Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

Why Sotomayor Is a Good Choice

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on May 28th, 2009

There are three reasons why I think Sonia Sotomayor is a good choice to be the next Justice on the United States Supreme Court.  First, her nomination is historic.  If confirmed, Justice Sotomayor will be the first Latina, the first woman of color, and only the third woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court (not to mention the first Supreme Court Justice to grow up in a public housing project!).  Second, Sotomayor is an incredibly accomplished, brilliant woman who is highly qualified for the job.  Third, Judge Sotomayor has the right temperament and philosophy for the Supreme Court today.

It is difficult to overstate the historic significance of President Obama’s choice of a Latina woman as his first nomination to the Susotomayor.jpgpreme Court.   To illustrate my point, consider this:   When I was a student at Yale Law School in the late 1980s, the law students held a one day strike for diversity, calling for diversity in the faculty, student body and law school curriculum.  To protest the fact that at that time Yale had never had a woman of color on the faculty, a classmate of mine created paper effigies of all the faculty members and hung them from the ceiling of the law school.  Hanging from the ceiling was a long row of white men, several white women, and several men of color.  No women of color.  Now imagine if my classmate had done the same with the United States Supreme Court throughout our history.  Out of 115 paper effigies (based on my unofficial count), 111 of them would be white men, two would Black men, and two white women.  Again, no women of color.

The fact that Justice Sotomayor would be the first Latina and the first woman of color ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court, and a person who comes from a low income background, matters because the Supreme Court makes decisions that affect all of our lives, including the 52% of us who are women and the 26% of us who are non-white.  It matters because life experience, including our gender, race and economic backgrounds, affects how all of us view the world, and how judges view the law.  This does not mean that Justice Sotomayor would always rule in favor of women, people of color (regardless of their gender), and poor people, who appear before the Court.  Her record on the lower federal courts makes this abundantly clear.  What it does mean is that Justice Sotomayor would bring a life experience to the Court that would enrich the Court’s consideration of legal issues and make the Court more connected to the impact of its decisions on all of us.

Second, Justice Sotomayor’s qualifications are outstanding.  She graduated at the top of her class from Princeton, one of the nation’s top universities and an incredibly competetive institution.  She excelled as well at Yale Law School, where she served on the Law Review.  Sotomayor has extensive experience as a prosecutor and as a private attorney, and 17 years as a federal judge.  I am incredulous that anyone could argue that Sotomayor lacks the credentials to be a Supreme Court justice.  These critiques simply have no foundation.  Sotomayor’s record speaks for itself.

Finally, I believe that Sotomayor has the right temperament for the Court at this time.  This is where I differ from those liberals who have argued that they would prefer someone with a stronger ideological focus.   By all accounts, Sotomayor is a liberal to moderate person who enjoys engaging legal arguments and listens to all sides before making decisions.  However, she is no shrinking violet and is not likely to be intimidated by the more conservative, more senior members of the Court.  (After all, the woman grew up in a Bronx housing project!!!)

Sotomayor’s record is also so far from the “liberal activist” label that conservative critics are trying to link to her that the label simply won’t stick.  It’s about time that we recognized that (as I have argued in previous columns) the only activism that has occurred in  the United States Supreme Court in the past twenty or so years has been conservative retrenchment against progressive political policies.  If confirmed, Sotomayor will bring strong experience, diversity, and a balanced approach to the law that belies that conservative activism.   As a person with progressive politics who is sick and tired of the activism of the conservative Rehnquist and Roberts Courts, I say, bring Sotomayor on!

Specter’s Defection & the Separation of Powers

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on May 1st, 2009

There’s a conventional understanding of why Arlen Specter defected. Basically, he defected because the Republican Party is on the cusp of imploding. There different versions of this story, one in which Specter is a cowardly villain the other which blames the contraction of the Republican Party.  But suppose there’s another reason.  Suppose Specter believed some of the damage the former administration did to American constitutionalism needs to be reversed, and only a President with the constitutional acumen and moral sensibilities of Obama would conceivably be sympathetic to this rectification. Here’s the tease line:

In the seven and a half years since September 11, the United States has witnessed one of the greatest expansions of executive authority in its history, at the expense of the constitutionally mandated separation of powers. President Obama, as only the third sitting senator to be elected president in American history, and the first since John F. Kennedy, may be more likely to respect the separation of powers than President Bush was. But rather than put my faith in any president to restrain the executive branch, I intend to take several concrete steps, which I hope the new president will support.

