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Obama: Existing political and media 'structures' will 'have to be remade' by young people

"It’ll take some of us old folks getting out of the way so that they can remake them," Obama says

Former President Obama
Former President Obama
PEN America
Updated: December 14, 2020 - 11:35pm

Former President Barack Obama said that "old folks" are going to have to get out of the way and allow younger generations to "remake" existing media and political structures in the U.S.

"It didn’t matter whether it was in Prague or Tel Aviv or Buenos Aires or Ho Chi Minh City, you saw more and more young people embracing the kinds of values that, I think, PEN has stood for. The challenge we have is that our institutions have not adapted as quickly to those longings, which is why the younger generation often doesn’t have the same mechanisms to express their idealism," Obama said during a discussion at PEN America's virtual gala last week.

"Oftentimes, they’re disappointed with existing political structures, existing media structures — those are going to have to be remade. It’ll take some of us old folks getting out of the way so that they can remake them but there are, I would say, probably more young people who embody the same spirit that a Havel or a Mandela do today than there were in the past. They just haven’t yet risen to the point where they have the voice and the authority and the power to help realize those values," he added.

Referring to the death of George Floyd this year, Obama said that "white America has awakened to certain realities" that they were "still resistant to" 20 years ago.

"That creates a new opening for a different kind of political conversation, and I think that’s part of why I’m hopeful, particularly about the younger generation. If I talk to white friends of my daughter, they have internalized the degree to which there are structures of racism that are still embedded in our institutions and the criminal justice system in a way that their parents might not have been as comfortable talking about," Obama said.

"I think that part of that is because of writers over decades, who’ve been able to tell those stories, and those stories get taught, they get passed on, and they get not just turned into books but they get turned into movies and TV shows and music so that the culture as a whole is changing," he added.

Obama, author of the new book, A Promised Land, said the world is watching the U.S. to see if the "American experiment" can work.

"We’re going to have to rekindle the excitement of this American experiment, because it is a fascinating drama of whether we can pull this off — whether we can pull off a country made up of people who come from everywhere, and test whether it is possible to get along and self-govern," he said. 

"As I say in my preface to A Promised Land, if we can pull it off, then it gives hope to everybody around the world because the world is shrinking, and cultures are colliding. If it turns out that America and our experiment in democracy can function, then it offers the possibility of other communities negotiating their differences in a peaceful, productive way and if we fail, then the prospects for success elsewhere dim a little bit," he also said.

PEN America awarded Obama the "Voice of Influence Award" during the gala.

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