Obama: “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World”

On July 17, the day before the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birthday, Barack Obama delivered the 16th annual  Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa to a crowd of 15,000 in a football (soccer) stadium (the Wanderers Stadium) and to a worldwide livestream audience of millions, including this blogger. The lecture’s title: “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World.” [1] Below are photographs of a poster for the lecture and of Obama giving the lecture.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lecture[2]

The lecture weaved the life and legacy of Mandela into an overview of world history from his birth in 1918 to the late 20th century and early 21st century to the current situation. Here is an abridged version of that lecture; the full text is available on the websites listed in the last footnote.

The World of 1918

The lecture started with a dramatic picture of  the changes in the world from 1918, the year of Mandela’s birth, when there “was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time, in this place, could in any way alter history.”

The World of the Late 20th Century

The lecture then moved to the “the remarkable transformations” of the world by the end of the 20th century and Mandela’s “long walk towards freedom and justice and equal opportunity . . . [which] 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.”

When Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, 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. And then as Madiba guided this nation through negotiation painstakingly, reconciliation, its first fair and free elections; as we all witnessed the grace and the generosity with which he embraced former enemies, the wisdom for him to step away from power once he felt his job was complete, . . .  we understood it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.”

“And during the last decades of the 20th century, the progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate. It doesn’t mean that vision was always victorious, but it set the terms, the parameters; it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress, and it continued to propel the world forward. Yes, there were still tragedies – bloody civil wars from the Balkans to the Congo. Despite the fact that ethnic and sectarian strife still flared up with heartbreaking regularity, despite all that as a consequence of the continuation of nuclear détente, and a peaceful and prosperous Japan, and a unified Europe anchored in NATO, and the entry of China into the world’s system of trade – all that greatly reduced the prospect of war between the world’s great powers. And from Europe to Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, dictatorships began to give way to democracies. The march was on. A respect for human rights and the rule of law, enumerated in a declaration by the United Nations, became the guiding norm for the majority of nations, even in places where the reality fell far short of the ideal. Even when those human rights were violated, those who violated human rights were on the defensive.”

The World of the Early 21st Century

In more recent years, however, “we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.” We have to recognize that “the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away” while “around the world, entire neighborhoods, entire cities, entire regions, entire nations have been bypassed. In other words, for far too many people, the more things have changed, the more things stayed the same.”

“The result of all these trends has been an explosion in economic inequality. . . . In every country just about, the disproportionate economic clout of [many of] those at the top has provided these individuals with wildly disproportionate influence on their countries’ political life and on its media; on what policies are pursued and whose interests end up being ignored. . . . A decent percentage [of them, however,] consider themselves liberal in their politics, modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook.”

“But 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.” Nevertheless, “too often, these decisions are also 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.”

“Which is why, at the end of the 20th century, while some Western commentators were declaring the end of history and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash – a backlash that arrived in so many forms. It announced itself most violently with 9/11 and the emergence of transnational terrorist networks, fueled by an ideology that perverted one of the world’s great religions and asserted a struggle not just between Islam and the West but between Islam and modernity, and an ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t help, accelerating a sectarian conflict.”

“Within the United States, within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements – which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing government constraints on their business interests – these movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside of the urban cores; fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.”

“Perhaps more than anything else, the devastating impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in which the reckless behavior of financial elites resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people all around the world, made all the previous assurances of experts ring hollow – all those assurances that somehow financial regulators knew what they were doing, that somebody was minding the store, that global economic integration was an unadulterated good. . . . But the credibility of the international system, the faith in experts in places like Washington or Brussels, all that had taken a blow.”

The Current World Situation

A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I am simply stating the facts. Look around. 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. In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. 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? The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.” (Emphases added.)

“So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads – 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?”

“Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down – should we see that hope that we had as naïve and misguided? Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history – where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out?”

I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.], and Abraham Lincoln. 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.” (Emphasis added.)

“I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.”

“The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.” (Emphasis added.)

“The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history.”

“The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together – eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war.”

“The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.”

“We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way. 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. And so in the brief time remaining, let me just suggest a few guideposts for the road ahead, guideposts that draw from Madiba’s work, his words, the lessons of his life.” (Emphasis added.)

Guideposts for the Future

“First, Madiba shows those of us who believe in freedom and democracy we are going to have to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people.” (Emphasis added.)

“I don’t believe in economic determinism. Human beings don’t live on bread alone. But they need bread. And history shows that societies which tolerate vast differences in wealth feed resentments and reduce solidarity and actually grow more slowly; and that once people achieve more than mere subsistence, then they’re measuring their well-being by how they compare to their neighbors, and whether their children can expect to live a better life. And when economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, history also shows that political power is sure to follow – and that dynamic eats away at democracy. Sometimes it may be straight-out corruption, but sometimes it may not involve the exchange of money; it’s just folks who are that wealthy get what they want, and it undermines human freedom.” (Emphases added.)

“Madiba understood this. This is not new. He warned us about this. He said: ‘Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and the powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and the weaker, [then] we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.’ So if we are serious about universal freedom today, if we care about social justice today, then we have a responsibility to do something about it. And I would respectfully amend what Madiba said. I don’t do it often, but I’d say it’s not enough for us to protest; we’re going to have to build, we’re going to have to innovate, we’re going to have to figure out how do we close this widening chasm of wealth and opportunity both within countries and between them.” (Emphases added.)

“How we achieve this is going to vary country to country, and I know your new president is committed to rolling up his sleeves and trying to do so. But we can learn from the last 70 years that it will not involve unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism. It also won’t involve old-style command-and-control socialism form the top. That was tried; it didn’t work very well. For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive market-based systemone that offers education for every child; that protects collective bargaining and secures the rights of every worker 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.” (Emphases added.)

“You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, ‘Well, let me help out and let a few of the other folks – let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees, let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s okay. I can afford it.’ What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself.”

“It involves promoting an inclusive capitalism both within nations and between nations. And as we pursue, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals,[3] we have to get past the charity mindset. We’ve got to bring more resources to the forgotten pockets of the world through investment and entrepreneurship, because there is talent everywhere in the world if given an opportunity.”

“When it comes to the international system of commerce and trade, it’s legitimate for poorer countries to continue to seek access to wealthier markets. . . . It’s also proper for advanced economies like the United States to insist on reciprocity from nations like China that are no longer solely poor countries, to make sure that they’re providing access to their markets and that they stop taking intellectual property and hacking our servers.”

“While the outsourcing of jobs from north to south, from east to west, while a lot of that was a dominant trend in the late 20th century, the biggest challenge to workers in countries like mine today is technology. And the biggest challenge for your new president when we think about how we’re going to employ more people here is going to be also technology, because artificial intelligence is here and it is accelerating, and you’re going to have driverless cars, and you’re going to have more and more automated services, and that’s going to make the job of giving everybody work that is meaningful tougher, and we’re going to have to be more imaginative, and the pact of change is going to require us to do more fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements, to protect the economic security and the dignity that comes with a job. It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose. And so we’re going to have to consider new ways of thinking about these problems, like a universal income, review of our workweek, how we retrain our young people, how we make everybody an entrepreneur at some level. But we’re going to have to worry about economics if we want to get democracy back on track. ‘

“Second, Madiba teaches us that 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.” (Emphasis added.)

 “Now, it’s surprising that we have to affirm this truth today: . . . 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. . . . We’re seeing in this recent drift into reactionary politics, that the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished. So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down. . . . we have to resist the notion that basic human rights like freedom to dissent, or the right of women to fully participate in the society, or the right of minorities to equal treatment, or the rights of people not to be beat up and jailed because of their sexual orientation . . .  [do not] apply to us, that those are Western ideas rather than universal imperatives.” (Emphasis added.)

“Again, Madiba, he anticipated things. He knew what he was talking about. In 1964, before he received the sentence that condemned him to die in prison, he explained from the dock that, ‘The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world.’ In other words, he didn’t say well, those books weren’t written by South Africans so I just – I can’t claim them. No, he said that’s part of my inheritance. That’s part of the human inheritance. That applies here in this country, to me, and to you. And that’s part of what gave him the moral authority that the apartheid regime could never claim, because he was more familiar with their best values than they were. He had read their documents more carefully than they had. And he went on to say, “Political division based on color is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one color group by another.”

“What was true then remains true today. Basic truths do not change. It is a truth that can be embraced by the English, and by the Indian, and by the Mexican and by the Bantu and by the Luo and by the American. 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. That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognize common hopes and common dreams. And it is a truth that is incompatible with any form of discrimination based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. And it is a truth that, by the way, when embraced, actually delivers practical benefits, since it ensures that a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people.” (Emphases added.)

Embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have to abandon our unique ethnic and national and religious identities. Madiba never stopped being proud of his tribal heritage. He didn’t stop being proud of being a black man and being a South African. But he believed, as I believe, that you can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage. In fact, you dishonor your heritage. It would make me think that you’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. . . . 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. Madiba knew that we cannot claim justice for ourselves when it’s only reserved for some. Madiba understood that we can’t say we’ve got a just society simply because we replaced the color of the person on top of an unjust system, so the person looks like us even though they’re doing the same stuff, and somehow now we’ve got justice. That doesn’t work. It’s not justice if now you’re on top, so I’m going to do the same thing that those folks were doing to me and now I’m going to do it to you. That’s not justice. ‘I detest racialism,’ he said, ‘whether it comes from a black man or a white man.’” (Emphases added.)

“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. In the West’s current debate around immigration, for example, it’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter; whether you’re a citizen or not is going to matter to a government, that laws need to be followed; that in the public realm newcomers should make an effort to adapt to the language and customs of their new home. Those are legitimate things and we have to be able to engage people who do feel as if things are not orderly. But that can’t be an excuse for immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion. There’s got to be some consistency. And we can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child. (Emphases added.)

“Third, Madiba reminds us that democracy is about more than just elections.” (Emphasis added.)

“When he was freed from prison, Madiba’s popularity – well, you couldn’t even measure it. He could have been president for life. Am I wrong? Who was going to run against him? I mean, Ramaphosa [the current South African president] was popular, but, . . . he was too young. Had he chose, Madiba could have governed by executive fiat, unconstrained by check and balances. But instead he helped guide South Africa through the drafting of a new Constitution, drawing from all the institutional practices and democratic ideals that had proven to be most sturdy, mindful of the fact that no single individual possesses a monopoly on wisdom. No individual – not Mandela, not Obama – [is]  entirely immune to the corrupting influences of absolute power, if you can do whatever you want and everyone’s too afraid to tell you when you’re making a mistake. No one is immune from the dangers of that.” (Emphasis added.)

“Mandela understood this. He said, ‘Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded.’ He understood it’s not just about who has the most votes. It’s also about the civic culture that we build that makes democracy work.”

“So we have to stop pretending that countries that just hold an election where sometimes the winner somehow magically gets 90 percent of the vote because all the opposition is locked up or can’t get on TV, is a democracy. 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.” (Emphasis added.)

“And yes, democracy can be messy, and it can be slow, and it can be frustrating. I know, I promise. But the efficiency that’s offered by an autocrat, that’s a false promise. Don’t take that one, because it leads invariably to more consolidation of wealth at the top and power at the top, and it makes it easier to conceal corruption and abuse. For all its imperfections, real democracy best upholds the idea that government exists to serve the individual and not the other way around. And it is the only form of government that has the possibility of making that idea real.” (Emphasis added.)

“So for those of us who are interested in strengthening democracy, . . . it’s time for us to stop paying all of our attention to the world’s capitals and the centers of power and to start focusing more on 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.” (Emphasis added.)

“As a community organizer, I learned as much from a laid-off steel worker in Chicago or a single mom in a poor neighborhood that I visited as I learned from the finest economists in the Oval Office. 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.” (Emphases added.)

“To make democracy work, Madiba shows us that we also have to keep teaching our children, and ourselves . . . to engage with people not only who look different but who hold different views.” (Emphasis added.)

“Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. . . . But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you – because they’re white, or because they’re male – that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.” (Emphasis added.)

“Madiba, he lived this complexity. In prison, he studied Afrikaans so that he could better understand the people who were jailing him. And when he got out of prison, he extended a hand to those who had jailed him, because he knew that they had to be a part of the democratic South Africa that he wanted to build. ‘To make peace with an enemy,’ he wrote, ‘one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.’”

“So those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can’t expect to get 100 percent of what you want all the time; sometimes, you have to compromise. That doesn’t mean abandoning your principles, but instead it means holding on to those principles and then having the confidence that they’re going to stand up to a serious democratic debate. That’s how America’s Founders intended our system to work – that through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and proof it would be possible to arrive at a basis for common ground.”  (Emphases added.)

“And I should add for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. . . . You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation. . . . I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, well, it’s not going to work, you can’t get everybody to cooperate, or they might say it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution. At least I can have a debate with them about that and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries, that you can leapfrog old technologies. I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is.” (Emphases added.)

“Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” (Emphases added.)

We also see “the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. . . . the denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation; and we have to insist that our schools teach critical thinking to our young people, not just blind obedience.” (Emphasis added.)

“My final point: we have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of 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.”

“Because, we’ve been through darker times, we’ve been in lower valleys and deeper valleys. Yes, by the end of his life, Madiba embodied the successful struggle for human rights, but the journey was not easy, it wasn’t pre-ordained. The man went to prison for almost three decades. He split limestone in the heat, he slept in a small cell, and was repeatedly put in solitary confinement. And I remember talking to some of his former colleagues saying how they hadn’t realized when they were released, just the sight of a child, the idea of holding a child, they had missed – it wasn’t something available to them, for decades.”

“And yet his power actually grew during those years – and the power of his jailers diminished, because he knew that if you stick to what’s true, if you know what’s in your heart, and you’re willing to sacrifice for it, even in the face of overwhelming odds, that it might not happen tomorrow, it might not happen in the next week, it might not even happen in your lifetime. Things may go backwards for a while, but ultimately, right makes might, not the other way around, ultimately, the better story can win out and as strong as Madiba’s spirit may have been, he would not have sustained that hope had he been alone in the struggle, part of buoyed him up was that he knew that each year, the ranks of freedom fighters were replenishing, young men and women, here in South African, in the ANC and beyond; black and Indian and white, from across the countryside, across the continent, around the world, who in those most difficult days would keep working on behalf of his vision.” (Emphasis added.)

“What we need right now . . . is that collective spirit. And, I know that those young people, those hope carriers are gathering around the world. Because history shows that whenever progress is threatened, and the things we care about most are in question, we should heed the words of Robert Kennedy – spoken here in South Africa, he said, ‘Our answer is the world’s hope: it is to rely on youth. It’s to rely on the spirit of the young.’[4]

“So, young people, who are in the audience, who are listening, my message to you is simple, keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice. Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world. Mandela said, ‘Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.’ Now is a good time to be aroused. Now is a good time to be fired up.”

“For those of us who care about the legacy that we honor here today – about equality and dignity and democracy and solidarity and kindness, those of us who remain young at heart, if not in body – we have an obligation to help our youth succeed. Some of you know, here in South Africa, my Foundation is convening over the last few days, two hundred young people from across this continent who are doing the hard work of making change in their communities; who reflect Madiba’s values, who are poised to lead the way.”

These young people “will give you hope. They are taking the baton, they know they can’t just rest on the accomplishments of the past, even the accomplishments of those as momentous as Nelson Mandela’s. They stand on the shoulders of those who came before, including that young black boy born 100 years ago, but they know that it is now their turn to do the work.”

“Madiba reminds us that: ‘No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.’ ’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.’”(emphasis added.)

Comments on the Lecture[5]

Various  journalists saw the speech, which did not mention President Trump by name, as “a sharp rebuke” of him. Here are some of comments in Obama’s  speech that support that  interpretation:

  • A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment . . .is now on the move. . . at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.”
  • “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.”
  • “The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.”
  • So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down.”
  • While it is “not wrong” to want to protect the country’s borders or expect that immigrants assimilate, it cannot ”be an excuse for immigration policies based on race or ethnicity or religion.”
  • “We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child.”
  • “You can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage.. . . You’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. . . . people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up [show] that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of.”
  • For democracy to work “we have to actually believe in an objective reality. . . . You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation.
  • “Too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up.. . . We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. . . . They just keep on lying.”
  • “We also see the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. . . . The denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation.”

Before the lecture, one of Obama’s aides, Benjamin Rhodes, said, that it was the former President’s “most important public address since leaving the White House in 2017. It gives him an opportunity to lift up a message of tolerance, inclusivity and democracy at a time when there are obviously challenges to Mandela’s legacy around the world.”

Rhodes added, “”At the current moment . . . , values that we thought were well-established — the importance of human rights, respect for diversity — in many parts of the world those values are under threat. Mandela’s life is an inspiring example of how we can overcome obstacles to promote inclusive democracy and an equitable society with tolerance of others.”

“In the U.S. and around the world, many see recent developments that run counter to Mandela’s legacy. This [was] a globally minded speech, highlighting global trends and focusing on how, in his life, Mandela embodied perseverance. It will be aimed at young people in Africa and also around the world to show that we have been through darker times before and we can overcome these challenges to keep Mandela’s vision alive.”

Conclusion

 As an admirer of Mandela[6] and Obama, I was thrilled to see and hear Obama deliver a lengthy and illuminating speech, especially his comments on the world’s current situation. Those words are challenges to everyone who values  knowledge, intelligence and  honesty about the many problems now facing the U.S. and the rest of the world. As he said, each of us has a responsibility to something to promote social justice. He also reminds us to have a better understanding of those who are adversely affected by the many changes in the world.

Obama’s lecture also made we wonder whether it would be possible for all of the living former presidents (Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Carter) to promulgate a joint statement about the need for every president to be informed about the serious issues and prudent in making decisions on these issues and about President Trump’s demonstrated incompetence as president.