What follows is a description of some of the more blatant assaults by the previous administration of the constitutional principle of “checks and balances.” (Though Specter’s fulsome emphasis on how important his own role in these matters was raises legitimate skepticism about his motives.) Here’s specter’s plan for the future.

These experiences have crystallized for me the need for Congress and the courts to reassert themselves in our system of checks and balances. The bills I have outlined are important steps in that process. Equally important is vigorous congressional oversight of the executive branch. This oversight must extend well beyond the problems of national security, especially as we cede more and more authority over our economy to government officials.

As for curbing executive branch excesses from within, I hope President Obama lives up to his campaign promise of change. His recent signing statements have not been encouraging. Adding to the feeling of déjà vu is TheWashington Post ‘s report that the new administration has reasserted the “state secrets” privilege to block lawsuits challenging controversial policies like warrantless wiretapping: “Obama has not only maintained the Bush administration approach, but [in one such case] the dispute has intensified.” Government lawyers are now asserting that the US Circuit Court in San Francisco, which is hearing the case, lacks authority to compel disclosure of secret documents, and are “warning” that the government might “spirit away” the material before the court can release it to the litigants. I doubt that the Democratic majority, which was so eager to decry expansions of executive authority under President Bush, will still be as interested in the problem with a Democratic president in office. I will continue the fight whatever happens.

I think (I hope) that Specter’s last remark misses the mark. Few Democrats, indeed, few Republicans, are as politically psychopathic as Bush-Cheney. They were egregiously insensitive about essential constitutional values and had no appreciation for the fundamental values rendering America, in aspiration if not always in practice, a progressive beacon for the twenty-first century.

The real action lies with how the Republican Party, without Specter, will reconstruct itself, as it surely will, to meet the challenges they face with the death of traditional and woefully ineffective laissez-faire economics along with their commitment to tyrannical social policies.

For a mournful account of the Republican Party’s turn to the exclusive ultra Right click here.

It’s not entirely clear why President Obama so gleefully welcomed Senator Specter to the Democratic Party. Wouldn’t it have been preferable for the Democrats to nominate an outstanding, young Democratic man or woman who could beat Specter, but more importantly, someone who could beat Toomey because Toomey surely would have beaten Specter? How does Specter’s defection to the Democratic Party benefit Democrats?

The Big Lie?

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on April 30th, 2009

Just before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I had an argument with a friend of mine who supported the invasion.  I tocheney.jpgld him that I did not think there was any reason for the United States to invade Iraq.  He asked me whether I thought that the President was lying about weapons of mass destruction, and was astounded by my answer.  My friend was astonished that I believed that  the President of the United States, leader of the free world, would lie to the American People about such an important issue.   Oh, what an innocent time that seems now!  Now, we know that not only was President Bush lying then, but that members of his administration continued to lie about the reasons we were in Iraq after it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction.  Most notably, Vice President Cheney spoke often about the supposed link between Sadam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, even though no such link was ever established.

The release of the torture memos last week gives us an upsetting glimpse into the inner workings of the Bush administration during that time, and may provide evidence that the administration was involved in an even bigger lie.  Why would the US intelligence officials use torture on terrorist suspects when not only were those methods prohibited by US and international law, but those methods had never been proven to work better than other interrogation techniques?  We have now learned that the torture methods used by US intelligence officials were modelled on methods used by the North Koreans to illicit false confessions from captured members of the US military.  Why would our government want to illict false information?  Could it be that our government used torture to try to manufacture a link between Iraq and 9/11, betwee Al Qaeda and Sadam Hussein?  If so, then our government was using inhumane interrogation methods such as waterboarding, that we have prosecuted as war crimes in the past, not to protect us, but to keep us in the dark.  It’s a shocking proposition, to be sure, but given what we have learned, we need proof that it’s not true.  That’s why we need an investigation into the Bush administration’s torture policies – to make sure our leaders didn’t use torture to support their lies, and to keep from telling the Big Lie to us again in the future.

