Maajid Nawaz (I hadn’t realized that he was only 38) is, as most of you know, a former Islamist extremist and now an Islamic moderate who runs the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation. And he’s a brave man. I don’t know if he has bodyguards, but given his calls for moderation in Islam and his vigorous condemnations of Muslim oppression, he would seem to be in danger. (He regularly gets death threats.) His latest piece at The Daily Beast, “Why did Obama pander to the UN’s stunning anti-Israel bias?“, isn’t going to make him any more friends, for it’s largely pro-Israel.
Although Nawaz is against Israel’s building of settlements and in favor of a two-state solution, he’s an even stronger critic of despotic Arab regimes, and pulls no punches about it—or about the bigotry of low expectations that concentrates in Israel while ignoring the far greater oppression in many other…
Some things never change, it seems. For my entire life people have been protesting about the madness of nuclear weapons. Policymakers have been studiously ignoring such protests for just as long. Not only have the bombs remained unbanned, they have also proliferated and become bigger and “better”.
To Barack Obama’s credit, he has at least tried to do something about a threat that still puts all the others in the shade – if that’s quite the way to describe global warming.
The prospect of what is euphemistically known as “nuclear exchange” between any of the major powers may still be remote, but it is not unthinkable. The possibility of accident or miscalculation remains all too real, as do the possible consequences.
The recent Nuclear Security Summit that Obama hosted illustrated both the difficulty and the continuing necessity of achieving something. The talks were conducted against the all-too-predictable backdrop of North Korean provocation as it took the opportunity to test a new missile in defiance of US sanctions and Chinese irritation with its increasingly unpredictable ally.
In this context, the potentially valuable bilateral talks between the US and China, which might have been used to put greater pressure on North Korea, were rather overshadowed by their own unresolved problems. The increasingly fraught manoeuvring in the South China Sea has the potential to result in actual conflict – despite this being the last thing either side actually wants.
Even if this were to occur, it is still unlikely that it would escalate into a potentially suicidal all-out-nuclear clash. It is not out of the question, though. The Cuban Missile Crisis serves as a reminder of how things can potentially spiral out of control. It is hard to imagine China backing down and losing face in its own backyard even when threatened with possible nuclear annihilation.
The logic of nuclear deterrence suggests that the US is increasingly unlikely to risk such a standoff developing further. The Chinese have developed a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads and hitting targets anywhere in the US.
This sort of military modernisation makes the prospect of conflict less likely, the argument goes, as the US will be deterred and China will be reassured about its comparative strategic status.
Never has an acronym – MAD – for mutually assured destruction seemed more apt – to the neutral observer, at least. Some theorists of the harder-headed variety believe on this basis that proliferation will actually make the world a safer place as each country will be deterred by the prospect of their own demise.
The gun lobby in the US uses a not-dissimilar argument. We know how that’s working out.
The US itself is planning to spend an estimated $1 trillion on modernising its own nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. The Obama administration has begun a process of developing more “flexible” and smaller weapons that can be attached to cruise missiles or used to attack very specific and – in theory, at least – limited targets.
Whether potential targets will feel reassured about the logic of that development is another question, of course.
Scary and unsettling as all of this is, it is at least occurring in the world of supposedly “rational actors”. Countries, even the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, are too sensible and concerned about their own survival to risk triggering an apocalypse, even with their bitterest foes – or so the argument goes.
Even if that claim is true of states, it looks like wishful thinking on an epic scale to believe it of the growing numbers of non-state actors that would like to acquire a nuclear capability of some sort too. Not only is the apocalypse a seemingly welcome prospect for some religiously inspired zealots, but they don’t actually need much in the way of technical sophistication to gatecrash the nuclear club.
“Dirty bombs”, or radiological dispersal devices as the cognoscenti know them, ought to be the weapon of choice for any self-respecting suicide bomber who wants to go out with a bang. Dirty bombs potentially combine radioactive material with conventional explosives and would have a major impact if detonated in a major city.
Conventional explosives are all too easy to acquire. Given there have been literally hundreds of recorded incidents of nuclear material going missing since the end of the Cold War, it is only a question of time before the ingredients come together in deranged hands. The only surprise, perhaps, is that it hasn’t happened already.
If the seemingly inevitable does happen and our worst collective nightmare comes true, what will the response be? It is reasonable to predict that in the event of say New York being targeted again, even a cautious and cerebral figure such as Obama would unleash the full might of the American military in response.
If Donald Trump is in office, rationality is likely to be but the first of many casualties.
Barack Hussein Obama II (born August 4, 1961) is the 44th and current President of the United States, and the first African American to hold the office. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Obama is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Harvard Law Review.