These thoughts were reinforced by the recent comments of Bret Stephens, a New York Times conservative columnist. After admitting that he has supported “some of the [current] administration’s controversial foreign policy decisions,” he urges Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton to resign because “Trump’s behavior in Helsinki is . . . another vivid reminder of his manifest unfitness for office. That’s true whether the behavior is best explained as a matter of moral turpitude or mental incompetence — of his eagerness to accept the word of a trained liar like Vladimir Putin over the consensus assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, or of his inability to speak coherently at a critical moment in his presidency. The president’s pathetic suggestion on Tuesday that he misspoke by failing to use a double negative also reminds that, knave or fool, he’s a congenital liar.”[7]

==================================

[1] Nelson Mandela Foundation, Barack Obama to deliver the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture (April 23, 2018); Assoc. Press, Obama to Make Rare High-Profile Speech on Mandela’s Legacy, N.Y. Times (July 16, 2018); Nelson Mandela Foundation, Press release: Obama calls on the world to be Madiba’s Legacy (July 17, 2018).

[2] National Public Radio, Transcript: Obama’s Speech at the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture (July 17, 2018); Read the Transcript of Obama’s Speech Defending Democracy, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2018).

[3] In September 2015 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the 17 Sustainable Developments Goals (and 169 targets) to transform the world by 2030 with respect to povertyhungerhealtheducationclimate changegenderequalitywater, sanitationenergyurbanizationenvironment and social justice. (Sustainable Development goals, Wikipedia.)

[4] See The Tragic Extinguishment of the Eloquence of Robert F. Kennedy, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 29, 2017).

[5] Haag, Obama Warns of ‘Strongman Politics’ After Trump’s Meeting with Putin, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2018); Meldrum (Assoc. Press), Obama gives Trump sharp rebuke in Mandela address on values, StarTribune (July 17, 2018); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Obama Notes Politicians’ ‘Utter Loss of Shame,’ N.Y. times (July 17, 2018); Wintour, Obama criticizes ‘strongman politics’ in a coded attack on Trump, Guardian (July 17, 2018).

[6] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Nelson Mandela Was Inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution (May 18, 2018); Nelson Mandel Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes (May 20, 2018); Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial (June 21, 2011).

[7] Stephen, Resign, Mike Pompeo. Resign, John Bolton. N.Y. Times (July 19, 2018).

Langston Hughes’ Poem Sung at Minneapolis Westminster Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) Cantus, a male vocal ensemble, sang ‘America Will Be!” as the Offertory Anthem at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The text of the anthem was Langston Hughes’ powerful poem, “Let America Be America Again” with music by Paul J. Ridoi, composer and a tenor vocalist with Cantus.[1]

Afterwards I discovered the actual title of the poem, retrieved and read and re-read the words of the poem and conducted Internet research about the poem and Hughes and after reflection came to powerful conclusions about the poem.

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

First, Hughes (1902-1967), an African-American, was a poet, novelist and author and an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He flirted with communism, but never became a member of the Party, and as a result in the 1950’s was subpoenaed by a Senate committee led by Joseph McCarthy, which was portrayed in a play at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.[2]

Second, the poem was written in 1935 in the midst of The Great Depression and originally published in the July 1936 issue of Esquire Magazine.

As another commentator said, the poem speaks of the American dream that never existed for blacks and lower-class Americans and the freedom and equality that they and every immigrant hoped for but never achieved. The poem besides criticizing their unfair life in America conveys a sense of hope or call to action to make the American Dream soon come.[3]

Third, the actual text of the poem is the following:

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!”

Fourth, the poem’s first three stanzas (minus the first three parenthetical statements) open with a common statement of the American Dream. But it soon becomes apparent the poet speaks for those who are left out of that Dream.

That certainly includes all members of his own race—blacks– who have been repressed and disadvantaged by the Great Depression: “American never was America to me . . . It never was America for me . . . There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free,’ . . . I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars, . . . I am the Negro, servant to you all . . . And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came . . . The land that’s mine–… Negro’s, ME.”

But the poet also speaks for others who are similarly repressed and disadvantaged—(a) “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart;” (b) “I am the red man driven from the land;” (c) “I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek;” (d) “I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that endless chain Of profit, power, pain, of grab the Land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!” (e) I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil;” (f) “I am the worker sold to the machine.” (g) “I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today;” (h) “I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years;” (i) “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea;” (j) one of “the millions on relief today, the millions shot down when we strike, the millions who have nothing for our pay;” and (k) “the land That’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s.”

Yet all of these now repressed and disadvantaged people are the ones “who dreamt our basic dream . . . to build a ‘homeland of the free. . . who “made America.”

The poem’s opening lines by using the passive verb “let” suggests that the desired changes in America will just happen by some outside forces. The concluding lines of the poem, however, reject that interpretation and instead become a call to action by the repressed and disadvantaged: who “Must bring back our mighty dream again . . . We must take back our land again, America! . . . And yet I swear this oath—America will be! . . . We the people must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain—All, all the stretch of those great green states—And make America great again!”

I especially invite comments from those who have studied Hughes’ life and works more extensively than I have.

===============================

[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] Langston Hughes BiographyLangston Hughes, Wikipedia; U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Encounters Langston Hughes at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2012).

[3] Poem, Let America Be America Again, PoemHunter.com; Let America be America Again, Wikipedia. The title of this poem was used in a 2004 presidential campaign song by John Kerry, then a U.S. Senator. I will resist the temptation to wonder whether Donald Trump’s incessant campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was drawn from this poem. I doubt it, and Hughes, I am confident, would be appalled at any such use of his words.

 

 

President Obama’s Civics Lesson at Town Hall Meeting in London

On April 23, 2016, President Barack Obama addressed a town-hall meeting of 500 young Leaders of the United Kingdom at London’s Lindley Hall. [1] Below are photographs of Obama and of some of the young leaders at the meeting.

Obana UK more

London crowd

 

 

 

 

Here is Obama’s civics lesson that is directly relevant to U.S. citizens

Post-World War II World

The U.S. and Great Britain “ultimately made up [over the American Revolutionary War] and ended up spilling blood on the battlefield together [in World War II], side-by-side, against fascism and against tyranny, for freedom and for democracy.  And from the ashes of war, we led the charge to create the institutions and initiatives that sustain a prosperous peace — NATO; Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, the EU.  The joint efforts and sacrifices of previous generations of Americans and Brits are a big part of why we’ve known decades of relative peace and prosperity in Europe, and that, in turn, has helped to spread peace and prosperity around the world.“

“And think about how extraordinary that is.  For more than 1,000 years, this continent was darkened by war and violence.  It was taken for granted.  It was assumed that that was the fate of man.  Now, that’s not to say that your generation has had it easy.  Both here and in the United States, your generation has grown up at a time of breathtaking change.”

“You’ve come of age through 9/11 and 7/7 [the date of the 2005 terror attacks on a London bus and Underground trains].  You’ve had friends go off to war.  You’ve seen families endure recession.  The challenges of our time — economic inequality and climate change, terrorism and migration all these things are real.  And in an age of instant information, where TV and Twitter can feed us a steady stream of bad news, I know that it can sometimes seem like the order that we’ve created is fragile, maybe even crumbling, maybe the center cannot hold. And we see new calls for isolationism or xenophobia.  We see those who would call for rolling back the rights of people; people hunkering down in their own point of view and unwilling to engage in a democratic debate.  And those impulses I think we can understand.  They are reactions to changing times and uncertainty. “

“I implore you to reject those calls to pull back.  I’m here to ask you to reject the notion that we’re gripped by forces that we can’t control.  And I want you to take a longer and more optimistic view of history and the part that you can play in it. I ask you to embrace the view of one of my predecessors, President John F. Kennedy, who once said:  “Our problems are man-made.  Therefore, they can be solved by man.  And man can be as big as he wants.”

The “world, for all of its travails, for all of its challenges, has never been healthier, better educated, wealthier, more tolerant, less violent, more attentive to the rights of all people than it is today. “

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have big problems.  That’s not a cause for complacency, but it is a cause for optimism.  You are standing in a moment where your capacity to shape this world is unmatched.  What an incredible privilege that is.”

Reject “pessimism and cynicism; know that progress is possible, that our problems can be solved.  Progress requires the harder path of breaking down barriers, and building bridges, and standing up for the values of tolerance and diversity that our nations have worked and sacrificed to secure and defend.  Progress is not inevitable, and it requires struggle and perseverance and discipline and faith.”

“Fighting for change that you may not live to see, but that your children will live to see.  That’s what this is all about. . . . Whether in the Cold War or world war, movements for economic or social justice, efforts to combat climate change — our best impulses have always been to leave a better world for the next generation.”

Historical Perspective

Abolitionists “in the 1700s . . . were fighting against slavery, and for a hundred years built a movement that eventually led to a civil war, and the amendments to our Constitution that ended slavery and called for equal protection under the law.  It then took another hundred years for those rights that had been enshrined in the Constitution to actually be affirmed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And then it’s taken another 50 years to try to make sure that those rights are realized.  And they’re still not fully realized. There’s still discrimination in aspects of American life, even with a black President.”

