang “Home on the Range” and other Gene Autry tunes.

Hundreds of people attended the Parenti/Hanson debate.

Members of the supportive progressive groups staffed literature tables, which had been banished to the far end of the auditorium, while those of us who weren’t busy being deliberately ignored by the rest of the audience infiltrated the scene by scattering ourselves among the tables. This was a smart move – it made our applause for Parenti sound louder than it was.

The room rustled with signs of life when the debate began. The college president, D. Merrill Ewert discouraged overt displays of hostility by thanking the Sunbirds for their involvement as students and by calling on everyone to treat the debaters with civility and respect. The debate format was formal and enforced by a little dinner bell that ding-a-linged when the speakers ran out of time.

Victor Davis Hanson began by describing the vast “profile” of the United States from “Coca-Cola to chemotherapy” and attributed our enormous power in the world to our “transparent” constitution. Although we are a huge power, we are generous to our colonies: Puerto Rico can do what it wants and the Philippines is free and democratic. After we win a war against an enemy, we rebuild what we destroyed. (Apparently, this is a good thing.)

Millions of people come to the United States voluntarily every year “voting with their feet.” The people of the world want to live in a democratic, capitalist country. North Koreans would rather live in the South and, until recently, the Chinese would rather live in Hong Kong. Hanson was proud of the recent elections in Iraq and considered our war there a success.

Hanson’s theme song was that while America has its flaws, compared to other, more malevolent nations, it is a wonder of democracy, prosperity and opportunity. The United States “does not have to be perfect to be good.” While some may call us homophobic, in Iran, they execute homosexuals. While some may call us racist, in China, they arrest Muslims. And so on.

Parenti’s argument is that the American empire is not so benign. Although we are not colonialists in the British sense, having tea, patting zebras and shooting rebels, we have the advantages of colonialism. Our neo-colonialist boot on the rest of the world–100 military bases in 80 countries–is a threat to the basic values of our republic.

Parenti is a more knowledgeable and subtle historian than Hanson, but he lacks Hanson’s ability to make outrageous and often false bumper sticker statements that sound as though they embody a shared consensus. Hanson shocked several of us when he said Castro killed 20,000 dissidents. Parenti recoiled: “Now, we can debate, but we can’t just make things up.”

But Hanson went on making things up. He got even sloppier with the facts. As Chris Bray said in Reason Magazine, “Hanson decides what he wants history to say, and then he tortures it until it complies.”

Hanson said only 4% of our gross domestic product is spent on defense, whereas 70% is spent on entitlement programs. The defense budget is enormous because most of it is spent on Veteran’s Affairs, including the education of soldiers. Parenti said he was willing to stand corrected, but last he heard the Veteran’s Department was not part of the Pentagon. Hanson said that the problems besetting the budget when Bush left office were caused by the prescription drug bill (the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003) and No Child Left Behind.

When Parenti eloquently described our lamentable treatment of Haiti over the years, including our occupation from 1915 to 1934, Hanson said, “Haiti will never look like Carmel.”

The audience was quiet during most of this banter back and forth, but it heated up approvingly when Hanson said we should be ashamed to be the only country in the world that allows its own lawyers to defend its enemies in a time of war. This brought on huge applause. Perhaps the audience did not know this, but Hanson was referring to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that unequivocally told the Bush administration it could not detain people in Guantanamo and elsewhere forever without providing them with an opportunity to be heard in a court of law.

When asked if the Marshall Plan was a form of imperialism, Parenti said it was designed to “save capitalism.” For a nano-second, the audience began to boo; then it self-corrected, realizing that it was for capitalism. Parenti confused people.

Hanson talked about how terrific his veteran students at Fresno State were, particularly when compared with the liberal arts majors. The audience loved this and applauded enthusiastically. These “vets” had been educated in the military, they had a “worldview,” and, Hanson went on, “whatever the military is doing, I’m impressed, and what the university is doing, I’m skeptical.”

Parenti responded to this by saying the treatment we provide to veterans is a national disgrace. They are kicked to the side of the road when they are no longer useful to us. At this, the audience had to applaud – there were veterans and parents of veterans present. But he went on from there. “And this simple fact, the way we treat our veterans, tells us all who these wars are really for. They are for the multi-national corporations like Blackwater who bleed us to death in the name of patriotism.”

The program ended with Fresno Pacific’s president extending thanks to the various community groups who supported the event. He named the Community Alliance, the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, and Peace Fresno, along with the others who will go unmentioned here.

Perhaps I am delusional, but I thought some people in the audience were troubled by what they heard. But, then again, maybe not.

*****

1) http://studentlife.fresno.edu/things-do/living-fresno/history
2) Brecher, Gary, “It’s All Greek to Victor Davis Hanson”, eXile, a Moscow-based weekly newspaper at www.amconmag.com/article/2005/dec/19/00029/.
3) Michael Parenti is the author of several books on imperialism, including Against Empire (1995).
4) Taylor, John, “Thucydides vs. Victor Davis Hanson”, Anti-War, September 6, 2007 at www.antiwar.com/orig/jtaylor.php?articleid=11557.
5) Houghton Mifflin (1962).

Catherine Campbell is a semi-retired civil rights attorney.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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