A reader recently asked us to look at a YouTube video clip of President Barack Obama that puzzled them.
The chain email that included the link to the video said, "You may not believe this 20 second sound bite. I had to listen to it twice ... to be sure that I heard what I thought I had heard. This is the most amazing statement ever uttered by Obama, or by any American."
The brief video showed Obama giving a speech in which he said, "And for the international order that we have worked for generations to build, ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign."
The YouTube video originated with a group from Germany that appears to dabble in conspiracy theories, including a focus on the "new world order" -- the notion of an emerging, worldwide, totalitarian government. Translated into English, the YouTube video is titled, "Obama explains the new world order 2014 in short ^^ – montage." It had received more than 88,000 views through June 20.
It’s unclear whether the video was posted seriously or in jest by the German group; the emoticon "^^" sometimes communicates sarcasm. Still, that doesn’t play into our fact-check, because what we’re checking here is how the video circulated in English in the United States -- where there was no indication that it was intended as satire.
We tracked down the speech Obama was giving. It was an address to European youth at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels on March 26, 2014. But while the clip comes from a genuine White House video, it has been edited to make an entirely different point than the one Obama was making.
Here’s the actual context of Obama’s comments:
Leaders and dignitaries of the European Union; representatives of our NATO Alliance; distinguished guests: We meet here at a moment of testing for Europe and the United States, and for the international order that we have worked for generations to build.
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle -- through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution -- that a particular set of ideals began to emerge: The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. And those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonialists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men -- and women -- are created equal.
But those ideals have also been tested -- here in Europe and around the world. Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign. Often, this alternative vision roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others, and that individual identity must be defined by "us" versus "them," or that national greatness must flow not by what a people stand for, but by what they are against.
In other words, the creator of the video slyly spliced together two separate passages of Obama’s speech during a cut-away shot -- in a way that totally changes the meaning. Obama wasn’t saying that "ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs" or that individuals should "surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign." Rather, he was saying that those two sentiments run counter to the ideals of free will and democracy.
The chain email claims that Obama said that "ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs" and that individuals should "surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign." Those are two separate thoughts from an actual speech, spliced together through video editing in a way that twists Obama’s argument beyond recognition. We rate it Pants on Fire.