This history means “that if any of you begin to work on an issue that you care deeply about, don’t be disappointed if a year out, things haven’t been completely solved.  Don’t give up and succumb to cynicism if, after five years, poverty has not been eradicated, and prejudice is still out there somewhere, and we haven’t resolved all of the steps we need to take to reverse climate change. “

“Dr. [Martin Luther] King [,Jr.] said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’  And it doesn’t bend on its own.  It bends because we pull it in that direction.  But it requires a series of generations working and building off of what the previous one has done. “  (Emphasis added.)

Passion To Highlight Societal Problems

“As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems.”

 Need To Have a Strategy for Change and Compromise

But “once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.  And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position.”

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.  You, then, have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment.

And too often what I see is wonderful activism that highlights a problem, but then people feel so passionately and are so invested in the purity of their position that they never take that next step and say, okay, well, now I got to sit down and try to actually get something done..”

Everyone has “to be principled, you have to have a North Star, a moral compass. There should be a [good] reason for you getting involved in social issues. . . . But you have to recognize that, particularly in pluralistic societies and democratic governments like we have in the United States and the UK, there are people who disagree with us.  They have different perspectives.  They come from different points of view.  And they’re not bad people just because they disagree with us.  They may, in fact, assert that they’ve got similar principles to ours, but they just disagree with us on the means to vindicate those principles.”

Compromise “does not mean surrendering what you believe, it just means that you are recognizing the truth, the fact that these other people who disagree with you or this other political party, or this other nation — that they have dignity too, that they have worth as well, and you have to hear them and see them.”

================================

[1] White House, Remarks by President Obama in Town Hall with Young Leaders of the UK (April 23, 2016); Gani, Barack Obama tells young people that progress is possible, Guardian (April 23, 2016); Hayden, Obama’s ‘Town Hall’ Meeting with British Youth Covered Gender Rights, Islamophobia, and Leadership, Vice News (April 23, 2016).

The Third Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the American People

September 24 marked the third day of Pope Francis’ mission to the American people. The highlight was his morning appearance before the U.S. Congress, which was much anticipated by all members of Congress, 31% of whom are Roman Catholic along with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who serves as president of the Senate. Immediately afterwards the Pope greeted the American people from the west front of the U.S. Capitol followed by a visit to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in D.C. and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington before his flight to New York City. There he participated in an evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Speech to the U.S. Congress[1]

 

Pope Francis @ U.S. Congress
Pope Francis @ U.S. Congress

With the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives packed with Senators and Representatives and with invited guests in its Gallery, Pope Francis made the following lengthy remarks.

“I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.

“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

“Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, as the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel he symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

“Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations that offer a helping hand to those most in need.”

“I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land. I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults. I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people.”

“My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self- sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”

I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

“This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom.’ Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”

“All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”

“Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”

“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”

“In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.

[Editor’s Note: The following section, which was in the prepared remarks, was not included in the speech.] [“Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.]

“Here too I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”

“In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”

“Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbors’ and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.”

“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7:12).”

“This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

“In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”

“How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.”

“It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. ‘Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good’ (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to ‘enter into dialogue with all people about our common home’ (ibid., 3). ‘We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all’ (ibid., 14).”

“In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ (ibid., 231) and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature’ (ibid., 139). ‘We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology’ (ibid., 112); ‘to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power’ (ibid., 78); and to put technology ‘at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral’ (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”

“A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a ‘pointless slaughter,’ another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: ‘I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.’ Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”

“From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries that have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).”

“Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

“Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

“I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”

“In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”

“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”

“In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”

“God bless America!”

Greeting to the American People[2]

Pope @ U.S. Capitol
Pope @ U.S. Capitol

Immediately after the speech to the Congress, Pope Francis was escorted to the West Front of the Capitol, where he could see the thousands of people who wanted at least a glimpse of the Pope. “Buenos días,” he said. “I am so grateful for your presence here, most importantly the children. I have asked God to bless them. Father of all, bless each of them, bless the families. I ask you all, please, to pray for me. And if there are any who do not believe or who cannot pray, I ask you to send good wishes my way.”

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in D.C.[3]

Pope @ St. Patrick's Church
Pope @ St. Patrick’s Church

Pope & bishops 9.27

 

 

 

 

 

At the church, the Pope first sent greetings to his Muslim brothers and sisters as they celebrate the feast of sacrifice and a prayer of closeness as they faced the tragedy of suffering at Mecca. He then delivered the following homily.

“Here I think of a person whom I love, someone who is, and has been, very important throughout my life. He has been a support and an inspiration. He is the one I go to whenever I am ‘in a fix.’ You make me think of Saint Joseph. Your faces remind me of his.”

“Joseph had to face some difficult situations in his life. One of them was the time when Mary was about to give birth, to have Jesus. The Bible tells us that, ‘while they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn’ (Lk 2:6-7).”

“The Bible is very clear about this: there was no room for them. I can imagine Joseph, with his wife about to have a child, with no shelter, no home, no place to stay. The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head. We can imagine what Joseph must have been thinking. How is it that the Son of God has no home? Why are we homeless, why don’t we have housing? These are questions which many of you may ask daily. Like Saint Joseph, you may ask: Why are we homeless, without a place to live? These are questions which all of us might well ask. Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live? Why are these brothers and sisters of ours homeless?”

“Joseph’s questions are timely even today; they accompany all those who throughout history have been, and are, homeless.”

“Joseph was someone who asked questions. But first and foremost, he was a man of faith. Faith gave Joseph the power to find light just at the moment when everything seemed dark. Faith sustained him amid the troubles of life. Thanks to faith, Joseph was able to press forward when everything seemed to be holding him back.”

“In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness. As it did for Joseph, faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us.”

“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”

“We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person. He wanted everyone to experience his companionship, his help, his love. He identified with all those who suffer, who weep, who suffer any kind of injustice. He tells us this clearly: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35).”

“Faith makes us know that God is at our side, that God is in our midst and his presence spurs us to charity. Charity is born of the call of a God who continues to knock on our door, the door of all people, to invite us to love, to compassion, to service of one another.”

“Jesus keeps knocking on our doors, the doors of our lives. He doesn’t do this by magic, with special effects, with flashing lights and fireworks. Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors, in the faces of those at our side.”

“Dear friends, one of the most effective ways we have to help is that of prayer. Prayer unites us; it makes us brothers and sisters. It opens our hearts and reminds us of a beautiful truth which we sometimes forget. In prayer, we all learn to say ‘Father.’ ‘Dad.’ We learn to see one another as brothers and sisters. In prayer, there are no rich and poor people, there are sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. In prayer, there is no first or second class, there is brotherhood.”

“It is in prayer that our hearts find the strength not to be cold and insensitive in the face of injustice. In prayer, God keeps calling us, opening our hearts to charity.”

“How good it is for us to pray together. How good it is to encounter one another in this place where we see one another as brothers and sisters, where we realize that we need one another. Today I want to be one with you. I need your support, your closeness. I would like to invite you to pray together, for one another, with one another. That way we can keep helping one another to experience the joy of knowing that Jesus is in our midst. Are you ready?”

“’Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day and our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. An do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. Amen.’” (NRSV)

“Before leaving you, I would like to give you God’s blessing: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace’ (Num 6:24-26). And, please, don’t forget to pray for me.”

Pope & people

Immediately afterwards the Pope went to a luncheon for the homeless outside the church, blessed the meal and greeted the people, as shown in photograph to the right.. This luncheon was sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Vespers Service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral[4]

The Pope arrived around 5:00 p.m. (EST) at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and then traveled by helicopter to lower Manhattan. The popemobile then took him by waving crowds on Fifth Avenue to 50th and 51st Street’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.   There he was greeted by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York’s U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.

Pope @ St. Patrick's Cathedral
Pope @ St. Patrick’s Cathedral

At the Cathedral the Pope participated in a vespers prayer service for nearly 2,500 worshipers, including clergy members, brothers and nuns, and delivered the following homily.

“’There is a cause for rejoicing here”, although ‘you may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials’ (1 Pet 1:6). These words of the Apostle remind us of something essential. Our vocation is to be lived in joy.”

“This beautiful Cathedral of Saint Patrick, built up over many years through the sacrifices of many men and women, can serve as a symbol of the work of generations of American priests and religious, and lay faithful who helped build up the Church in the United States. In the field of education alone, how many priests and religious in this country played a central role, assisting parents in handing on to their children the food that nourishes them for life! Many did so at the cost of extraordinary sacrifice and with heroic charity. I think for example of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the first free Catholic school for girls in America, or Saint John Neumann, the founder of the first system of Catholic education in the United States.”

“This evening, my brothers and sisters, I have come to join you in prayer that our vocations will continue to build up the great edifice of God’s Kingdom in this country. I know that, as a presbyterate in the midst of God’s people, you suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members… In the words of the Book of Revelation, I know well that you ‘have come forth from the great tribulation’ (Rev 7:14). I accompany you at this time of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people. In the hope of helping you to persevere on the path of fidelity to Jesus Christ, I would like to offer two brief reflections.”

