President Obama has received praise from left and right for his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Commentators applauded Obama’s recognition that force and war are sometimes necessary to secure peace. Obama openly states that evil exists in the world, and that force is sometimes the only way to eradicate that evil. “A nonviolent movement,” he reminds us, “could not have halted Hitler’s armies.”
But Obama goes further than simply asserting the need for force. He also gives us his grounds for holding this view: “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
Force is necessary, Obama seems to be arguing, because man is flawed. Contrary to the President’s own prefatory comment however, this is a call to cynicism. A recognition of history—the imperfections of man—the limits of reason? Are these not indicators of a cynical view of human nature?
Perhaps the widespread praise springs not merely from Obama’s acknowledgement that force is necessary, but from his underlying appeal to an equally widespread view of human nature—a view that sees man as inherently flawed. In different ways, both the left and the right accept this view—so it is any surprise that they both admired the President’s application of it?
The President of the United States of America had a world stage upon which he could have validated and celebrated human nature. He could have said that force is necessary because some men choose to abandon their human nature—a nature which is good and noble and capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. He could have said that force is necessary because human beings possess the power of reason, and that in reason the appropriate response to someone who chooses to live like a brute is to treat them like a brute through retaliatory force.
Instead, Obama justified his position by cashing in on the age-old idea of original sin. Rather than offering a fresh analysis of the nature of evil, he pleased left and right with the same appeals to the human imperfection that have long dominated the political and cultural landscape. Fortunately, this view is false. The choices of some to engage in evil speak only of them, not of human nature as a whole, and we, the innocent, should reject the idea that their actions incriminate us in any way.
Photo by Activioslo on Flickr.