AIJAZ ZAKA SYED
When ideas fail, said Goethe, words come in handy. As speeches go, President Obama’s tribute at Nelson Mandela’s memorial last week may easily have been one of his best.
That it was read from a script seemed to make no difference to the awesome power of his magical words or performance. It was such a refreshing change from the pedantic verbosity of President Jacob Zuma, the host, and other world leaders.
No politician has ever benefited from the power of words as Obama has. Indeed, if America, and the world, fell in love with the man with an unusual name and even more unusual background, much of the credit goes to his formidable oratorical skills. If mere words ever helped launch a career, it must be his.
The entire speech is a brilliant example of sublime oratory and clever use of language and words. It’s perhaps the best tribute Mandela ever received.
Goes without saying each word in summing up the magnificent legacy of the incomparable man that was Mandela is true. Some of the lines were absolute gems.
Addressing South Africans, Obama said: “His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy. He was a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”
“Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet.
“He turned his trial into an indictment of Apartheid. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.”
And here is my favorite bit out of the whole speech:
“He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of ﬂesh and blood — a son and husband, a father and a friend. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.”
Powerful words there. But are words alone enough? Words are nothing if they are not backed by action. The question is, does the great orator, the master of grandiloquence believe in his own words?
Obama talks of applying Mandela’s lessons in our own lives: “With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask: how well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It is a question I ask myself — as a man and as a President.”
Really? And what answers, pray, does this ‘self-reflection’ by the most powerful man on the planet throw up?
Someone who claims to be inspired by the last great liberator of the 20th century and credits his own evolution as a politician and election to the highest office in the land to the ideals of Mandela and Martin Luther King—how does he live with all the injustice and oppression around him—some of which on his own watch?
Last year, the New York Times revealed how Obama, who ran for the president on a promise to change America for the better and end its wars, gulags and other glorious practices, now personally determines a daily “kill list” of faceless men, women and children in distant lands.
Once chided as a liberal constitutional professor, we are told, he now applies his “lawyering skills to counterterrorism.”
US drones have wiped out thousands of lives in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere without so much as a blip on Pentagon computer screens. From toddlers in their mother’s arms to grannies working in fields, everyone is now a threat to the most powerful nation on earth.
Yet the leader of the free world has no qualms in staking claim to Mandela’s legacy. Urging the world community to “act on behalf of justice and peace,” Obama thundered: “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
I am not sure which ‘leaders’ he had in mind but I could instantly recall at least three people who are right now paying for that kind of ‘dissent’ – Bradley Manning, Alexander Snowden and Julian Assange.
While Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks, the website that has set the cat among the pigeons with its repeated exposes about abuse of power in high places, the first two names are those of US citizens in the pay of US government.
The 26-year old Manning received a 35-year sentence, not to mention the price he has paid in other ways. Assange and Snowden, after being hunted like wild animals across the globe, have taken shelter in countries with which they have nothing in common.
All this for what? For telling the truth of course and for blowing the lid off the crimes that the country that claims to champion freedom, democracy and human rights routinely commits.
Americans and rest of the West trashed the late Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire.’ Given the total tyranny that prevailed under Stalin and those who followed him, the description was justified. Millions perished in Siberia; we would never know the exact number or identity of the victims.
In Stalin’s words, they will remain a mere statistic. But the Commies never pretended to be the sole defenders of democracy and freedom or staked righteous claims to global leadership.
This Sovietization of America has not just continued under the man, who captured the world’s imagination with his rhetoric and gravitas like no politician has, it seems to have gathered pace. As in those bizarre zombie flicks, our hero seems to have taken on the personality of the very monster he replaced.
One can still glimpse some of those shades of the original Obama. Like when he stands up to speak for ideals and heroes once apparently close to his heart, as he did last week in South Africa. Or when he stands up to lobbies and special interests to take the right stand, as he initially did in announcing the shutdown of Guantanamo Bay or pushing for peace and equitable justice in the Middle East.
This was apparently why the few wise, Nobel men in Norway rushed to fete him, within weeks of his taking office and without waiting for him to deliver on his promises. It’s as though there are two sides to Obama’s personality—like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
And it is never easy to tell which side is which and which actually represents the real Barack Hussain Obama. One who sings hosannas to Mandela and Martin Luther King or one who embraces the very worldview that his heroes fought all their lives?
Does Obama really care what Mandela thought of US and Western policies? This is what the great man had to say of the empire: “If there’s a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings!”
In the run up to the US invasion of Iraq, an angry Mandela had said: “All he (Bush) wants is Iraqi oil. The US attitude is a threat to world peace.”
Having long suffered under the white supremacist tyranny, Mandela was passionate in his support for Palestinians: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Not surprisingly, while paying rich tributes to the South African struggle against Apartheid, Obama chose to ignore the other Apartheid that continues in the 21st century with the support of US taxpayer’s money.