In an otherwise sombre start to the year Barack Obama's final speech has been a shining light. He celebrated what he saw as the successes of his administration without sneering at his political opponents. He spoke graciously and decently, and evoked hope for the future.
He also described in broad terms the current discontents of the United States and how they might be addressed. He acknowledged the growing inequality of wealth and the burdens that are disproportionately carried by those least able to do so. He also recognised that, if left unchecked, rising inequality and impoverishment will spread as technological change both increases wealth and leaves more people unemployed or underemployed.
In his speech Obama's main concern was the threat that these trends pose to democracy. They arouse widespread anger and polarisation, leading different groups in society to regard one another as enemies and to refuse to engage civilly with one another.
This in turn leads to isolation: people surround themselves with others who share their opinions, shut out the voices of those who differ from them, and assume that their opponents are in bad faith. Their political action is then directed solely at addressing the interests and perceived injustices suffered by their group, with no vision of a broader good within which their interests might be negotiated and accommodated.
This fragmentation of the reaction against the injustices of economic globalisation ensures that inequality and the burdens it imposes on impoverished groups will deepen. Governments will remain complicit in maintaining an unjust economic order. They also become more authoritarian and direct the anger at the injustices of globalisation against unfavoured minorities.
Disaffection then grows, leading to further alienation and further protest. In this increasingly pressured society democracy is the loser.
Obama's remedy is to strengthen the underpinnings of democracy through social engagement and a shared commitment to the common good. This requires entering into the shoes of other citizens. He offers graphic examples:
'For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles — who it was said we're going to destroy the fundamental character of America ...
"Obama's remedy is to strengthen the underpinnings of democracy through social engagement and a shared commitment to the common good. This requires entering into the shoes of other citizens."
'For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he's got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.'
Obama is right in insisting that empathy is the necessary starting point for reconstructing a broken economic framework. It enables a global perspective from which the good of individuals and groups is set within the flourishing of the whole community, and especially the most disadvantaged.
Globalisation itself needs to be considered from this perspective. Seen rightly, globalisation makes gates in the fences that separate people culturally, economically and religiously so that the wealth and connection that results benefit all groups in each society to flourish. It is about ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are equitably shared, and that the burdens caused by globalisation to any sector of society are relieved by the contributions of the beneficiaries. Trade pacts must build in this mutual responsibility, not lock in individual and corporate profit.
Globalisation, however, is often seen from a purely economic perspective, and so reduced to removing the barriers to trade and financial transactions without accepting any accompanying social obligations. It promotes economic growth in ways that further enrich wealthy nations, corporations and individuals by enabling them to make and retain their wealth at the expense of others. This narrow view is inimical to democracy. It inevitably fosters narrow self-interest and closes down empathy.
Obama's call for empathy and conversation in public life is attractive but runs against strong currents today. Much mainstream media is partisan in its support of the existing economic order from which its proprietors benefit, and intolerant of other voices. Social media is dominated by barracking for sectional interests and offers little space for conversation.
In this world small magazines like Eureka Street have a small but important role. They provide a voice for groups suffering discrimination on economic, ethnic, political, religious, gender and other grounds, and they can bring those voices into a broader conversation on the large issues that affect all groups in society. That conversation may have little immediate effect but it does keep alive the hope that animated Obama's speech.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
18 January 2017
Obama's administration dropped well over twenty six thousand bombs on multiple countries during the past twelve months. He's also instigated a policy of deliberate and systematic upgrading/modernisation of American's already vast arsenal of nuclear weapons. At this very moment we're also seeing an unpardonable escalation/provocation via the redeployment of US troops into Eastern Europe. Given the hard reality of the above, I find it problematic that he would expect anyone to take his call for "empathy" remotely seriously. This is a PR smokescreen for purposes of political/moral obfuscation.
18 January 2017
I watched some news footage a few nights ago which revealed Rev Jesse Jackson's tears when Obama was elected. There was so much hope, so many hearts bursting. Obama has had a number of difficulties to contend with during his presidency and has shown his decency on many occasions. In regard to the final paragraph, ES may seem 'small' in some respects but there is that story about the mustard seed.....
19 January 2017
Words like globalisation;democracy; free trade are nebulous and in the eyes of the beholder like love; beauty or God; that they mean all things to all people. It is good and evil in the one word. It is two sides of the one coin. Unless you deal with all the outcomes from all sides; winners and losers; you cannot proclaim that the outcomes are all good or all bad. Free trade does not define Fair trade and Democracy does not define separation of powers or equality of access to the judiciary. Winners write history but that does not make it right.
19 January 2017
Admirable sentiments apposite to social justice, democracy and true humanity. In light of his government's foreign policy of invasion of sovereign countries in the name of democracy, economic recklessness, weapons supplies to promote a war economy and anti-life record, is he but another politician writing his own favourable reference?