“The first concerns the spirit of gratitude. The joy of men and women who love God attracts others to them; priests and religious are called to find and radiate lasting satisfaction in their vocation. Joy springs from a grateful heart. Truly, we have received much, so many graces, so many blessings, and we rejoice in this. It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. Remembrance of when we were first called, remembrance of the road travelled, remembrance of graces received… and, above all, remembrance of our encounter with Jesus Christ so often along the way. Remembrance of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts. To seek the grace of remembrance so as to grow in the spirit of gratitude. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: are we good at counting our blessings?”

“A second area is the spirit of hard work. A grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work. Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.”

“Yet, if we are honest, we know how easily this spirit of generous self-sacrifice can be dampened. There are a couple of ways that this can happen; both are examples of that ‘spiritual worldliness’ which weakens our commitment to serve and diminishes the wonder of our first encounter with Christ.”

“We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world. Not that these things are unimportant! We have been entrusted with a great responsibility, and God’s people rightly expect accountability from us. But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion in the first days and years of our vocation and, need I say, great humility. The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus… and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, the failure of the cross.”

“Another danger comes when we become jealous of our free time, when we think that surrounding ourselves with worldly comforts will help us serve better. The problem with this reasoning is that it can blunt the power of God’s daily call to conversion, to encounter with him. Slowly but surely, it diminishes our spirit of sacrifice, renunciation and hard work. It also alienates people who suffer material poverty and are forced to make greater sacrifices than ourselves. Rest is needed, as are moments of leisure and self-enrichment, but we need to learn how to rest in a way that deepens our desire to serve with generosity. Closeness to the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the sick, the exploited, the elderly living alone, prisoners and all God’s other poor, will teach us a different way of resting, one which is more Christian and generous.”

“Gratitude and hard work: these are two pillars of the spiritual life which I have wanted to share with you this evening. I thank you for prayers and work, and the daily sacrifices you make in the various areas of your apostolate. Many of these are known only to God, but they bear rich fruit for the life of the Church. In a special way I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say “thank you”, a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much.” (Emphasis added to these words that drew applause from the people in the pews.)

“I know that many of you are in the front lines in meeting the challenges of adapting to an evolving pastoral landscape. Whatever difficulties and trials you face, I ask you, like Saint Peter, to be at peace and to respond to them as Christ did: he thanked the Father, took up his cross and looked forward!”

“Dear brothers and sisters, in a few moments we will sing the Magnificat. Let us commend to Our Lady the work we have been entrusted to do; let us join her in thanking God for the great things he has done, and for the great things he will continue to do in us and in those whom we have the privilege to serve.”

===================================================

[1] Beckwith, Transcript: Read the Speech Pope Francis Gave to Congress, Time (Sept. 24, 2015); Assoc. Press, Pope’s Full Speech to Congress, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015) (video); Hulse, Herszenhorn & Steinhauer, Across Political Divide, Finding Much to Cheer in Pope’s Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015); Baker, Pope Francis’ Speech to Congress Comes at Time of Political Division, N.Y. Times (Sept. 2015); Goodstein, Yardley, Cave & Davenport, Inside Pope Francis’ Address to Congress, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015).

[2] Reuters, Pope greets well-wishers from Capitol balcony, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015) (video).

[3] Pope Francis’ Remarks at St. Patrick’s church in Washington, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015); Assoc. Press, Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Church, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015)(video); Reuters, ‘No Justification Whatsoever’ for Homelessness, Pope Says in Washington, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015); Pope blesses meal at Catholic charity event, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015) (video).

[4] Agence France-Presse, Pope Francis Arrives in New York, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015) (video of airport arrival); Agence France-Presse, Pope Visits St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Sept. 25, 2015) (video of parade to the Cathedral and part of the service); Reuters, Pope expresses closeness to world’s Muslims after haj stampede, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015)(video); Santora & Otterman, Arriving in Manhattan, Pope Tells Clergy to Serve Humbly, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015); Pope Francis’ Homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2015).

Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”  

Between World & Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I decided to read “Between the World and Me” after reading David Brooks’ column about the book, watching Charlie Rose’s interview of the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and learning that the book was No. 1 on the New York Times hard-cover nonfiction “Best Seller List.”

Reading the book prompted my conducting research about the book and the author and then reading his earlier memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle.” The following sets forth my reactions to all of this information. As always, I invite comments of agreement or disagreement.

“Between the World and Me”

As a white male septuagenarian, I thought this book by a 40-year-old African-American man described a world totally foreign to me. The book thus was another marker of the existence of U.S. racial segregation over the last 40 years. Part of my reaction was due to the author’s using words and names of people and music that meant nothing to me. I also found it difficult to understand his obvious mélange of what had to have been black “street talk” with “standard” English.

I had the sense that the author as he was growing up lived with an omnipresent fear of violence to his black body from his father, from other young black males and from law enforcement personnel and that this fear has produced an omnipresent rage. In his words, that rage “burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

There were only two exceptions to this fear and anger, as I read the book.

The first was when he attended Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, the preeminent higher education institution for African-Americans, which he called The Mecca with so many beautiful young black women (“jennies”), with so many black people doing so many different things, with professors from other countries and with its large collection of books and articles by many black writers and scholars. He also met his future wife there. After six years on and off, however, he dropped out of Howard to pursue a journalism career.[1]

The second was his recent trip with wife and 14-year-old son to Paris France for an escape from concerns about race while experiencing the gastronomic and cultural wonders of that great city. He also told Charlie Rose that his Paris trip was due to his love of the French language and wanting to see how France deals with its problems and to expose his son to other parts of the world. At least the first of these reasons motivated earlier black authors James Baldwin and Richard Wright, who are briefly quoted in the book on racial issues, to spend significant amounts of time in Paris.[2] This love of Paris, however, could not obscure for Ta-Nehisi the fact that the French had colonized many parts of Africa and had taken advantage of its black people.

Coates told the Baltimore Sun the book was intended to tell a black audience “’I see your pain, and you’re not crazy.’ There’s racism, and then there’s the mind-tricks people play on you by telling you that the racism isn’t real.”

The title of the book puzzled me, and its inclusion in an extract in the book’s preface from a poem by Richard Wright, an African-American author and poet, did not help. I then searched and found the complete poem and discovered it was about the impact on a black man of his discovering evidence of the past lynching of another black man. I then concluded that the book’s title meant that white men’s violence against black men always comes between Coates and his perceptions of the rest of the world. Is that right? Here is the complete Wright poem (with the excerpt quoted in Ta-Nehisi’s book in bold):

“And one morning while in the woods I stumbled 
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun…. “

“The Beautiful Struggle”

Beautiful Struggle

Coates’ memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” was published seven years earlier. It covers the first 18 years of his life and, therefore, overlaps some of the time period discussed in the new book. I was surprised to discover that I thought the two books were describing two different men. Indeed, the use of the adjective “beautiful” for the earlier account of his first 18 years would not be apt for the telling of the same story, in part, in the recent book  Of course, Coates in 2015 is different from the man he was when he wrote the memoir in 2008. Now he is reacting, in part, to the horrible recent killings of unarmed black men: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to name a few.

In “The Beautiful Struggle” we learn that unlike so many young black men in the 1970’s and 80’s Coates had parents who were educated and concerned about his education and well-being.

Although Coates said he feared his father, William Paul Coates, and thought he was a “practicing fascist” mandating books to read and banning religion, his father also was an important figure in his life. The father was a Vietnam veteran, an early member of the Black Panther Part and an early collector and re-publisher of books and other writings of black authors. His father earned a B.A. degree from Antioch College and a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University and worked at Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Research Center, which is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive repositories for the documentation of the history and culture of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and other parts of the world. Thus, many of the names of black authors mentioned in “Between the World and Me” perhaps were not discovered by Ta-Nehisi when he was a Howard student, but already were known to him through his father’s work.

His father’s interest in black culture also explains Coates’ first name, Ta-Nehisi, which “The Beautiful Struggle” says is an ancient Egyptian name for the mighty Nubians in Africa.

His parents’ desire for their son to have an excellent education was exhibited when as a fourth grader he was sent to local private schools for tests and hoped-for scholarships But Ta-Nehisi was not interested and did not do well on the exams so the private school option was foreclosed.

After doing reasonably well in ninth grade at William H. Lemmel Middle School in Baltimore, Ta Nehisi pleased his parents by gaining admittance to the City’s preeminent public high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which emphasized sciences, technology, engineering and math. He, however, did not do well there and was expelled at the end of his junior year after he failed English and was in a fight with another student in the cafeteria.

Afterwards, his father said, “Ta-Nehisi, you are a disgrace to this family’s name.” For the son, that hurt because he had completely let his father down and because “I’d failed myself. No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail.”

