Thursday, September 27, 2012

Obama urges the world to win the future

The writer M.S. at the Economist's Democracy in America blog, who finds Obama's address to the U.N. "cogent, right, sensitive, sophisticated and moving," meditates on the various audiences it was addressed to and concludes that the main audience was a domestic American one. He is skeptical that Obama's eloquent re-presentation of American values as universal ones would reach Arab citizens in any meaningful numbers.

I will leave that question alone. But I do want to amplify the author's point about the way Obama's speech resonates in our domestic political realm. M.S. cites the following passage as evidence that Obama is responding to the political imperative to denounce the violence against American missions abroad more robustly than he denounces the bigotry of the anti-Muslim film that ostensibly triggered the violence. I hear a different chord struck:
It is time to leave the call of violence and the politics of division behind. On so many issues, we face a choice between the promise of the future, or the prisons of the past. And we cannot afford to get it wrong. We must seize this moment. And America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future. 

The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt -- it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” The future must not belong to those who bully women -- it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons. 

The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources -- it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs, the workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the women and men that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.
Remember that rather lame tagline rolled out in Obama's 2011 State of the Union address -- win the future? Here it is on the world stage, far from lame.  The long view is Obama's brand. Investment in education and clean energy and infrastructure and healthcare reform at home; midwifing democracy and tolerance and minority rights abroad. He is still about hope and change, and he is still making the case that he has the firmest grasp on the levers of progressive change:
So let us remember that this is a season of progress. For the first time in decades, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans voted for new leaders in elections that were credible, competitive, and fair. This democratic spirit has not been restricted to the Arab world. Over the past year, we’ve seen peaceful transitions of power in Malawi and Senegal, and a new President in Somalia. In Burma, a President has freed political prisoners and opened a closed society, a courageous dissident has been elected to parliament, and people look forward to further reform. Around the globe, people are making their voices heard, insisting on their innate dignity, and the right to determine their future.  
When he is 'on,' he inspires confidence by sheer force of intellect.  He adheres fully to one of his own stated core principles of responsible leadership:
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all (Audacity of Hope, p. 219).
On the world stage, the same principle applies to American values:
We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values -- they are universal values. And even as there will be huge challenges to come with a transition to democracy, I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people, and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world. 
He argues for the "universality" of a particular American value on pragmatic grounds:
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities. 

We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect. 

Now, I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that. But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how do we respond?
These two strands -- faith in the future, and the appeal to reason -- converge in the way he portrays (idealizes) history and current events --with a hat-tip to his own stewardship:
History shows that peace and progress come to those who make the right choices. Nations in every part of the world have traveled this difficult path. Europe, the bloodiest battlefield of the 20th century, is united, free and at peace. From Brazil to South Africa, from Turkey to South Korea, from India to Indonesia, people of different races, religions, and traditions have lifted millions out of poverty, while respecting the rights of their citizens and meeting their responsibilities as nations. 

And it is because of the progress that I’ve witnessed in my own lifetime, the progress that I’ve witnessed after nearly four years as President, that I remain ever hopeful about the world that we live in. The war in Iraq is over. American troops have come home. We’ve begun a transition in Afghanistan, and America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014. Al Qaeda has been weakened, and Osama bin Laden is no more. Nations have come together to lock down nuclear materials, and America and Russia are reducing our arsenals. We have seen hard choices made -- from Naypyidaw to Cairo to Abidjan -- to put more power in the hands of citizens. 

At a time of economic challenge, the world has come together to broaden prosperity. Through the G20, we have partnered with emerging countries to keep the world on the path of recovery. America has pursued a development agenda that fuels growth and breaks dependency, and worked with African leaders to help them feed their nations. New partnerships have been forged to combat corruption and promote government that is open and transparent, and new commitments have been made through the Equal Futures Partnership to ensure that women and girls can fully participate in politics and pursue opportunity. And later today, I will discuss our efforts to combat the scourge of human trafficking. 

All these things give me hope. But what gives me the most hope is not the actions of us, not the actions of leaders -- it is the people that I’ve seen. The American troops who have risked their lives and sacrificed their limbs for strangers half a world away; the students in Jakarta or Seoul who are eager to use their knowledge to benefit mankind; the faces in a square in Prague or a parliament in Ghana who see democracy giving voice to their aspirations; the young people in the favelas of Rio and the schools of Mumbai whose eyes shine with promise. These men, women, and children of every race and every faith remind me that for every angry mob that gets shown on television, there are billions around the world who share similar hopes and dreams. They tell us that there is a common heartbeat to humanity. 

So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news. That’s what consumes our political debates. But when you strip it all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes with faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people -- and not the other way around.
His hopeful historiography is for a domestic audience, all right -- in part because it reaches for world leadership. It reminds us of why we elected Obama in the first place. And of course it leaves out a fearsome counter-narrative: of a country and president that rains death on impoverished regions where jihadists roam; that is leaving Afghanistan in chaos after a decade of occupation; that threatens war in response to an Iranian pursuit of nuclear technology that would not look half so threatening were Israel not leading the entire GOP and much of the Democratic party by the nose; and that does nothing to stem Israeli expansion on the West Bank. The impact of the inspiring rhetoric is limited more by the constraints that power and domestic politics impose on the U.S. presidency, and by Obama's acquiescence to those constraints, than by the lack of access (or interest) among the masses of the Islamic world that DiA's. M.S. imagines. 

But the message remains the right one, the appeal to universal reason strong, the characterization of ultimate U.S. goals and deeds not altogether inaccurate -- and lent credibility by Obama's assertion of their embodiment in the martyred Chris Stevens.

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