More reactions to Obama’s speech from Ben Wikler, Jonathan Schell and Tom Morris
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to our continuing coverage. And we’re joined now by Ben Wikler, who’s been in Denver, who witnessed the speech of Obama. Ben is campaign director for climate change issues and other issues for Avaaz.org. Ben, what’s your reaction to the speech?
BEN WIKLER, CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR, AVAAZ.ORG: I’m blown away, frankly. And thank you very much for the opportunity to be here. Tonight was an incredibly exciting night. And Avaaz has 3.5 million members everywhere around the world, and, you know, 90-something percent are outside the US.
JAY: In your introduction, maybe I should have said a little bit more. Avaaz is an online advocacy organization that’s a little bit like MoveOn in structure, except it’s global. In fact, I think you have more members outside the US than you do inside the US. But you’re becoming—.
WIKLER: Ninety-three percent outside the US.
JAY: So you’re becoming an online global force.
WIKLER: The biggest three things were, one, to stop global warming; number two was respect human rights, including closing Guantanamo; and number three was to promote peace. And we wrote a letter to the candidates, and 107,000 Avaaz members from 192 countries endorsed it. And tonight, essentially, we have our first answer from one of the candidates: Obama stood there and spoke to America, and also to the world, and essentially said this Bush stuff is over.
JAY: Ben, I’m having an interesting moment for myself. I’ve talked to Gore Vidal, who up until a few days ago would have been scathingly critical of the Democratic Party for supporting the Patriot Act and Obama’s FISA vote. But he was completely enamored after the speech.
WIKLER: Well, I guess I’m guilty as charged here. But I guess—let me see if I can put my finger on it. Obama laid out a lot of policy specifics, and he grounded them in, you know, his own life experience, all this stuff. But the one thing that he was saying wasn’t so much that he was going to do this policy or that policy; it was he was saying that the center of gravity is going to change. I think it was kind of [inaudible] of the same spirit that Obama was bringing to this, which is this kind of fiercely optimistic, this, you know, pragmatic but fiercely optimistic belief that something different is possible. And it’s such—you know, after eight years of Bush, it’s such a relief and an inspiration.
JAY: I would guess after eight years of Bush it’s an incredible inspiration just to hear someone who could speak in paragraphs.
WIKLER: Obama basically is saying to us, “You build the movement, and I will respond to it.” And, you know, this whole thing is about listening, mutual respect, and dialog. And to me, an Obama presidency, in terms of climate change, is a challenge to all of us around the world, in the United States, to build the kind of movement that says to these leaders, “It’s time to act.” Michelle, in the video that preceded Barack’s appearance tonight, said that she resisted going on a date with him and blah-blah-blah, and then, finally, one day they went to this meeting in a church basement with people—he was meeting with people that were having serious problems, and he gave this speech about the world that we have and the world that we should have and how we could get there, and that was the moment she fell in love with him. And, you know, I think everyone watching who was a fan said, “Yeah, that’s the moment I fell in love with him.” You know, [crosstalk] in 2004, and I remember, you know, I had a tear in my eye, and I thought to myself, I want him to be president.
JAY: I just want to say, Ben, I know what a pleasure it is to be infatuated. I hope it lasts. And enjoy every minute of it. And I hate being the cynic, but I hope the crash is not too big.
WIKLER: Well, listen, man, putting my Avaaz hat back on, you know, someone will win this election, and the moment they do, you know, the pressure has to start. No matter who’s elected, the change doesn’t happen unless all the politicians in Washington and in every other capital feel like the wind’s blowing in a different direction, and if they don’t make that change real, then they’ll be thrown out of office. And Obama’s no different from the others in that respect. So, you know, wherever people are right now, they should be thinking partly about what’s going to happen in the next 70 days, and then partly about what to do right after that, ’cause these challenges don’t go away the second someone else is in the White House.
JAY: I’m going to bring our next guest in. Jonathan Schell is a Pulitzer-nominee writer/author. He’s written for Harper’s, for The Nation. He teaches. And to out him completely, he’s also on the board of directors of The Real News Network. Jonathan, are you with us?
JONATHAN SCHELL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Yes, I am.
JAY: Jonathan, what do you make of this debate? Everybody has decided so far on the show to just be optimistic, and while maybe be somewhat critical of the policy, take in the reality, “This is what it takes to win, and we’ll duke it out later.”