“I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women.
I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em.”
Where words leave off, so music begins – Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
Amazing grace, amazing grace … (trailing off). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (now singing) – Barack Obama, 2015.
Barely a week after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch provided a problematic example of music in the political sphere, Barack Obama’s eulogy at the Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston, South Carolina on the weekend provided the polar opposite; an example of how music can propel oratory into regions of meaning and impact that most politicians can only dream of.
To be sure, the two events are categorically distinct on many levels; Trump’s campaign launch (likely attended by paid actors) sits firmly in the political sphere (or the commedia dell’arte sphere, depending on your viewpoint), whereas a funeral, even one freighted with political issues, connects with music more readily through the raw and exposed emotional nerve endings of the people in attendance.
Yet music played a fascinating role at both events, and in each case, context was everything. Unlike the Trump campaign launch, however, Obama’s most recent public musical moment (there have been others) has reverberated positively around the world.
Only a hard heart could fail to respond on some emotional level when the President of the United States of America, eulogising at one of the most emotionally and racially charged funerals in US history, started singing Amazing Grace.
Only blindness could deny the power of witnessing the US’s first president of colour break into song, powerfully illustrating his connection to one of the most musically rich religious communities on Earth (the African American Church generally), galvanising an entire nation into finding strength in a time of great need.
Obama’s words alone that day would have been enough to inspire awe. His performance approached the emotional intensity of a sermon, and subsequent speakers were compelled to anoint him “Reverend President”.
Compared to the anodyne and anaemic cultural engagement leaders of most Western neo-liberal democracies exhibit, it was hard not to be transported back to the heady days of Obama’s election win in 2008 by the centred charisma he showed onstage.
The power of the moment
Near the end of an almost 40-minute eulogy, after a perfectly-judged rhetorical crescendo, Obama paused, bowed his head, and gently launched into a rendition of the first verse of Amazing Grace:
A re-reading of the names of the shooting victims follows, and the climax of the eulogy is reached. Many news stories that feature video of the event cut into the moment a split-second before Obama sings, and only some include the subsequent reading of names.
But to fully understand the power of the moment, it’s worth going further back into the text of the eulogy.
The theme of grace, God’s grace here, was threaded throughout. And like a great symphonist embarking on a lengthy musical journey, Obama drops his theme right at the beginning: the first thing he’d noticed upon meeting Rev. Pinckney had been his “graciousness”.
Obama builds his theme
After beautifully describing the Reverend’s biographical embodiment of graciousness, Obama pivots from the personal to the general.
As Pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pinckney was profoundly connected to the history of African American religious culture. The references to history open the door to a political dimension, which comes a bit later.
He then twice describes the alleged killer as “blinded” by hatred, saying “he would not see the grace” of the people he would soon murder. Obama was clearly building his rhetoric around the last line of the first verse of Amazing Grace:
was blind, but now I see.
Obama then explicitly refers to grace as the central theme of the eulogy:
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.
He quotes lines from Amazing Grace, described the local community’s reaction as graceful, and referred to the grace shown by the victims’ relatives upon facing the alleged killer.
Pondering the opportunity grace provides further, Obama again uses blindness to bring up a list of acutely painful issues for American society: blindness to the pain cause by the Confederate flag, to the role of past injustice in present-day problems, to poverty, to endemic problems in education and employment, to the criminal justice system, to recent problems with law enforcement, and to voting issues.
Ultimately though, it is gun violence that Obama settles on. He implores Americans to approach the issue with open hearts, to find “reservoirs of goodness” that will allow grace to emerge.
He then says:
If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.
He trails off. Then he pauses.
The pause generates electricity, it suggests something is about to happen, and it makes people listen. Like musicians who don’t begin a performance until an audience has fully settled, Obama wants silence in the space before music.
In lesser hands, this moment could have been a corny disaster, and as an artistic moment, people are free to find it such. Critical discussion in most of the press, however, seems to have judged it a success – testament to Obama’s consummate skill as a political performer.
Don’t forget, Obama had just spoken the words “amazing grace” twice, and trailed off. When he then started singing Amazing Grace, he was literally re-creating Heine’s philosophical perspective on music’s post-linguistic status. Adding melody the on the third repetition was not only a great segue, but at a fundamental dramatic, theatrical, and philosophical level, pretty clever.
Many things then happen in quick succession. The church leaders behind him spontaneously beam, voice their pleasure at what is happening, and stand to join in. The congregation, surprised to find itself feeling so good about what is happening (it is a funeral after all) doesn’t cheer so much as collectively smile audibly, then sings too. The musicians figure out what key he is in and improvise an accompaniment (almost certainly unscripted).
