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The hypocrisy of Obama

Not all were as impressed by the rousing Nelson Mandela Annual lecture given by former US President Barack Obama to a 15 000-strong packed Bidvest Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg. For Mphuthumi Nthabeni his public address was a prime example of the kind of hypocrisy at play in the politics of today.

Without any sense of irony, former US president Barack Obama used “refer to the historical records” as a leitmotif in the lecture he gave as the headline speaker for the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on a cold wintry Johannesburg afternoon on Tuesday, 17 July. One would have thought that a person who has the nefarious historical record of deciding to drop close to 26 000 bombs in seven countries in a single year, would be more circumspect before referring people to the records of history. Outside the US, Obama’s tenure as US president represented the smiling face of murder, mayhem, war and destruction. He dropped far more bombs in foreign lands than any modern US president, outside of a situation of war, and sanctioned a further 506 devastating drone attacks which, though devastating, pales in comparison to the 50 attacks during the presidency of George Bush.

More surprising is why the Nelson Mandela Foundation would commit the same mistake as did the Nobel committee in awarding him with their Peace Prize. At least they had an excuse, in that they lacked the awareness of what Obama would, in fact, go on to do during his two terms of office. The Nelson Mandela Foundation, however, had no such excuse. Judging by how warmly they received him, neither do they have any qualms as to their decision.

Mandela is globally synonymous with the ideals of the timeless humanist. He espouses values of equality and self-determination. He strongly disagreed with any country’s murderous and violent meddling in the foreign affairs of another. This is the reason that he was opposed to South Africa’s unilateral decision, against the UN, to send troops to foreign lands like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe, even when it became clear that their leaders were oppressive autocrats. Mandela also didn’t believe in forgiveness for forgiveness’ sake but demanded restorative justice as a means to bringing real peace. He wanted wrongdoers to atone for their sins in an act of active humility. He believed that this would instill traditional values of social cohesion and promote the virtues needed to bring about a just society. Nothing in Obama’s actions, even after his presidency, testifies to these beliefs so dearly held by Mandela. Hence, there has been strong criticism of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in choosing Obama, whom many here regard to be war-mongering president and whose presidency to onlookers from outside the US, was the antithesis of everything that Mandela stood for.

We probably would have been ready to forgive him had he demonstrated a little remorse and done penance for the atrocities committed during his tenure. But the closest we got to an apology was him admitting to the US' “ill-advised attack on Iraq” because he knew that that could be blamed on his predecessor. No mention of the attack on Libya and the killing of Gaddafi nor the resultant Pandora’s Box that this opened.

Obama could have used this stage as a moment for sharing his reflections about his time in office and for admitting the mistakes that he committed as the sitting US president. Instead, he behaved like Donald Trump, the current baby-boy president of the US, who has not an ounce of self-examination, whom he criticised in a thinly veiled attack during his speech. Obama told of the hope, justice and freedom that we must hold and that we must not succumb to fear, resentment and rising inequality. All well and good. But what did he do when he had a chance as the most powerful politician in the world? Did he encourage this by his actions and in his foreign policies?

He, not only used the platform of the Annual Mandela lecture to fight the US’ petty internal battles but also to recite Sinophobic imperialist fears, the result of arcane interpretations of democratic reversals proffered in US literature. Titles ranging from 's The Origins of Political Order to Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy Of Fear, amongst others tending toward ‘big man politics’ which ride roughshod over the imperatives of effective democracies. Not that the fear is unfounded when you consider the bullet of corruption that our country faced with former president Zuma; or the clear reversals of democracy taking place in countries like Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela; or in Russia and China where Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are clearly moving their countries into one-party state monarchies. But Obama needs a greater sense of reality and of self-examination to realise that the US, with its semblance of strong democratic institutions, is itself imperfect, and is precariously becoming an oligarchy. Also, half of the world's problems are caused by the US' eagle-like imperial wingspan with purported peace-policing pretensions.

The lessons that I have learned from Obama’s Nelson Mandela lecture, as he stood on stage in the company of our republic’s multi-millionaire president and his billionaire brother-in-law, is that the hares are in deepest trouble when the hounds run with them, and that the devil is most lethal when he recites the Bible. The elites, who now form a major part of the democratic inclusion, have learned to veil their daggers in the rhetoric of progress and humanism.

It was not until Obama’s lecture on Tuesday, that I understood why St Augustine regards hypocrisy to be a most heinous sin. And that is because it has an inherent duplicity. Similarly, the sin of corruption is at the same time outwardly glaring and inwardly insidious. St Augustine called hypocrisy, “the vice of vices”. For him, unlike any of the other vices, it does not leave any room for any integrity to continue existing in the person. A hypocrite’s core rottenness is in their compulsion to witness even against themselves. That is because for them to be totally convincing to others they must completely overcome their own qualms of conscience, reaching a stage of complete delusion. Hypocrisy goes far beyond the make-belief acting of a liar, demanding the complete surrender of reason in order to give life to their illusions. Hence their lack of irony. The lecture also brought me a fresh understanding of Kierkegaard's argument that irony is a necessary dose of conscience against self-imposed illusions of convenience.

At the heart of what’s wrong with our politics today is not just the lack of authentic objectivity, but also a dimming of our conscience. Hence you find billionaires laughing without irony, when, in staged language, Obama laments blatant income and wealth inequalities to be the ticking bomb of our era. And why, without any shame, does he count himself among the good guys? In a disguise of virtue they seem to be taking counsel from Machiavelli: “Appear as you may wish to be.”

It is such a pity that the Church, as the said conscience of the world, has also lost her authority because of her own hypocrisy. By her own faults, she is repeatedly caught shedding her decaying outer shell as she suffers a profound complex of internal moral crises, the latest Cardinal McCarrick sex abuse scandal is symbolic of this. Were this not so, this would have been the opportune moment for her to expose these whitewashed Pharisaic graves. Still, she can try. For, in us, God writes straight through crooked lines.

Image: Flickr

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.