When I recently visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, a young girl on our tour of the house raised her hand tentatively during the docent’s remarks about the enslaved people who worked the plantation.
“Did Jefferson treat his slaves better than other slave-owners?” she asked.The docent responded, wisely, that slavery is slavery, however brilliant or benevolent the owner. Yes, Jefferson did try to avoid splitting up families and paid his slaves extra for game they shot and contributed to the household. But the founding father owned slaves and there’s no way around that fact.
You could hear the hopefulness in the girl’s question: Surely the man who penned the words “all men are created equal” would transcend the slave-owning conventions of his time. He didn’t, despite the repeated urgings of his Polish friend Tadeusz Kosciuszko. For some, this gap between Jefferson’s words and his actions constitute one of America’s founding hypocrisies, which continue to tear at the fabric of our society.
But another interpretation links Jefferson through Abraham Lincoln to our current president, Barack Obama. Jefferson’s famous words, the “self-evident truths” inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, didn’t describe real, existing equality in the United States but, rather, a state toward which Americans must strive. As Lincoln would later proclaim on George Washington’s birthday, the founding fathers “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be…constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Which brings us to the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to award this year’s Peace Prize to Barack Obama. Oslo’s decision has generated a great deal of material for stand-up comics and fulminating right-wingers. Rush Limbaugh sided with the Taliban and Iran in their negative judgment. The Washington Post published selections from their staff blogs, and the journalists perhaps for the first time in their lives sided with Rush (Obama supporter Ruth Marcus, for instance, called the award “ridiculous” and “embarrassing”). The president, according to the collective assessment of U.S. opinion-makers, is undeserving.
The selection committee made a point of emphasizing that they were awarding the prize based on what the president had already done, namely his commitment to nuclear abolition and the shift in U.S. policy on climate change. There was also his Cairo speech, which Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Arthur Waskow, in Toward an Abrahamic Peace, calls “an extraordinary opening to the Muslim world — making clear that the new U.S. government understands the Arab and Muslim view of the world and takes seriously even Arab and Muslim critiques of U.S. behavior and policy. The Cairo speech not only set the basic tone of seeking to build a world community rather than an American empire, but also covered all the key specific outstanding issues with a basic outlook of community rather than domination.”
Nevertheless, the Nobel award acknowledges aspiration more than achievement, just as the words “all men are created equal” referred not to the United States as it was but as it should be. Obama has laid the rhetorical foundations for a major shift in U.S. policy. That shift, like nuclear abolition, will not happen during Obama’s term, perhaps not even in his lifetime. But he has articulated the better dreams of his country.
For the third time in the last 100 years, the United States stands poised to become an equal and cooperative member of a more perfect international community. Woodrow Wilson, the last standing president to win a Nobel Peace Prize, helped to create the League of Nations, which the lead-up to World War II wiped out. After that war, FDR helped set up the pillars of the current international system — the United Nations, World Bank — but the Cold War cut internationalism in half.
Today, the United States faces perils as large as those that faced Jefferson at the time of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln in the early days of the Civil War. To address the economic crisis, the climate crisis, the energy crisis, the United States must fundamentally alter its relationship with the world and help build the new institutions that reflect this play-well-with-others attitude.
The Nobel Prize is a challenge to Obama to raise his game, match action to rhetoric, and meet this great challenge facing the United States in the world. It will require ending the war in Afghanistan and taking leadership at Copenhagen on climate change. It will require eliminating nuclear weapons rather than just talking about how nice it would be to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Obama can’t do this by himself. Jefferson didn’t write that “I hold these truths to be self-evident.” Lincoln did not write the “better angels of my nature.” The Nobel Prize is the collective achievement of the American people for repudiating the Bush years and making the words of the Declaration of Independence come that much closer to reality.
Now, let’s all prove that we deserve it.
Room for Improvement
Immediately on taking office, Obama declared his intention to close the Guantánamo detention facility within a year. It was the perfect way to draw a line between the old and the new. Well worth a Nobel Prize nomination. Unfortunately, the gap between word and deed is widening by the day.
“The deadline for Guantánamo’s closure, less than four months away, almost certainly will be missed,” writes FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan in Losing the Moral High Ground. “And on so many vital issues, the Obama administration has not broken with the past but instead has upheld Bush’s legacy of legal loopholing, moral doublespeak, and crude vengeance.” Then there’s the matter of the Goldstone Commission Report on human rights abuses during Israel’s attack on Gaza last December. The report, authored by a respected jurist and Zionist, was remarkably even-handed in its identification of war crimes by both Israel and Hamas. But the Obama administration worked hard to suppress the report.
“This latest assault against the human rights community by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats is not an example of their being too ‘pro-Israel,’” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in The Goldstone Report: Killing the Messenger. “Indeed, such war crimes and other gross and systematic human rights abuses by the Israeli government endanger Israel’s security, and have led to the rise of extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah in the first place. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership in Washington has joined the Republicans in a campaign, in effect, to kill the messenger: attack the United Nations, Amnesty International, or anyone else — be they journalist, scholar, activist, or even one of the world’s most respected jurists — who dares put forward credible evidence of human rights abuses by the United States or its allies.”
The administration responded more appropriately to the coup in Honduras. But even here there is room for improvement.
“The United States has taken positive steps by cutting off aid and the visas of 23 people,” Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America said in an interview with FPIF contributor Gabriella Campos. “It stopped consular practices, and it stopped joint military training operations in Honduras. However, I do think they could do more. They could cut more travel visas because business elites are the economic support behind the coup. There should also be the freezing of the assets of the people in the coup government, or the people who support them, which are held here in the United States. If you want to send a message, send it strongly. But don’t work multilaterally in a weak fashion, because it doesn’t help.”
Baseball in Cambodia
This week in Fiesta!, our feature on the intersection of culture and foreign policy, Joe Cook talks about his transformation from Jouret Pek and Cambodia’s transformation into a baseball-playing country.
“For the last seven years, Joe Cook, a Cambodian refugee, has been teaching the game in his homeland, building Cambodia’s first ball field,” writes FPIF contributor John Perra in From Killing Fields to Fields of Dreams. “Last year, he even managed to put together a national team. In March, they finally won their first game, playing a short series against a team from Vietnam. Considering the violent history the two countries share, just playing the game was an accomplishment beyond any scorecard.”
When FPIF contributor Frances Adler read about the cost of U.S. bases in an FPIF report by Anita Dancs, she was inspired to write the poem Dear Legislators. “I’m just a poet with my papers and pens, just a person wondering why we’re/buying bullets with our billions instead of seeking care for our millions,” she concludes.
Lastly, be sure to join us for the 33rd Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards this Thursday. We’ll be celebrating a domestic workers’ organization and a coalition of groups in El Salvador that successfully banned harmful mining practices in their country. If you haven’t purchased your tickets yet, you can do so here.
FPIF, October 13, 2009