The President’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is one of the great sins of his presidency. He posited an essentially warlike nature to man not borne out by science. For a person who frequently cites King and Gandhi, President Obama showed a stunning ignorance of history and of nonviolent struggle. His self-justifying redefinition of the dreams of King and Gandhi were offensive and dishonest. His words will be used to discount and delay the expansion of nonviolent struggle as a replacement for military conflict in international affairs. Corruptio optimi pessima. He should be ashamed of himself.
The president wasted no time getting to the excuse used by every executive for the use of violence in conflict:
“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.”
Man is violent; the world is chaos; a strong man is needed to repel the violence from our happy land so that we may have peace and prosperity. That’s the rest of the song that always follows this verse. This is the first plank of the myth of redemptive violence.
Luckily, this is statement is neither historically justified nor born out in its implications by science. The Seville Statement on Violence makes it perfectly clear that man’s nature does not predispose a person or a society to war. War appeared when we began to organize ourselves in certain ways, well after we “appeared.” It appears today because of choices we make, not a flaw in our DNA.
If the president is speaking of the mythic appearance of man, then, he should remember that God made male and female and made them good. If war appeared in the Garden, it came in with the serpent, and with our choice to listen to him.
President Obama says he honors Gandhi and King and doesn’t think they are naive while patronizingly deflecting the extension of their ideas and ethic into international politics:
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. 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 work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — 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, 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. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Within two paragraphs, the President assures us he finds King and Gandhi neither naive or passive, but then immediately discounts the extension of their ideas into international politics with statements like “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle…evil does exist in the world.” In those lines the President reveals that he does, in fact, find their ideas and their opposition to war naive and passive, just as he rejected the guidance of Jesus Christ with the glib words “[The Sermon on the Mount is] so radical that it’s doubtful our own Defense Department would survive its application…Before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles.”
The President tells us that he considers himself a “living testimony to the moral force of non-violence,” but that he cannot be guided by Gandhi’s and King’s examples alone because he’s the head of state sworn to protect his nation (When you say “by their examples alone,” do you have some specific ways in mind in which your policies are guided by their example? Do tell.). Frankly, personal ambitions which lead one to the presidency do not bear on the question at hand. The presidency did not happen to him. He devoted incredible energy to capturing it. If he doesn’t find their ideas naive or passive, then it’s on him for seeking an office in which he could not live according to their values (and for that matter, according to those of Jesus Christ as expounded in the Sermon on the Mount). Perhaps the President would like to articulate the other moral principles from which his lofty position frees him. Apparently what President Obama wanted (the presidency) and what his guiding lights demanded were incompatible. That’s the excuse of a child.
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. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
This is Reinhold Niebuhr with all his warts showing mixed with historical ignorance. If the president spent more time with The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., he’d know that King took from his study of Niebuhr that evil and sin permeate every level of man’s existence. King, however, had the courage to state that while we must take evil seriously, we must take the power of love more seriously.
Someone who makes sure we all know about the picture of Gandhi hanging in his Senate office should know that Gandhi and his allies faced armies who would fire into unarmed crowds until they ran out of bullets; despoil crops and food stores for the winter; beat scripture-wielding civilians. He also knew a thing or two about evil in the world.
Someone who wants to lecture on nonviolence in World War II should know that at the height of the Nazi campaign against the Jews, a mass nonviolent act succeeded against Hitler in Berlin and rescued 1,700 from the Holocaust, and that the Nazi leadership was absolutely terrified of the emergence of any counter-mass-movement. One should know the story of Andre and Magda Trocme and Le Chambon-sur-Lignone (Oh, wait, he does know.). One should know, in other words, that nonviolence often did work against Hitler and the Nazis, and that the failure of a nonviolent mass movement to materialize had much to do with people’s ignorance of the strategy, helped along by sweeping generalizations like the ones Obama made in his speech that wrongly discount its efficacy.
Invert the purported hard case of nonviolence against the Nazis and ask the president: stand in France in 1940 before the U.S. and Russian forces entered Europe in full. Ask yourself: should a person at this time and place make the same leap of logic made in Obama’s Nobel speech and say: military force cannot halt Hitler’s armies?
Invert the example again: should the Germans take from their failure in World War II that military violence could not stop the United States and that, therefore, the entire method of struggle should be discounted in international conflict? I guess the President won’t mind then if they go ahead and yank their troops out of Afghanistan.
Or, rather, should our visitor to World-War-II France and the modern-day German conclude that the tactics, force and other resource levels, and skill of combatants were the problem and not the strategy of military action, per se? Why should we also not make similar assessments about nonviolent struggle? Perhaps we can do without a Nobel speech that includes reductio ad Hitlerum.
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.
Gandhi and King had no amorphous “faith in human progress” that can be manipulated so that one can align themselves with it while arguing that war has a place in human relations. People do this to the words of Christ all the time, and it’s easy to do that with a person who lived 2,000 years ago and who we know through ancient books that fail to provide enough context without an independent study of history. But this is not so with Gandhi or King.
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that We Shall overcome!
How dare you, Mr. President, stand where King once stood, invoking his memory and dismissing his ideas in alternating lines of self-justifying philosophizing on the necessity of war while you accept the Nobel peace prize? King, who once stood before a nation not quite ready to hear him, and thundered:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, “So what about Vietnam?” They ask if our nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent. Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we can’t do it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movement–we non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor;when I was saying, Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children.”
How dare you, Mr. President, stand on that stage and invoke King while also invoking that strange inconsistency? How dare you parrot those misguided zealots who used violence against their neighbors shouting, “Gandhi’s swaraj has come”? In this one speech, the president disqualifies himself forever from pointing to their life’s work as the foundation for his own. Yes, the sprouting of their trees made his ascendancy possible, but he will bear them no fruit – he is a dead branch.
As is the case with mankind in general, war is not something that happens to this president. He chooses it.
I held my nose and voted for President Obama last year, fully understanding he planned to send roughly 12,000 troops to Afghanistan, fully aware that he would have to be resisted, protested, cajoled and boxed in if we were to have hope of true change. And though I knew he planned to escalate, I never expected we’d go from 12,000 to 47,000 new troops in just under a year. And I certainly never expected to hear a man I voted for pay lip service to Gandhi, King, and their work for nonviolence in a way that will retard its adoption in the international arena.
Whether he ever realizes it or not, President Barack Obama disgraced himself on Tuesday. After reading this speech, I can honestly say I regret my vote for him. No, I don’t regret it: I repent of it. God save this President from himself, and God save us from this perversion of King’s dream.