“The struggle of today, is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.”
— Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress, December 3, 1861
This blog was started in mid-October 2008. Weeks before the American election, it seemed clear that Barack Obama would be elected President of the United States. Great as my political differences are with Obama, the election of a black man as President of the United States is a fact for lovers of liberty to meditate on. That is what I intended to do here. As long as the election remained in the balance, however, I disdained to join the demoralizing list of Republicans publicly stabbing John McCain in the back, and I kept this under wraps till the morning after.
I hope Obama, with the election safely behind him, will deny the use of the term "genocide" with respect to Israel. I hope he can.
I think McCain would have been a better choice for America and the world. Obama’s weaknesses will show primarily in international affairs, where his naivete is reinforced by a liberal ideology ill placed to confront the likes of Ahmedinajad and Putin. In the last few days another, darker issue has surfaced: A recorded speech, which the LA Times refuses to release but which has been reported on the Web, in which Obama played to the prejudices of Israel-haters and accused Israel of genocide. It is one thing to declare oneself in public in favor of maintaining the unity of Jerusalem and then to waffle and backtrack. Politics is not kind to intellectual honesty. It is another thing to borrow vocabulary from anti-Semites who want Israel destroyed. Those whose anti-Israeli invective include the word “genocide” often do not shrink from contemplating genocide. I hope Obama, with the election safely behind him, will deny the use of the term. I hope he can.
I fear that the United States will lose ground internationally on Obama’s watch, and that’s a concern. But I also believe that the United States can overcome and transcend whatever it loses under Obama’s presidency. What happened this week has significance far beyond any one person’s power to add or detract, even though he be President of the United States.
What happened this week has significance far beyond any one person’s power to add or detract, even though he be President of the United States.
The United States is now locked in competition with rising authoritarian powers for the future of the world. This competition will last for generations. It will be determined by the inherent strengths and virtues that different societies and governments bring to this great test. Nations may win or lose this or that diplomatic or military confrontation based on their economic or military strength of the moment. In the long run, however, the fate of such competitions is decided by the verdict of hundreds of millions of plain ordinary people on their own political system and their rivals’.
The United States has faced equally significant tests in the past. One incident in such a test took place in February 1865, two months before the end of the Civil War, when Charleston, S.C. succumbed to Federal forces. As recorded by the historian, Bruce Catton,
"That evening a Federal brigade marched through Charleston to go on provost guard duty. One regiment in this brigade was the 5th Massachusetts, colored troops, some of the men once held to service in this very city, going in proudly now with their forage caps held aloft on fixed bayonets, the fife-and-drum corps playing “John Brown’s Body.”
I read this passage two or three times a year, and it always makes me choke up.
America’s second great test began before the test of civil war had concluded. It was to ensure that the preservation of the union did indeed entail a new birth of freedom. By 1870 the United States had adopted the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States . . .“
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens . . .”
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
America’s second great test began before the test of civil war had concluded. It was to ensure that the preservation of the union did indeed entail a new birth of freedom.
On the morrow of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, the offices of the Underground Railroad in New York were shut down. On the door hung a sign with words to this effect: “The Underground Railroad is dissolved. Shareholders will receive their reward according to their merits.”
But it proved too early to declare victory in this test. Gradually, in the atmosphere of corruption and public sordidness that characterized the last third of the 19th Century, Americans lost their will to oppose southern efforts to overthrow the verdict of the civil war. In 1898 the Supreme Court (in Plessy vs. Ferguson) accepted as constitutional the southern doctrine of “separate but equal” education, public transportation, schooling, etc. Only Justice Harlan, in a famous lone dissent, insisted that the law acknowledge the truth:
“What can more certainly arouse race hatred . . . than state enactments which in fact proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? . . . The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”
Plessy vs. Ferguson signaled to American racists that the majority of Americans no longer cared what was done to blacks. There followed three generations of night, in which millions of black Americans were disenfranchised, dispossessed, degraded, and ruled by lynch law.
election of Barack Obama signals that the United States has, at last, passed this second great test. That test was, in essence, the same as the first: Whether a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can long endure.
56 years passed before a reviving national conscience again found expression through the Supreme Court. In 1954, in Brown vs. Board of Education, the court acknowledged the true character and effect of “separate but equal,” overturned Plessy, and decreed the integration of black and white in the public schools “with all deliberate speed.” Martin Luther King expressed a dream, and paid for it with his life. But in 1964 Lyndon Johnson, a dark and controversial figure, once the epitomy of southern racism, used his considerable legislative skills to ram the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Racial hatred still existed—still exists—in the United States. But the Civil Rights Act worked because it represented a broad consensus of popular opinion.
The policies then adopted were controversial and seldom accepted with good grace. I well remember the struggle against quota-based “affirmative action,” claiming that justice could only be done to individuals, not groups, and that to compensate one individual by inflicting injustice on another compounded the evil rather than redressing it. But the second half of the 20th century was characterized by a slow, steady growth of a sentiment of justice in the United States, of which legislation and court action were only the expression. In the end, it became possible to elect a black man President of the United States, because of who he is and what he thinks, irrespective of the color of his skin. Therein lies the great significance of his election.
After 145 years the new birth of freedom, long a-borning, has arrived. The election of Barack Obama signals that the United States has, at last, passed this second great test. That test was, in essence, the same as the first: Whether a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can long endure. Far beyond the conflicts of petty partisan politics, the people of the United States have reaffirmed the proposition on which their nation was founded.
The people of the United States have reaffirmed the proposition on which their nation was founded. Much rests on that reaffirmation.
Much rests on that reaffirmation. The future depends partly on whether the people of China and Russia, if and when they become wealthy and powerful, desire their present models of government, or the model of government and society that just elected Barack Obama President of the United States. The simple, democratic deed this day done will speak louder than trillions of dollars or millions of soldiers.
This blog originally ended with a valedictory that reached across the partisan political divide to wish the new President well: "May his administration be a beacon of liberty and justice to all his fellow citizens, political opponents as well as supporters, and to the hundreds of millions around the world who look to his country as such a beacon. Nobody would think to look for that beacon in Moscow or Beijing." Whether or not Barack Obama fulfills that promise, however, depends on whether he himself brings liberty and justice to the White House, or a heart filled with prejudice and hatred.