“Progressive Originalism”

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on March 19th, 2009

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article this week about the surge of interest in originalism among constitutional scholars and advocates.  These scholars and advocates focus not on the original constitutiojohn-bingham.jpgn, but on the Reconstruction Era, also known as the Second Founding because the Reconstruction Amendments changed our constitution so fundamentally.  I am happy to see the Framers of the Reconstruction constitution getting attention in the mainstream media, especially John Bingham, the original author of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment and one of the leading constitutional theorists in the Reconstruction Congress.  The article also provides an opportunity to consider the question of originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation, and whether “preogressive originalism” is an oxymoron.  “Originalism” as a method of constitutional interpretation has long been associated with conservative ideology.  Indeed, originalism is a fundamentally conservative method of constitutional interpretation in the classic sense of conservatism.  There are varying schools of originalism, but basically originalists ask judges who are interpreting the constitution to look back at the past and to be bound (to varying extents depending on the scholar or judge) by the meaning of the constitution at the time that it was drafted.

Given the fundamentally conservative nature of originalism, how could any originalist consider him or herself to be “progressive?”  For scholars such as myself who research and write about the Reconstruction Era, the answer is simple.  The members of the Reconstruction Congress were progressive, very progressive, even radical.  They intended the Reconstruction Amendments to alter our system of federalism by transfering the primary responsibility over individual rights from the states to the federal government.  They also had a very broad vision of what these individual rights would be, ranging from the rights to life, liberty and property to all of the fundamental rights.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they were the first to give Congress the power to define and protect our individual rights by including congressional enforcement clauses in the Reconstruction Amendments.

Focusing on Reconstruction enables scholars to be originalists and believe that the constitution is a progressive document at the same time.  But this attitude does not answer the fundamental dilemma of constitutional interpretation – whether those interpreting the constitution must always look back to what constitutional provisions meant at the time that they were written, or whether they can consider what those provisions mean in contemporary times.  Conservative originalists like originalism because it cabins the discretion of unaccountable judges when they are interpreting the constitution.  They argue that considering the contemporary meaning of constitutional provisions is an invitation to judges to allow their political and personal views to color their interpretation of the Constitution.

The dilemma of “progressive originalism” is less problematic when we understand that the members of the Reconstruction Congress did not believe that judges were the sole, or even the primary interpreters of the constitution.  Like conservative originalists, members of the Reconstruction Congress were very skeptical of the judicial branch, which they recognized as the author of Dred Scott and an apologist for the Slave Power.  They also believed that members of Congress had a large amount of autonomy to interpret the constitution themselves, and they intended the congressional enforcement clauses to reflect this vision of constitutional interpretation.  When members of Congress interpret the constitution, they need not look back to the meaning of those provisions at the time that they were adopted.  Instead, they may take their political views and contemporary circumstances into account.  That is their job, and that is the task assigned to them by the Reconstruction Congress.  The Framers of the Reconstruction Amendments assumed that those interpreting the broad provisions establishing individual rights in those amendments would take contemporary circumstances into account.  They just didn’t expect the Court to monopolize that interpretation the way that it has in cases such as City of Boerne v. Flores.  Thus, an originalist understanding of the Reconstruction Amendments is progressive, both politically and institutionally.

Unfortunately, the current Supreme Court, comprised primarily of “originalists,” has failed to take an originalist approach to the Fourteenth Amendment.  In Boerne, the Court restricted the Congress’ power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment in a manner that would have made Reconstruction Framers such as Bingham, James Ashley and Lyman Trumbull roll over in their graves.  Let’s hope the new originalist approach to Reconstruction makes its way to the US Supreme Court, so that the progressive vision of the Reconstruction Framers can be restored – not just in the courts, but also in Congress.

No Town Like Motown

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on March 12th, 2009

In many ways, the city of Detroit, Michigan, embodies the American dream – and its failings.  In the Twentieth Century, Detroit was a center of industry – and not just any industry.   The American romance with the automobile is centrdetroit-skyline.jpgal to the American dream, and for much of the Twentieth Century, most of our cars were made in or around Detroit.  Automobile enthusiasts looked forward to the Detroit auto show every year, and one need only scan the titles of popular songs to understand how much we loved cars made in Detroit – Mustangs, Cadillacs, Mercuries, the list goes on and on.  Of course, the cars made in Detroit were not just important in popular culture – they also provided thousands of people with well-paying jobs.  As a result, immigrants flocked to Detroit from other countries and  African Americans migrated from the south of this country, fleeing Jim Crow and seeking a new prosperous life.  Detroit became the center of the union movement, and automobile workers prospered.  Until the mid-1960s, Detroit really was a city in which the American dream came to life for thousands of people.

