Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Obama: Still an Optimistic Leftist in the Age of Trump!

Sometimes I feel a bit alone is my status as an optimistic leftist. Not many seem to share my sense that, in the medium-to-long term, the world is in fact likely to get considerably better and align increasingly with the values and priorities of the left. That's my reading of past and current trends, notwithstanding the rise of the Trump and all the short-term evil that has entailed.
I was happy to note that none other than our esteemed ex-President Barack Obama shares my optimism. Here's some of what he had to say in the major speech he recently delivered as the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture:
"One hundred years ago....[w]hites were happy to exploit other whites when they could. And by the way, blacks were often willing to exploit other blacks. And around the globe, the majority of people lived at subsistence levels, without a say in the politics or economic forces that determined their lives. Often they were subject to the whims and cruelties of distant leaders. The average person saw no possibility of advancing from the circumstances of their birth. Women were almost uniformly subordinate to men. Privilege and status was rigidly bound by caste and color and ethnicity and religion. And even in my own country, even in democracies like the United States, founded on a declaration that all men are created equal, racial segregation and systemic discrimination was the law in almost half the country and the norm throughout the rest of the country.
That was the world just 100 years ago. There are people alive today who were alive in that world. It is hard, then, to overstate the remarkable transformations that have taken place since that time. A second World War, even more terrible than the first, along with a cascade of liberation movements from Africa to Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, would finally bring an end to colonial rule. More and more peoples, having witnessed the horrors of totalitarianism, the repeated mass slaughters of the 20th century, began to embrace a new vision for humanity, a new idea, one based not only on the principle of national self-determination, but also on the principles of democracy and rule of law and civil rights and the inherent dignity of every single individual.
In those nations with market-based economies, suddenly union movements developed; and health and safety and commercial regulations were instituted; and access to public education was expanded; and social welfare systems emerged, all with the aim of constraining the excesses of capitalism and enhancing its ability to provide opportunity not just to some but to all people. And the result was unmatched economic growth and a growth of the middle class. And in my own country, the moral force of the civil rights movement not only overthrew Jim Crow laws but it opened up the floodgates for women and historically marginalized groups to reimagine themselves, to find their own voices, to make their own claims to full citizenship....
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 d├ętente, 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.
And with these geopolitical changes came sweeping economic changes. The introduction of market-based principles, in which previously closed economies along with the forces of global integration powered by new technologies, suddenly unleashed entrepreneurial talents to those that once had been relegated to the periphery of the world economy, who hadn’t counted. Suddenly they counted. They had some power; they had the possibilities of doing business.
And then came scientific breakthroughs and new infrastructure and the reduction of armed conflicts. And suddenly a billion people were lifted out of poverty, and once-starving nations were able to feed themselves, and infant mortality rates plummeted. And meanwhile, the spread of the internet made it possible for people to connect across oceans, and cultures and continents instantly were brought together, and potentially, all the world’s knowledge could be in the hands of a small child in even the most remote village.
That’s what happened just over the course of a few decades. And all that progress is real. It has been broad, and it has been deep, and it all happened in what — by the standards of human history — was nothing more than a blink of an eye. And now an entire generation has grown up in a world that by most measures has gotten steadily freer and healthier and wealthier and less violent and more tolerant during the course of their lifetimes....
For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive market-based system — one 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."
What he said! Note that Obama does not ignore the many things that are still wrong and unjust and need correction. But it is clear which way he still sees the arc of history bending. Read the whole speech; it's really excellent. Perhaps it'll nudge you into the optimistic leftist camp. Barack and I say: Come in on, the water's fine!
About this article
NPR.ORG
The former president spoke in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Here is the full transcript.

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