“When they go low, we go high.” – Former First Lady Michelle Obama, July 25, 2016 at the Democratic National Convention
“No, no. When they go low, we kick ‘em.” – Former Attorney General Eric Holder, October 7, 2018 at a McDonough, Georgia campaign event for Stacey Abrams.
When Eric Holder made his remarks in October, it was initially surprising to see someone so close to the Obamas so stridently rebut such a consequential bit of their ideology. A closer look at the arc of his career suggests surprise may be entirely out of order.
First black U.S. Attorney for the District of Colombia. First black Deputy Attorney General. First black Acting Attorney General. First black Attorney General. First Cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress.
Eric Holder has never been afraid of being first to break new ground. The road traveled by a pioneer is not just a lonely one; it’s not even a road at all, not yet. And Holder is fine with that. Where Eric Holder goes, he doesn’t need roads.
Holder’s professional and political uniqueness is not founded simply in the broad strokes of his resume. He blazed his own trail on a day-to-day basis, often willing to take significant political heat to protect what he assessed as the bigger picture, whether it be for human rights, national security interests, or the integrity of rule of law.
1) He challenged the George W. Bush administration on the Patriot Act.
2) Within a month of President Obama’s inauguration, Holder gave a Black History Month speech calling out the United States for being “essentially a nation of cowards” regarding racial matters.
3) Joe Biden gets a lot of credit for leading the Obama administration to the right side of history on same-sex marriage, but as Attorney General, Eric Holder beat Joe Biden to the punch in supporting same-sex marriage by fifteen months, deciding in 2011 that the Justice Department was done defending the Defense of Marriage Act.
4) Holder took the political blowback for the failed “Fast & Furious” operation absorbing criminal and civil contempt resolutions without flinching, holding steady until the Office of the Inspector General exonerated him a year-and-a-half later.
5) Holder took the heat on populists regarding proposed prosecution of financial institutions, concluding that, while politically satisfying in the short-term, prosecution of large financial institutions would critically destabilize the U.S. economy and any international economies to which it was connected.
6) It was Eric Holder’s Justice Department that conducted “the largest single-day operation against the Mafia in United States history”.
7) Since stepping down as Attorney General, he has thrown the bulk of his energies into combatting gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts across the nation.
Of course Eric Holder would be among the first and most significant to publicly voice his dissent regarding the Obamas’ sometimes-questionable high-mindedness.
“When they go low, we go high” might be one of the most potent political statements since Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote sentiment “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America- there’s a United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America, an Asian America – there is only a United States of America.”
The speech that catapulted Barack Obama to political stardom and the quote that help Michelle Obama define the 2016 Democratic Convention could be cut from the same philosophical cloth, that the high road and an unshakeable commitment to unity are the Democratic Party’s only viable paths to victory and success. Many, if not most of us either believe or would like to believe their words represent the past, present and future truth, a self-evident truth as foundational as our inalienable rights.
But for many across the nation, November 8th,2016 was a splash of cold water on the “Yes We Can” dream. People were forced to reckon with the notion that for many Americans, we are NOT all in this together. Worse than that, many of us may not want to be. Folks were forced to recognize that one portion of the country had ceased being interested in civic tolerance for their neighbors, and were willing to fight however hard they had to fight to prevail over those they could not tolerate. For now, the dream was revealed to be just that: a dream.
While some like myself continue to work to make the dream real by continuing to honor the dream’s idealistic rule system and implicit code of conduct, it seems important to recognize the importance of people who counterbalance the aspirational by making a strong grounded case that the first step to chasing your dreams is being willing to push forward against some tough realities.
Being aspirational is great, and important for binding people together. But it can be dangerous to remain too aspirational with people who are already torn apart, people in a mindset for pitched brawl. Safety ultimately depends on the willingness to defend oneself, to show that one is willing to give as good as one gets, to reinforce the point that escalated aggression must come at a price is aggression is to be deterred. Enter Eric Holder.
The willingness to “kick” is its own type of promise. A promise recognizing that the stability of any healthy relationship depends on adherence to a social contract. When one party to said contract breaks the terms and norms of the contract, a kick promises that there will be a substantial cost. That’s exactly how one might expect a former Attorney General to think. The answer to crime is not for the rest of the victimized citizens to obey even more of the law than they already were and show they’re “better than that”. The answer to crime is to send a message by making deterring examples of criminals. The message sent by prosecution and conviction is “don’t commit crime”. The message sent by a kick is “don’t go low”.
Our fight for #fairmaps continues. In 2019 and 2020, we're targeting the states where we can make the biggest difference towards ending Republican gerrymandering. Americans must be able to vote in fair elections. Join the effort. https://t.co/TpjHRiS9mm
— Eric Holder (@EricHolder) December 4, 2018
I love Michelle Obama and I love the way she thinks and carries herself, as evidenced by her wonderful book and her general standing as one of the most popular Americans in the nation. But there is great practicality sensibility and arguable necessity in Eric Holder’s counterpoint. Her idea initially sounded nice to me. It sounded like something Martin Luther King Jr. might’ve said. But one could argue the Obama concept is unjust at its heart, and perpetuates the skewed power balance that made one group feel entitled to “go low” in the first place.
One group of people shouldn’t have to expend energy “going high”, especially when “going high” is going to do nothing to discourage others from going low. At some point people need to stop going low. A kick seems a more than reasonable way to help folks get the message.
The truth is that black folks, folks who stand with them, and political groups who seek their support could probably stand to benefit from keeping two minds on the matter. An excess of antagonism is just as dangerous as an excess of aspiration. We who mean to succeed should probably not divorce ourselves from either, recognizing the importance of both the accelerator and the brake in safe vehicular travel. But as of late, the brake has been looking pretty lonely.
As we turn the corner from a rollercoaster 2018 into what is shaping up to be an extremely consequential and possibly confrontational 2019, I find myself thinking about Eric Holder more and more. I find myself increasingly grateful for him and people like him, who will help keep us from playing too daintily in the scrum. Here’s to the kickers. May they keep us ALL high.
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