Former United States Barack Obama gave the Sixteenth Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture on July 17 before 15,000 people at the Bidvest Wanderers Stadium in Illovo, a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg. The lecture was also streamed online. The event was sponsored by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
I really ought to get out my magic markers and color-code this one (here, here), but what would that tell us that we don’t already know? So in this brief post I’ll start by quoting, for the record, some typically sycophantic press coverage, and then I’ll look at two incongruities that a reality-based community, if one exists, would notice. The first concerns “income inequality.” The second, democracy.
For top-hole Obama sycophancy we look, of course, to The New Yorker. Jelani Cobb does not disappoint:
President Obama was and in ways that recalled the occasions of his political tenure. He spoke fully aware of his status as . But that and were also discordant amid the political alarms sounding in the background.
I’ve helpfully underlined the more highly buffed portions of Cobb’s piece. We know have a shift in tone, foreshadowed by “tenure” in the context of a “lecture,” which elevates the speech into “When they go low, we go high” territory. I’ll underline the phrases that reinforce that tone:
These are “strange and uncertain times,” Obama noted at the outset of the
lecture. Some observers had speculated that he might strike back at assaults on his character that Trump has made since taking office. But he Trump—at least not explicitly. (“Politicians have always lied,” Obama said, and then added, to laughter and applause from the audience, “But it used to be that if you caught them lying they’d be, like, ‘Oh, man.’ Now they just keep lying.”) Instead, he dissected the forces that created the bedlam parade for which Trump serves as drum major.
“Bedlam parade” is, of course, an ultra-refined version of the classic liberal trope that their opponents are stupid. (Stupidity is, apparently, how conservative Republicans took 1000 seats and all three branches of government away from smart Democrats.) And one might as well scratch out “bedlam” and write in “deplorable.” “But Dissected the forces” though. Let’s see.
First, let’s look at what Obama has to say about “income inequality” (for which the less Bowderlized, and more encompassing, term would be “class warfare.” I’ll quote more than I need to, but Obama in full spate is quite something, and you may enjoy the flavor (and want to pick it all apart in comments). From the transcript:
[OBAMA:] And the result of all these trends an explosion in economic inequality. It’s meant that a few dozen individuals control the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity. (Applause.) That’s not an exaggeration, that’s a statistic. Think about that. In many middle-income and developing countries, new wealth has just tracked the old bad deal that people got because it reinforced or even compounded existing patterns of inequality, the only difference is it created even greater opportunities for corruption on an epic scale. And for once solidly middle-class families in advanced economies like the United States, these trends have meant greater economic insecurity, especially for those who don’t have specialized skills, people who were in manufacturing, people working in factories, people working on farms.
In every country just about, the disproportionate economic clout of those at the top has provided these individuals with wildly disproportionate influence on their countries’ political life and on its media; on what policies are pursued and whose interests end up being ignored. Now, it should be noted that this new international elite, the professional class that supports them, differs in important respects from the ruling aristocracies of old. It includes many who are self-made. It includes champions of meritocracy. And although still mostly white and male, as a group they reflect a diversity of nationalities and ethnicities that would have not existed a hundred years ago. A decent percentage consider themselves liberal in their politics, modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook. Unburdened by parochialism, or nationalism, or overt racial prejudice or strong religious sentiment, they are equally comfortable in New York or London or Shanghai or Nairobi or Buenos Aires, or Johannesburg. Many are sincere and effective in their philanthropy. Some of them count Nelson Mandela among their heroes. Some even supported Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States, and by virtue of my status as a former head of state, some of them consider me as an honorary member of the club. (Laughter.) And I get invited to these fancy things, you know? (Laughter.) They’ll fly me out.
“Has been.” Note the lack of agency. Why, one can only ask, would that be? “Think about that,” and then look for statistics. Let’s see what happened to income inequality during Obama’s “tenure.” From Pavlina R. Tcherneva, “Inequality Update: Who Gains When Income Grows?”, the following charts, with three datasets that all tell the same story:
(See also NC here.) That story being:
Growth in the US increasingly brings income inequality. A striking deterioration in this trend has occurred since the 80s, when economic recoveries delivered the vast majority of income growth to the wealthiest US households. … The chart illustrates that with every postwar expansion, as the economy grew, the bottom 90% of households received a smaller and smaller share of that growth. Even though their share was falling, the majority of families still captured the majority of the income growth until the 70s. Starting in the 80s, the trend reverses sharply: as the economy recovers from recessions, the lion’s share of income growth goes to the wealthiest 10% of families. Notably, and, in the first years of recovery since the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, their incomes kept falling during the expansion, delivering . A similar trend is observed when one considers the bottom 99% and top 1% percent of households
In other words, the 0.1% (the squillionaires), together with the 9.9% (the Democrat base) creamed off all the gains from the recovery, such as it was. If only we’d had a President at the time who understood such things…. “Elegant,” forsooth.
