Conventional wisdom is not always the wisest route to follow


Sanford Horns recent column (President George Costanza? July 15, 2010) reflects a desire to treat law enforcement and government as the playthings of conventional wisdom and popular opinion, instead of the underpinnings of a robust American democracy. 

There was a time when popular opinion held that women had no right to vote and conventional wisdom said white men could own black people. For 400 years, Americans have sacrificed their lives to achieve justice and perfect American democracy. Through this struggle, slaves were freed, people of color won their civil rights, women got the vote and schools were desegregated. The immigration and health care debates today represent the ongoing struggle between two interpretations of democracy: One version hinges on the exclusion and subjugation of certain people and one promotes the participation of everyone in the democratic process. 

Mr. Horns column reflects an exclusionary politic that undermines years of progress. Throughout history, proponents of exclusion defended slavery and segregation and opposed free marriage and voting rights for people of color and women. Today, they would have you believe, as Horn suggests, that immigrants and Black Panthers cause poverty, violence and the failure of health care. 

Horn said, When an illegal alien is given safe harbor, who feeds, clothes and shelters that individual? He or she becomes a de facto ward of the state. They get sick, its off to the emergency room, also at taxpayers expense. 

The premise here is that people who access public assistance for food, clothes, shelter or health care are taking advantage of us taxpayers. The statement implies that government has no responsibility for peoples welfare and that a certain category of people, in this case undocumented immigrants, are somehow responsible for widespread food insecurity and poverty. 

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli went a step further by calling the effort to provide more Americans with health care the greatest erosion of liberty in my adult lifetime. At Tenants and Workers United we have helped hundreds of Alexandrians reduce their medical debt by millions. Ask them about the liberty of having to choose food or medicine. As defined by Horn and Cuccinelli, liberty seems to mean that we are free to choose from multiple brands of medicine and that we are also free to die because without wealth, insurance or governmental assistance we cannot buy the medicine we need to survive.

In my view, American democracy is rooted in the idea that all human beings have value and potential; and that government exists to ensure that people have an opportunity to fulfill their potential. From this perspective, government is a mechanism to secure the blessings of liberty. At times, this requires our elected officials to make tough decisions that may seem contrary to conventional wisdom but are necessary to uphold the principles of American democracy outlined in the Constitution. 

Such a time is now and the Obama administration made a bold move in the suit against Arizona. Breaking with a popular opinion that supports waging war on people of color under the pretext of persecuting undocumented workers, the president and his administration are attempting to do the job we hired them to do be steadfast champions of the Bill of Rights and our Constitution, even if it is unconventional.

The writer is director of communications for Tenants and Workers United in the Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood of Alexandria.