12/10/2009

Obama's Nobel speech - James Fallows

Just after Barack Obama was chosen for the Nobel Prize, I confidently predicted that his acceptance address would not become the second-ever truly memorable address in the long history of such presentations by storied writers, thinkers, leaders, etc. The only acceptance speech that is still remembered and quoted is William Faulkner's three-minute address on receiving the prize for literature in 1949.
I believe that prediction is still safe; and in terms of Obama's own political reputation and momentum, today's address will not supplant the most important speech he has delivered: the one he gave in Philadelphia, about race relations, in March, 2008. But this was a very good and serious speech, which like many of his major addresses -- the Inaugural address, the one in Prague about nuclear weapons, the one in Cairo on relations with the Islamic world -- will stand re-reading and close inspection, and which shared an obvious intellectual and structural architecture with all his other major addresses. Those trademark elements include:
The embrace of contradictions (in this case, a defense of war as a means to peace); the long view; the emphasis on institution-building; the concern about the distortion of religious and ethnic loyalties; and above all a consciousness that was once called Niebuhrian and at this rate will someday be "Obamian," which emphasizes the importance of steady steps forward in an inevitably flawed world. As Obama said near the end of this speech:

"Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.
"But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."

Analysis of Obama's Nobel speech by James Fallows of The Atlantic.
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