I recently visited Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, a young girl on
our tour of the house raised her hand tentatively during the docent's
remarks about the enslaved people who worked the plantation.
Jefferson treat his slaves better than other slave-owners?"
she asked.The docent responded, wisely, that slavery is slavery,
however brilliant or benevolent the owner. Yes, Jefferson did try
to avoid splitting up families and paid his slaves extra for game
they shot and contributed to the household. But the founding father
owned slaves and there's no way around that fact.
could hear the hopefulness in the girl's question: Surely the man
who penned the words "all men are created equal" would
transcend the slave-owning conventions of his time. He didn't, despite
urgings of his Polish friend Tadeusz Kosciuszko. For some, this
gap between Jefferson's words and his actions constitute one of
America's founding hypocrisies, which continue to tear at the fabric
of our society.
another interpretation links Jefferson through Abraham Lincoln to
our current president, Barack Obama. Jefferson's famous words, the
"self-evident truths" inscribed in the Declaration of
Independence, didn't describe real, existing equality in the United
States but, rather, a state toward which Americans must strive.
As Lincoln would later proclaim on
George Washington's birthday, the founding fathers "meant to
set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be...constantly
looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly
attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading
and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value
of life to all people of all colors everywhere."
brings us to the Nobel Prize committee's decision to award this
year's Peace Prize to Barack Obama. Oslo's decision has generated
a great deal of material for stand-up comics and fulminating right-wingers.
Rush Limbaugh sided
with the Taliban and Iran in their negative judgment. The Washington
Post published selections
from their staff blogs, and the journalists perhaps for the first
time in their lives sided with Rush (Obama supporter Ruth Marcus,
for instance, called the award "ridiculous" and "embarrassing").
The president, according to the collective assessment of U.S. opinion-makers,
selection committee made a point of emphasizing that they were awarding
the prize based on what the president had already done, namely his
commitment to nuclear abolition and the shift in U.S. policy on
climate change. There was also his Cairo speech, which Foreign Policy
In Focus (FPIF) contributor Arthur Waskow, in Toward
an Abrahamic Peace, calls "an extraordinary opening to
the Muslim world — making clear that the new U.S. government understands
the Arab and Muslim view of the world and takes seriously even Arab
and Muslim critiques of U.S. behavior and policy. The Cairo speech
not only set the basic tone of seeking to build a world community
rather than an American empire, but also covered all the key specific
outstanding issues with a basic outlook of community rather than
the Nobel award acknowledges aspiration more than achievement, just
as the words "all men are created equal" referred not
to the United States as it was but as it should be. Obama has laid
the rhetorical foundations for a major shift in U.S. policy. That
shift, like nuclear abolition, will not happen during Obama's term,
perhaps not even in his lifetime. But he has articulated the better
dreams of his country.
the third time in the last 100 years, the United States stands poised
to become an equal and cooperative member of a more perfect international
community. Woodrow Wilson, the last standing president to win a
Nobel Peace Prize, helped to create the League of Nations, which
the lead-up to World War II wiped out. After that war, FDR helped
set up the pillars of the current international system — the United
Nations, World Bank — but the Cold War cut internationalism in half.
the United States faces perils as large as those that faced Jefferson
at the time of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln in the
early days of the Civil War. To address the economic crisis, the
climate crisis, the energy crisis, the United States must fundamentally
alter its relationship with the world and help build the new institutions
that reflect this play-well-with-others attitude.
Nobel Prize is a challenge to Obama to raise his game, match action
to rhetoric, and meet this great challenge facing the United States
in the world. It will require ending the war in Afghanistan and
taking leadership at Copenhagen on climate change. It will require
eliminating nuclear weapons rather than just talking about how nice
it would be to eliminate nuclear weapons.
can't do this by himself. Jefferson didn't write that "I
hold these truths to be self-evident." Lincoln did not
write the "better angels of my nature." The Nobel
Prize is the collective achievement of the American people for repudiating
the Bush years and making the words of the Declaration of Independence
come that much closer to reality.
let's all prove that we deserve it.
Guest Commentator John Feffer, co-director of Foreign
Policy In Focus. John has authored or edited eight books and
numerous articles. Most recently, he has been a Writing Fellow at
Provisions Library in Washington, DC and a PanTech fellow in Korean
Studies at Stanford University. He is a former associate editor
of World Policy Journal. He has worked as an international affairs
representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American
Friends Service Committee. He has also worked for the AFSC on such
issues as the global economy, gun control, women and workplace,
and domestic politics. He has served as a consultant for the Friends
Committee on National Legislation, among other organizations. Click
to contact Mr. Feffer.
Policy In Focus is a network for research, analysis and action
that brings together more than 700 scholars, advocates and activists
who strive to make the United States a more responsible global partner.
It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)
more than four decades, the Institute for Policy Studies
has transformed ideas into action for peace, justice, and the environment.
It is a progressive multi-issue think tank.
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15 , 2009
published every Thursday
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Est. April 5, 2002
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