On July 30, 2009, President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, former President of the Irish Republic and, in her capacity as UN Commissioner for Human Rights, convener of the notorious Durban I conference on racism. Vetting the preliminary text to the conference which accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and of “apartheid,” and thus approving the anti-Israeli consensus of the regional delegates framing the Durban agenda in, of all places, Tehran, Robinson’s antisemitism is no secret to anyone.
Democratic Congressman, the late Tom Lantos, was frankly appalled by Robinson’s antics. Writing in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs (Volume 26.1, Winter/Spring 2002), Lantos faulted Robinson for failing “to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track” and laid “much of the responsibility for the debacle [on her] shoulders.” He continued: “By appearing to condone the Asian conference’s efforts to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the agenda of the World Conference, she betrayed its intentions and emboldened those intent on using the conference for their own political purposes.”
This is the woman on whom Obama conferred the coveted Medal which recognizes people who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural and other significant public or private endeavors.” As Irish President Robinson steered millions of dollars to the Palestinians that were ultimately used to fund terrorism. She oversaw the degradation of the Durban conference transform into an anti-Israeli hatefest and a hotbed of racism. She is manifestly not such a person.
But far more disturbing than Robinson’s attitudes and policies is the action of the American President in bestowing so exalted a distinction upon so unworthy a recipient. We recall that the American delegation to Durban I even walked out in the middle of the proceedings which Robinson chaired. What could Obama have been thinking as he, so to speak, strode to the podium? A home run to Left field?
In Simon and Garfunkel’s legendary hit song “Mrs. Robinson,” there is a mysterious line that has puzzled many of the duo’s fans: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” In an interview with with SongTalk magazine (1990), Paul Simon explained that this was the first line he had jotted down but confessed, “I don’t know why or where it came from.” It seems rather obvious, however, that Simon was playing with the notion of the American Hero, someone who represents and fulfills the country’s quest for greatness. Things are somewhat different now. Joe DiMaggio is no longer with us but Barack Obama has stepped up to the plate, basking in the glory of his presence and ostensible prowess as a nation turns its lonely eyes to him.
Obama, regrettably, is less like Joe DiMaggio and more like the Mighty Casey in Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” (subtitled “A Battle Hymn of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888”). Casey, who represents the winning run for the Mudville Nine, advanc[es] to the bat” in all his “haughty grandeur” and inevitably strikes out. Perhaps “somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,” the last stanza begins, and ends: “But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”
The Mighty Barack has swung at air more than once in his brief, much-publicized career, but conferring the Medal of Freedom on Mary Robinson should send him back to the dugout in disgrace. In his forthcoming book Tolerism, Canadian author Howard Rotberg argues that the actual presentation of the Medal “may seem to be relatively unimportant,” but its historical significance is not. It is, he argues, indicative of something much more ominous, “the transition of the United States from being the leader of the free world and (on balance) a force for justice and freedom in the world to becoming a European-like rationalizer of injustice…” And he goes even further: “The giving of an honor to the woman who most epitomizes the evil of the Durban conference…could unfortunately symbolize a turning point in American and world history.”
Is Rotberg over-reacting? From the Jewish and Israeli perspective, certainly not, for the Robinson travesty is only one in a long line of actions signalling that Obama is “re-setting” the traditional U.S./Israel relationship in ways that do not augur well for the Jewish state. But Rotberg’s argument encompasses the larger context of the era in which we are now living—an era which has seen the corruption of the Academy, the “adoption of the post-modern concept of cultural relativism,” the emergence of identity politics, the appeasement of autocratic regimes and the attendant deprivileging of the idea of universal rights. “Obama,” he writes “is the perfect president for a nation without values.”
The Battle Hymn of the Republic Sung in 2009 will have no happier an ending than it did in 1888. The sun is not shining that bright on this favored land of ours any longer. Nor for that matter, given the progressive American abdication from the principles it once served, does it shine that bright on a dependent free world.
As for the disreputable Mary Robinson, for whom none of this matters and who is indeed an international contributor to the collapse of sustaining values in the Western world, she must be tickled pink with Obama’s “And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.” But for the rest of us, whether we know it or not, the Simon and Garfunkel song puts it clearly: “Ev’ry way you look at it, you lose.”