What Obama Just Said In South Africa And Why It Matters

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While we were raging about Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki, Obama gave a speech on Tuesday morning in South Africa. I took a 90 minute break from my rage to tune in, and have taken the liberty of summarizing his thoughts here for those of you who weren’t lucky enough to enjoy it in its entirety. At the end of this post, I offer some key takeaways and reasons why this speech matters.

Obama was invited to give the keynote lecture at the Nelson Mandela celebration, but largely used the time to talk about where our global community has been, is today, and will go tomorrow.

First, he helped us remember our history: [100 years ago] around the globe, the majority of people lived at subsistence levels, without a say in the politics or economic forces that determined their lives. Often they were subject to the whims and cruelties of distant leaders. The average person saw no possibility of advancing from the circumstances of their birth. Women were almost uniformly subordinate to men. Privilege and status was rigidly bound by caste and color and ethnicity and religion.

And our transformation: In those nations with market-based economies, suddenly union movements developed; and health and safety and commercial regulations were instituted; and access to public education was expanded; and social welfare systems emerged, all with the aim of constraining the excesses of capitalism and enhancing its ability to provide opportunity not just to some but to all people.

By celebrating Mandela, he celebrated hope: He came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.

He affirmed what a lot of us were feeling: Do 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.

He outlined geopolitical transformations (Japan, NATO, etc.) human rights declarations, economic integration, scientific breakthroughs, individual empowerment, and global connection.

He reminded us of the ground beneath our feet.

And then he admitted that it is rocky: So we have to start by admitting that whatever laws may have existed on the books, whatever wonderful pronouncements existed in constitutions, whatever nice words were spoken during these last several decades at international conferences or in the halls of the United Nations, the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away.

He talked about discrimination and disadvantage and disparities in income, wealth, education, health, and personal safety. He spoke of an explosion in economic inequality, disproportionate political influence, and a new international elite.

He raised concerns about this new class, even though some are liberal in outlook: What’s nevertheless true is that in their business dealings, many titans of industry and finance are increasingly detached from any single locale or nation-state, and they live lives more and more insulated from the struggles of ordinary people in their countries of origin. Often, decisions are made without reference to notions of human solidarity — or a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities by the decisions that are made.

And he touched on an emergent political trend: And a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained — the form of it — but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. Many developing countries now are looking at China’s model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good?

We are now at a crossroads, he argued: A moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?

In his Obama way he said: Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.

Turns out he was only warming up, and that this was going to be a pep talk/instructional lecture on what to do next as a global community.

He told us we have no choice but to move forward: We have a better story to tell. So if we’re truly to continue Madiba’s long walk towards freedom, we’re going to have to work harder and we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past.

The first step is to create economic opportunity for all: For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive market-based system — one that offers education for every child; that protects collective bargaining and secures the rights of every worker — (applause) — that breaks up monopolies to encourage competition in small and medium-sized businesses; and has laws that root out corruption and ensures fair dealing in business; that maintains some form of progressive taxation so that rich people are still rich but they’re giving a little bit back to make sure that everybody else has something to pay for universal health care and retirement security, and invests in infrastructure and scientific research that builds platforms for innovation.

He took a jab at the ultra-rich: I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more, instead of saying, “Wow, I’ve got so much. Who can I help? How can I give more and more and more?”

The second step is in honoring the dignity of others: Some principles really are universal — and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth. Now, it’s surprising that we have to affirm this truth today. More than a quarter century after Madiba walked out of prison, I still have to stand here at a lecture and devote some time to saying that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human, that our differences are superficial, and that we should treat each other with care and respect. I would have thought we would have figured that out by now.

He took us on a riff about our common humanity: It is a truth that lies at the heart of every world religion — that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. (Applause.) That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognize common hopes and common dreams. Don’t you get a sense sometimes — again, I’m ad-libbing here — that these people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of.

With generosity of spirit: Now, we have to acknowledge that there is disorientation that comes from rapid change and modernization, and the fact that the world has shrunk, and we’re going to have to find ways to lessen the fears of those who feel threatened.

The third step is about strengthening real democracy: It’s not just about who has the most votes. It’s also about the civic culture that we build that makes democracy work. Democracy depends on strong institutions and it’s about minority rights and checks and balances, and freedom of speech and freedom of expression and a free press, and the right to protest and petition the government, and an independent judiciary, and everybody having to follow the law.

Importantly, he asked us to divert our attention from the capitals to the grassroots: Because that’s where democratic legitimacy comes from. Not from the top down, not from abstract theories, not just from experts, but from the bottom up. Knowing the lives of those who are struggling. Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it’s lived in our communities, and that’s what we should expect from our leaders, and it depends upon cultivating leaders at the grassroots who can help bring about change and implement it on the ground and can tell leaders in fancy buildings, this isn’t working down here.

And the fourth and final step is to maintain our relationship to hope: It is tempting to give in to cynicism — to believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back; that the pendulum has swung permanently. Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the 90s, now you are hearing people talk about end of democracy and the triumph of tribalism and the strong man. We have to resist that cynicism.

What’s more, we need one another: We don’t just need one leader, we don’t just need one inspiration, what we badly need right now is that collective spirit. And, I know that those young people, those hope carriers are gathering around the world.

Love comes more naturally to the human heart, let’s remember that truth. Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on earth so that in 100 years from now, future generations will look back and say, “they kept the march going, that’s why we live under new banners of freedom.”

Why does this speech matter right now?

Because he affirmed something positive in the world. It’s very easy to be against everything in 2018. It’s easy to be outraged. It’s easy to be reactionary. What’s more, we have cause to be outraged, and must not lose vigilance.

But also, it’s hard to make a strategic plan out of reacting. It’s hard to create out of the negative. Obama here is offering us another path forward. We’ve been playing defense for a while now, and Obama just interjected with some excellent offensive advice. Affirming the positive is just as important as denouncing the negative.

Because he reminded us of our responsibility. For so many of us in our Western homes, it’s easy to forget that we are a part of a greater global community. Greater than our borders, greater than the EU, greater than NATO.

We are the ones who run the risk of becoming the detached international elite he warns of. In our ignorance and privilege, we are the ones who could do more damage to an already dire situation in Venezuela, Yemen, and Myanmar. We have a responsibility to step up and speak with our voices that have not been silenced.

Because he gave us something to do. He helped put this excruciating moment into a narrative arc. Just as there is no doubt that the state of the world this year is worse than it was 5 years ago, there is also no doubt that the state of the world this year is nearly inconceivably better than it was 100 years ago.

We are at a crossroads. There are two stories competing for the world. The story of justice won’t happen by accident and it will certainly die if we do not pursue it. We must take stock of this moment and understand that we are the authors of the next chapter of our common humanity.

Truly, thanks Obama.

The full transcript of Obama’s remarks is here.

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