THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Between Prophets and Presidents
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, December 19, 2009
In today’s fast-paced, information-laden world we are rarely able to separate the important from the trivial. Gatecrashers to White House parties and celebrity misadventures in marriage are given more coverage than major speeches by the President.
President Obama has begun to articulate his vision of the role of the United States on the world stage. Beginning with his address to the cadets at West Point in which he announced his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, followed by his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Obama has been advancing his view of the United States in international affairs.
These speeches are boiled down to sound bites, sometimes surrounded with commentary noting the President’s eloquence, sometimes charging he is more talk than action. Rarely do commentators reflect on the worldview implicit in these speeches.
It is precisely this worldview that raises troubling questions about the direction of the President and his policies.
In both speeches President Obama explains his military actions by painting a picture of the U.S. as a nation always acting out of the highest ideals, seeking only freedom for itself and others, never desiring to occupy other lands, bringing prosperity to all. In this view, our actions are just because our intentions are pure.
Such a distorted view of our history is a long-practiced American myth, an oft-told tale. Its effect is to keep us as a people in a state of denial about our uses and abuses of power.
At West Point President Obama said, “We must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom and justice and opportunity and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America’s authority.”
He went on to say that since WWII “Our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions — from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank — that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.
“We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades … advancing frontiers of human liberty.”
It is this mythical view of U.S history that sets President Obama apart from Dr. Martin Luther King.
King recognized that in the years since WWII we had gotten on the “wrong side of world revolutions.”
“Increasingly, by choice or by accident,” he said, “this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.”
Because he looked honestly at our use and abuse of military force to protect power and privilege, King urged Americans to undergo a “radical revolution in values,” to “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person oriented society.” He said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Such an understanding of our history is more than the difference between prophets and presidents. It is the only view that will enable us construct a real peace and regain our humanity.