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.”


 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).

Steven Pinker’s Analysis of Wealth and Inequality

“The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” as noted in a prior post, is the cheery synopsis of the new book, “Enlightenment NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress “ (p. 52)  by Harvard University’s Johnston Family Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker.

Two of the measures that he examines are wealth (Ch. 8) and inequality (Ch. 9), both of which illustrate his overall analysis over long periods of time and for the whole world with unusual sets of data and graphs.


For wealth, he starts with the proposition that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it” (p. 80).

His graph of Gross World Product, 1-2015 (p. 81) shows virtually no change from year 1 through the middle of the 19th century and then virtually a straight-upward line through 2015. This “Great Escape” from poverty was due to “the application of science to the improvement of material life,” “the development of institutions that lubricated the exchange of goods, services, and ideas” and “a change in values” or “endorsement of bourgeois virtue” (pp. 80-85).

The next graph–GDP per capita, 1600-2015 (p. 85)—shows, Pinker argues, that “starting in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence. This is also shown, according to Pinker, by data and graphs of World income distribution, 1800, 1975, and 2015; Extreme poverty (proportion of world population), 1820-2015; and Extreme poverty (number), 1820-2015 (pp. 86-88).

For Pinker, the following are the three major causes of this Great Convergence:

  1. The “decline of communism (together with intrusive socialism).” Market “economies can generate wealth prodigiously while totalitarian planned economies impose scarcity, stagnation, and often famine. Market economies, in addition to reaping the benefits of specialization and providing incentives for people to produce things that other people want, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability far and wide.” Moreover, many market economies also “invested in education, public health, infrastructure, and agricultural and job training, together with social insurance and poverty-reduction programs.” (Pp. 90-91.)[1]
  2. Better leadership in developing countries (p. 91).
  3. The end of the Cold War (p. 91).
  4. Globalization through an explosion of international trade (p. 92).
  5. Advances in science and technology (pp. 94-96).


The initial premise of this chapter is that unlike “health, prosperity, knowledge, safety, peace “ and certain other factors, “economic inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being.” The contrary view confuses inequality with poverty. (Pp. 98-102.)

Here Pinker asserts that inequality comes with modernity and refers to the Gini Coefficient as the usual measure of economic inequality with 0, when everyone has the same as everyone else and 1, when one person has everything and everyone else has nothing.  (Pp. 98, 102.)

He then displays three graphs of the Gini Coefficient: International inequality, 1820-2013 (population weighted and unweighted), Global inequality, 1820-2011 and Inequality, UK and US, 1688-2013. These graphs demonstrate, he says, that “inequality in the world is declining.” (Pp. 98, 103-06.) An historian, Walter Scheidel, is said to have identified the Four Horsemen of Leveling: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics by obliterating wealth and killing large numbers of workers. (Pp. 106-07.)

Moreover, “modern societies now devote a substantial chunk of their wealth to health, education, pensions, and income support (the Egalitarian Revolution).” This has “redefined the mission of government to include such social spending to inoculate citizens against the appeal of communism and fascism, to benefit the entire society, to indemnify citizens against misfortunes against which they can’t or won’t insure themselves and to assuage the modern conscience.” (Pp. 107-08.)

The conclusion from Pinker on this issue is the following:

  • “As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative , or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved . . . The improvements are enhanced by social spending, and by the falling cost and rising quality of the things that people want. In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.” (P. 120.)


The overall thesis of this book– The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being—is very attractive. What are the counter arguments?

The above summary of Professor Pinker’s analysis of wealth and inequality raises at least the following questions:

  • Many of the data sets used by Pinker are not well known. Therefore, do they accurately and fairly depict what they purport to depict?
  • It seems valid that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it.” Any legitimate objections to same?
  • Is it valid to state that “in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence?
  • Are Pinker’s reasons for the Great Convergence valid?
  • Is economic inequality not a fundamental component of wellbeing?
  • Is the Gini Coefficient a valid measure of inequality?
  • Are the major causes of Leveling or reduced inequality these factors: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics?

Comments from others who know more about these data sets and analyses are earnestly solicited.


[1] Right now we are seeing Cuba struggle with whether and how it will modify its communist economic system to allow greater private enterprise. See Economic Challenges Facing Cuba’s New President, dwkcommentaries.com (April 5, 2018).






Reactions to Tom Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”

Tom Friedman’s new book’s basic thesis: now everyone on the planet is living in a simultaneous age of accelerations of changes in technology, globalization and planet earth and we all are challenged in how we can and will respond to these changes.[1] After summarizing the major points of the book, the conclusion will offer some critical comments.

Summary of the Book

Most of the book describes those changes, but nowhere is there an express “guide to thriving” in this age. Instead the reader has to pick up recommended habits and changes that are sprinkled throughout the book. Here is what I assume are the elements of such a guide.

  1. Understanding the Accelerating Changes. This is Part II of the book. Increasing technology emphasizes developments in artificial intelligence and global dissemination of these improvements. Increasing globalization includes “trade in physical goods, services and financial transactions” and “the ability of any individual or company to compete, connect, exchange, or collaborate globally.” Increasing changes to planet earth include climate change, reductions in biodiversity, deforestation, biogeochemical flows, ocean acidification, overuse of freshwater, atmospheric aerosol loading, introduction of man-man chemicals and materials and increasing human population.
  1. Understanding the Effects of These Changes. This is supposed to be the primary focus of Part III of the book. The major one I found is Friedman’s assertion that there are now international inversions: allies can kill faster than enemies; “enemies” can pose greater risks by weakness rather than strength; there is a rising risk of frail states becoming failed states; and jihadists are “super-empowered breeders” of disorder or “breakers.” Most of this Part instead discusses possible responses to the accelerating changes and effects and his conclusion that “we have no choice but to learn to adapt to this new pace of change” (p. 198).
  1. Identifying and Implementing Responses to These Changes.