The decline of Detroit is an all-too-familiar story.  The race riots in the 1960s, the white migration to the suburbs, the arrival of Japanese cars, and the decline of the American automobile industry.  GM was once the number one employer in this country, but GM, and its well-paying union jobs, has now been replaced in that role by Walmart and its low-paying no-benefits positions.  To look at how the American dream has failed so many workers in this country, one need only look at Detroit.  In these dark days of economic recession, no place is darker than Detroit.  GM and Chrysler are on the brink of economic disaster, and the third of the Big Three, Ford, is struggling as well.  The rate of unemployment in Detroit is over 10%, and it is one of the cities worst hit by the housing crisis.  I have heard reports of houses selling for as little as $100 in Detroit.

Ironically, the low cost of housing in Detroit is also cause for a strange sort of optimism.  Artists have started buying houses in Detroit, moving from more prosperous cities like Chicago to find a place they can afford to live.  The sheer economic devastation in that city thus leaves open the possibility of a new urban colony with renovated housing, green energy, community gardens, and artistic renewal.  Sound crazy?  Maybe, but there is that spirit about Detroit, that spirit of hope and optimism that reflects the remnants of the American dream.  The 1960s were a decade of turmoil and racial strife in Detroit, arguably the beginning of the downward spiral that is culminating today.  But they were also the decade of Motown music.  Could artists alone save Detroit?  Of course not, but we also can’t expect the automobile industry alone to do the job.  Cities like Detroit need imagination and vision, small businesses and “knowledge jobs.”  For that reason, this new migration of artists to Detroit may be what’s needed to start the city moving in a new direction.

The Persistence of Sociopathic Racism

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on February 20th, 2009

Expect the remnants of sociopathic racism—racism without a sense of shame—to persist even throughout the tenure of one of the most qualified individuals ever to assume the presidency, and, who is also black. Barack Obama’s ascendanc400http-dyimgcom-a-p-ap-20090218-captea1cf7fd72734031a84bdce41da4f654ny_post_cartoon_nyr101.jpgy to the presidency has hit the failsafe mark of no return to American apartheid.  Generations of white and black kids will develop in a world where the question of whether an African American can reach the presidency has been answered and the ramifications of this (symbolic) triumph will filter throughout the various walks of life having nothing to do with politics.  I am convinced this is the trajectory of Obama’s victory. Fortunately, it is now part of the hard wiring of American society. Unfortunately, that does not mean that sociopathic racism is dead.  Quite the contrary, sociopathic racism will continue to use the symbols of racial apartheid to denigrate, insult, and offend African Americans, but this time it will try to camouflage its message in mixed racial symbols. Consider the above cartoon. Three venomous racial symbols are unarguably present. First, there is the allusion to a black man (who just happens to be president of the United States) as a chimpanzee. Second, the cartoon evokes the double-image of assassinating (lynching) a black man black as well as assassinating the president. Third, the cartoon portrays police brutality against blacks endemic to American apartheid. No amount of rationalization can excuse this grotesque image as referring to a tragic incident earlier this week when a domestic chimp viciously attacked a friend of the chimp’s owner and was shot and killed by the police. That dog (chimp?) won’t hunt. The reference to the cartoon’s chimp as intimately associated with writing the stimulus bill forecloses that analogy. We will as a society never be rid of racism until those claiming not to be racists take responsibility for expressions of their sociopathic racism.  The responsibility here squarely lies with the cartoonist, but even more importantly, with the editor of the New York Post where the cartoon first appeared polluting America’s public culture. Indeed, despite the newspaper’s weak, unpersuasive apology, the editor should resign.

