For only the third time in this column's two-and-a-half year history (see note below), I am turning over my soapbox to a guest columnist. As with both previous times, the author is a commenter here at Huffington Post.
Known as "LewDan," he took exception to a column I wrote, and let me know how he felt in the comments, and later through a private email exchange. While he wasn't exactly agreeing with what I had written, I found him to have a unique perspective on the issue of race in Obama's election and also found him to be an original and well-reasoned thinker. While we disagreed on some things, we did so respectfully and with the intent of making our positions clear to each other.
Because I was so impressed by his writing, I offered him the chance to write a column for the public to read. At first he deferred, but in the end I convinced him that others would enjoy reading what he had to say. The following began as part of our email exchange, and was rewritten as a column by Llewellyn Daniel, who describes himself as:
"A Chicago native who's first personal computer was something you had to solder together yourself. After 40 years in Information Technology all the shiny rubbed off and it's now how we use them, not the machines, that fascinate. A lifetime's experience in analysis gone rogue."
So without further introduction, I'd like to thank "LewDan" for allowing me to share this with you.
[Note: Previously, I have run columns titled "Rules Democrats Should Use To Take Back Congress," by Huffington Post commenter "CotyJarret" (9/7/06), and "How Hillary Could Win Fair (And Lock Up The General Election, Too!)" by Joshua L. Eisenstein, Ph.D. (2/13/08). Anyone with a private thought for me about anything I write is welcome to use my "Email Chris" page at my website to contact me personally.]
-- Chris Weigant
Why Obama's Election Should Be Considered Historic
My paternal great-grandfather was a slave in Georgia until he was 21. At five years old he witnessed his mother's sale on an auction block. After the Civil War he became the "boss" of his Georgia county (its wealthiest resident) and spent the bulk of his life selling land and lumber. His grandson, my father, was the first black salesperson in Chicago's business district. Upon his return to Chicago following World War II, Dad was unable to open a diner because no one would rent to a black man. My dad's Chicago Alderman had to personally accompany him to a city leasing office for Dad to secure a lease on a vacant city lot. That lot was under elevated train tracks on city land that no one else wanted. Back then, no one realized that a site opposite a train station -- even if under the tracks -- was the best location for a diner. Dad had to put up his own building and then sub-leased a small strip to a shoeshine stand. He told me that in six months he'd recouped the cost of the building from the shoeshine stand alone, and was turning a profit on his investment. Eventually Dad owned a substantial share in over a dozen restaurants. In the 1970's he was even awarded a Bronze Star for his service in World War II.
America's sad racial legacy afforded my generation and my dad's generation far more opportunity to achieve "historic firsts" than should be or would normally be the case. As such, I can attest from personal and familial experience that many of those achievements, while historic firsts, were every bit as ordinary and unexceptional as when historically and routinely accomplished by non-blacks. Therefore what I expect from an Obama presidency is inspirational and effective progressive leadership that's not the least bit "black" (whatever that may be).
Politics is not a sport, and it is most especially NOT a blood sport. For 40 years the GOP acquired power by demonizing their opponents, promoting an us-versus-them mentality and an unswerving loyalty to the Republican brand, as if it were the "home team." It should have surprised no one that Republican candidates who see the country as us-versus-them, once elected, feel no need to represent us. That their only loyalty is to themselves. But we continued to register our objections. Voting, not for, but against those we disagreed with. Voting for the party that is against government to run the government, because the system is flawed. After all, all politicians are alike. What difference would it make? What harm could even bad elected officials do? We all know all politicians lie anyway. So we vote for "our team," punish those we dislike, and even if we lose... there is always the next election.
This time, it was different. We've been slow to learn, but our teachers have been relentless. For eight years we've been schooled in how much our vote matters. In how much damage one man can do. In what happens when government thinks it shouldn't interfere with business. In what happens when people who don't believe in evolution think free markets are sacrosanct, and market efficiency will necessarily evolve. When government believes it only needs to protect the people from terrorists, but it also must protect business from everything.
Our education has been expensive. We've lost the twin icons of our largest and most famous city, along with 4,000 lives. We've lost nearly an entire city older than the United States itself. We've lost 40 cents of every dollar. We've lost thousands of soldiers to unnecessary combat, and a billion dollars a week to a failed "reconstruction." We've lost the life savings of millions to Wall Street, lost millions of homes to foreclosure, and lost millions of jobs to overseas competitors. We've lost our standing in the world, our moral authority, and we've lost precious time in repairing a dangerously changing climate.
