Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Realism, King, and Gandhi: Obama's Nobel Speech

on peace

Barack Obama's Nobel Lecture was, in many ways, outstanding. His reflection, thoughtfulness, and realism about war and peace in our world remind me why he inspires. But policies of warfare ordered by the contemplative Obama are no less dangerous than when they are ordered by George W. Bush. The serious reflections of Barack Obama do not negate the horrors perpetrated when he orders bombings that result in killing innocent civilians. And while Obama tacitly pays respect to the non-violence of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, in the end I think he dismisses their non-violent message in the same way war proponents typically dismiss advocates (and practitioners) of non-violence: by treating their view as unrealistic.

Obama says

"I know there's nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing na├»ve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

And yet immediate after he dismisses them:

"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, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms."

Does Obama imply that King and Gandhi did not "face the world as it is"? Does he imply that they were not aware that "Evil does exist in the world"? I think, rather, King and Gandhi were acutely aware of the world as it is. Both men recognized the evil that exists in humankind--in fact, they faced it directly in their lives.

Later in the speech Obama seems to offer a back-handed compliment to King and Gandhi:

"The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their fundamental faith in human progress – that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey."

This tactic feels familiar: it is the "realist" war-proponent dismissing the advocates and practitioners of non-violence as idealistic. We should admire the "love" and "faith" that King and Gandhi preached, but we have to remember that their views were not "practical." King used non-violence to strive for justice and equality against virulent hatred and institutional violence. Gandhi used non-violence to change his nation and face down an Empire. But Obama would have us view them as the idealists, whose view of the world we should strive after even as we recognize that their methods are impracticable in the face of real-life evil.

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