The Ghost of FDR

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on February 19th, 2009

This week, President Obama signed a stimulus bill that is designed to end our country’s downward economic slide.  Given the dire circumstances we are in, you might expect that the Repub905b3673-b527-f2b2-d2c261171c4d48c01.jpglicans in Congress would be open to the plan suggested by a new president whose victory last fall was based in large part on his economic vision.  Yet the Republicans remain steadfastly opposed to the plan.  To hear the congressional Republicans talk, you’d think the election was still going on.  This is especially true of the Republican standard bearer, John McCain, who continues to advocate the same free market tax cutting policies of the former Republican president, despite the fact that the American people overwhelmingly rejected those ideas last November.  Moreover, current polls show that the American people favor the stimulus bill, and congressional Republicans lag far behind the Democrats in their approval ratings.  Why are the Republicans being so obstructionist? Rush Limbaugh over-simplified the reason when he said he hopes that Obama will fail (even though if Obama fails, thousands more Americans will suffer).  The real reason is that the Republicans really hope that Obama will fail, because they are haunted by the ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Congressional Republicans know enough about history to understand what happened the last time a charismatic, articulate president, who was able to instill hope and confidence in the people, took over from a Republican president whose free market ideology had contributed to economic devastation in our country.  Roosevelt’s New Deal policies rejected that free market ideology, expanded the government safety net, and contributed to the country’s economic recovery.  More importantly, the American people gave FDR credit for saving the country from the Depression.  They re-elected him by a landslide in 1936, and re-elected him again two more times.  The success of FDR and the perceived success of his New Deal led millions of Americans to become lifelong Democrats, and contributed to the Democratic dominance of Congress for over 40 years.  Given President Obama’s charisma, political savvy and popularity with people below the age of 30, if he is perceived to succeed in reviving our economy, we could be facing another generation of Democratic rule.

In the past thirty years, the Republicans have sought to dismantle the successes of the New Deal, and the Democrimages24.jpgats have mostly gone along with them.  Unfortunately, they were largely successful at cutting back on government regulation of the financial industry and effectively ending welfare (with the help of President Bill Clinton).  Fortunately, President George W. Bush did not succeed at gutting our social security system, the steadfast iconic New Deal success.  However, the Democrats’ cooperation with the de-regulation of big business, the restrictions on organized labor and welfare “reform” made it possible for Bush to argue in 2004 that the Democratic Party was no longer the party of Roosevelt.

I am hopeful that the Democrats are returning to their legacy as the party of FDR under the leadership of President Obama.  Above all, that legacy was based on the idea that government can work, and that ir can help working people.  The Republicans are haunted by the ghost of FDR.  Let’s hope that the Democrats are, too.

Barack Obama and Post-Equal Protection Equality

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on February 5th, 2009

Much has been said about the relationship between Barack Obama and former civil rights leaders.  On the one hand, the inauguration was full of parallels between Obama and Martin Luther King.  Obama was said to have realized tmpphpw3ebwl1.jpgthe dream that King spoke about in the 1963 March on Washington.  Without the efforts of Dr. King and the movement that he led, Barack Obama would probably not have had the opportunity to become President.  However, as Prof. Hank Chambers has pointed in an earlier post, there is a danger that the election of a Black man as President will cause many to believe that Blacks as a whole have achieved equality in our society.  There are many indicators that that is not the case.  The chief indicator is that Blacks are still significantly poorer than whites.  Hence, it is understandable that some in the older generation of civil rights leaders are uncomfortable with Obama’s emphasis on unity, downplaying the racial differences that still plague our society.

I have been thinking a lot about this issue as I consider the possibility of a post-Equal Protection vision of equality in constitutional law.  By its very nature, the Equal Protection Clause requires the comparison of groups of people, including racial groups, to determine whether they are being treated equally.  This vision of racial equality is the basis of most of our civil rights law, including both Court rulings and most civil rights statutes enacted by Congress during the Twentieth Century.  Equal Protection based civil rights have been the basis of significant accomplishments of minorities and women in our society.  However, our equal protection based equality law is flawed because it assumes that people start at the same place.  Women and members of racial and ethnic minority groups are entitled to nothing more than equal treatment, regardless of the fact that centuries of discrimination mean that we simply don’t start all at the same place.

A post-Equal Protection vision of equality focuses not on comparing groups of people, not on conflicts between racial groups, but on the substantive rights to which we are all entitled.  In a very real sense, this was the vision of equality of the Reconstruction Congress.  Their landmark 1866 Civil Rights Act, which preceded the Fourteenth Amendment, required that all people be entitled to the same rights as white citizens, and listed some of those rights, including the right to engage in the economy that slaves had lacked.  These members of Congress also empowered themselves to create more substantive rights which would enable freed slaves to live as fully integrated members of our society.  Future members of Congress could determine which substantive rights would be necessary to fulfill this vision.

