Barack Obama's Here To Help Us Get Past These Hell Times
Barack Obama delivered his first major address of his post-presidency Tuesday at an event in Johannesburg, South Africa, honoring the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth. It was -- as you'd expect for the occasion -- appropriately dignified and thoughtful. It was also every bit as inspiring as you might expect from the first black American president speaking in memory of the first black president of a nation that for most of its modern history was synonymous with apartheid. Let's take some time to bask in what an actual world leader sounds like, shall we?
The speech was accurately billed as a "lecture," and while it's scholarly AF, it's also very much a Barack Obama joint -- and a nice long one, at an hour and 24 minutes, so you can truly soak in the man's intelligence and his mellifluous voice.
While Obama never mentions Donald Trump directly, his illegitimate successor comes up any number of times, in obvious references like Obama's mention that we live in "strange and uncertain times" where "each day's news cycle is bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines" or his warning that "we see much of the world threatening to return to a more dangerous, more brutal, way of doing business." Here, have the whole video:
The last two years of what's happened to America also haunt parts of the speech that are focused on his primary topic, the life and work of Nelson Mandela, whose mission Obama described as sparking "the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs." Consider this bit where Obama describes being in law school and watching Mandela's release from prison in 1990:
Madiba's light shone so brightly, even from that narrow Robben Island cell, that in the late '70s he could inspire a young college student on the other side of the world to reexamine his own priorities, could make me consider the small role I might play in bending the arc of the world toward justice. And when later, as a law student, I witnessed Madiba emerge from prison -- just a few months, you'll recall, after the fall of the Berlin Wall -- I felt the same wave of hope that washed through hearts all around the world.
You remember that feeling. It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people's lives and confined the human spirit -- that all that was crumbling before our eyes.
We remember that. And we remember feeling that way for a while at least when our handsome young president and his beautiful family appeared before a crowd at Grant Park in Chicago, on election night 2008. But there's also an unpleasant reality there: Hope can move nations, but progress isn't inevitable. It's not guaranteed. It can be beaten back by those terrified their power is threatened. People who have been screaming for years they want "their" country back, because poor people got healthcare and it's sooooo unfair.
Oh, but hope can't be extinguished, which of course is also the point. Mandela's life included both Robben Island and the Truth and Reconciliation process, in which the decision was made not to punish the oppressors, but instead to demand a full accounting. As Obama spoke of Mandela's "grace and generosity with which he embraced former enemies," it's hard not to think of his own near-fatal political flaw: believing if only he emphasized the good of the country, surely his opponents would deal in good faith, too.
Obama certainly doesn't fool himself that we can smile and play nice with people who want to destroy us, however. Or at least not anymore:
Gosh, what could go wrong? Obama offers the worst-case scenario as a hell of an incentive to bring change:
Look at history. Look at the facts. The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principal, as the thing that holds people together -- Eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war, or external war [...]
We're stuck with the fact that we now live close together, and populations are going to be moving, and environmental problems are not going to go away on their own. So the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.
He's just not a fan of ignoring facts and shouting "America First!" (No wonder people think he's a snob.) Oh, but there's just so much we love about this speech. Another good bit:
You'd prefer not to have anyone coming after you with torches and pitchforks? Higher walls won't help. Nor will fearmongering.
The speech ends on an optimistic note, of course, urging people to get to work. "Things may go backwards for a while. But ultimately, right makes might. Ultimately, the better story can win out." But it's not guaranteed. Gotta make it happen:
Damn right we miss him. But now we're the ones who have to do the marching and building and believing. Let's just roll out that Molly Ivins quote we're so fond of, just to remind us that we've made it through some apocalyptic-looking messes before -- not because it was predestined, but because politics should be all about making our corner of the world work a little better:
So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.
Stay fired up. Stay ready to go.
And now it is your open thread.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.