Of course there are some who may have reacted negatively.
Amazing Grace is so ubiquitous as to almost warrant cliché status. The 18th-century English slave-owner turned abolitionist John Newton penned the words, and the melody we know today has been associated with those words since the 1830s and the Second Great Awakening. Used ever since in countless different contexts, especially since the 1950s, Amazing Grace is in danger of losing its power thanks to over-familiarity.
For the purposes of this eulogy, however, the singing of Amazing Grace was a perfect tool to take the political message into stratospheric emotional territory.
Three classic notes
The opening three notes outline the most ubiquitous structure in post-1600 Western music – the major triad. But they are arranged in a particular way: the first note, sung to “ah-”, is not the strongest of the three notes, but it leads into the most structurally stable, sung to “-maz-”.
The rhythmically longer “-maaaaz-” mirrors the way we speak the word when we want to emphasise it – as in, “wasn’t that speech amaaazing”.
By the third note on “zing”, we certainly know which song we’re hearing. These three notes resonate on deeper levels for anyone familiar with American music of the past. Just one example: Aaron Copland’s seminal Appalachian Spring (1944) is built on the same material, derived in turn from the opening figure to the traditional Shaker song Simple Gifts.
These three notes, outlining what’s called a second-inversion triad, create a beautiful, open sound. It’s this open sound that Copland uses throughout Appalachian Spring to depict the vast openness of possibility represented by the story of young pioneer love in the original ballet, and it’s the same open sound that gives Amazing Grace the open heartedness that Obama was campaigning for in his words about gun violence.
Back to Obama’s singing: another thing happens on “zing” – Obama sings a bit flat. Naturally, as a singer without formal training, who has had certain other things to attend to recent years, he may have just not have the best singing technique. Intonation insecurity and dubiously executed melismata were balanced by an undeniable connection to African American musical culture. That flatness was very likely Obama channelling the blues.
These observations pale in comparison to the overall impact this part of the eulogy delivers. It is thanks to the way music lifts the words about grace out of the quotidian, that Obama can then ride a wave of emotion to the end of the eulogy.
He goes through the names of the dead again, appending “found that grace” to each name, in a full and passionate voice. The soaring effect he creates builds on the music we just heard. “That grace” is a grace that’s had new and deeper meaning conferred upon it by the song.
His reading of each name is a righteous call, in full sermon mode, and the audience responds each time in a cathartic final acknowledgement of the victims. The musicians continue to riff, accompanying the whole antiphonal interaction, commenting on Obama’s words right to the end.
This subtle musical background ensures the emotional vibration continues and elevates the final moments of the eulogy.
By this stage Obama has carried the congregation into the realm of truly powerful communication, underpinned by a musically-accessed emotional state.
The way in which the Obama let music take over where “words left off” demonstrates music’s capacity for consolation in a profoundly important way. And it is salutary to consider that only a culture that understands music, that knows music, that values music, and that realises it needs music, will be able to benefit from it in this way.
If people were moved by Barack Obama’s eulogy, it was ultimately music, as much as God’s grace, that made them see.
The idea that these words represent any kind of intervention in Australian politics is laughable.
The President was using the Great Barrier Reef as a local, easily understood example of how all of us are affected by climate change.
It says a lot about the dogmatic, ideologically-driven instincts of the Abbott government that they have prosecuted such a silly criticism of the US administration.
Form your opinion.
Here are the relevant words:
As we develop, as we focus on our econ, we cannot forget the need to lead on the global fight against climate change. Now, I know that’s — (applause) — I know there’s been a healthy debate in this country about it. (Laughter.) Here in the Asia Pacific, nobody has more at stake when it comes to thinking about and then acting on climate change.
“I love Australia — I really do. The only problem with Australia is every time I come here I’ve got to sit in conference rooms and talk to politicians instead of going to the beach.
Here, a climate that increases in temperature will mean more extreme and frequent storms, more flooding, rising seas that submerge Pacific islands. Here in Australia, it means longer droughts, more wildfires. The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threated. Worldwide, this past summer was the hottest on record. No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part.
So then setting up a target sends a powerful message to the world that all countries — whether you are a developed country, a developing country, or somewhere in between — you’ve got to be able to overcome old divides, look squarely at the science, and reach a strong global climate agreement next year. And if China and the United States can agree on this, then the world can agree on this. We can get this done. And it is necessary for us to get it done. (Applause.) Because I have not had to go to the Great Barrier Reef — (laughter) — and I want to come back, and I want my daughters to be able to come back, and I want them to be able to bring their daughters or sons to visit. (Applause.) And I want that there 50 years from now.”
– US President Barack Obama at the University of Queensland, November 2014.