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You may have noticed that throughout this election I've made constant allusions to Marion Barry.  That's because my first job in journalism was working at the illustrious Washington City Paper. This was the summer of 1996, I was 20 year old college student, and Barry, back from the dead, was busy inflaming the city's white population. When I started at City Paper, I was given a copy of Jospeph Mitchell's Up In The Old Hotel, Norman Sims and Mark Kramer's Literary Journalism and Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe's Dream City. It's funny because while the former two books came to define me professionally, the latter was the most influential.

Most people who saw D.C. from afar in the 80s and early 90s, simply thought that city was populated but utter morons. But Dream City put Barry in historical perspective, tracing the doings of the racist thugs who'd once been its overlords. Barry carried with him all of that history, and master politician that he was, he employed it to great effect. By the end of his mayoral career, a consortium of wise-men in the District were actually considering paying him not to run. I didn't cover Barry much, but I got to study the work of some great reporters who did. I thought then that the District under Barry was simply a particularly egregious case of demagoguery and victimology. But I was young, and I didn't know history.

Rick Perlstein has outlined how Nixon basically turned a victimology of white struggle into a political career. Then there are the racists who terrorized the black middle class in the South, and then routinely charged that they, themselves, were the aggrieved, not the blacks who they'd just run out of town. White victimology is lamentable and ultimately accepted, mostly because the "white working class" is more an idea, an weird amalgam of the purity of the white Southern belle and nobleness of the savage, than an actual group of people. Still it's been a sight to watch the same clucking heads that dismiss black people for "a culture of failure" and for worshiping ignorance, now tell us that it's fine for someone who potentially holds the fate of civilization in their hands to know as much about the Bush Doctrine as the man on the street, to think that "Intelligent Design" is science. Enough, indeed. Marion Barry wrecked D.C. These fools are talking about the world.


As Barry's last term in office closed out, to the horror of us progressives, he flirted with the idea of running again. At that time, Ken Cummins, who'd been a scathing critic of Barry, wrote a piece urging Barry on. His point was that the District deserved--indeed needed--the opportunity to show that it's electorate had matured, that Barry shouldn't be eased out, but should be put out by the people that put him in. Perhaps sensing that that's exactly what would happen, Barry declined. I've thought about that piece all weekend while weighing McCain's embrace of the culture wars and outright lying. Many who thought McCain honorable are now distraught and would like to see a return to the McCain they thought they knew. But if only because I was never that invested in McCain as the honorable warrior, I say bring it on.

The thing is, we deserve to know exactly what manner of country we are living in. Are we living in a place where people think claiming to be offended is actually a qualifier for national office? Does our citizenry actually think that Obama is a Muslim, and worse, that being a Muslim is a disqualifier? Do we actually believe that a presidential candidate of a major party would endorse sex ed for Kindergarten? At this critical moment, are these the issues that sway us? In the 1960s, Baldwin warned us of integrating into a burning house. I need to know precisely what manner of house we've entered.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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