Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Better History

In a speech barely covered by US media, and mostly covered badly anyway, President Obama expressed in straightforward language a clear and nuanced vision for the progress of civilization, in his final address to the United Nations General Assembly as President of the United States.

He was clear about the challenges faced now and in the future.  He was clear about the principles he believes in, and that he asserts have worked to make the world better.  He emphasized progress made, because the knowledge that progress can be made provides confidence that fuels future efforts.  Those efforts include constant reevaluation.  He outlined "course corrections."

The timeframe he chose was the past quarter century, after the Cold War's end.  He lauded US and UN efforts, and the impact of global business and new technology in, for example, reducing dire poverty from afflicting 40% of the world's population to less than 10% now. He makes powerful and factually based arguments for the benefits of the global economy.

But he always returned to what needs to be corrected, such as inequaltiy, and what was done wrong to foster this progress, such as repressing unions and hobbling other institutional checks on greed. "A world in which one percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable."

He seeks a balance between various forms of identity and autonomy (ethnic, racial, national, religious) and cooperation, with the full recognition of our common humanity.

Full transcript here, and video here.  A summary equal to the speech's contents would be too lengthy here, and a series of soundbite quotes would be as pointless and deceptive as the few news stories about it.  I hope to quote some chunks of it in future days, however.

This speech both elucidates a vision President Obama has been describing in different ways since his first campaign, and does so with a subtlety, economy and yet a panorama that seems the result of observation, dialogue, discussion and insight through the eight years of his presidency.  It is an important address, and should be an important source for the next President, who would therefore start out with this level of understanding.

In June President Obama addressed the Canadian parliament, where members chanted "four more years!"  Though some in the world will be glad to see him go--Putin, ISIL come to mind--many world leaders would echo the Canadian call.  We have not yet seen the full panic that would ensue if Trump were even close to being elected.

President Obama came onto the world stage with his basic vision and values, with knowledge and intelligence.  He has now acquired and synthesized wisdom, and that's what was on display at the UN.

That wisdom involves the acquired precise knowledge joined to a richer version of the vision.  He ended his UN address acknowledging that there is a reading of history that emphasizes greed, suspicion and the darkness within the human soul. "Time and again, human beings have believed that they finally arrived at a period of enlightenment only to repeat, then, cycles of conflict and suffering. Perhaps that's our fate."

But there have been two checks against virulence: institutional and individual.  Unions, regulations, an independent judiciary, public utilities and government as a whole, imperfect institutions that nevertheless have kept the worst excesses in check and saved capitalism from itself.  And in the end, the individual decision, that is the right and responsibility of every one of us.Their operation in the world can lead to a different historical emphasis, a different story.

"Each of us as leaders, each nation can choose to reject those who appeal to our worst impulses and embrace those who appeal to our best. For we have shown that we can choose a better history."

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