Diary of a Mad Law Professor
October 21, 2009
Statistics show that there is a marked uptick in the amount of genuinely hateful yammering one finds in public and political discourse. “Interactive” media are all well and good, but there does seem to be a recurring motif of pointlessly fulminating ping-pong, no matter what the subject at hand. Someone writes an article. Some readers like it, some readers don’t. At first they fling praise or invective at the author, but soon they’re calling one another political poopy-heads and snarling about who’s stupider than whom. Then it goes from being accusative in the singular (you’re an idiot) to the stereotyped plural (your kind are all idiots).
Rush Limbaugh has applied this schoolyard Punch and Judy narrative to every topic he touches. But it has also been spread by “reality” TV and extends from Jon and Kate to Congressman Joe Wilson. Donald Rumsfeld was masterful at it, and George W. Bush used it to suck the air out of every diplomatic space he entered. As a national discourse, it’s silly and uninformative. When elevated to the level of international relations, it has been disastrous, as clichés like “You’re either with us or against us” have shown.I say all this because I think that the art of diplomacy is something that has become largely invisible to us in the United States. We value directness, even where it insults someone; we want instant responses, even where answers don’t come easily. Diplomacy, a carefully choreographed ballet with words, is quite foreign to our perceptions of the world. We tend not to think about strategies of approach and deflection, negotiation and accommodation, patience and translation, and care in choice of words combined with pointedly applied pressure.
This was certainly evident in the response to President Obama’s having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Lots of sniffing about his readiness, lots of disparagement about his “pretty words” and “empty promises.” And then, of course, the formulaic fights: he’s a wizardy warlord with the power of hypnosis! He’s a dangerous con man whose only gift is charisma. You’re wrong! You’re wronger! Dope slaps all around!
It’s helpful to consider exactly why President Obama was cited. It was given to him, said the Nobel judges, for his having “created a new climate in international politics.” “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” Indeed, Obama has brought the United States back to the status of the most admired nation in the world, based on a survey of thousands of people in twenty countries around the globe.
Some commentators have chalked this up to Obama’s silver tongue, as though great oratory is inherently about smoke and mirrors, emptiness and hype. But what Obama has done is nothing less than steer our huge ship of state back from the brink of “preventive war” and economic free fall. He restored competing theories of constitutional interpretation. No longer is the executive branch battling in a different textual universe: between due process and none at all; between the courts and images from 24; between privacy and supersurveillance; between accountability and official holes of dark secrecy.
These are serious accomplishments, with pragmatic consequences. As just one small example, after Obama was elected 1.6 million South Africans registered to vote. Maybe that just doesn’t matter to many Americans, but diplomacy is the art of creating a geography where citizens and their leaders can develop means of negotiating with one another. Around 90 percent of Britons, French and Germans believe that Obama has affirmatively changed the course of diplomacy and that the United States is now a superpower that listens. The guiding question, the committee reminded us, was, “Who has done the most to enhance peace in the preceding year?” To enhance peace–that’s the standard. It is not the impossible metric of ending all wars, of delivering peace on earth, right now. The committee summarized its conclusion succinctly: “Who has done more than Barack Obama?”
So how do you turn that into a negative? The headline in the Chicago Tribune read, “Europeans Honor US President for Not Being Bush.” The New York Times sniffed, “Normally the prize has been presented, even controversially, for accomplishment”–making it quite clear the editors thought Obama had accomplished nothing at all. Everywhere, it seemed, the prize was described as “a political liability,” “a mixed blessing,” a “poison chalice,” a reminder of the “gap” between his “star power” and “actual achievements.” The prize was figured as somehow devalued by the choice, as though when this man enters the space of the world’s highest honor, the property values fall. It was suddenly a European socialist foreign thing rather than a global honor, and therefore one more sign that Obama is not one of “us.”
Whether or not Obama was your personal pick, the Nobel Peace Prize surely confers honor on our president, on America’s reputation and on us, the people. Among left and right, there’s a kind of shortsightedness of ingratitude and a failure to acknowledge the degree to which Obama’s carefully constructed rhetorical interventions have created a new diplomatic space.
The words of an American president matter. The executive power is nothing more than the ability to craft policy, guide action, provide direction–all with words, and all with consequences for the future of the world. So Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is something all Americans should feel good about, a reassurance that we are moving toward a light, a globally hailed goal of prosperity and nuclear disarmament. It speaks to the unfortunate power of our “It’s a Good Thing! It’s an Evil Thing! Slimeball! Sucker!” habits of thinking, however, that not a single US newspaper I could find had a headline with anything as simple as: “Congratulations, Mr. President! Congratulations to Us, Every One!”