Second, let’s look at what Obama has to say about democracy. Soaring rhetoric, and so it should be. Again, I’m going to quote more of it than I probably should. I’m going to underline and letter a few of the more breathtaking passages for future use:
[OBAMA:] More and more peoples, having witnessed the horrors of totalitarianism, the repeated mass slaughters of the 20th century, began to embrace a new vision for humanity, a new idea, one based not only on the principle of national self-determination, but also on the principles of democracy and rule of law and civil rights and [a]….
Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but [b] that gives democracy meaning.
Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain [c]. (Cheers and applause.)
Well, that’s quite enough though there’s a good deal more. (Obama does work in the “community organizer” part of his schtick; it’s also a pleasure to see a return to the eternal verities.) Let’s contrast Obama’s words with Obama’s actions. From an excellent article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, just today, “How to Survive America’s Kill List.” It’s a long read, and so I’ll quote in relevant part. Bilal Abdul Kareem is a U.S. citizen. After he’d converted to Islam and found himself working as a TV reporter in the Middle East:
… [T]hings began to explode around him with suspicious frequency. In the space of a few months, he survived five different attacks. … Soon after, Kareem was tipped off by a source in Turkey that he had been put on a list of targets at Incirlik Air Base, a launching pad for American drones… A few weeks later, he survived another explosion, he says, outside a Syrian artillery college that had recently fallen into rebel hands. Kareem now had no doubt he was on America’s infamous ‘Kill List.’ Most Americans don’t even know we have such a thing. We do. Officially, it goes by the ghoulish bureaucratic euphemism ‘Disposition Matrix.’
The “Kill List” was set up by George Bush as part of the War on Terror; Obama, as with most everything Bush did, rationalized and normalized it, renaming and restructing the list as a “Disposition Matrix.” (Don’t you like that, “Disposition Matrix”? It’s so elegant, so cool, so articulate.) In this, Obama was aided by then CIA director John Brennan, now a talking head and a Hero of The #Resistance. Once of the neater features of the “Disposition Matrix,” from the standpoint of the Executive Branch, is that you can put U.S. citizens on it and whack them, without any oversight. Taibbi says the same thing in longer words:
Seemingly conceived in the Obama years, the lethal list – about which little is known outside a few leaks and court pleadings – appears to sort people into targeting for capture, interrogation, or assassination by drone. It was run by a star-chamber of two-dozen security officials and the president. According to a 2012 New York Times report, they met once a week to decide which targets around the world lived or died.
These meetings became known as “Terror Tuesdays.”
(“Terror Tuesdays.’ There’s your Obama “charm,” right there.)
We kill suspects whose names we know, and whose names we don’t; we kill the guilty and the not guilty; we kill men, but also women and children; we kill by day and by night; we fire missiles at confirmed visual targets, but also at cellphone numbers we hope belong to targets.
When he first heard he was on this list, Kareem was aghast…. How could anyone reverse the decision of a deadly bureaucracy so secret and inaccessible that even if it had an off switch, few in the civilian world would know where to find it? How could he talk his way out of this one?
As it turns out, Kareem sued — there’s that much of the Civics 101 America I learned about in grade school left — and, amazingly, was granted a hearing. Taibbi continues:
The question before [Federal Court Judge Rosemary Collyer] would challenge the most gifted legal mind. At issue is the fact that America, in the wake of 9/11, has become two countries.
One is a democracy, visible to the population and governed by the lofty laws and rules and constitutional principles we learned about in Schoolhouse Rock.
The second nation is an authoritarian state-within-a-state, governed exclusively by the executive branch. In this parallel world, all rights redound to a bureaucracy that may kill anyone it pleases at any time, restrained only by the inclinations of the executive.
Essentially, Kareem’s lawyers are appealing to the first America – Collyer’s courtroom – to force the second, secret America to hear him out.
I’ll stop there, but do read Taibbi’s article; it’s excellent. But let’s contrast Obama’s soaring rhetoric with his actual practice of whacking U.S. citizens. Recall his words above:
[a] “the inherent dignity of every single individual.” How on earth does having “intelligence community” bureaucrats putting people on a hit list with no due process comport with the dignity of the individual? Even slaves had the dignity of getting whipped personally, as opposed to being whacked by invisible drones in the sky. (And then there’s the gruesome story of the $100,000 in the plastic sack proferred to the wedding party Obama whacked, as a make-good. “Inherent dignity.” “[T]he most credible living representative of American interests” (but maybe Cobb’s right about that. Eh?)
[b] “those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm.” Since when did the Norms Fairy approve of a Star Chamber?
[c] “inalienable rights.” Let me quote the Declaration of Independence — which Lincoln thought of as constituting the Constitution — since that’s the source Obama cribbed from:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
So capital-L “Life” is “unalienable.” Unless Obama gets up in the morning one day and decides to have you whacked.