19 January 2017
It is hard - without the advantage of time, which allows us to look back and to put things into perspective - to assess, let alone pass judgement on the achievements, or otherwise, of the Obama presidency. My current feeling is that there were both achievements and failures there. Certainly he had social vision and the much denigrated 'Obamacare' was one positive outcome. Most Australians would have no idea what it is like to be poor and without medical insurance in America. Fortunately we have Medicare and free public hospitals. I expect there will be an attempt to water down/eliminate these by those on the New Right here. Interesting the last paragraph about those 'suffering discrimination' on a number of grounds. Your emphasis is, and always was, on dialogue and reconciliation: working within the system. There are certainly those, like the originators of the Safe Schools Program, or those on the Green Left in NSW, who seem to think the system is broken in major ways and seem to be seeking to remould it in their own image without the active agreement of the majority. I find this disturbing.
19 January 2017
Election of a President with powers beyond ceremonial sets up a person to fail and is somewhat anti democratic. The reference to the "Obama Administration" has the connotation that Obama was a dictator responsible for every thing that happened when he was President. It would be anti democratic if it were so but it is painted so. I hope we in Australia do not fall for an elected President with more then a ceremonial role.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
19 January 2017
Yes, Barack Obama made some moving speeches in the latter days of his presidency, however, I think his legacy will be a very mixed one.
At home, his efforts to start an affordable health program were encouraging.
However, he kept supplying armaments to Israel, continued to be an apologist for Israel and refused to recognise the Palestinian state.
Obama did nothing to control the Indonesian military which has caused much bloodshed in SE Asia and Its brutal record continues in West Papua.
Obama also kept the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq going despite promises to the contrary.
Then there was the trashing of Libya leaving the country in devastation.
His administration also supported Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most undemocratic, belligerent and misogynist regimes.
Obama was involved with the use of killer drones which killed many civilians.
His approach to Syria was disgraceful. Syria is being invaded by foreign terrorist jihadist organisations which the US supports..
It was pleasing that he opened up relations with Cuba and lifted the ban on US citizens from visiting the country. However, he did not hand back Guantanamo or stop the blockade.
So, Obama's heritage is a mixed one. He did something about justice at home, but overall, he did not do as much for world peace as he could have.
19 January 2017
I decided when Obama first came to power that he was cruel, because he voted against assistance being given to babies who had survived abortion. I haven't changed my opinion.
19 January 2017
Thank you for this thoughtful article, Andy, and for catalysing the interesting and insightful comments from your readers. I suggest that we need a number of lenses through which to conceptualise a presidency that is only now ending, and which touched on so many aspects of American and global affairs.
Your article also provides helpful guidance for further analysis: I found particularly useful your reflection on globalisation, which must be approached from a much broader perspective than its impact on profits and on economic growth.
Michael D. Breen
19 January 2017
A vital assessment question is "What could Obama do or have done?" The forces of "conservatism"-Big powerful money and pressure groups are amassed against any genuine change. Then again Andrew's article, as well as commending Obama's genuine urbanity, suggests that exchanging ideas as on this forum may help. Dare I ask how? When we live in an age of post truth, post fact and post ethics and solidarity is massively fragmented what hope have ideas? In a time of capitalism showing its inevitable failure beneficiaries of the inequality are going to hang on with the extra power they have gained. They are not concerned about informed discussion or ideas of fairness. Why should they be?
20 January 2017
Obama's greatness began and ended with speeches. Some of the finest rhetoric for generations. Otherwise he was a fizzer who presided over a toxic status quo in which Tea Party resentment festered, grew and gave us Trump.
At the very start he appointed a Wall Streeter to look after Wall Street and it just continued from there. No prosecutions of the massive illegalities on Wall Street, but police attacks on Occupy. Vast handouts to bankers but no relief for their victims. No action on the nearly-complete corruption of Congress. He seemed to be quite out of his depth. As others have noted, murderous bombings continued, invasions, global corporate expansion via "free trade", on and on.
He could have used his fine rhetoric to take on the bullies in Congress, but he's not a fighter, he's an appeaser. We know what happens when you appease bullies, they just come back for more.
04 February 2017
Thanks Fr Andrew for your thoughts here. It's too easy to target specific issues and critique them from our own perspectives. We live in a world that is made up of a huge jigsaw puzzle at the same time as the image of this puzzle has changed/is rapidly changing. Fr Andrew's insight that ... "Obama's remedy is to strengthen the underpinnings of democracy through social engagement and a shared commitment to the common good. This requires entering into the shoes of other citizens" ... is one we each need to take to heart in our own lives, our families, neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. We each need to work at this or our democracies will implode. In relation to the larger issues ... as Fr Andrew notes: "Seen rightly, globalisation makes gates in the fences that separate people culturally, economically and religiously so that the wealth and connection that results benefit all groups in each society to flourish". We need to keep finding the gates ... and keep them open. Hard work ahead for us all!