(CBS) — 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.
His comments, while largely focused on Mandela’s life as a leader and the road ahead for global democracy, offered veiled criticism of the political climate currently taking place in the United States. His remarks also come just one day after President Trump appeared to fault the U.S. for Russia’s role in meddling in the 2016 election after holding a day-long summit with known adversary Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Obama on racial tensions
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.”
Obama on “politics of fear”
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 on immigration
Obama also highlighted the ongoing debate over immigration, again without naming Mr. 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.”
The road ahead
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.”