President Obama: “Expanding Our Moral Imagination”
President Obama’s moving remarks last Friday July 19, 2013, that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago took me back to another high note in his presidency – the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Dec 10, 2009.
Both the polite audience seated in the cavernous Norwegian auditorium, as well as a global audience of admirers and skeptics all listened with rapt attention. President Obama could have chosen to deliver saccharine pabulum about ideals of peace as gloss over his global superstardom. He didn’t. Instead he punched his audience in the gut with uncomfortable truths about:
1. Fundamental difference between his responsibilities as head of a state embroiled in 2 wars who must deploy military force when needed to protect his nation, and those of other Nobel Peace Prize recipients such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. who served as conscience leaders and advocated non-violence as means to achieve justice.
2. The Niebuhrian concept of Just War, which stipulates that there IS evil in the world that does not disappear through diplomacy, prayer or concession. It must be fought with blood and treasure.
3. An active peace that requires that we all EXPAND OUR MORAL IMAGINATION, or else the assurance of human dignity and societal growth will be stunted
Pres Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Speech 12-10-2009
From the 29:10 minute mark, Pres. Obama described the concept thus:
“Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more — and that’s the continued EXPANSION OF OUR MORAL IMAGINATION; an insistence that there’s something IRREDUCIBLE THAT WE ALL SHARE.
As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we’re all basically seeking the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.
And yet somehow, given the dizzying pace of globalization, the cultural leveling of modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities — their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we’re moving backwards….”
Pres Obama deftly captures the paradox of our technologically advanced world in this 21st century – that the more time and space shrink between us as individuals, families, communities and nations, the more we are inclined to recoil into isolationist security blankets. Yet, that very impulse is inherently nihilistic, and precisely what will doom us. It is, however, enlightened self-interest that beckons us to walk in another’s shoes and pool ideas to maximize our chances of survival. He said:
“…for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. For we are fallible. … Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.
But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.
… Let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls
We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”
It all sounded lofty in the presence of that august body in the auditorium, but when Will Smith and Jada Pinket asked him what he meant by “expanding our moral imagination” in a short interview afterwards, Pres Obama broke down the tactile truth like a fraction.
Pres Obama interviewed by Will Smith and Jada Pinket-Smith 12-11-2009
“Well…when you think about what’s happening in the world, on the one hand it’s shrinking. We see the internet, and livefeeds and YouTube. And that means that nobody around the world should be a stranger. And that should be bringing us closer together, because it should remind us that we are all fundamentally the same in terms of our aspirations, our hopes, our love for our children… But it’s disorienting. And so a lot of people pull back into their own specific identities; their race, their tribe, their religion. And that’s a dangerous thing because it can splinter people, and cause conflict …
…. And so one of the critical ingredients of any effort for peace is my ability to stand in your shoes, to see through your eyes, to constantly imagine what’s like being a mother in Bangladesh right now, and if the water is rising because of climate change. That kind of ability to imagine ourselves in different situations, helps us then connect with those other people. And hopefully that can be what drives us to wanna do better on a whole host of things”
“What that ultimately does though is…in the situation you’re in…is it’s always gonna slam you into a dilemma. Because once you get to that point and you comprehend (2:36 mark) what the other person is saying..”
“…And they comprehend what you’re saying, and that there is still only enough water for one of y’all…” (laughter)
“Well, but hopefully, hopefully what then starts happening is that you start figuring out are there other ways we can work together to build a new well as opposed to fight over the old well that we’ve got….And look, I don’t wanna simplify it. None of this is easy. But what it does mean is that for example when wealthy countries think about foreign aid, thinking about it as an investment…[means]…in a way, we don’t have to send soldiers on a peacekeeping mission, because peace is already there. This is a way to make sure that we’ve got new markets, because now that these folks bought a bicycle, they’ll be interested in buying a car. Now that they’ve got a stove, maybe they’ll be interested in buying a refrigerator, and maybe they can start trading with us.
Constantly thinking about how are we able to create opportunities for collaboration, and cooperation, as opposed to conflict. When you think about Europe, after WWII, we could have just said, “we sent a whole bunch of troupes there, we defeated Hitler, now we’re broke we need to go home and take care of our business”. Instead, what we did was organize the Marshall Plan, rebuilt not just those countries that had been our allies, but helped to rebuild Germany, which had been our enemy. Did the same thing in Japan. And those efforts are part of what created the international security that allowed America to enjoy far greater prosperity than we ever would have otherwise. So, part of that Moral Imagination is also being able to think 10, or 20, or 30 years down the line, both in terms of the consequences of action, but also the consequences of inaction”
Many PBO supporters, me included, can almost recite verbatim some of his oft repeated turns of expression, almost as if they were cute verbal tics. But they aren’t. They are radars pointing us to brave the untrodden trail, and risk abandoning comfort zones. Why? Because in this 21st Century those “comfort zones” offer neither comfort nor will they be habitable zones any longer. That is scary. But it is hard nosed realism.
At least PBO’s telling us the way out of fighting over a well that soon dries out and leaves no-one alive, is to knock our heads together competitively in knowledge-inspired coalitions to figure out how to build additional water wells, heck even discover new elements that supersede natural H2O’s utility for our survival. Innovation is survival. Stagnation is death. Period.
But fighting and killing each other over dying wells is exactly what Koch brothers and their ilk are offering us as the Gospel of Freedumb. In a piece I wrote a few years ago for the now defunct WeeSeeYou website, titled “Dismantling Our Commonweal”, I wondered exactly what the endpoint of Koch-Ayn-Randian project is. So the social safety nets are gutted, healthcare, labor protections, environmental, financial and all regulations, child labor laws, minimal wage laws, Food & Drug Safety inspections, all dismantled. They siphon off all the wealth from the Middle classes into their mega kitties. Then what? Who is going to be alive to be consumer in their libertarian capitalist paradise? Worse of all what do they think the emerging global economic powers will be doing while America is feudalized, and exited from the race toward new technological frontiers? Wage war on everybody else for leaving America behind? I don’t get it.
If the Kochsters were deploying their ruthlessness to discover cutting edge knowledge frontiers, I’d pay them grudging respect. But they aren’t. They’re clinging to every possible outmoded idea and defunct industry imaginable, while bribing their lackeys to snuff out new technologies, and erode people’s hard won rights. Even emperors of a dying Roman empire were not this regressive!
FDR saved the butts of America’s wealthy classes from Bolshevik slaughter by creating a Middle Class buffer zone. Henry Ford figured the only way to keep his wealth regenerating was to pay his workers enough to buy his product. Not so today’s band of inept billionaires whose only skill is the craft of vampire capitalism. Problem is the old wells, including those stolen from others still dry up. There is only so much distance bloodsucking taxpayer $$$ can go when the taxpayer no longer exists (eg Detroit). There are only so many weapons that can be amassed to guard fortresses against the hordes when paranoia and the ramparts crumble on their own weight.
The Obama presidency has lifted the scab off many unhealed wounds in this country – racial, economic, and geographical inequalities. But it has done more or worse depending on one’s perch, lobbing garlic at the ghosts in the American machine.
Expanding our moral imagination is NOT an exercise in do-goodism. It is a basic act of self-preservation, lest brains, heart, and body atrophy.