Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ich bin ein Bürger der Welt

It’s about a mile west of the Brandenburg Gate, and it’s been maligned as a tribute to Prussia’s brute military defeat of three of its neighbors. But today the Siegesschul, the Victory Column that graces Berlin’s Tiergarten Park, was site of a kind of world sociopolitical Woodstock. This time there was only one player; it was Sen. Barack Obama in the role of Jimi Hendrix, and like Hendrix, Obama unfurled his own Star-Spangled Banner, but this time with global overtures.

In what may have been the most anticipated campaign address in American political history, and certainly the one geographically farthest from the American political arena, Obama took the stage before an estimated 200,000 people and began to redraw the world’s perception of the United States of America.

And more: In a speech that touched on a range of global issues — race relations, environmental concerns, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, immigration and the need to refortify the trans-Atlantic alliance — Obama grafted the themes of commonality he frequently used in the primary campaign onto a message for global consumption: now is the time to look for what connects us, rather than what conflicts us.

“I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before,” he said. “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen – a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.”

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In Obama’s rhetorical hands, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was symbolic of the need to tear down walls of race and ethnicity, governmental suspicion and class warfare, in Germany, the United States and the world beyond.

“The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand," he said. "The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”

“In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common. In America, there are voices that deride and deny the importance of Europe’s role in our security and our future. Both views miss the truth – that Europeans today are bearing new burdens and taking more responsibility in critical parts of the world; and that just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe.

“Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity. …

“People of Berlin – and people of the world – the scale of our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.”

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The point of the event, the centerpiece of Obama’s tour of Europe and the Middle East, was for Obama to deliver what the campaign called “a major speech on the historic U.S.-German partnership, and the need to strengthen Transatlantic relations to meet 21st century challenges.” But implicit in his presence, just his being there, Obama announced something more revelatory to Europe, the world, and the folks back home.

Obama reached for global commonalities, and more. He never uttered these words, but he might as well have, in a tweak of President Kennedy’s statement at the nearby Brandenburg Gate: Ich bin ein Amerikaner. I am an American, and I represent a new iteration of the country you thought you knew. For Germany — struggling with its own problems with unemployment, an economy under challenge and the fractious process of integrating foreigners into its society — Obama may seem like exactly the distillation of intelligence, toughness and pragmatism its citizens have come to expect from the United States.

And for the crowd in Berlin, Obama ratified both the possibilities of a black man, and of a recalibration of American potential. For the first time since the ascension of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and in a political context the first time ever — a black man assumed the default position of what defines an American to the world. It can't have been lost on the Berlin crowd, or the millions who watched around the world, that this son of America embodies the ethnic mosaic America has long purported to be.

“Germans differentiate between America and the Bush administration. They are not anti-American per se; on the contrary,” said Andreas Etges, a Berlin professor and museum curator, to Stephanie Kirchner of Time. “Obama, not only because of his skin color, for many represents the other, better America.”

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Some have proposed that Europe’s obsession with all things Obama may be a way for Europeans to exorcise the demons of their own countries’ troubled history with racial assimilation by embracing the stranger from far away.

“It's a vicarious thrill,” said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe Program. “After they've switched off their TV screens they're not going to go out and find a black candidate to put forward to lead their own country,” he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

But what European Obamamania is all about may, ironically, have less to do with Obama than with what Obama represents: a United States returning to the ideals and aspirations that made America the place all countries aspired to be. The ideals and aspirations that make America the nation that America aspires to be.

That’s what Barack Obama symbolized today: another idea of the United States, a fresh version of a familiar favorite — a nation not exactly New! but quite likely, almost probably, soon to be Improved.

1 comment:

  1. My neighbor came over to my house and yelled at me over my dog!

    I have a dog that I can't keep in my yard. I have tried everything and she always finds a way out. Anyway, this lady comes to my home, knocks on my door and when i open the door she points her finger at me and yells obscenities at me. Apparently my dog was in HER neighbors garbage and then pooped on HER NEIGHBORS LAWN! Why didn't she come and talk to me like a civil human being? Why was she a vicious monster attacking me at my door? I calmly went over to HER NEIGHBORS house where the garbage was and picked up every piece, and the dog poop. I agree that I have that responsibility to clean up after my dog. The one thing I don't agree upon is someone coming to my house and screaming in my face about something I didn't know about. Is anyone out there been blessed with a psyco-neighbor?
    I don't think anyone remembers the golden rule...Do unto others as you would want done unto you!
    I sent them a lovely card from this site I


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