“Democ­racy is about more than just elec­tions”

High­lights of Barack Obama’s ‘Nel­son Man­dela lec­ture’

Governance Now - - EXCERPTS -

Caste dif­fer­ences still im­pact the life chances of peo­ple on the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent.

and a pol­i­tics of fear and re­sent­ment and retrenchment be­gan to ap­pear, and that kind of pol­i­tics is now on the move. it’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimag­in­able just a few years ago. i am not be­ing alarmist, i am sim­ply stat­ing the facts. look around. strong­man pol­i­tics are as­cen­dant sud­denly, whereby elec­tions and some pre­tense of democ­racy are main­tained – the form of it – but those in power seek to un­der­mine ev­ery in­sti­tu­tion or norm that gives democ­racy mean­ing.

It would make me think that you’re a lit­tle in­se­cure about your her­itage if you’ve got to put some­body else’s her­itage down. Yeah, that’s right. Don’t you get a sense some­times – again, I’m adlib­bing here – that th­ese peo­ple who are so in­tent on putting peo­ple down and puff­ing them­selves up that they’re small-hearted, that there’s some­thing they’re just afraid of.

The free press is un­der at­tack. Cen­sor­ship and state con­trol of me­dia is on the rise. So­cial me­dia – once seen as a mech­a­nism to pro­mote knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing and sol­i­dar­ity – has proved to be just as ef­fec­tive pro­mot­ing ha­tred and para­noia and pro­pa­ganda and con­spir­acy the­o­ries.

Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s re­lease from prison, from the Ber­lin Wall com­ing down – should we see that hope that we had as naïve and mis­guided? Should we un­der­stand the last 25 years of global in­te­gra­tion as noth­ing more than a de­tour from the pre­vi­ous in­evitable cy­cle of his­tory – where might makes right, and pol­i­tics is a hos­tile competition be­tween tribes and races and re­li­gions, and na­tions com­pete in a zero-sum game, con­stantly tee­ter­ing on the edge of con­flict un­til full-blown war breaks out? Is that what we think?

So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a cross­roads – a mo­ment in time at which two very dif­fer­ent vi­sions of hu­man­ity’s fu­ture com­pete for the hearts and the minds of cit­i­zens around the world. Two dif­fer­ent sto­ries, two dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives about who we are and who we should be. How should we re­spond?

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 in­alien­able rights. And I be­lieve that a world gov­erned by such prin­ci­ples is pos­si­ble and that it can achieve more peace and more co­op­er­a­tion in pur­suit of a com­mon good. That’s what I be­lieve.

Madiba re­minds us that democ­racy is about more than just elec­tions.

What was true then re­mains true to­day. Ba­sic truths do not change. It is a truth that can be em­braced by the English, and by the In­dian, and by the Mex­i­can and by the Bantu and by the Luo and by the Amer­i­can. It is a truth that lies at the heart of ev­ery world re­li­gion – that we should do unto oth­ers as we would have them do unto us. That we see our­selves in other peo­ple. That we can rec­og­nize com­mon hopes and com­mon dreams. And it is a truth that is in­com­pat­i­ble with any form of dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race or re­li­gion or gen­der or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. And it is a truth that, by the way, when em­braced, ac­tu­ally de­liv­ers prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits, since it en­sures that a so­ci­ety can draw upon the tal­ents and en­ergy and skill of all its peo­ple. And if you doubt that, just ask the French foot­ball team that just won the World Cup.

Madiba teaches us that some prin­ci­ples re­ally are uni­ver­sal – and the most im­por­tant one is the prin­ci­ple that we are bound to­gether by a com­mon hu­man­ity and that each in­di­vid­ual has in­her­ent dig­nity and worth. now, it’s sur­pris­ing that we have to af­firm this truth to­day. More than a quar­ter cen­tury af­ter Madiba walked out of prison, i still have to stand here at a lec­ture and de­vote some time to say­ing that black peo­ple and white peo­ple and asian peo­ple and latin amer­i­can peo­ple and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all hu­man, that our dif­fer­ences are su­per­fi­cial, and that we should treat each other with care and re­spect. i would have thought we would have fig­ured that out by now.

And yes, democ­racy can be messy, and it can be slow, and it can be frus­trat­ing. I know, I promise. But the ef­fi­ciency that’s of­fered by an au­to­crat, that’s a false promise. Don’t take that one, be­cause it leads in­vari­ably to more con­sol­i­da­tion of wealth at the top and power at the top, and it makes it eas­ier to con­ceal cor­rup­tion and abuse. For all its im­per­fec­tions, real democ­racy best up­holds the idea that gov­ern­ment ex­ists to serve the in­di­vid­ual and not the other way around. And it is the only form of gov­ern­ment that has the pos­si­bil­ity of mak­ing that idea real.

No in­di­vid­ual – not Man­dela, not Obama – are en­tirely im­mune to the cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ences of absolute power, if you can do what­ever you want and ev­ery­one’s too afraid to tell you when you’re mak­ing a mis­take. No one is im­mune from the dan­gers of that.

Democ­racy de­pends on strong in­sti­tu­tions and it’s about mi­nor­ity rights and checks and bal­ances, and free­dom of speech and free­dom of ex­pres­sion and a free press, and the right to protest and pe­ti­tion the gov­ern­ment, and an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary, and ev­ery­body hav­ing to fol­low the law.

Most of us pre­fer to sur­round our­selves with opin­ions that val­i­date what we al­ready be­lieve. You no­tice the peo­ple who you think are smart are the peo­ple who agree with you. Funny how that works. But democ­racy de­mands that we’re able also to get in­side the re­al­ity of peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent than us so we can un­der­stand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours.

Un­for­tu­nately, too much of pol­i­tics to­day seems to re­ject the very con­cept of ob­jec­tive truth. Peo­ple just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in state-spon­sored pro­pa­ganda; we see it in in­ter­net driven fab­ri­ca­tions, we see it in the blur­ring of lines be­tween news and en­ter­tain­ment, we see the ut­ter loss of shame among po­lit­i­cal lead­ers where they’re caught in a lie and they just dou­ble down and they lie some more. Politi­cians have al­ways lied, but it used to be if you caught them ly­ing they’d be like, “Oh man.” Now they just keep on ly­ing.

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