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Barack Obama’s Nobel speech needlessly insulted Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

I find that this section of Barack Obama’s Nobel speech really rankles:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

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.

One clause renders this passage objectionable: “I face the world as it is.”

I’ve read the passage over a couple of times now, and I can’t avoid this sentence’s seeming insistence that Gandhi and King were pie-eyed children who had the luxury of playing with nonviolence while the president is dealing with the “real world” where violence is sometimes necessary.

I don’t disagree that violence is sometimes necessary, and that the roles of spiritual leader/activist are very different from that of president. But. It seems to me that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. also faced the world as it was — and created a profound change to a world that was different using techniques of nonviolence.

In Gandhi’s case, he was facing down the British Empire, which though in decline during the years he challenged it was still very formidable. It is possible, I suppose, that the example of facing down horrific tyranny during World War II forced the Brits to recognize, thanks to Gandhi, the moral untenability of their continued rule of India. But at the end of the day, Gandhi was still in India and the British Empire wasn’t. That’s kind of astounding.

As for Martin Luther King, he wasn’t just taking on entrenched power, but an entrenched culture of white superiority. The president doesn’t need any history lessons from me, of course, but the white power structure that King challenged wanted to be intractable:

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It is true that Alabama racists aren’t the same as Al Qaeda, and that the British Empire, pledged as it supposedly was to higher ideals, made an easier opponent to shame into surrender than, say, Iran. I don’t dispute that. But the president needlessly insulted Gandhi and King with his assertion that he “faces the world as it is.” The nonviolent leaders were idealistic, yes, but they also achieved a tremendous amount of real change in the real world.

  1. Ben Boychuk Says: Dec 11 1:30 PM

    Hmmm. Well. This is a little bit awkward, but I think I’m going to have to defend the president here. The unspoken follow-up line in the speech is, “…not as it ought to be.” In the context of Martin Luther King’s life and legacy, Obama’s line is very much appropriate. Recall King’s “Promised Land” speech in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated. “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world,” he said. “It’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

    King was right about a great deal, but he was wrong about some things and he was dead wrong about that. He was making an ought statement, in the face of a monumental is — hot war in Southeast Asia, “cultural revolution” in China, coups and unrest throughout Africa and South America, and, overshadowing everything else, Cold War with the Soviets with the ever-present threat of nuclear conflagration.

    King says: “nonviolence or nonexistence.” Obama seems to be saying, as other sensible people have said, “nonviolence guarantees nonexistence.”


  2. Martin Says: Dec 11 1:34 PM

    Gandhi and King’s very honorable, essential ideals were intended to apply toward the world’s fundamental approach to social, political, and cultural differences — a starting point for how humans should behave and treat each other. All current public propoganda aside, millions across this globe continue to murder, torture, rape, and oppress innocents in the name of their beliefs or territorial imperatives. For the loftiest of the Nobel Prize community to argue the world should respond to atrocity and genocide with hollow words and distress is to condemn those who aren’t fortunate enough to live in a comfortably “developed” environment. Obama in no way insulted the ideals of King or Gandhi — their importance was in setting down guiding principles, not in dealing with those like Hitler or Hussein who stained the world with their mad violence. Thanks for allowing me to respond.

  3. Joel Mathis Says: Dec 11 2:15 PM

    Ben: I do get the implied “ought to be.” My point is: Gandhi and King did face the world as it is — unlike Obama, in fact, they faced the world as it is as relatively powerless men leading relatively powerless people.

    I don’t really dispute the rest of what you right, and I’m not even disputing Obama’s larger point. But in his “I face the world as it is” construction, Obama — despite what he’d said just a paragraph before — seemed to discount entirely the effectiveness of nonviolent approaches, that they belong entirely to the realm of idealism. (Especially when he contrasts it with: “Make no mistake: Evil exists in this world.” As though the systems faced by Gandhi and King weren’t also evil.)

    Perhaps the Indians should’ve risen up in armed revolt against their British masters, then, or maybe Malcolm X and the Black Panthers had the right idea after all.

    I don’t think this is what Obama means. (And I don’t think, for that matter, that we ought to “turn the other cheek” to Al Qaeda.) But that just means he was a bit sloppy in this instance. He’s juxtaposing G/K’s approaches with the demands of the “real world” in a way that seems to diminish the reality of their successes. And I don’t buy that.

    If Obama had merely said…

    “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. “

    …I’d have no problem with what he said. It’s that single “face the world as it is” clause that I still find insulting and, perhaps, just a bit suspect historically.

  4. grabegrabe Says: Dec 11 3:25 PM

    “If Obama had merely said… I cannot stand idle …I’d have no problem with what he said.”

    But you should. “I cannot stand idle” is no less insulting to Gandhi and King than “fac[ing] the world as it is.” Gandhi and King were hardly idle. Obama would have done better if he’d just jumped to “A non-violent …” Then he could contrast his perspective without denigrating those of GK.

  5. Joel Mathis Says: Dec 11 4:09 PM

    Well-taken, grabegrabe. I should’ve recognized that.

  6. matt Says: Dec 11 10:38 PM

    Thank you for the post! Obama is just plain wrong. And to use the Nobel forum to defend violence is embarrassing and sad.

    I don’t pretend that his is an uncommon mistake, and the comments above make my case. I realize we’re all immersed in violence and it’s often difficult for us to see Nonviolence as POWERFUL – more powerful and more militant than violence. But please learn more about it. It’s so important.

    Obama simply does NOT understand Nonviolence. I didn’t realize he would be using the same tired “Hitler argument” when last week I posted about people using Hitler in support of there being such a thing as a “just war.” But there goes the president of the U.S. using the same tired and unsupported argument. Nonviolence DOES work. Here’s a link to the post

    Thanks very much for getting a conversation about this going.

    All one,

  7. FiddlerBob Says: Dec 29 6:45 PM

    Comparing the words and deeds of King and Ghandi to those of Obama are like comparing the ocean to a puddle. While both will get you wet, one will soon evaporate and be forgotten. Obama’s commentaries are empty and meaningless. He probably isn’t even aware of what he says while he’s speaking. Looking for any great meaning or value in his words is a waste of time.

    King and Ghandi had strong and clear beliefs that they were willing to sacrifice and die for. They each left great bodies of work showing tremendous strength of commitment and vision. They each spoke without fear because their words rang with the light of truth.

    Obama has no passion except for the sound of his voice. He has no loyalties or commitments outside of himself. He will not stand for his present or future any more than he has stood for the past he has painstakingly hidden. His name will become synonymous with fraud, deception, darkness and emptiness. He will never speak with the authority of King or Ghandi because the light of truth is not his ally. Instead, it is his greatest fear. Light is the ruin of the “Shadow Man”.

  8. Barack Obama: Portrait of an Etch-A-Sketch President | The Post & Email Says: Jan 31 10:09 AM

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