Tuesday, December 15, 2009
grade the speech
[H]ere we come to what was for me the most revolting part of [Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance]speech. And perhaps the most significant too. All the cant about America's altruism and "enlightened self-interest" in killing millions of people...was just par for the rhetorical course. But I don't think an American president has so openly and directly traduced the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi before. (And to do it while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, no less! Oh, that sublime brass....)His words about King and Gandhi drip with scorn and condescension.
"I make this statement [about the moral justification for war] mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is."
Here, Obama indulges in a trope that is pandemic among his apologists: the idea that he was somehow forced to become the head of a militarist state waging endless war around the world, that he has somehow woken up and found himself "the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars." But of course he chose to pursue this kind of power in this kind of system--chose it, pursued it, fought like hell to win it. It's what he wanted.
He then goes on to give the lie to his previously stated admiration for Gandhi and King: "A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." Thus, King, Gandhi and any practitioner of non-violent resistance to evil are, ultimately, naive, ineffectual--weak.
Are the American people now threatened by Hitler's armies? Are al-Qaeda's paltry forces--less than 100 of them in Afghanistan, according to Obama's own war-wagers--the equal of Hitler's armies of millions of men?
But there is a deeper untruth beyond these cheap rhetorical tricks. For it is blatantly untrue to say that "a nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies." First of all, one cannot make that statement because this approach was never tried. Doubtless it would have cost millions of lives; but as Gandhi himself pointed out, the violent resistance to Hitler's armies also cost tens of millions of lives.
But Obama's formulation--a hackneyed one indeed--only deals with one view of non-violent resistance to Hitler: i.e., from the outside, resisting his armies as they poured across the borders. There is another way in which a non-violent resistance movement without any doubt could have "halted Hitler's armies": if it had taken root and spread throughout Germany itself, including among the armed forces and its supporting industries.
In the event, this did not happen. But it was not, and is not, an impossibility for humankind to pursue such an approach. Therefore it is fatuous and false to state what cannot possibly be known: whether non-violent resistance would have thwarted Nazism, and whether this would have been more or less costly than the way of violence.
Similarly, it is false to say that "negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." The only response to this bald statement is: How do you know? Has anybody tried it? No. Therefore you cannot call it an impossibility--and then use this supposed, untested "impossibility" as your justification for laying waste to whole nations.
But of course this is precisely what Gandhi did: he sat down and negotiated with the representatives of an empire that had caused the deaths of millions of his own people. He negotiated with them in good faith, with good will, despite what they had done and were doing to his people--and despite the fact that many of his interlocutors, such as Winston Churchill, hated him with a blind, racist fury. And he was successful--although again, not without cost, both before and after the liberation. But Gandhi, and King, knew the costs of non-violence–because they were genuinely savvy, and genuinely realistic about the nature of evil.
Posted by theo at 4:45 PM