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Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

As a Brit in New York it has been amusing to watch the firestorm kicked off by Matthew Engel’s piece in the BBC Magazine on Why do some Americanisms irritate people?.

A fellow Brit in The New Yorker perfectly sums up the difference between the two cultures:

What most of these (American) commentators fail to recognize, in any case, is that English people enjoy complaining about things, and that the content of any particular English person’s complaint is rarely anything more than a pretext for the act of complaining. From Mr. Woodhouse to Basil Fawlty, complaining about things—the weather, the food, the trains—is what the English have always done best, and with the greatest eloquence and esprit.

– a new book,  The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer looks interesting as he finds out what modern cognitive research has to say about belief:

As a back-of-the-envelope calculation within an order-of-magnitude accuracy, we can safely say that over the past ten thousand years of history humans have created about ten thousand different religions and about one thousand gods,” Mr. Shermer writes. He lists more than a dozen gods, from Amon Ra to Zeus, and wonders how one of them can be true and the rest false. “As skeptics like to say, everyone is an atheist about these gods; some of us just go one god further. (Reason.com)

– to celebrate President Obama’s 50th birthday this week, Amazon revealed the top 10 most highlighted passages by Kindle readers from Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope

My favourites from the highlights of each book :

What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?

No, what’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem. (Reading Matters)

The last seems particularly apt given the events of this week.

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“We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way ‘cross Alabam,
And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham.”

Promised Land by Chuck Berry

I still find it amazing that President Obama was elected when it was only 50 years today that the US saw the first Freedom Rides. A mixed group of African-Africans and whites travelled from Washington DC in two buses to New Orleans to challenge segregation on interstate travel:

As the SNCC documents :

The group made it through Virginia and North Carolina without incident.

At the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the group encountered violence. A mob of twenty attacked the group, and John Lewis was the first to be hit as he approached the white waiting room. Police eventually interfered and the group was allowed access to the white waiting room. The journey continued to Georgia. After leaving Atlanta, the Greyhound bus was stopped as it entered Alabama. A mob surrounded the bus, the tires were slashed, and the bus was set on fire. The bus was burned to the ground, but the group took another bus and continued the rides.

– to commemorate the anniversary NPR is replaying interviews with civil rights activist James Farmer Jr, one of the organisers of the 1961 Freedom Ride;

– and they also have an extract from historian Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice:

They were all lucky to be alive. Several members of the mob had pressed against the door screaming, “Burn them alive” and “Fry the goddamn niggers,” and the Freedom Riders had been all but doomed until an exploding fuel tank convinced the mob that the whole bus was about to explode. As the frightened whites retreated, Cowling pried open the door, allowing the rest of the choking passengers to escape. When Hank Thomas, the first Rider to exit the front of the bus, crawled away from the doorway, a white man rushed toward him and asked, “Are you all okay?” Before Thomas could answer, the man’s concerned look turned into a sneer as he struck the astonished student in the head with a baseball bat. Thomas fell to the ground and was barely conscious as the rest of the exiting Riders spilled out onto the grass.

Thank to you all the Freedom Riders for helping create such a different world.

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President ObamaFront page of Idaho-Press Tribune announced the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden at 11:35 EDT last night:

“It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory — hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.”

BigThink says  the President reportedly wrote the speech himself : “It was brief. It was heartbreaking. And it was specific in its address to the families who still mourn.”

a new generation ponders the meaning of Osama Bin Laden – today’s children never experienced the terrorist attacks (The Atlantic);

– a rabbi asks whether it is wrong to feel joy at Bin Laden’s death (FrumForum)

– The New York Times literally stopped the presses as it had already started printing today’s newspapers when the news broke (FishbowlNY) ;

– a roundup of coverage from outside the US (Columbia Journalism Review) ;

Last word goes to Lawrence Wright, author of  The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11:

Democracy and civil society are the cure for the chronic misery of Muslim countries that has fed the rise of Islamic extremism. The death of the most notorious terrorist the world has ever seen, whose mission was to create a clash of civilizations, will allow the door to open more widely to the tolerance, modernism, and pragmatism that is so badly needed and so long awaited in a part of the world where despair, corruption, brutality, and fanaticism have laid waste to so many generations (News Desk: Bin Laden: Hey, Hey Goodbye : The New Yorker)
I don’t feel the need for any further comment.

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Union Jacks on Regent Street in London

Off course you couldn’t get away from the Royal Wedding today. As a typical Brit I am usually embarrassed at displays of flag waving and patriotism but I found myself wearing my England t-shirt to work in New York and watching the ceremony while eating breakfast.

I can remember Princess Diana’s wedding while I was a teenager and in my full flush of enthusiasm for the monarchy. During my twenties I flirted with republicanism but I have now swung back to thinking it is a good idea to have a symbolic non-political head of state.