This time the challenges we face are clear, as are the consequences of failure. We are all affected and we all need to work together to achieve a more certain future, to prevent even greater losses. We cannot afford "politics as usual." We need a leader who actually means what he says. Someone who will really listen to opposing views. Someone we can trust to do what is best for us, not what is politically expedient for his party, or popular among his supporters. Someone we trust enough to follow and support in the troubled times ahead -- even when he disappoints. We need the kind of leader we haven't seen much of in the last 50 years.
I was taught that "when you really have something good, you don't have to force it on people. They will steal it from you." American racism has always been about exploitation, not self-denial. I wasn't the least surprised by even self-professed racists voting for Obama. White America doesn't turn down the services of people of color, it just balks at paying them and respecting them. Racism has always been easily-finessed by rationalizing particular individuals as "good niggers" -- exceptional, out of the ordinary, "the exception that proves the rule." Some of it has even been true. There have always been capable and successful black people in America, some quite exceptional even during the height of slavery. Their successes, unfortunately, have never "proved" that racism doesn't exit, or that all you need to succeed is to "work hard and play by the rules."
To me, Obama is like most of the people I've known all my life. Granted, he is one of the rare brilliant ones, but he is otherwise unexceptional. And while I appreciate the historic nature of his achievement, it is only considered historic because of our unfortunate racial history. I don't expect anything from an Obama presidency because he's black. Because he's a Democrat, because he's progressive, because he's a constitutional scholar, because he's honest and because he has integrity, yes. Because of those things, I have expectations. Obama's contribution, I believe, to healing the racial divide are simply winning, proving it can be done, and a presidency that is NOT substantially different than any other -- just more effective and progressive than the last. Black people, after all, are just people.
I don't want to dampen the spirits of anyone who joined in his amazing campaign, catapulting a freshmen Senator over the Clintons and into the White House. I cannot be prouder of Americans repudiating Bush's assault on our Constitution, defamation of our honor, defiance of our laws, abuse of our military and neglect of our nation. And the firebrands, drunk on victory and spoiling to continue the fight (even though we've already won) can be reeled in AFTER the inauguration. Their righteous outrage and supreme confidence needs to be redirected from campaigning to building the party and serving the nation. I've no doubt at all that Obama will avoid the Republicans' mistake of permanently campaigning and politicizing everything, instead of governing. Indeed, he's already shown that he's through campaigning, and is now focused on governing. That is as it should be. We, too, need to make the adjustment. But not yet. Before we "keep the pressure on," suppose we allow President-Elect Obama to actually BECOME President Obama?
All the current opining on President-Elect Obama's cabinet and staff appointments miss the point. Instead of speculating on whether Chicago-school, Washington-insider, ex-Clinton or even Republican appointments represent "change" or "respect" or "bipartisanship," the real question is: are they capable of being effective? Obama's appointees won't set the agenda, Obama will. President-Elect Obama is the "change." You don't have to agree with a policy to implement it. You only need the ability to do your job and the integrity to do it well -- even if you disagree on strategy.
All the ink spilled on the demise of the GOP and the "danger" to our democracy of "one-party rule without an effective opposition party" misses the same point. Unlike the GOP, the Democratic party has never been accused of lock-step adherence to party leaders' positions. The genuine diversity of views within the party strengthens it, and America benefits. GOP opposition for the sake of opposition serves no one but the GOP. If there are better ideas we need to hear them, but throwing bombs just to make the Democrats look bad does not serve the country. Obama, wisely, is eager to listen to other viewpoints to gather all the information he can before making a decision... but the decisions will still be his.
Obama has said that he will be the President of ALL Americans. As such, he will certainly disappoint. But that's all right. I didn't just award him my vote, I awarded him my trust. My hope is that he is wiser than I, more knowledgeable than I. And I trust him to make the decisions I hope that I would make, if I were wiser and more knowledgeable. I hope Obama's presidency will be as all presidencies should be: constitutional, ethical, transparent, broadly representative and reality-based. Even though each of us are "special interests," he doesn't have to pander to me, he doesn't have to be "black," he just has to represent me. I don't demand a bigger piece of the pie. I may not even GET a piece of the pie. All I ask is that I have a seat at the table.
I look forward to the day when everyone celebrates the election of a brilliant constitutional scholar and community organizer bringing competence, integrity and honor to the presidency, and sees nothing more. I find it ironic that this historic event IS historic -- foremost as a move toward events like this being insignificant! An Obama presidency should be historic because at a moment of crisis, when America faced unprecedented challenges and needed inspired leadership, we found it.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com