Monday, July 28, 2008

The Kumbaya Thing

It's official: Barack Obama's speech in Berlin was a failure. David Brooks and Roger Cohen have both pronounced it loaded with mere platitudes and "kumbaya" moments, quite unlike, Brooks says, the gritty realism JFK would have given us. (Brooks: "Kennedy didn’t dream of the universal brotherhood of man. He drew lines that reflected hard realities"; Cohen: "Yes, Barack, and let us build lovely castles in the sky that the locusts of infamy will never unravel.") Of course, Charles Krauthammer had predicted this. Just speaking in Berlin, he writes, "is something you have to earn": "Imagine a German pol took a campaign trip to America and demanded the Statue of Liberty as a venue for a campaign speech."

Some examples of Obama's offending rhetoric:

History has led us to a new crossroad, with new promise and new peril. When you, the German people, tore down that wall – a wall that divided East and West; freedom and tyranny; fear and hope – walls came tumbling down around the world. From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened. Markets opened too, and the spread of information and technology reduced barriers to opportunity and prosperity.

While the 20th century taught us that we share a common destiny, the 21st has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.
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.

And consider these flourishes:

Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems...The quality and spirit of our own society must justify and support our efforts abroad. We must show it in the dedication of our own lives...

With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations.
World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement… No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue…

So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that these last three patches were not Obama's, but came from JFK's landmark speech at American University, which he gave in June of 1963, a couple of weeks before he went to Berlin. So much for the unrealism of acknowledging our planetary fate. In fact, doesn't Kennedy's notion of "common interests" sound so much savvier now that "the spread of information and technology reduced barriers to opportunity," revolutionary things Obama takes for granted but Kennedy had no way of anticipating?

THINK OF IT this way instead. Obama understood that the very fact that an American presidential candidate would claim to be a "global citizen" in the unofficial capital of the European Union--more important, that he could stand there as globalism's embodiment after months of bruising primaries--was important and inspiring. Some 200,000 Berliners obviously agreed. They came not to hear a great speech but to be a part of a great statement (and judge for yourself if the speech was really insubstantial).

Obama's words came, let's remember, just four years after George Bush visibly intimidated John Kerry in a presidential debate when the latter spoke of America's international reputation. (It was also, but who cares, some 18 years after one of the columnists above announced that America was, after the Berlin Wall came down, the hegemonic power in a unipolar world--an idea which should have forever disqualified him to judge who earns the right to speak in, or about, Berlin.)

Anyway, if a German pol could get 200,000 New Yorkers to cram into Central Park for a speech on globalism, God bless him or her. And God bless the columnists who'd applaud, and risk pitying glances at the next lunch of the Council on Foreign Relations.


boxthejack said...

Quite right. To jeer Obama for inspiring hope is to align one's self with a failed status quo.

Obama's rhetoric will only look like castles in the clouds if, five years hence, we have endured a term of softly spoken Bush-lite.

corey fischer said...

Thank you for deflating the pompous cynicism of the so-called pundits!

iolantherosa said...

Hear hear!

William H. White said...

To me, Obama seems a very clever corporate Democrat, whose savvy but vacuous message of “change you can believe in” is a brilliant appealing cipher. Surely he could have managed, no matter how tired he may have been, to have said something in Berlin beyond asking for more German troops in Afghanistan. Let me repeat that for those of us who fret about our collective lunacy: “more German troops in Afghanistan.”

If we believe the “details” Obama rather than the “sound byte” Obama, he proposes not an end to the Iraq war but a reduction in our level of effort, as he suggested last year, to around 30,000 troops or so, while increasing US Afghan forces. So rather than ending Bush’s War, Obama would tactically redeploy forces with no fundamental change in policy. While he could not be expected, during the campaign, to suggest ending US support for Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or making systemic changes to the US economy to reduce significantly fossil fuel consumption, this seems less change than even caution would demand.

And after the campaign? Perhaps the best predictor of his behavior as president is his behavior in the US Senate: after considerable campaign support for and from a left/labor coalition, Obama began his senate term by voting for the bankruptcy bill, opposed by his coalition but supported by corporate interests, and again with his recent domestic spying vote. His votes, unneeded for passage, sent a message to our corporate masters: “I’m your man;” or, on message, “change you need not fear.”

marieburns said...

Thanks so much for so masterfully deflating the reigning blowhards, especially for hoisting the repugnant Krauthammer on his own petard. And a thanks too to the ever-generous Rick Hertzberg for his link to your blog.

Anonymous said...

"They came not to hear a great speech but to be a part of a great statement"

I am one of the 200.000 Germans who came to be part of a great statement - as you rightly put it. The media may be glad to lable this a "popstar effect", but I´m sure I wasn´t the only one in the audience who has read his books, his speeches and followed his campaign. For one thing, I have never seen seen so many colored faces in a German crowd before.

We in Europe are still in a bit of a state of shock of what happenend in the US in the last years. Not only in terms of foreign politics but also in terms of civil liberties, freedom for its citizens, democracy. And the idea that America could be led by someone who speaks our language is simply enticing. And by "ours" I do not mean European, but that of modern citizens of the world - just as BO said.

Gabi said...

this is tremendous.

eyebleaf said...

phenomenal post. thank you.

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