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Jacob Weisberg's Big Idea

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 19, 2008

Jacob Weisberg writes a regular column for Newsweek called The Big Idea. In the September 1st issue, the big idea he wants us to understand is that the election of Barack Obama is absolutely essential because “our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives and the rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America.” Or, to emphasize instead the drastic consequences of his defeat:

[Obama’s] defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event the world’s judgment will be severe and inescapable: the United States had its day, but in the end couldn’t put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.

According to Weisberg, to the rest of the world the election of John McCain “would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation’s historical decline.”

Now these are no doubt modest claims for a man of truly big ideas, but even so they rest on several false assumptions: (1) This election has the power to eliminate racial prejudice from American life; (2) There are no serious issues other than race at stake in the election; and, (3) The rest of the world sees America’s greatest challenge as overcoming racial discrimination.

With respect to item 2, I have commented frequently enough on abortion and related issues for every reader to know that I regard abortion as a far greater issue in the United States than racism. There is no need to belabor that point here, except to suggest that it is at least an arguable position, so let’s step back to item 1.

By what possible stretch of the imagination, then, does Weisberg conclude that the election of a black president is sufficient to “enable us to see our legacy of slavery, segregation and racism in the rearview mirror?” Presuming these things are not already in the rearview mirror (and they certainly are more rearview than they were fifty years ago), why should we assume that a narrow victory by Barack Obama in 2008 would make all racial prejudice a thing of the past?

In fact, isn’t there something ironically peculiar about Weisberg’s prescription? While it would certainly be a desirable circumstance if a black candidate were not inevitably defeated because of race (which may or may not be the case even if Obama loses), surely Weisberg vastly overstates his point, and rather dangerously so. For to hear him tell it, we must elect Barack Obama precisely because he is black. Short of advocating the lynching of John McCain because he is white, it is difficult to conceive a statement more imbued with “crazy irrationality over race”. Is it even likely that Barack Obama would want to be elected on these terms?

As for point 3, can anyone possibly claim to know what “the rest of the world” thinks or whether the rest of the world is even particularly concerned about which of our candidates is elected in November? Perhaps the rest of the world, like America, is made up of many different kinds of people with many different priorities, who would decide (given the opportunity) to vote in many different ways. Perhaps—and this is just a little idea of my own—the rest of the world is not governed by Jacob Weisberg’s Big Idea.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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