Earlier that year after the family had moved to a large suburban home, Ta-Nehisi participated in an African-American ritual, Ankobia, to celebrate those who lead in battle, setting the standard for courage and commitment; this ritual was organized and taught by Pan-African black American activists.

He, therefore, experienced (and presumably enjoyed), at ages 16 to 18, the suburban lifestyle that he castigates in “Between Me and the World:” a life style “organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.”

For his senior year of high school Ta-Nehisi attended Baltimore County’s Woodlawn High School and turned around his poor record at Poly. His grades improved. He gave a speech at a school assembly about Marcus Garvey, a proponent of Black Nationalism and the Pan-Africanism movement. Ta-Nehisi became a peer counselor and conflict resolution person. He applied to four colleges, including Howard, and was admitted to all of them and decided to go to Howard as the memoir ends.

Conclusion

The Charlie Rose interview reveals Coates as a calm, sensitive, rational, intelligent human being rather than a wild-eyed extremist who cannot get over the legitimate fears and anger of his childhood, an impression easily left by his later book.

In that interview Rose pressed Coates on whether the message of combating white supremacy or the process of writing was more important for him. Coates eventually admitted that writing was more important because he loves the challenge of writing and that eventually he might use his writing skills to do something else like writing a novel.

He also said he was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s beautiful writing, and many have commented on Coates’ new book’s adopting the same form as Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew:” a letter to a black male relative (son for Coates and nephew for Baldwin) about violence against blacks. Coates’ comments about his love of writing and of Baldwin’s literary skills leave a lingering question: was his recent book an intentional or subconscious attempt to try to write like Baldwin? (I do not have the literary knowledge to answer that question.)

Coates also told Charlie Rose that he does not share the optimism and hope of many African-Americans and that he does not believe racial progress was or will be automatic or preordained, which was his interpretation of the famous saying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This interpretation of that saying, however, in my opinion, is clearly erroneous. No one can seriously believe that progress on racial issues or on any other social or political issue is automatic or preordained. Such progress or change requires a lot of work and sacrifice to advocate change and to mobilize public opinion in favor of such change. There will be disappointments or failures along the way, and that is why people in the struggle need words of encouragement and hope like these words of Dr. King. Indeed, Coates conceded to Rose that as a result of activists and pressure, there has been progress on racial issues in the U.S. since the Civil War.

In addition, Coates said he thought that President Obama’s recent eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina was the greatest presidential address he has ever heard. To see and hear it again, as in this video, still brings tears to all people of good will. Some of the President’s words also undercut Coates’ lack of appreciation for the importance of religious faith and of black churches in the struggle for racial progress. The President said:

  • “The church is and always has been the center of African-American life, a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as ‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.  They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.”

I join David Brooks in his previously cited column in disagreeing with Coates’ total rejection of the American Dream. According to Brooks, “The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements.”

======================================================

[1] For the next eight years or so after leaving Howard, Coates was a journalist with freelance jobs, alternative weeklies, and magazines but never for more than two years at a time. In 2008, he published his memoir and then landed at The Atlantic, initially as a blogger; later, as a national editor.

[2] Richard Wright (1908-1960) is best known for his 1940 novel “Native Son” and his 1945 autobiography “Black Boy;” his poem, quoted at the end of the first part of this blog post, provides the title for Coates’ book. James Baldwin (1924 –1987) is well known for Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956 The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976). Coates on page 133 of his book quotes from Baldwin’s essay, “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies,” a paragraph of which is contained in the Appendix to this post. Coates also quotes two other African-American poets whose full poems are in the attached Appendix: Sonia Sanchez (p.3) without Coates telling the reader the full poem is about Malcolm X; and Amiri Baraka (p. 73).

===================================================

APPENDIX

I. Reviews of “Between the World and Me”

Bennett, Ta-Nehisi Coates and a Generation Waking Up, New Yorker (July 15, 2015)

Brooks, Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)

Harris, The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Magazine (July 12, 2015),

Ip, Ta-Nehisi Coates defines a new race beat, Columbia Journalism Rev. (Oct. 29, 2014) Johnson, An Updated Racial Hustle, City Journal (Aug. 2, 2015)

McCauley, Ta-Nehisi Coates on the roots of racial violence, Balt. Sun (July 18, 2015),

Remnick, Charleston and the Age of Obama, New Yorker (June 19, 2015),

Schuessler, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Visceral’ Take on Being Black in America, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)

II. Other Writings by, and Interviews of, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates, American Girl, The Atlantic (Jan./Feb. 2009) (article about Michelle Obama)

Coates, Between the World and My Book Club: Your Final Critical Thoughts, The Atlantic (Aug. 8, 2015)

Coates, List of Articles in The Atlantic

Coates, My 10 Favorite Books: Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Times (July 31, 2015)

Coates, Ta-Nehisi News (Blog of the most recent and crucial events in the social, political and cultural life of the U.S.)

Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014)

PBS NewsHour, Interview of Ta-Nehisi Coates: We accept violence against African-Americans as normal (July 23, 2015)

III. Richard Wright

Biography

Richard Wright’s Poem, “Between the World and Me

IV. Sonia Sanchez

Biography: Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Benita Driver, September 9, 1934) is an African-American poet most often associated with the Black Arts Movement. She has authored over a dozen books of poetry, as well as plays and children’s books. She was a recipient of 1993 Pew Fellowships in the Arts.

“Malcolm [X]”

do not speak to me of martyrdom                                                                                   of men who die to be remembered                                                                                 on some parish day                                                                                                               I don’t believe in dying                                                                                                         though I too shall die                                                                                                             and violets like castanets                                                                                                     will echo me.

Yet this man                                                                                                                               this dreamer,                                                                                                                             thick-lipped with words                                                                                                         will never speak again                                                                                                             and in each winter                                                                                                                   when the cold air cracks                                                                                                         with frost, I’ll breathe                                                                                                             his breath and mourn                                                                                                             my gun-filled nights.

he was the sun that tagged                                                                                                   the western sky and                                                                                                               melted tiger-scholars                                                                                                             while they searched for stripes.                                                                                         he said, “fuck you white                                                                                                       man, we have been                                                                                                                 curled too long. nothing                                                                                                         is sacred now. not your                                                                                                           white face nor any                                                                                                                   land that separates                                                                                                                 until some voices                                                                                                                     squat with spasms.

Do not speak to me of living.                                                                                                 life is obscene with crowds                                                                                                     of white on black.                                                                                                                     death is my pulse.                                                                                                                     what might have been                                                                                                             is not for him/or me                                                                                                                 but what could have been                                                                                                       is not for him/or me                                                                                                                 but what could have been                                                                                                       floods the womb until I drown.”

Sanchez, Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (emphasis added)

V. Amiri Baraka 

Biography: Born in 1934, Amiri Baraka was raised in USA. Having studied Philosophy and Religion at Columbia University, he has a sound knowledge of these subjects that also reflects well in his writings. He is a well known African-American writer of fiction, drama, poetry and music. With books such as Tales of the Out and the Gone, he has received the PEN Open Book Award and is also respected as one of the most widely published African American authors of his generation. Apart from writing, Baraka is considered as a revolutionary political activist and has given lectures on various political and cultural issues extensively throughout Europe, Africa, USA and the Caribbean.

Ka’Ba
“A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.

Our world is full of sound 
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s 
tho we suffer, and kill each other 
and sometimes fail to walk the air

We are beautiful people 
With african imaginations 
full of masks and dances and swelling chants 

with african eyes, and noses, and arms 
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place 
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers. And we labor                                                                                                         to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new

correspondence with ourselves
and our black family. We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be

the sacred words?

VI. James Baldwin 

Biography: James Arthur Baldwin (1924 –1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racialsexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if un-nameable tensions.[1] Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work(1976).

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, written well before gay equality was widely espoused in America: Giovanni’s Room (1956).[2] Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is said to be his best-known work.

“On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies”

“[The Europeans who came here paid the price of becoming “white.] And [they] have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife— looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.” Baldwin, On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies, in Roediger (editor0, Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means To Be White at 177-180) (emphasis added).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other Remarks by President Obama at the Seventh Summit of the Americas

On April 10-11, U.S. President Barack Obama attended the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama. In addition to the previously reported speech at the plenary session and his comments before and after his private meeting with President Raul Castro, Obama made the following remarks on April 10 that will be summarized in this post: (1) Speech at the CEO Summit; (2) Responses to Questions at the CEO Summit; and (3) Remarks to the Civil Society Forum.

 Obama’s Speech at the CEO Summit

“When I came into office, in 2009, obviously we were all facing an enormous economic challenge globally.  Since that time, both exports from the United States to Latin America and imports from Latin America to the United States have gone up over 50 percent.  And it’s an indication not only of the recovery that was initiated — in part by important policies that were taken and steps that were taken in each of the countries in coordination through mechanisms like the G20 — but also the continuing integration that’s going to be taking place in this hemisphere as part of a global process of integration.”

“[S]ome trends . . . are inevitable. . . . [G]lobal commerce, because of technology, because of logistics, it is erasing the boundaries by which we think about businesses not just for large companies, but also for small and medium-sized companies as well.”

