One aspect of the speech that hasn’t received sufficient attention is the focus on victimology: Israelis were victims of the Holocaust, Palestinians victims of dislocation after the founding of Israel, Americans the victim of the 9/11 terrorists, Arabs the victims of Western imperialism, and so forth.
That this appeals to Obama is not surprising. He and I attended law school at the same time, Obama at Harvard and me at Yale. Victimology was all the rage. It gave one not only moral standing, but, oddly enough (like Sotomayor’s “wise Latina”) a certain level of intellectual standing.
During our first year in law school, there was a one-day nationwide “student strike for diversity” at elite law schools, including Harvard and Yale. (I don’t know for sure whether Obama was involved in this “strike,” but he gave a speech on behalf of uber-diversity advocate, and Harvard lawprof, Derrick Bell.) At Yale, students gave speeches throughout the day. What struck me at the time was how eager, almost desperate, the various student speech-givers were to be perceived as victims.
This included not just “people of color,” but gays, Jews, Moromons, Catholics, and so on. Not a member of a racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual minority? Perhaps you were victimized by being a “First Generation Professional,” such that you didn’t know what suit to wear for law firm interviews, or which fork to grasp at lunch with your interviewers. (I wasn’t quite a first-generation professional, yet I also didn’t know these things, but I hardly wallowed in self-pity about it.) Or perhaps you had a learning disability. Or were from a less-than-ideal home. Or were less wealthy than your classmates. Or had to go to law school while raising a family.
The implicit message was that we all–even white male Protestants attending the best law school in the country, ready to walk into six figure jobs upon graduation–could be united in victimhood, and without such victimhood, our value as individuals is somehow diminished. And this theme cropped up repeatedly in law school.
I’ve always wondered how the Ivy elite went so quickly from a bastion of self-confident, privileged WASP elitism to the opposite extreme of celebrating victimhood. Regardless, it’s a unique way to run a foreign policy.
UPDATE: Peretz is exercised by, among other things the fact that Obama treated Zionism and Israel as a mere response to the Holocaust, neglecting both pre-Holocaust Zionism and Jews’ dream of returning to their homeland for two thousand years. I noticed that, but I also noticed that when Obama mentioned America’s ties to Israel, he failed to mention the underlying reason for those ties: not the Holocaust, but the fact that Israel is a thriving liberal democracy. In fact, the whole speech was rather devoid of calls for liberal democracy. The president could have appealed to the Arab/Muslim world based on shared aspirations for individual rights, the rule of law, a liberalized economic system, and democracy, but he chose instead of focus on a somewhat ahistorical “shared history.” I’m agnostic as to whether that’s smart diplomacy, at least for the particular audience at issue. But it’s a far cry from a Reaganesque “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall” speech. It’s more like a “Mr. Gorbachev, like you we fought a war against the Nazis and suffered because of it, and like you we freed our serfs/slaves in the 1860s, who had suffered grievous oppression for generations. Now that we understand what we have in common, can we be friends now?”