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Obama stubbornly clings to optimism in Toronto speech: Paradkar

The former U.S. president urged active citizenship in his speech to a crowd of youth in Toronto on Friday. He also noted his optimism is hard earned.

Youth who listened to Barack Obama's Toronto speech Friday night said his words inspired them.

(@CANADA2020/TWITTER)

Youth who listened to Barack Obama's Toronto speech Friday night said his words inspired them.

There are eternal optimists. Then there are stubborn optimists.

After his talk in Toronto on Friday, Barack Obama pleaded for optimism, even though his own is now “leavened by the recognition that progress can reverse itself.”

What other option is there, really?

“In many ways this is both the worst of times and the best of times,” the 44th U.S. president said in a youth-focused talk to more than 2,000 people (my estimate) at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

“If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were … you’d choose right now. This moment.”

That kind of inspiring message was what a group of youngsters from Etobicoke/Rexdale had come to hear after community organizer Marcia Brown, who runs youth program Trust 15 persuaded the organizers Canada2020 for free tickets so the students being groomed for leadership would see their hero.

When I asked them what they were looking for, the word “inspiration” popped up every time. One student said “empathy.”

“There’s not a lot of empathy going around the world,” said 16-year-old Devang Ghosh. “Barack Obama is the perfect example of someone who portrays empathy. I want to be like him.”

For them, there was more from Papa O.

 “Despite all the challenges that we face, despite all the bad news that we see flashing across our screens, if you ask yourself when has humanity across the board been wealthiest, healthiest, most educated, most tolerant, least violent, the moment would be now.”

But what about the bad news, the xenophobia, the racism, the broken promises on climate change, the threat to walk away from NAFTA?

He kept it classy.

Zero was the number of times Obama mentioned Donald Trump in his 60 minutes with the audience (except in passing, once, as in “Obama-Trump voters”).

For four years, but especially in the waning weeks of his second term, I waited for Obama to rise up and throw off the yoke of having to appear in control lest he trigger the angry Black man stereotype. I waited for him to pull off a Martin Luther King-like speech from the conclusion of the Selma March of 1965, to rise up and inspire and warn of the dangers of what Trump stood for.

But, as the author Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, Obama was too optimistic to even consider the possibility of a Trump win.

Even on Friday, Obama insisted on focusing on working class voters and “hearing what they have to say,” although polls show that most white voters of all ages, genders and education levels backed Trump.

I waited, again, for him to take the gloves off — yes, you can, man. He never did.

No-drama Obama was not just a presidential veneer. I can’t tell if it is iron will or born of detachment or if he just floats on moral ether outside our grasp. It is him. I find that at once immensely admirable and incredibly unsatisfying.

Oh, he alluded to the toxicity of today plenty of times. Once he said, “If leaders are promoting our worst impulses rather than our best, nations can turn on themselves.”

Another time, “I’m an old-fashioned guy. I like the Enlightenment and reason and logic and facts.”

Perhaps the snarkiest remark, if you can call it that, was when he spoke about his beloved health-care legacy. “You (Canada) don’t seem to be having a debate about your health-care system. We’re on our 62nd vote to repeal and replace it with something.”

Among the five ideas he outlined to “rearrange our politics,” the first three were: focus on economic equality; work on international co-operation, especially on climate change; and harness diplomacy and nurture alliances to deal with threats such as North Korea.

I found the last two of particular interest. They were on immigration and information bubbles.

“We’re going to have to work to rebuild consensus to openness to immigrants and refugees,” he said. “In America, immigrants start about 30 per cent of all new businesses. But what we also have to recognize is that new immigrants can, in some circumstances, in certain markets, compete for services and construction jobs that previously had gone to low wage workers in those areas … And when folks feel that immigration is not orderly or fair, then it puts at risk our ability to sustain our future as a nation of immigrants.”

See, there it was again. That gentle push to look at it from the other guy’s point of view. He’s right, of course. That is what we need right now. Is that what we want to hear right now? That brings us to point No. 5.

“The fact that we are so connected also makes it easier for us to retreat into our own information bubbles, to listen to people who think just like we do, to never challenge our own assumptions.

“We’re going to have to find ways to push back on propaganda, to cultivate and lift up independent journalism, but also to train ourselves to listen to those with whom we disagree to ultimately work to bridge differences.”

For the youth listening, his words filled them with hope.

For 15-year-old Hailey Toussaint, “to see him in person, the first Black president, is very inspirational because to me he also represents change.”

For Jason Owusu, 21, “Now that I get the chance to actually see him and hear him talk, I feel like it’s going to really inspire me and get me to drive myself even more.”

For youth like them, Obama urged active citizenship.

“I’ve often said the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, quoting Dr. King, but it doesn’t do so on its own. It requires those of us of good will to grab hold of that arc and pull it in the direction of justice.”

Towards the end, Obama acknowledged his optimism is hard earned. “It is not a naiveté. It is an optimism that is based on the record of human achievement and progress. But it is leavened by the recognition that progress can reverse itself. It can go backwards … If people are unwilling to try to build trust with those who look differently or worship differently or love differently than they do, then you get less done.

“We haven’t evolved so much that the possibilities of what we saw during World War II couldn’t recur.”

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