“[T]echnology is going to continue to be disruptive.  I’m glad that my friend, Mark Zuckerberg, is here.  Obviously what he’s done with Facebook has been transformative.  But what’s important to recognize is, is that it’s not just companies like Apple and Google and Facebook that are being transformed by technology.  Traditional industries are being changed as well.  Small businesses are being changed as well.  How we buy, sell, market, all that is shifting.  And that’s not going to go away.”

“And what that means is, is that going forward, for the hemisphere to continue to experience the growth that’s necessary, I think there are a couple of principles that we just have to follow.”

“The first is, our people have to be the best trained in the world.  We have to not only educate our children, but we have to give our people the capacity to continue to learn throughout their lives — because the economy is changing and workers have to adapt.  It’s going to be very rare where somebody works at one place for 30 years with just one skill.  So the investments that all of us have to make in education, not just through primary or secondary schools, but if young people are not going to universities, they can still at least get technical training and advanced degrees.”

“And this is where technology can be our friend.  We initiated something called “100,000 Strong” to improve the exchanges between students in Latin America and the [U.S.].  And part of what we’re doing is starting to figure out how can we use technology to reach more young people, not just the folks who are at the top of the economic pyramid, but reach down and access remote areas where suddenly a young person in a small village, if they are linked through the Internet, have access to the entire world.  And companies I think can play an important role because public-private partnerships will make these kinds of investments more effective.”

“Point number two —We have a lot of infrastructure we need to build in the [U.S.] and obviously there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built throughout the region.  The more we can coordinate and work together on infrastructure, the better off we’re going to be. . . .”

“Number three, the issue of broad-based economic development.  [There are] areas . . . that are isolated, that are not part of that growth process — all of us have to deal with that. And that includes [the U.S.]. Because one of the challenges that we’re all facing, when you look at global growth patterns, is that even when economies are growing, the gaps between rich and poor oftentimes are accelerating, and not only is that not good for social stability, not only is that not good for opportunity, it’s not good for business.  Because the truth of the matter is, is that when you have a growing middle class and an aspirational poor that are able to access their way into the middle class, then those become the consumers that drive the marketplace much more so than folks at the very top.”

“[A]t a certain point, if only folks at the top are doing well, and we’re not focused on broad-based growth, then growth starts to stall.  And so taking the steps to train, to educate, to give access to opportunity, to make sure that infrastructure is reaching everyplace and not just some places — that becomes a very high priority.”

“And the last point I’ll make is the issue of governance. . . [V]iolence . . . is still a problem in portions of the hemisphere.  And a lot of it has to do with lack of opportunity. But part of it also has to do with the difficulties of establishing strong security if we also are not combining that with transparency, with government accountability, with a criminal justice system and a judicial system that is perceived as fair and legitimate. . . ”

“And again, this is an area where we have to work regionally as opposed to separately. . . . But issues of personal security, reducing corruption, governance — those are economic agendas.  Those are not simply security agendas.”

Obama’s Responses to Questions at CEO Summit

“One of the advantages that we may have today that we didn’t have, let’s say, 15 or 20 or 30 years ago is I think it used to be viewed as either you have a government-status economic model, or you have a complete free market, and everything was very ideological sometimes in this region in discussing how economic development went forward.”

“[B]y virtue of wisdom and some things that didn’t work and some things that did, everybody . . . throughout the hemisphere, I think has a very practical solution — or a practical orientation.  Maybe not everybody, but almost everybody. . . .   And so the question then becomes, what’s the appropriate role for government, what’s the appropriate role for the private sector, and how do we fill gaps to get results.”

“I believe that the free market is the greatest wealth generator and innovator and is a recipe for success for countries.  And I think it’s very important for us to initiate reforms that can free up the entrepreneurship and the talents of our people.  But I also think that there are going to be market failures.  There are times where the market isn’t meeting a social need that is necessary in order for businesses to thrive and societies to thrive. Where is it that both businesses and government can work together to address a gap or a market failure?”

“One area is in education.  I think that we have to make a public investment through good schools, paying our teachers, training them properly, building infrastructure for schools.  But one of the things that we’ve learned in the [U.S.], for example, is that we have an outstanding community college system. . . . But for too long . . . these community colleges weren’t talking to businesses to ask, what should we be training people for and how should we train them.  And by soliciting input from business, suddenly the training programs in these community colleges became much more effective and were much more likely to lead to jobs in the future.  That’s the kind of collaboration that’s I think very important.”

“The same is true with respect to connectivity. . . . [T]he Internet wouldn’t have been created without government investment.  It didn’t just kind of spring to life on its own.  But now in every country we recognize there’s an infrastructure that has to be built. We also have to be working together with the private sector to make sure that it’s built in a way that anticipates how rapidly things are changing because there may be circumstances here where people can entirely leap-frog old technologies and go straight to new technologies.”

“[O]ne of the questions . . . all of us as leaders, and regionally, should be asking is, to what extent are we making joint investments that aren’t protecting the old models, but rather are opening up new models that may be more efficient and reach more people.”

The third point is . . . technology and globalization are disruptive.  And usually somebody is doing well with the status quo and they don’t want change, and so sometimes breaking down regulations is painful politically.  That’s a very sensitive thing and a very difficult thing.

“[O]ur strategy has to be to recognize that there are going to be some regulatory barriers, and we have to work in concert to try to break some of those down and harmonize regulations across countries and across, in some cases, industries.  But in some cases, we may need new regulations to adapt to new times. . . . ”

“[E]ven as we end old regulations that no longer make sense, or are inhibiting innovation and growth and investment, in some cases we may need new regulatory approaches to, for example, limit and reduce carbon.  And we should do it in an efficient way so that we’re harnessing the ingenuity of the private sector — we set a bar, we set a price and we say, you tell us how you are you going to reduce carbon. . . .”

“And that approach to regulation — thinking what regulations work today in a practical way to meet our goals, and how do we do it in a way that is the least bureaucratic and the least disruptive, but recognizing that there are still goals that have to be met. . . .”

The U.S. “is very committed to working with all the countries that are participating in this summit.  We are consulting intensively on a bilateral basis, but we’re also very interested in working on a regional level. . . .”

It “does require some joint investment and recognizing that we have to think beyond our borders in order to do the right thing for our people.  It is good for the [U.S.] for some young person in Honduras to have access to the Internet, have access to education, and have access to opportunity.  It’s good for the [U.S.] if Brazil is growing at a rapid pace.  It’s good for the [U.S.] if Panama continues to thrive, or Mexico is continuing to succeed.”

Obama’s Civil Society Forum Speech

“I am proud to be with you at this first-ever official gathering of civil society leaders at the Summit of the Americas. And I’m pleased to have Cuba represented with us at this summit for the very first time.”

“We’re here for a very simple reason.  We believe that strong, successful countries require strong and vibrant civil societies.  We know that throughout our history, human progress has been propelled not just by famous leaders, not just by states, but by ordinary men and women who believe that change is possible; by citizens who are willing to stand up against incredible odds and great danger not only to protect their own rights, but to extend rights to others.”

“I had a chance to reflect on this last month when I was in the small town of Selma, Alabama where, 50 years ago, African-Americans marched in peaceful, nonviolent protest — not to ask for special treatment but to be treated equally, in accordance with the founding documents of our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights.  They were part of a civil rights movement that had endured violence and repression for decades, and would endure it again that day, as many of the marchers were beaten.”

“But they kept marching.  And despite the beatings of that day, they came back, and more returned.  And the conscience of a nation was stirred.  Their efforts bent, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe towards justice.  And it was their vision for a more fair and just and inclusive and generous society that ultimately triumphed.  And the only reason I stand here today as the President of the United States is because those ordinary people — maids, and janitors, and schoolteachers — were willing to endure hardship on my behalf.”

“And that’s why I believe so strongly in the work that you do.  It’s the dreamers — no matter how humble or poor or seemingly powerless — that are able to change the course of human events.  We saw it in South Africa, where citizens stood up to the scourge of apartheid.  We saw it in Europe, where Poles marched in Solidarity to help bring down the Iron Curtain.  In Argentina, where mothers of the disappeared spoke out against the Dirty War.  It’s the story of my country, where citizens worked to abolish slavery, and establish women’s rights and workers’ rights, and rights for gays and lesbians.”

“It’s not to say that my country is perfect — we are not.  And that’s the point.  We always have to have citizens who are willing to question and push our government, and identify injustice.  We have to wrestle with our own challenges — from issues of race to policing to inequality.  But what makes me most proud about the extraordinary example of the [U.S.] is not that we’re perfect, but that we struggle with it, and we have this open space in which society can continually try to make us a more perfect union.”

“We’ve stood up, at great cost, for freedom and human dignity, not just in our own country, but elsewhere.  I’m proud of that.  And we embrace our ability to become better through our democracy.  And that requires more than just the work of government.  It demands the hard and frustrating, sometimes, but absolutely vital work of ordinary citizens coming together to make common cause.”

