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Jane Ahlin, Published December 13 2009

Ahlin: Obama’s sentiments echo president of a different time

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Barack Obama spoke both of war and peace. Consider these quotations:

It was a speech both earnest and inspired; however, controversy over Wilson’s introduction of an unpopular concept (apart from the quotations cited above), the idea of “peace without victory,” ended up defining the speech.

When we think of Wilson – which we almost never do – we think of that unpopular notion, along with his failure at convincing the U.S. Senate to make America part of the League of Nations. We don’t think of a president who undertook war when it became unavoidable, even though he mightily, mightily believed nations working together could ensure world peace. Of course, until Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, most of us could not have identified Wilson as the last president to have received that honor while in office, either.

If peace was a hard subject to tackle back then, it’s harder now. When Veterans Day rolled around last month, the subject of peace seemed to be taboo. In fact, in the talk about love of country, honoring veterans and commemorating their sacrifices, the idea of world peace as an ultimate goal didn’t come up.

Perhaps an unintentional change, nevertheless, peace has been relegated to its religious and personal associations, a matter of religious discipline or personal quest, an inner trait to be studied and nurtured – private, soulful peacefulness. To talk about peace is to talk about spirituality; to find peace is to step away from the hustle and bustle of life. (Churches promote it; spas sell it.)

Peace as a national ambition, on the other hand is seen as quixotic – impossible and hopelessly old-fashioned. National pundits talk much about America as a country tired of war, a nation dissatisfied but also still ambivalent – as if we don’t like it, but we’re resigned to putting up with it as an ongoing certainty. The subject pundits don’t tackle is how utterly cynical we’ve become about peace.

Until his Nobel Prize acceptance speech last week, Obama had not helped us get past that corrosive cynicism. But in that speech, he finally did. Quoting (this time for real), “We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace … for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”

Wilson likely would have approved of Obama’s speech for grounding reality in the language of justice and hope. After all, Wilson also was the one who said, “Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American.”


Ahlin is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.