(CBS News) Former President Barack Obama, in a speech honoring the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, said he’d try to “get some perspective” as news cycles bring “more head-spinning and disturbing headlines.”
“Given the strange and uncertain times that we are in — and they are strange and they are uncertain — each day’s news cycle bringing more head spinning and disturbing headlines — I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective,” the former president said in the keynote Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“If we can not deny the very real strides our world has made since that moment when Madiba (Mandela) took those steps out of confinement, we also have to recognize all the ways the international order has fallen short of its promise,” the former president said. “It is in part in fact of the failures of governments and elites,… we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, more dangerous a more brutal way of doing business.”
Obama also said that whatever progress the world has made, whatever laws and pronouncements, we have to admit “the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away. They were were not fully dislodged.”
“It is a plain fact that racial discrimination exists in both the United States and in South Africa,” he said. “For far too many people the more things have changed the more things stayed the same.”
Obama said that it was “surprising” to him that he had to reaffirm to the audience that “we are all human, our differences are all superficial and that we should treat each other with care and respect.”
“I would have thought we would have figured that out by now. I thought that basic notion was well-established, turns out in this recent drift in reactionary politics, the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished.”
Touching on current issues plaguing Western society, namely the United States, Obama said, without explicitly naming any politicians of today, the politics of “fear and resentment and retrenchment” is “now on the move.”
“It’s on a 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,” he said, adding that “strongmen politics” are suddenly ascending.
“The free press is under attack, censorship and state control of media is the rise, social media once seen as a mechanisms to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories,” he added.
Highlighting the rise in extremist politics, Obama suggested that those on the fringes should instead “check the history books”, noting those who embraced “rabid nationalism and xenophobia or religious superiority” often fell victim to civil war.
The president went on, saying that “too much of politics of today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth.” “People just make stuff up!” he exclaimed, adding that there’s an “utter loss of shame among political leaders when they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and 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,” he said to laughs from the crowd.
Obama also highlighted the ongoing debate over immigration, again without naming President Trump, saying that existing laws need to be enforced and followed but all “while respecting humanity.” He said that it was “not wrong” to insist that national borders matter, but that it can’t be an “excuse” to implement immigration policies “based on race or ethnicity or religion.”
Obama, however, suggested that on Mandela’s 100th birthday, the world now “stands a crossroad” and that the world should respond to threats to global democracy appropriately. “I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision, I believe in a vision shared by Ghandi and King and Abraham Lincoln, I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy based on a premise that all people are created equally,” Obama said to rousing applause.
He added, “I belive we have no choice but to move forward, that those of us who belive in democracy and civil rights have a better story to tell.”
“So if were truly to continue Madiba’s long walk toward freedom, we’re going to have to to work harder, we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past,” said Obama.
He said that while it may be “tempting to give into cynicism” the world must “resist” such negative thinking “because we’ve been though darker times. We’ve been in lower valleys.”
“Keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice, every generation has the opportunity to remake the world,” he charged the crowd. “Now’s a good time to be fired up.”
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