Reflections on the President’s Oslo speech, Part 1

The President’s campaign speech in Philadelphia on race and his speech earlier this year to the Muslim world from Egypt were, in my mind, two of the most important presidential speeches of my lifetime. I had tears streaming down my face as I watched the former, and was so moved I could hardly speak after the latter. His more recent Oslo speech, given as he received the Nobel Peace prize, also struck me as important, even though I hope that someday the President himself will come to differ with some of its content. (More after the jump.)

I agree with Jim Wallis, who offered an excellent summary of the speech, and said: “It was a more philosophical, and even theological, lecture than presidents normally give,” and so deserves careful study and engagement.
Two paragraphs in the President’s speech struck me in particular. After acknowledging with humility the complex circumstances around his being named the Nobel peace prize recipient, he said he was …

… mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

The unresolved irony of those two paragraphs wrestles under their composed and muscular syntax. On the one hand, “there is nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.” On the other hand, “I face the world as it is … evil does exist in the world.” It’s hard to read the latter in any other way than denying the former: King and Gandhi were naive, underestimating the reality of evil in the world.
Now I am the first to admit that heads of state have responsibilities and are privy to “intelligence” that the rest of us can’t imagine. I respect the President’s straightforwardness in saying, “We are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle … Some will kill. Some will be killed.” I have never felt a tiny fraction of the burden of responsibility he must feel in making those sorts of life-and-death decisions. Perhaps this is what happens when a movement leader or idealistic campaigner becomes an institutional leader, seated at the desk where the buck stops: idealism evaporates into a haze of naivete and “realism” rises like a cold flood. (As I imagine that transformation, I can’t help but recall a former governor and VP candidate dismissing a lowly community organizer back in 2008; he didn’t have “actual responsibilities,” she snarled, as did even a small-town Alaskan mayor.)
These conflicted thoughts of war and peace, naivete and realism were churning in my mind a day or so after the speech as I walked through a plaza in Riverside, California. Who is more naive, I wondered, those who believe violence can overcome violence, or those who believe violence always creates new and more complicated problems? By chance, at that moment in my musings I came upon a monument to Gandhi that stands between the city’s Convention Center and old mission. As I slowly circled the monument, it wasn’t the quotes from Gandhi that seized my attention, but rather this quote from General Douglas MacArthur:

In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt Gandhi’s belief that the process of mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is fundamentally not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.

It would be one thing if these words were spoken by an idealistic young candidate, a community organizer, a pastor, a poet, or a movement leader. But when a seasoned general from World War II – well beyond naivete about either war or evil – makes a statement like this, one hopes that the rest of us will at least give his words a second thought.
I don’t judge the President; I’m just a citizen with a lot less intelligence (of whatever sort) than he has. But I wonder if someday he will see that he was right in his first assessment of Gandhi and King: they spoke not from naivete about evil and violence but from “a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Yes, one can be naive about the insidious reality of evil, but one can also be naive about the “germs of self-destruction” contained within our attempts to overcome evil through “the mass application of force.”Somehow we must live with vigilance against both kinds of naivete, Presidents and citizens alike.