Several generations later, during another time of crisis, the New Deal Congress relied on a substantive vision of equality as they enacted legislation creating economic rights such as the right to organize into a union, the right to unemployment benefits, and the right to economic security if one retired or became disabled.  Unfortunately, African Americans were largely excluded from this promise of economic security because the jobs that most of them performed at the time, domestic and agricultural labor, were not covered by these statutes.   Since then, many African Americans have benefited from the right to organize, and from the safety net that the New Deal Congress enacted.  However, the lack of New Deal economic rights also contributed significantly to the lack of economic progress of African Americans as, thanks to the Civil Rights movement, they emerged from the Jim Crow South’s system of racial apartheid.

We’ve come a long way towards realizing equality in our society, but wtmpphpp6uijs1.jpge still have a long way to go.  What we need now is a post-Equal Protection vision of equality, a vision based on substantive economic rights for all.  Which brings me back to President Obama.  There are early indications that Obama believes that equality, including racial equality, will come from economic empowerment.  Last week, the Obama administration announced a project to revive the middle class.  One of the President’s first economic measures was to revive the labor movement by rescinding restrictions on unions.  Obama has said that he believes that unions are part of the solution to our economic crisis.  His administration is also working to create new jobs that should be available to all.  Government employment has been a crucial path to economic security for African Americans since the New Deal Era.  These are promising indications that the Obama will pursue a post-Equal Protection model of equality.  Obama’s presidency itself is a symbol of the progress that we have achieved thanks to the Equal Protection based civil rights movement.  If he continues to champion substantive economic rights, I am hopeful that more people of all races may be enjoy a future of full participation in our society.

TO BEGIN THE WORLD A NEW

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on January 20th, 2009

The American Revolution and its constitutional expression—at least in the Constitution’s Preamble, the Bill of Right, and the Civil War Amendments–represent a commitment to the critical political values story-1.jpgof liberty and equality. Ours was the first nation to be committed to an idea, to popular sovereignty.  This involves requiring the allegiance to the people not to Kings, theocrats, and such.  Instead, the people governed would also be the governors. This idea would sweep away other forms of political commitments. It is an idea that anyone could adopt, anyone committed to self-government. In theory, one didn’t have to be a member of a particular nationality or religion.  It was a new beginning that one chose to adopt, not one that was imposed by other people or traditions. The beauty of this polity was that each generation, if it chose, could begin the world anew. This was the theory, but it often fell short in practice. The power of domination to which other nations adhered also had expression in American political and social practice.  The most onerous form of domination was slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and presently, subtle forms of discrimination. Could America’s aspirations every truly be realized?

That question has now the beginning of an answer and that answer is yes we can.  Today, after forty-three white presidents, Americans will swear in their first African American president. We will begin our world anew. This, of course, does not mean racism will be extinguished in America today or even in this decade.  But now we see the beginning of the end of virulent racism.  Committed racists are now a severely endangered species and like the dinosaurs are headed for extinction.  Other forms of racism will take longer to extirpate.  But the dye has been cast. With the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama we have turned a new chapter in the American narrative. No longer will an entire group of Americans be cast out of America’s highest office because there skin color is not “correct.”  No longer will other minorities be similarly shut out.

What is genuinely inspiring, for me, about America’s greatness lies, not in its attainment of perfection whatever that would be like, but rather its capacity for change, its commitment to remediating wrongs, and perhaps most importantly and most relevant today, its penchant for expanding the idea of who counts as a full and equal citizen. The new president represents the promise of transformative change, of righting its wrongs and expressing its revolutionary and constitutional aspirations in a new birth of freedom.

But President Obama represents more than simply the first African American to win the presidency. He brings to the presidency a new political philosophy. The commitment to liberty and equality, as important as it is, fails to complete the idea of self government. Added to the fundamental values of liberty and equality, must be an aspiration to community.  Consider his own words:

Communities had never been a given in this country, at least not for blacks. Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men—and [in the civil rights movement] I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned.  And because membership was earned—because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself—I believe that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.