SCHELL: Yeah, I have to say I’m a little cooler than that. I’ve been a huge Obama fan. My period of rapture came a few months ago, perhaps, and I’ve been a little cooler since. What struck me here about the speech overall was that, you know, for a couple of weeks now, we’ve been hearing sort of Democrats, the professionals, the news people, the columnists, the whole political establishment really say in a kind of single chorus that there were a few things—you know the way they talk on these programs—what does Obama have to do in order to get himself elected? And there was a kind of consensus that developed there, and it all came under the heading of kind of become more ordinary, move into the mainstream. He did all of that. But that he seems more conscious, he seems less brave, less bold. And that impacts the whole candidacy, the whole impression of the whole person. It’s another narrative, somebody backing off when he believed that in order to get elected. And is that the change we can believe in?
JAY: Right. Tom, what do you think of that?
TOM MORRIS, JOURNALIST, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: The main thing he’s going to have to do is he’s going to have to, as Jonathan said, inspire those people that were inspired by him in the early infancy of his candidacy, when he was saying the more aggressive, bold, you know, go-into-the-Temple-and-turn-the-tables-over sort of things. And if he can get that 18 to 49 demographic, particularly the under-30 demographic, to come out and really vote, he’s got to really energize these people now, and he’s got to get them to the polls in November. Otherwise I don’t think he has a chance.
WIKLER: Alright. Well, I’m a proud member of the 18 to 49 demographic, as are most of my friends, if not my parents. And yes, he kind of has us. We’re really excited about it. And I have friends that had never been political before in the US that are really engaged in this right now.
JAY: Let me bring the caller in. So, caller, you identify yourself and tell us where you’re from, and then let us know what you think of the speech and the conversation that we’re having.
MATT JOHNSON, MARYLAND: Well, my name’s Matt Johnson, and I’m from Maryland, but I’ve spent a lot of time around DC as well, so I’m into politics a lot.
JAY: Okay. Go ahead. So what do you do, first of all? Just so we get a—.
JOHNSON: Well, I’m an activist. I work with a lot of organizations in DC, and I just graduated from the University of Maryland. I was a major antiwar organizer there and anti-racism. I’ve worked on a lot of issues.
JAY: So what’s your reaction to the speech?
JOHNSON: Well, it really frustrated me in a lot of ways. I kind of expected a lot of what he would say, based on just certain calculations I thought he would make about how he’s saying that we have to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon when really it hasn’t been demonstrated very persuasively that they’re really pursuing one since 2003. And then also the whole “we’ve got to get Osama bin Laden” thing, and it just sounded like Bush, because I just can’t see how that’s very productive talk.
JAY: Yeah. I thought that was an interesting moment, because if you do want to get Osama in his cave, it means going into Pakistan, and, I mean, that’s not such a simple thing to do. Go ahead, caller.
JOHNSON: Well, not at all. And another thing is, you know, the way the media tends to spin it, I mean, of course, you know, some ways against and some ways for him, but the whole idea that he’s saying no to war, and then, to me, he never says no to war.
JAY: Caller thank you very much for joining us. We’re going to bring in another call.
JOHNSON: No problem. Thanks for having me.
JAY: Alright. Caller, what’s your name and where are you from?
JOSEPH: My name is Joseph [inaudible], and I’m calling from Pensacola, Florida.
JAY: Cool. So what did you think of the speech? And what do you think of our conversation so far?
JOSEPH: Well, let me first put it this way: if I were to vote for somebody, it would be Obama. That’s basically I would choose the lesser of two evils. Center of gravity of the foreign policy’s going to change, somebody just mentioned online. Well, I just don’t realize how the center of gravity can change the root cause of 9/11, the problems in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq. The problem with Iran is all based on unconditional support for a nation or a regime that is a non-signatory to the NPT, possesses 200 or so nukes, and occupies Palestinian territories. I mean, if they say Iran—. Like, for instance, he didn’t mention this: if Iran is a sponsor of terrorism—what they all keep confirming day after day after day—then why is he going to speak unconditionally to Iran, but not to the democratic-elected Hamas or the resistance militia group Hezbollah?
MORRIS: Yes, it’s true that the Israelis have some 200 nuclear weapons, we believe, and that Barack Obama is not really addressing head on and very forthrightly some of the things that he should be saying about our relationship with Iran, with this whole nuclear weapons situation, with the Palestinian situation. As the caller was saying that in Afghanistan, we have a country here that is 90 percent illiterate, and we’re trying to create, supposedly, a democracy. But what Barack Obama should have told the American people tonight is that prior to September 11, the Bush administration was giving money directly to the Taliban while Enron was trying to negotiate a pipeline deal to build a pipeline from India through Afghanistan to Qatar. And those are the sorts of things that I think he should have been saying to the American people, as opposed to, “Hey, we need to send 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan.”
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Tom. And thank you for joining us for our ongoing coverage of the Democratic National Convention—which is now no longer ongoing. Please join us next week when we are Minneapolis and Covering the Republican National Convention. And we look forward to your calls and your comments. And if you like what we’re doing, over my shoulder here is the “donate” button. Thanks so much for joining us.
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