“So civil society is the conscience of our countries.  It’s the catalyst of change.  It’s why strong nations don’t fear active citizens.  Strong nations embrace and support and empower active citizens.  And by the way, it’s not as if active citizens are always right — they’re not.  Sometimes people start yelling at me or arguing at me, and I think, you don’t know what you’re talking about.  But sometimes they do.  And the question is not whether they’re always right; the question is, do you have a society in which that conversation, that debate can be tested and ideas are tested in the marketplace.”

“And because of the efforts of civil society, now, by and large, there’s a consensus in the Americas on democracy and human rights, and social development and social inclusiveness.  I recognize there’s strong differences about the role of civil society, but I believe we can all benefit from open and tolerant and inclusive dialogue.  And we should reject violence or intimidation that’s aimed at silencing people’s voices.”

“The freedom to be heard is a principle that the Americas at large is committed to.  And that doesn’t mean, as I said, that we’re going to agree on every issue.  But we should address those issue candidly and honestly and civilly, and welcome the voices of all of our people into the debates that shape the future of the hemisphere.”

“As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people -– not because it’s imposed by us, the [U.S.], but through the talent and ingenuity and aspirations, and the conversation among Cubans from all walks of life so they can decide what the best course is for their prosperity.”

As we move toward the process of normalization, we’ll have our differences, government to government, with Cuba on many issues — just as we differ at times with other nations within the Americas; just as we differ with our closest allies.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But I’m here to say that when we do speak out, we’re going to do so because the [U.S.] does believe, and will always stand for, a certain set of universal values.  And when we do partner with civil society, it’s because we believe our relationship should be with governments and with the peoples that they represent.”

“It’s also because we believe that your work is more important than ever.  Here in the Americas, inequality still locks too many people out of our economies.  Discrimination still locks too many out of our societies.  Around the world, there are still too many places where laws are passed to stifle civil society, where governments cut off funding for groups that they don’t agree with.  Where entrepreneurs are crushed under corruption.  Where activists and journalists are locked up on trumped-up charges because they dare to be critical of their governments.  Where the way you look, or how you pray, or who you love can get you imprisoned or killed.”

“And whether it’s crackdowns on free expression in Russia or China, or restrictions on freedom of association and assembly in Egypt, or prison camps run by the North Korean regime — human rights and fundamental freedoms are still at risk around the world.  And when that happens, we believe we have a moral obligation to speak out.”

“We also know that our support for civil society is not just about what we’re against, but also what we’re for.  Because we’ve noticed that governments that are more responsive and effective are typically governments where the people are free to assemble, and speak their minds, and petition their leaders, and hold us accountable.”

“We know that our economies attract more trade and investment when citizens are free to start a new business without paying a bribe.   We know that our societies are more likely to succeed when all our people — regardless of color, or class, or creed, or sexual orientation, or gender — are free to live and pray and love as they choose.  That’s what we believe.”

“And, increasingly, civil society is a source of ideas — about everything from promoting transparency and free expression, to reversing inequality and rescuing our environment.  And that’s why, as part of our Stand with Civil Society Initiative, we’ve joined with people around the world to push back on those who deny your right to be heard.  I’ve made it a mission of our government not only to protect civil society groups, but to partner with you and empower you with the knowledge and the technology and the resources to put your ideas into action.  And the U.S. supports the efforts to establish a permanent, meaningful role for civil societies in future Summits of the Americas.”

“[W]hen the [U.S.] sees space closing for civil society, we will work to open it.  When efforts are made to wall you off from the world, we’ll try to connect you with each other.  When you are silenced, we’ll try to speak out alongside you.  And when you’re suppressed, we want to help strengthen you.  As you work for change, the [U.S.] will stand up alongside you every step of the way.  We are respectful of the difference among our countries.  The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the [U.S.] could meddle with impunity, those days are past.”

“[W]e do have to be very clear that when we speak out on behalf of somebody who’s been imprisoned for no other reason than because they spoke truth to power, when we are helping an organization that is trying to empower a minority group inside a country to get more access to resources, we’re not doing that because it serves our own interests; we’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

“I hope that all the other countries at the Summit of the Americas will join us in seeing that it’s important.  Because sometimes, as difficult as it is, it’s important for us to be able to speak honestly and candidly on behalf of people who are vulnerable and people who are powerless, people who are voiceless.  I know, because there was a time in our own country where there were groups that were voiceless and powerless.  And . . . world opinion helped to change those circumstances.  We have a debt to pay, because the voices of ordinary people have made us better.  That’s a debt that I want to make sure we repay in this hemisphere and around the world.”

Conclusion

These comments show that President Obama’s interest at the Summit of the Americas was not only fostering the further normalization of the United States’ relations with Cuba. Indeed, he has set forth a broad vision of improved hemispheric relations that acknowledges past errors and emphasizes the need for the U.S. and other countries of the Americas to focus on current and future problems and opportunities. Thank you, Mr. President!

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Oscar Romero at Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey, London, UK
Romero Statue, Westminster Abbey, London, UK

In 1998 Westminster Abbey in London opened its gallery of Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. Their 10 statues are set in outside niches above the main entrance. The Abbey did so to proclaim that the 20th century was one of Christian martyrdom greater than in any previous period in the history of the church.[1]

In niche number 6 is the statue of Oscar Romero. He stands between the statues of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great U.S. civil rights leader and preacher, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazi regime just before the end of World War II for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.[2]

The biographical essay about Romero in a book about this gallery of martyrs is by Philip Berryman, an U.S. liberation theologian and leading authority on Christianity in Central and South America.

Berryman was in El Salvador in March 1980 and heard Romero’s famous homily ordering the military to stop the repression. Immediately afterwards, Berryman said he expressed his amazement at Romero’s boldness in saying what the Salvadoran military officers must have thought was treasonous. The next day when Berryman heard that Romero had been shot, he rushed to the hospital only to find out that Romero had died. Shortly after the assassination, he reports that Ignacio Ellacuria, the Rector of the Universidad de Centro America (UCA), celebrated a mass and said that with Archbishop Romero, God had visited El Salvador.[3]

Berryman recounts the familiar story about Romero’s being conservative and soft-spoken when he was appointed Archbishop in early 1977 and being converted to social and political justice after the murder of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande. To the same point, he quotes another friend of Romero, Jesuit priest and liberation theologian at UCA, Jon Sobrino, who said that when Romero gazed “at the mortal remains of Rutilio Grande, the scales fell from his eyes. Rutilio had been right! The kind of pastoral activity, the kind of church, the kind of faith he had advocated had been the right kind after all. . . .  [I]f Rutilio had died as Jesus died, if he had shown that greatest of all love, the love required to lay down one’s very life for others–was this not because his life and mission had been like the life and mission of Jesus? . . . Ah then, it had not been Rutilio, but Oscar who had been mistaken! . . .  And Archbishop Romero , , , [made] a decision to change.” In short, Grande’s life and death gave Romero a new direction for his life and the strength to pursue it.[4]

Romero, according to Berryman, prepared his homilies in consultation with a team of priests and lay people to review the situation in the country. Then he would write the homily from his notes, the newspapers of the week and the Biblical texts and commentaries. The homilies themselves usually lasted about 45 minutes, mostly devoted to a systematic and thematic reflection on the Biblical texts for the day, but also with Romero’s observations on the human rights violations of the prior week.[5]

Berryman also comments on the strained relationship between Romero and the U.S. government. Early in 1978, for example, Romero met with Terrance Todman, the U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, who urged Romero to have a less confrontational and more constructive relationship with the Salvadoran government. Romero immediately responded that the U.S. and Rodman did not understand what was happening in El Salvador. “The problem is not between Church and government, it’s between government and people. . . . It’s not the church, much less the archbishop! If the government improved its treatment of the people, we will improve our relations with the government.”[6]

The Anglican Dean of Westminster Abbey came to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination in 2000 and participated in a mass at the El Salvador de Mundo (the Savior of the World) traffic circle lead by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles. I cried during the service when Salvadorans passed the peace to me after all my country had done to support the Salvadoran government during their civil war.


[1] Andrew Chandler, Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Westminster Abbey; London 1999); Andrew Chandler (ed.), The Terrible Alternative–Christian Martyrdom in the Twentieth Century (Cassell; London 1998).

[2] Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century at 3, 8, 10, 13.

[3]  The Terrible Alternative at 159-60. Father Ellacuria, of course, was one of the six Jesuit priests murdered by the Salvadoran military in November 1989. (See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 2, 2011).)

[4]  Id. at 160, 164-65; Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections at 9-10 (Orbis; Maryknoll, NY 1990); Post: Oscar Romero, A Saint for All People and All Time (Oct. 5, 2011). Jon Sobrino, whom I met at UCA in April 1989, escaped being murdered with his fellow Jesuits in November 1989 because he was lecturing in Southeast Asia. (Jon Sobrino, Ignacio Ellacuria, et al., Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador at 4-9 (Orbis Books; Maryknoll, N.Y. 1990).)

[5]  The Terrible Alternative at 167-68.

[6]  Id. at 170.