More thought on the value of crazy

I got this e-mail from a cat who'd read my piece in the Washington Post on Sunday. The note comes from a totally different cultural and historical perspective. It's worth publishing in its entirety. More after the jump:

I'd like to pass along some thoughts about the, "shocking, almost
certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost,"
and the people who live next door.

A native New Yorker, I'm coming up on my 52nd birthday. I was born and
raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood in upper Manhattan. For as
long as I live, I will remember what I saw when I was a boy: the people who
lived in my neighborhood, people much younger then than I am now who looked
older then than I'll look in thirty years' time, if indeed I am blessed
enough to live that long, people with numbers tattooed into their arms,
tattoos put there by the Waffen-SS in the Nazi concentration camps. The
couple who lived next door to my family was luckier; they were the only
members of either of their families to escape Germany before the war,
everyone else -- all of them -- died in the camps. The Nazis tried to
exterminate the Jews because they claimed they were somehow different and
therefore deserving of unremitting hatred, something less than human and
therefore unworthy of life. That's what horror truly is.


America has its own history of treating groups of people as different, as
something less than human and therefore unworthy of the blessings of liberty
the Founders sought to secure, "to ourselves and our posterity," and yes, to
our horror, all too often unworthy of life itself.

It doesn't take very much encouragement to turn fear or ignorance into
hatred. That's what Hitler did. It's what the KKK did, too.

Fear and ignorance only flourish where there is indifference. It is
indifference, as much as fear and ignorance, that we must continue to fight.
I saw the tragedy indifference wrought in the lives of my neighbors and
those of the unnamed men and women of Washington Heights who have gone or
will go to their graves marked by those tattoos. It is indifference, at
least as much as fear, that Franklin Roosevelt warned us against in his
Inaugural Address in 1933. It's what Holocaust survivors warn us against
when they say, "Never Again." Victory in that struggle is what Dr. King
envisioned in his dream, that, "one day this nation will rise up and live
out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal.'"

During my lifetime we have paid a high price as a society in order to
overcome our indifference. I remember hearing of the assassination of John
Kennedy in the same classroom where only weeks earlier I'd watched Dr. King
speak of his dream. I remember the race riots in Watts and Detroit and
Newark and so many other cities. I remember the fight I had with my father
over Dr. King's legacy on the night he was assassinated. I remember walking
with countless others through St. Patrick's Cathedral to see Robert
Kennedy's casket lying before the main altar. I have lived through an age of
indifference that has gripped this country in the forty years since then,
but I still remember the promise of my childhood: a time when citizens were
challenged to ask what they could do for their country and where we were
urged to dream that freedom would ring.

I saw that promise reborn when Barack Obama addressed the Democratic
Convention in 2004. I was so taken by his vision for America that I told a
friend in France to keep an eye on Barack. I was doing then what Rev. Lowery
did in his sermon that you've been obsessed by; we recognized -- perhaps we
knew -- and told other people that, "[s]omething crazy may happen in this
country."

When my French friend and I spoke last Tuesday morning, he described how
wonderful it was going to be to wake up on Wednesday to the news of
President-elect Obama. I'm pretty sure that qualifies as the good crazy.

Heather Havrilesky, writing in
makes an interesting observation in her apology to the baby boomers for
complaining about our idealism. She writes, "But on Tuesday night, that
changed. We understood, for the first time in our lives, what it means to be
a part of something big, without reservation. We saw the joy in that.... We
were all Americans, together, old and young, black and white and Latino and
Asian, and it didn't feel hokey or overly earnest to admit it for once."
There's the good crazy again.

What you and Heather and more than half of the population share is youth. I
don't know that you've really lost that shocking faith in humanity -- the
good crazy -- because I'm not sure you've really had the chance to
experience that much of it in the first place, at least when it comes to
politics in this country; you've mostly read about it in history books or
heard about it when older folks prattled on about life back in the day.
Indeed, when Michelle Obama made what amounted to that same observation, the
wingnuts went crazy. But you certainly recognized it when it arrived on the
scene, and you weren't the only ones. Allow me to suggest that you didn't
overestimate the racism -- it was obvious from the many stories of people
admitting to canvassers and reporters, "I'm gonna vote for the n*****," that
racism isn't dead -- but I'm not sure that people really need to be all that
complicated to recognize that things in this country are very badly broken.
What they certainly weren't anymore was indifferent, and as a result,
whether they realized it or not, they'd been looking for the good crazy.

The reason we now share Heather's joy and understand the answer to your
question about what faith in humanity is capable of doing is because, when
we saw a leader with the strength and the courage to remind us of what de
Tocqueville wrote: that, "The greatness of America lies not in being more
enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her
faults," we recognized the good crazy and we acted upon it.

Over the course of the campaign, as I've tried to talk down friends and
family who were afraid that the racists and the wingnuts and the
Swift-boaters would destroy the Obama candidacy, I've often told the story
of Benjamin Franklin's answer to the question he was asked at the conclusion
of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

*"Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?"*

*"A republic, if you can keep it."*

Franklin and de Tocqueville teach us that America's ability to repair her
faults has always rested with We the People. That's what Barack means when
he speaks of our continuing work to perfect the Union.

Our work.

That's what it's always been. It's what the grassroots campaign has been
doing since early last year. It's what we did last Tuesday when we elected
Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. It's what President
Obama will ask of us in the years ahead.

And there isn't anything hokey about that at all.
###

There's one more thing I'd like to ask you to think about as you write about
the Obama administration. I was at the fund raiser here in Seattle a couple
of weeks ago where Joe Biden talked about how Barack is going to be tested.
The media reaction to that comment was asinine; all presidents are tested,
that's what the job is all about (Richard Reeves wrote an excellent
piece<http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/08/who_is_prepared_to_be_presiden.html>on

that subject last summer).

What didn't get reported so widely was something else Biden asked those of
us in the room to remember. Sooner or later, President Obama is going to
make a policy decision that we are going to disagree with, but we are going
to have to continue to support him. That's a different thing than what
Barack means when he speaks of himself as imperfect. This is a lot like a
marriage. Like all couples, my wife and I -- and admit it, you and your
partner ;-) -- do things that make one of the other of us angry, but those
things happen because we are human -- imperfection personified -- not
because we don't still love one another.

Upon reflection, all this should be pretty obvious, but government is
different in one important respect. Biden reminded us that Obama isn't going
to make his decisions without consulting his advisers and carefully weighing
the issues, but we've chosen him to actually make the decision. That's how a
republican form of government works. I bring this up because it is of a
piece with what Barack did in his speech on race in Philadelphia. The new
administration is going to treat us as adults, which hasn't happened in a
very long time, and in return we will be expected to actually be adults.
That is simply amazing!