It cuts down the ego of the Prime Minister to have an audience with the monarch every week and days like today put British politicians firmly in their place. They can see they are very unlikely to regarded with the same affection and are reminded that the monarchy will be there long after they have left the stage.  Some Americans even feel the same way :

If it’s an affront to democratic sensibilities, it’s also a safeguard for democratic institutions. Better a real king, crowned and powerless, than the many pseudo-kings who have strutted (and still strut) so destructively across the modern stage. (The Dish)

As Walter Bagehot said in 1863:

A royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events. It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to men’s bosoms and employ their thoughts. (The Spectator)

The day was also important for other reasons:

– it was the twentieth anniversary of the cyclone in Bangladesh which left 140,000 dead and 10 million homeless. This month’s National Geographic has a piece on the lessons the country took from that disaster and  how it can teach others to  cope with rising seas levels;

– President Obama visited Tuscaloosa, one of the tornado-ravaged cities in Alabama;

– the President also met eight surviving members of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. Dr Martin Luther King went to Memphis to support the almost entirely African-American workforce as they campaigned for better working conditions and on April 3 delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the day before his too-early death.

And his speech is still amazingly apt today:

Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

Have a good weekend.

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There are very few times in your life when you know you are watching events that will change the world but today was one of those days. For those of us lucky enough to take our liberties for granted, you couldn’t help but have tears in yours eyes listening to people who tasted freedom for the first time. And not only did they feel free, but they knew they had achieved it through their own strength, patience and dignity.

As always President Obama made a pitch-perfect speech after a historic event:

This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the eye to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more. And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history, echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, there’s something in the soul that cries out for freedom.

Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 as the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency had an opinion piece in The New York Times this morning ahead of today’s unforgettable events:

The rebirth of Egypt represents the hope of a new era in which Arab society, Muslim culture and the Middle East are no longer viewed through the lens of war and radicalism, but as contributors to the forward march of humanity, modernized by advanced science and technology, enriched by our diversity of art and culture and united by shared universal values. We have nothing to fear but the shadow of a repressive past.

Egypt’s Euphoria (The Economist) :

The surge of overwhelming bliss that has overtaken Egyptians is the rare beautitude of democratic will. The hot blush of liberation, a dazzled sense of infinite possibility swelling millions of happy breasts is a precious thing of terrible, unfathomable beauty, and it won’t come to these people again.

The Tweet is Mightier than the Sword (commentarymagazine.com) ;

In pictures (BBC) ;

A Letter from Cairo (Chicago Sun-Times) ;

This is Who Egyptians Are (The New York Review of Books) and they are pretty amazing.

Have a good weekend in a new world.

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“So sudden loss causes us to look backward -– but it also forces us to look forward; to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.

We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.  Perhaps we question whether we’re doing right by our children, or our community, whether our priorities are in order.

We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved –and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.

The only thing you needed to read this week was President Obama’s speech at the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona.

– during his speech President Obama told the audience that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who he had visited earlier in the day, had opened her eyes in for the first time. Two of her friends, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, talked about what it was like to be there for that moment;

Tears and Rain : author Michael Chabon‘s reaction;

– historian Gary Wills compares Obama to Lincoln and Henry V;

– a reader of The Daily Dish :

“no cross-hair or brandished gun can stop the power of love and hope, no bullet can defeat the strength of the human spirit to open its eyes, there is no hate that cannot be washed away by rain puddles”

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I first became a fan of Barack Obama after reading The Audacity of Hope as he didn’t sound like a typical politician and this was confirmed when a friend bought me Dreams from My Father as a birthday present.

So it is interesting to see some of the same ground covered by a third-party, rather than by Obama himself. In this case the third-party is David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and the book is as well-researched and well-written as you would expect.

Not being an American, the most fascinating aspect of the book to me was seeing Obama in relation to the wider context of the issue of race in the US, from the slaves who built the White House to the civil rights movement. I found it shocking to read that :

“In the United States between 1890 and 1920, there were more lynchings than state-sanctioned executions.”

The title of the book comes from a quote by John Lewis, the longtime congressman from Atlanta, and the only speaker still alive from the March on Washington in 1963,where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his inspirational ‘I Have a Dream” speech.

Lewis was also one of leaders of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965 which came to be known as Bloody Sunday as peaceful civil rights protesters were set on by Alabama state troopers.

The book explains:

“Bloody Sunday was likely the most important act of nonviolent resistance since 1930, when Mahatma Gandhi led seventy-eight other satyagrahis (truth-force activists) in a twenty-three-day march from his ashram to the coastal town of Dandi in protest against the British government and the colonial tax on salt. For millions of  Americans, the sight of peaceful protesters being clubbed and gassed in Selma disturbed the foundations of American indifference no less than Gandhi inspired Indians and unnerved the British.

On March 15th, before  a joint session of Congress, President Johnson delivered the most ringing endorsement of civil rights ever by a sitting President.”

The day before Obama’s inauguration Lewis said to Renwick :

“Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

While he was a Senator, Obama kept in his office a framed cover of Life magazine from March 1965 showing the confrontation at Edmund Pettus Bridge which Lewis had signed and given to him as a gift. I had tears in my eyes when I read what happened after Obama’s inauguration:

“Now, at the luncheon following the swearing-in ceremony, Lewis approached Obama with a sheet of paper and, to mark the occasion, he asked him to sign it. The forty-fourth President of the United States wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” “

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