Responses to changes to planet earth: we need “a compounding commitment to stewardship, a compounding wiliness to act collectively to do compounding research and make compounding investments in clean energy production and more efficient consumption, along with a willingness, at least in America, to impose a carbon tax to get compounding investments in clean power and efficiency, plus a compounding commitment to women’s education and an ethic of empowerment everywhere.” (Pp. 183-84)

In addition, nations need to learn and adapt, to be agile and adopt heterodox, hybrid, entrepreneurial, experimental measures (Pp. 298-325) and to reverse centralization of governments and increase their decentralization, and the U.S. with its federal structure is designed to do just that. (Pp. 325-27) The last point is repeated in Chapter 7 (P. 201).

Goals for innovation from Chapter 7:“[R]eimagining and redesigning . . . society’s workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics and communities—in ways that will enable more citizens on more days in more ways to keep pace with how these accelerations are reshaping . . . [our] lives and generate more stability. [W]orkplace innovation to identify exactly what humans can do better than machines and better with machines and increasingly train people for these roles.” (Emphasis in original) “[G]eopolitical innovation to figure out how we collectively manage a world where the power of one [person], the power of machines, the power of flows, and the power of many [persons] are collapsing weak states, super-empowering breakers and stressing strong states. [P]olitical innovation to adjust our traditional left-right political platforms . . . to meet the new demands for societal resilience in the age of . . . accelerations. [M]oral innovation . . .to reimagine how we scale sustainable values to everyone we possibly can when the power of one [person] and the power of machines become so amplified that human beings become almost godlike. [S]ocietal innovation, learning to build new social contracts, lifelong learning opportunities, and expanded public-private partnerships, to anchor and propel more diverse populations and build more healthy communities.”

All individuals need a plan to succeed that includes lifelong learning and “self-motivation to tap into new global flows for work and learning.” This is a new social contract where people are hired based upon an individual’s skills, not credentials. “Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be . . . stempathy jobs,” i.e., “jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills.”

U.S. National Government should limit national political campaign spending and length of campaigns; stop state gerrymandering; and impose ranked-choice voting for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Chapter 10 also contains a list of at least 20 suggested changes to federal laws and policies without explanatory comments and without saying whether and how they are related to changes to the earth. All of these changes will require government “to create every possible regulatory and tax incentive for every company to provide, and every worker to get access to, intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants, intelligent networks, and intelligent financing for lifelong learning.” (P. 241)

  1. Reflecting. This is the title of Part I of the book, where Friedman says, stopping “to pause and reflect . . . is a necessity” because it enables you to start “to rethink your assumptions, to reimagine what is possible, . . . reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs [and] . . . reimagine a better path [forward].”

Supposedly he realized this when a guest was late for breakfast at a restaurant, thus giving Tom a few minutes to reflect and relax and then to thank the guest for being late (and thus providing the first part of the title of the book). I was put off by his converting this trivial incident into a significant one that is in the title of the book. Friedman is a serious man of the Jewish faith, which like other religions emphasizes regular prayer and attendance at worship services to provide the opportunities for such reflection, but no mention of that or of his recommitting to a regular practice of reflection at the start of the book. In Chapter 11, however, he says, “we make God present by our own choices and decisions. Unless we bear witness to God’s presence by our own deeds, He is not present. You cannot be moral unless you are totally free. All religions have some version of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  1. Identifying and Honoring Your Anchor. “We each need to be anchored [and enriched] in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities . . . [and to] enrich it in turn.” For him that is Minnesota and St. Louis Park, where he grew up and where he obtained the values he holds today: “I am a socially liberal, deeply patriotic, pluralism-loving, community-oriented, fiscally moderate, free-trade-inclined, innovation-obsessed environmentalist-capitalist,” and “America can deliver a life of decency, security, opportunity, and freedom for its own people, and can also be a bulwark of stability and a beacon of liberty and justice for people the world over.”


Although I am not qualified to assess Friedman’s discussion of technological change, a recent Wall Street Journal article takes a less grandiose view of technological innovation.[2] It says, none of the technological change “has translated into meaningful advances in Americans’ standard of living.” Moreover, “outside of personal technology, improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary.”

The book, in my opinion, was very poorly organized and edited. And it suggests that the U.S. responses to the accelerations should rest on the shoulders of thousands of local governments while inconsistently compiling a long list of things the federal government should do, many of which appear to be unrelated to responding to the accelerations.[3]

After a rather manic discussion of this book on the Charlie Rose Show last November, Friedman made a more effective presentation last December at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum.[4]


[1] Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations Farrar, Straus & Giroux, new York, 2016).

[2] Ip, The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of New Ideas, W.S.J. (Dec. 6, 2016)..

[3[ Here are two of the many reviews of the book: Micklethwait, The Message of Thomas Friedman’s New Book: It’s Going to Be O.K., N.Y. Times (Nov. 22, 2016); Vanderkam, Everyone Has an App Idea, W.S.J. (Nov. 21, 2016). Unsurprisingly Friedman uses some of the book’s ideas in his New York Times columns; here are two such columns: Dancing in a Hurricane, N.Y. Times (Nov. 19, 2016); From Hands to Heads to Hearts, N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2017).

[4] Charlie Rose Show, Tom Friedman (Nov. 21, 2016); Westminster Town Hall Forum, Tom Friedman (Dec.13, 2016).