What Our Politicians Can Learn from Obama

Barack Obama gave a speech that is a hit not just on YouTube. It belongs in history textbooks, according to the writer Zafer Senocak. Obama clearly addressed the problems of his nation. Hardly anyone is able to do that here. But we too have issues that deserve a fiery, unifying speech.

Everyone has his own favorite image of America. For me one of the most memorable American images was that of the adorable white woman in the shadow of a skyscraper, her face contorted in fear as she pleads for her life in the clutches of King Kong. The monster is eventually brought down, and somehow we know this is going to happen. While European culture has always found its creative inspiration and artistic creativity in the invention and continuing success of evil, the American imagination is gripped by the serial killer who is pursued and destroyed by the forces of good. The concept of the American dream would be impossible without the belief that good always triumphs over evil. We in Europe can have a good laugh about this, but these “naïve” dreamers have come to our rescue more than once in our hours of need.

Those who don’t believe in the American core values – which are the source of the nation’s amazing success – will always get stuck in the contradictions inherent in the human desire for freedom. America is not perfect. But ever since the nation was founded it has striven to be, not a sinister power, but an experiment – admittedly not always a successful one – in controlling and channeling the human potential for violence into a creative force for building a world that is more than simply a miserable asylum.

America’s creative power is infectious, but it is also the source of envy. America’s promise gives rise to expectations, which, if they are not met, trigger emotional condemnations around the world. Therefore who governs America, and how the country is governed, is very important. For my father’s generation (he was born in 1926) America was at once the great protector and the promised land. Shortly after the Second World War American destroyers appeared in the Strait of Istanbul by Ankara and successfully set a boundary to Stalin’s expansionist ambitions. This was followed by the creation of NATO and the Korean War. This success in protecting freedom has not always been sufficiently appreciated. For people behind the Iron Curtain the free world under America’s leadership offered a glimmer of hope.

After eight years of the Bush administration the American dream is under attack more than ever. This is also a cause for alarm here in Europe. For the flip side of the American dream is the European nightmare. In order to keep this nightmare at bay, an entire postwar generation has dedicated itself to building a peaceful, united Europe. But even today – six decades after the victory over fascism and two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we can still feel the effect of the European nightmare, and we cannot afford to sleep. Societies cannot permit themselves to sleep. Only their vigilance can ensure that people can sleep peacefully.

Europeans are following the primary elections in America more closely than ever. This is more important than just the office of the president: it has to do with America’s credibility and with unfulfilled dreams. Recent events in Russia, in China, in Turkey and on Europe’s doorstep are worrisome. The cynical belief that people are not worthy of freedom – this most terrible abuse of human dignity – only provides nourishment to totalitarian ideologies and to authoritarian leaders who believe only in themselves.

If the idea of freedom – which the United States embodies as no other nation – loses its radiant force, then there is no hope for the world. This idea is even under assault in Europe. Old resentments are beginning to surface, undetected by the public at large. Walls are being constructed between the internal and external, between us and “ the other” – walls freshly stained with blood. The state is exercising more powers over its citizens, while social welfare is stifling individual initiative.

In his recent speech Barack Obama spoke about the divisions in American society, about the relationships between blacks and whites, about the long shadow that the history of slavery has cast over the nation. It is a speech that belongs in the school books. Even here we speak about the images of America and the of the fears and promises that these images instill in us. For more that any other country, America is an image, an idea that trumps reality. The image changes according to one’s perspective. But the image of this enormous, multi-faceted country often becomes distorted, which has more to do the mind of the observer than the actual viewed object. Images of America are at best half-truths that bring forth either enthusiasm or hate, but seldom knowledge and understanding.

Obama’s speech is a corrective to our images of America, not because he avoids them, but he puts them in a context that is much closer to reality. He is able to express the imperfections of American democracy, without playing them against the ideas of freedom of the founding fathers. The lens of his own life makes this possible. This is not just someone speaking about his country: he is speaking about himself and his country. This speech, which has been seen over a million times on YouTube, is also addressed to Europe. It is addressed to the entire free world, and all politically thinking and acting people in the world, who often seem powerless when confronted with enormous challenges. Many of them are not only clueless, but also speechless. For they use a language that is stale; it does not spring from actual life, but rather from a stilted bureaucracy.

The speechlessness of European politics cannot hide behind the powerful apparatus of official declarations and agreements. Politics that lack clear words in decisive places and moments loses its soul, without which every political action is nothing more than pure administering. We administer crises, and pass them along to the next generation. We seem to be missing a language that is able to speak clearly about the fissures in modern civilization, a language that addresses our own contradictions and insecurities so that we might correct them.

Barack Obama has found this language. His language is an antidote to the poisonous divisiveness of George W. Bush and his polemics on the Axis of Evil. A speech not about specific parts of the world, but one addressed from one human being to another. Such as speech can unify, for it directs us beyond the barriers to the common ground. Barriers produce fear, they are symbols of division and the source of conflict and war once they become walls we cannot pass through. Only cynics speak of protective walls. But there is widespread cowardice in confronting walls and in pretending they don’t exist. But all of us sooner or later are stopped in our tracks by walls. Whoever wants to pass over the wall has to act and believe in change.

In Germany we are also in the process of building such a wall. We’re building a German-Turkish wall, a wall in our minds, which manifests itself in debates and conflicts. This wall divides not just Germans from Turks, but also Germans from Germans and Turks from Turks. And life is difficult for those of us who wish to leap over the wall. But is will take many wall-jumpers in order to some day overcome the idea of the wall. Without wall-jumpers the European project nor globalization will ever succeed. The German-Turkish wall would erect a perpetual barrier, an either-or, as if one were trying to make Germany Turkish, or trying to “Germanize” the Turkish people. Instead of the wall-jumpers and their complex reality, we’ll have a simplistic identity politics. And then we can point at each other from opposite sides of the wall.

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