20 January 2009

A line I don't want to hear in today's speech by President Obama

If there’s one thing that irks me about speeches by American presidents, it’s their tendency to overstate the case for their country being the first, finest or only example of freedom and democracy in the world.

The issue is summed up here in a thoughtful, and otherwise strongly recommended, piece by Clark Judge, a former Reagan speechwriter:

“Inaugural addresses invariably remind us of America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty…”

It was also there in a famous anecdote used by Ronald Reagan in his address at the 1964 Republican Convention that launched him on to the national political stage (A time for choosing: Rendezvous with Destiny):

REAGAN: Not too long ago two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, "We don't know how lucky we are." And the Cuban stopped and said, "How lucky you are! I had someplace to escape to." In that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth..

My point is not to criticise the particular form of democracy and freedom that’s been developed in the USA.

Nor is it to claim that we in the UK (or any other European country) have a come up with an even better version of democracy.

But it is to register a complaint about this implicit criticism of other countries' democracy and freedom that’s so regularly trotted out by American politicians.

Reagan was as wrong in saying that there was no place to escape to as he was wrong in claiming that the USA was ‘the last stand on earth’.

From the point of view of those of us lucky enough live in other countries where elections also determine who governs and also result in a peaceful transfer of power, such overstated claims are at best tactless, and at worst quite offensive.

That’s why it’s a line I would never recommend to any of my clients with a vested interest in staying friends with their closest allies.

3 comments:

Chris Witt said...

I think Obama avoided the line (and the hubris behind it) that you dislike so much.

He did call America "the most powerful, prosperous nation on earth," but he neither said nor implied that America is the only, last, or best hope of freedom and democracy.

He said that the Founding Fathers drew up a charter to assure "the rule of law and the rights of man." And then he added "those ideals still light the world." That could be interpreted, I guess, to suggest that America has a special ownership of those ideals. But as an American I took his words to mean that the U.S. has to reclaim those values.

Obama carefully avoided disparaging or condemning his predecessors (both Bush and Cheney were on the stage with him), but he did subtly judge what has been going on. He did so, I think, by using a lot of re- words: reaffirm, restore, remake, reform, remind, recall, remember, return. The implication is that the country has forgotten or set aside the things that matter.

Admittedly, I heard his speech through American ears. I didn't hear it as rah-rah America. Did you?

Max Atkinson said...

On the content front, I think you’re right and agree that it was encouragingly less ‘rah-rah America’, as you put it, than the monopolistic claims that Americans are the exclusive owners/practitioners of freedom and democracy I was complaining about.

Saying that the Founding Fathers drew up a charter to assure ‘the rule of law and the rights of man’ and that ‘those ideals still light the world’ is also quite acceptable to my European ears – because we’d have to be pretty paranoid to hear it as claiming that the USA is the only country that’s lighting the world by subscribing to such ideals.

At least the wording allows for the fact that the Enlightenment, which inspired your founding fathers, didn’t just spring out of some mysterious sod of earth in the new world, but might have originated from somewhere else (e.g. 18th century Europe) and might even have underpinned the evolution of other democratic nations (e.g. 20th century Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, etc.).

In short, I was pleased to see that he didn’t repeat the line I didn’t want to hear and that the speech was therefore much more tactful and less offensive than some the ones that prompted this particular posting.

As for his delivery, I was somewhat less impressed, and am wondering if the teleprompter was causing him problems. Maybe the sunshine was making it difficult to read, or maybe there should have been a third screen directly in front of him.

But more of this when I’ve had time to inspect it in more detail.

Meanwhile, thanks for the comment, and keep in touch.

Chris Witt said...

Your comments about the telepromter (he only uses two screens) is spot on. I've noticed it in almost all of his speeches, not just the inaugural. Has no one pointed this out to him?