Posted on December 15, 2008 in Washington Watch

Since the article I wrote (alternately titled “Lessons to be Learned” or “Rahm Emanuel and Arab Perceptions”) has generated some discussion, I want to offer a few further reflections:

It is vitally important that Arab Americans engage in politics, but it must be understood that politics and political empowerment are processes.

Over the past three decades, Arab Americans have made remarkable progress in entering the political mainstream. It is useful to recall that as late as the 1970s, Arab Americans were largely excluded, even from some progressive coalitions. We were victims of “black listing”, rejected by the political parties, ignored by the major media, and harassed for our work. As a result, few, if any, prominent persons of Arab descent in politics identified themselves as Arab Americans.

In fact, the first-ever organized Arab American presence in national politics was the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign–but even that didn’t end the “politics of exclusion”. Between 1984 and 1989, we endured painful rejection: candidates routinely returned contributions, rejected our endorsements and association with the organized Arab American community. There were exceptions, to be sure, but they were few and far between.

Not accepting this, we organized, worked with allies, and fought back–and did so smartly. As a result of the collective efforts of many, today Arab Americans are part of the political mainstream. We have worked our way into leadership roles on the state and national levels, and have fused together our component parts (generational, religious and country-of-origin) into a community that is recognized nationally. Perfect? Of course not. But, undeniable progress.

Some would like politics to be about morality, a stage on which absolute good and evil compete. It is not. Politics has more correctly been defined as the “art of the possible,” with “good politics” finding the intersection between the desirable and the possible.

In real politics, in other words, you don’t always achieve what you want, but you work for what you can get. That is because reality imposes limits on anyone’s efforts–limits established by power and capacity.

In the arena of real politics, the side that wins is not the one that is “right.” (If it were, a famous political comic noted, “The Indians would be running America”). The side that wins is the side that has the power, and the capacity to use it. Given this, winning in politics requires both an understanding of its processes and a commitment to stay the course and work to become empowered.

It is this that separates critics and cynics. We should all be critical–able and willing to challenge what is wrong, working to correct policies and practices that we find deplorable. To bring about the change we seek, we must maintain a critical eye while engaging in the process that makes change possible.

Cynics, on the other hand, are like those sports fans sitting in the overstuffed chairs with a drink in hand, criticizing their team’s every move, calling for someone else to do something. It’s easy to be a cynic, but cynics don’t make change. What’s harder, but needed, is to get into the game.

Politics requires engagement in voter registration and mobilization, volunteering in campaigns, contributing time and money and hard work, and organizing coalitions to fight for issues within an imperfect process. That is the work we must do if we are to succeed.

What I hoped to accomplish in “Lessons to be Learned,” (and was glad to have done so for many), was to offer a sense of perspective and encouragement to those who felt deflated by the appointment of Rahm Emanuel (and to chide the Obama team for not being more sensitive to Arab perceptions–something those who condemned my piece appeared to ignore.) To those who had undergone a wild mood swing from elation to despair, I sought to offer a cautionary note. To the person who wrote, “…all is lost. I’ve lost all hope and wasted my vote,” I wanted to provide a reality check.

First and foremost, nothing can ever diminish the historic significance of the Obama victory. For those who recall “Jim Crow” and the bitter legacy of racism, to have been a part of this transformative moment in American history will remain a source of pride.

And, after eight years of an Administration that, with callous neglect and willful recklessness, brought such misery to the Arab people and to Americans, as well, the Obama victory offers change and new possibilities. It will not be easy and is not inevitable, nor can it occur overnight. The change we seek will be incremental, but it is now possible.

It will take work, and it is to this work that we must now commit ourselves. We must remain engaged, working within coalitions: to end the war in Iraq; to secure justice and peace and security for Palestinians and Israelis, to work for a foreign policy based on respect for international institutions and rule of law and, at home, to fight for respect for the fundamental rights guaranteed in our Constitution.

This election is not the end. It is the beginning of a political process where change can now occur–but only if we remain engaged, adhere to our principles, and work to achieve what is possible.

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute. We invite you to share your views on the topics addressed within Dr. Zogby’s weekly Washington Watch by emailing .

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