So, about democracy. This anti-democratic state-within-a-state, run by the “intelligence community” — do feel free to picture an Alien chestbuster, here — was created by Bush, rationalized and normalized by Obama, handed over, by Obama, to Trump, , a bulwark, it would seem, against tyranny. So where, exactly, does Cobbs “Bedlam Parade” begin?
Returning to the time of the Crash — after which Obama did squat either to address income inequality or to preserve democracy — Matt Stoller took note of Obama’s jokes (of which we’ve seen two). Stoller writes:
Jokes reveal truths, which is why the best way to appreciate the real Obama, not the fabled character of hope and change, is how he tells jokes. He’s good at, no, great at telling jokes. He kills at comedic performances, and his sense of timing is magnificent. Jokes, though, show how someone really sees the world, and the joke I’m thinking of is one he made during a speech in March 2009, when the revelations of AIG’s massive retention bonuses became public. It had been less than two months since Obama’s inauguration, but the major policy framework of the administration – the bailouts – had been laid down. The AIG bonus scandal was outrageous to the public, a symbol of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars being funneled to an arrogant corporation that had helped destroy the economy.
Barack Obama had stepped up to the lectern to deliver a stern rebuke to AIG executives who had taken bonuses with taxpayer money. Obama talked of the outrage of an irresponsible company, and how his administration would do everything within its power to get the money back. But a few minutes in, he coughed, slightly, choking a bit, as his mouth was a bit dry. But after he coughed, he stopped, and reflected on the gesture with a joke. “I’m choked, choked with anger”, he said. Obama chuckled. Reporters laughed. And it was funny, really funny. Because everyone in the room knew that Obama wasn’t actually angry about the AIG bonuses, and never intended to do anything about it. No one there was angry about the bonuses, and everyone knew nothing would happen to AIG executives. The House would pass bills, which would die in the Senate. The only people angry were Americans at large, who could not believe that their government worked for Wall Street. So the joke was funny, ironic, cool. But the moment wasn’t right for it, because this was a serious time for outrage – so Obama quickly reverted to form, and the teleprompter took over.
Pundits didn’t reflect on this “joke”. No one really noted it. It was very much like George Bush’s comment to reporters that was only later highlighted by Michael Moore, when Bush was on a golf course and perfunctorily said “we must find these terrorist killers….” and then turned to swing a golf club. “Now watch this drive.” Obama had risen to that level of duplicity, not a lie in the conventional sense of saying something that wasn’t true, but an entirely constructed false persona. He had polished the tools of the Presidency – the utter banality of PR, the constipated talking points, the routine abuse of power – and taken them to a new level with a self-aware sense of irony about his own narcissistic dishonesty. His challenge was so outrageous – I dare you to call me on what a liar I am as I joke about how much I am lying to you right now – that he turned an obnoxious bluff into art.
Obama had shown this breathtaking tendency to con people as they knew they were being conned before, the most public time during the campaign being his cynical answer when he was asked about his promise to renegotiate NAFTA. He had said, when fighting for union votes with Clinton, “I will make sure we renegotiate (NAFTA).” Even as he said this, it turns out that campaign advisor Austan Goolsbee had gone to Canada to assure them this was a lie (sure enough, Obama’s trade policies are identical to Bush’s, or worse). And once the election ended, and Obama was asked about his broken promise by a reporter, he gave the following answer.
“This is fun for the press to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign,” President Obama said during his Transition in early December, when a reporter asked him about criticisms he and now-Secretary of State Clinton had made about each other’s foreign policy views.
“They’re your quotes, sir,” said the reporter, Peter Baker of the New York Times.
“No, I understand. And you’re having fun,” Obama continued. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not faulting it.”
This is cynicism as art. It’s literally a Presidential candidate running on hope and change saying that campaign promises are a joke and a ruse.
Obama hasn’t changed, has he? Oh, and send his Foundation money. I’m sure he needs it.
 AP: “When Obama was a U.S. senator he had his picture taken with the newly freed Mandela. After Obama became president he sent a copy of the photo to Mandela, who kept it in his office.”
 I can’t find out how much tickets were. There were VIP tickets, some tickets were given to companies who then gave them to their employeers (e.g., Uber), and there was a rather opaque online application form through which people could apply; those tickets seemed to be free, but only available after the Mandela Foundation had done its own allocation. I don’t think I know how South Africa works.
 The inaugural “lecture,” in 2003, was given by Former United States President Bill Clinton.
 So the difference would be not substance, but style.
 Re: “Drum major.” Can the Martin Luther King, Jr. allusion possibly be intentional?
 Notice how Obama includes his listeners in the con, exactly as he did with his joke about lying, quoted by Cobb.