Thursday, June 4, 2009

Political Rhetoric

Barack Obama gave an extraordinary speech today in Cairo. This subject takes me outside French politics, but I want to consider the speech as an example of political rhetoric, which is a general enough category to warrant mention here.

Liz Cheney, Dick's daughter, said of the speech that it was "well-delivered" and that Obama's personal story "sends a message about America being a land of opportunity." She went on, however, to say that she "was troubled by the extent to which I heard moral relativism. I heard the president talk about Iran as though we’ve done some bad things to Iran and they’ve done some bad things to us but now we just need to get together here to go forward — rather than acknowledging the fact that Iran is the world’s largest terrorist-sponsoring state."

Consider, however, what Obama actually said:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Here he is using not his "personal story" but the history of black oppression in America, of which his story is only a part. And he is using it to make a pertinent analogy about peoples that have suffered humiliation and what responses have proven to be historically effective. Throughout, the speech, moreover, he did not hesitate to examine American wrongs. He emphasized learning from errors rather than atoning for them or using them, as Sarkozy occasionally does, as symbols of redemption. This is not the "moral relativism" that Cheney decries; it is moral reasoning of a high order.

1 comment:

James Conran said...

Clearly for the nationalist right, America, by definition, can do no wrong. Hence the overthrow of Mossadegh (which is the wrong done to Iran mentioned by Obama) either can't have happened or must have been justifiable.

As a genereal proposition, however, Obama clearly does not believe that "violence is a dead end", since he pursues it in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. He seems, in the passage you quote, to imply that the story of oppressed peoples winning their liberation has been one marked by non-violent approaches, but this is clearly a highly selective historical account, not least for the US itself.

Clearly he means to say that terrorism, not violence per se, is a dead end. I certainly share Obama's belief in the potential power of non-violence, but part of the Palestinians' problem is that their resistance movements have all too often made the mistake Obama makes here: failing to make the distinction not only between violence and resistance but between violence and terrorism.