President Obama’s commitment to community is illustrative of what this extraordinarily intellectual, and morally grounded, man will contribute to the idea of America.  We must attend to our commonalities; we must strive to seetmpphpvr8i5n.jpg ourselves in others. The poison of factionalism, special interests, and demonizing our opponents must give way to respecting our opponents in the hope of achieving principled compromise with them. But a sensitivity to community is not a given; it is not easy.  Each American, in his or her own way, must contribute, must sacrifice, must exude patience to bring forth a transformation in American political culture. No, this will not be easy, but then again, it is never easy to begin the world anew. It is, however, our legacy, a legacy that empowers and invigorates like no other legacy can. The challenges facing America are enormous and grave, and we must give the new president a chance. Welcome to the age of Obama, where we can begin the world anew by revivifying our precious values of liberty and equality, and add to these values the value of community. Within the vast diversity in the American nation, the new president challenges us to recognize our interconnectedness. We are one people, not because our religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity makes us one people, but rather because our commitment to American ideals, to the better angels of our nature; that’s what makes us one.  Congratulations, Mr. President! Congratulations America!

The Lincoln Bible

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on December 25th, 2008

I learned yesterday that president-elect Barack Obama has chosen to take the oath of office using the smallerthumbnail1.jpgsame Bible as Abraham Lincoln did when he was first sworn in as our 16th president.  The choice is laden with symbolism.  Obama, the first Black president, has chosen to use the same Bible as the Great Emancipator, the only other Senator from Illinois to be elected president.   The choice also is not surprising.  Obama has been open about his admiration for Lincoln.  Indeed, he began his historic campaign for the presidency in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s adult home town, with a speech invoking Lincoln’s name.   The use of the Lincoln Bible is a fitting end to that campaign.

What is surprising is that no other president  since Lincoln has made the same choice that Obama has made.  Given that Lincoln is such a revered figure in our nation’s history, I would have thought that other presidents would have made the same choice as Obama to invoke Lincoln’s legacy.  Nevertheless, despite much rhetoric from past president-elects about the man who arguably ranks as the greatest American president, no president-elect has chosen, until now, to place his hand where Lincoln did while swearing to uphold our constitution.

Why will Barack Obama be the first American president to use the Lincoln Bible since 1861?  The reason has roots in our country’s tortured history dealing with the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.  For much of the Twentieth Century, the predominate view of Reconstruction was what I call the “Gone with the Wind” version of history (also known as the Dunning school of history after historian William Dunning) – in which northern carpetbaggers intruded upon the end of the gentile southern aristocracy.  Even in the northern and decidedly pro-Union state of Minnesota, when my parents were in grade school, they learned that the Civil War was the “war between the states,” a name that implies two equally legitimate sides to the conflict and obscures the true history of the war – that is, that rogue states attempted to break away from their mother country in order to preserve the barbaric institution of slavery.  Therefore, it is not surprising that no leader of our nation wished to remind our country of that conflict and its conflict-ridden aftermath.

Of course, the “Gone with the Wind” story of the Civil War and Reconstruction also served to implicitly condone thlincoln.jpge Jim Crow South – a place where Blacks were still treated as second class citizens, systematically denied the right to vote, and terrorized with racialized violence into the late 1960s, when historiography and current events  began to shift in similar, almost parallel, directions. Thus, even as the Civil Rights movement emerged to overcome state-sponsored segregation and win the right to the franchise for Blacks, a new group of historians such as Les Benedict and Eric Foner began to reconsider the Reconstruction era and to describe its true nature – a “new birth of freedom” when the United States Congress attempted not only to free the slaves, but to create rights that would place them upon the same plane of citizenship “as white citizens.”  As more Americans came to understand the need for national civil rights legislation, the work of those scholars served to enhance the legitimacy of such action by linking it to the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction.

It has often been noted that if it were not for the 1960s Civil Rights era and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Barack Obama would never have stood a chance of being elected president.  Obama’s choice of the Lincoln Bible reflects his awareness that the Civil Rights movement did not begin in the 1950s, but in the 19th century, with the abolitionist movement, the Reconstruction Congress, and of course, President Abraham Lincoln.  By choosing to place his hand where Lincoln did, Obama is paying tribute not only to one of our greatest presidents, but contributing to the restoration of Reconstruction to its rightful place in our nation’s history.