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In a world run by emperors or presidents, perhaps we should ignore Socrates’ injunction to know ourselves and instead know those who rule us. During his recent speech to Ohio University graduates, posted at wsj.com, President Barack Obama delivered a message that certainly deserves scrutiny.
The speech began in the classic manner, with some light-hearted joking to ease the resistance. You have to admire the President’s jokes. Twice he joked that he saw students have breakfast at 11:30 AM at their restaurant and bar. But the joke won a very muted response. I wonder why. Perhaps that crowd of over a thousand young men and women didn’t like the suggestion that they were all in the habit of slacking.
In the context of this joke which makes Obama’s only concrete reference to student behavior, we have good reason to wonder what he thinks of their generation. Was his statement “from what I’ve seen of your generation” (25:54) a flattering one infused with hope and encouragement, or was it ironic and infused with contempt?
The possibility that the President indulged in muted irony and even outright deception can be supported with good evidence. In his opening words, the President joked that he would tell his wife all the good things the university’s president said about him despite suspecting that the university’s president suppressed some criticism of him. This joke won hardly a snicker. Indeed, it hardly qualifies as a joke. Who would laugh about suppressing criticism of the government after the manhandling the Occupy movement received? Certainly, since his speech included a strong injunction to “reject” critics of the government, Obama’s ‘joke’ about the university president censoring his own criticisms is in terrible taste.
I realize that my analysis defies the widespread impression that President Obama is an excellent speaker. Certainly, he fares better than his blundering predecessor, George W. Bush. But all the polished rhetorical flourishes cannot conceal the liar. Twice the President employed the euphemism “self-government” to describe America’s democracy. By what stretch of the imagination can we say that Americans rule themselves? Is it not the most heavily policed state on the face of the Earth! While Obama brazenly lied saying that America is a “creative, and unique experiment in self-rule,” we know it to be an experiment in tyranny. Common demands like ending the wars have gone ignored, and presidential powers steadily increase under Obama.
And here again, the President’s language is informed by a malicious irony. For while the euphemism “self-government” may have strike a certain surface appeal, one must not overlook the fact that the entire speech implied that President Obama and his administration would not do anything to help citizens and that citizens must help themselves, be more active, and with dogged determination make their hopes and dreams come true without his help. Gone was the illusion that he, Obama, could fulfill hopes; indeed, how could that illusion survive the past five years of his presidency?
If the allegation of malicious irony seems untenable, consider that the Presidentrepeatedly denounced government practices that he is complicit in facilitating if not personally directing. Thus, while he denounced the power of lobbyists, his own administration is obviously been captured by lobbyists for Monsanto, Goldman Sachs and others. The recently appointed FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and newly named Comnerce Secretary Penny Pritzker are just two more eyesores (read “Billionaire Burglar Breaks into Obama’s Cabinet).
If this level of hypocricy still seems inconceivable, consider that while insisting graduates “reject” critics who claim that the U.S. government is a tyrant, Obama does a good job of playing the intellectual tyrant. On three ocassions he referred to his critics as “the voices you hear.” I doubt this can be an innocent slip of the tongue. To refer to one’s critics as “voices” heard by others is to say that those who listen to the critics are hearing voices, which implies that they are crazy. But such insidious and slanderous phrasing goes largely ignored by people who continue to hope that the president is their friend.
We must also fault President Obama for telling young, educated adults to “reject” the government’s critics without offering a good reason to do so. Worse yet, on what pedagogical grounds does one tell university grads just what ideas and opinions they should listen to? Voicing such brazenly dogmatic advise in a university setting seems almost an act of terrorism—certainly an act of intellectual tyranny.
Of course, Obama knows he lies and utters contradictions, but this disease has a life of its own. Lying is so essential to his thinking that when he spoke of accomplishing “great” things (15:30) his right index finger and thumb made the sign of a small thing, as you can see in the photo. It’s funny, yes, but it’s also a frightening symptom.
While I don’t make a habit of judging by appearances, on close examination, Obama’s appearance is worth judging. There is something intimidating, frightful and even ghoulish about him. At approximately the 16:30 mark of his Ohio commencement speech, after commanding graduates to be “involved in that process” of “self-government,” he flexed his shifting lower jaw again and gave the assembly what a young student of mine described as a 10-second death stare.
And consider his expression in this photo, taken as Obama quoted President Wilson on the subject of making enemies (14:09). His almost perpetual frown, and the occassional snarl-like expression on his lips, seem more than a bad omen.Other images of the President are equally unsettling. Even by imperial standards set by Roman emperors, Obama is frightening. He often flexes his jaw and presses his lips together and moves them up, producing an expression of fierce, uncompromising intimidation. Perhaps we could tolerate such expressions if they were made while vowing to stop government and corporate tyranny, but in this photo was taken moments after Obama warned students against listening to critics who warn that the government is a tyrant “always lurking just around the corner.”
Naturally, a president moved by the spirit of malicious irony, hypocrisy and intellectual tyranny cannot be expected to offer many smiles or signs of compassion. The Ohio address does mark a new low, but it also struck Obama’s usual tone of a general directing the troops. He blamed the enemy and encouraged, warned and instructed his listeners, but he did not reach out. He certainly did not promise to help today’s or tomorrow’s graduates escape from a system that burdens them with low wages and debts; instead, he held students responsible for fixing problems themselves. And, instead of encouraging activism and protest to effect change, students got vague platitudes and directives to be good and active citizens. What constitutes good citizenship the President did not say, although his message that the government should be trusted was crystal clear.
How different was Martin Luther King? Ah, you would never see Obama’s scowls and ghoulish frowns on that good man. Rather, even at his angriest, he was passionate, never scary. And in his last speech, when he again spoke of his great hope for his country, he more than once intimated that he knew his days were numbered, yet even then, while fear spoke so clearly from his eyes, he did not cease to criticize his country’s leadership and give clear and meaningful advice to his fellow citizens.
Peter Dudink is a teacher, tutor, artist, and recently the author of A History of Imperial Bullshit. He currently lives in Canada.