11 August 2008

The Rag Blog's David MacBryde from Berlin : Obama and the German People

BEFOREHAND: Setting up for TV coverage: The message to Obama: “The whole world will be watching you.” Photo © David MacBryde / The Rag Blog.

'Obama’s speech was sober and serious – he did not grandstand or pump up emotions.'
By David MacBryde / The Rag Blog / August 11, 2008

BERLIN -- Here is some high-value news, some on the ground reporting, some philosophical reflections on profound issues, and some personal references to Texas and personal comments, including on McCain’s responses.

Beforehand: In the lead-up to Obama’s visit expectations climbed higher and higher – with a standard question being how Obama would handle what was widely seen as a “high-wire balancing act” (Hochseilakt) between arriving as a star who is supposed to make a spectacular appearance and giving a serious speech. What will he say? (The cover of popular weekly Die Stern pictured a smiling Obama and provocatively asked “A savior, or a [devilish] seducer?”.)

I will point out the most important reactions here to the speech, and offer some reflections.

* German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted (throughout the German media) that their talks and Obama’s speech demonstrated a common philosophy to base foreign policy on cooperation instead of on confrontation.

Backgroundt: Obama did not repeat here his quote of JFK, “Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.” But foreign policy experts here certainly know of Obama’s judgment on that.

Note that in the two days PRIOR to Obama’s visit the president of Iraq was in Germany on a working trip.

(Media footnote: Der Spiegel, major league magazine, reported that the Iraq President confirmed that he also wants a planned withdrawal of occupation troups, agreeing with the Germans and Obama. The McCain campaign responded on this core issue by accusing “Der Spiegel” of mistranslation. As Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, pointed out: the Germans are well known for sloppy work and imprecision.)

The day AFTER Obama’s visit Foreign Minister Steinmeier went to Afghanistan -- on a working trip that including putting potable water works on line and the German support for police training and the legal system (including anti-corruption measures).

(Media footnote: Most German media covers the question of exactly what “larger efforts” Obama will ask the Europeans to undertake, especially in Afghanistan. The German public is 70% against continuing war in Afghanistan. At the same time, support for an immediate withdrawal of security including military forces has little support. The predominant interest in Germany is for fundamental change in strategic priority -- to implement a “Marshall Plan” for civilian development, and refocusing security efforts to develop robust Afghanistan police and anti-corruption capabilities. With that in mind, Obama’s very specific local reference to the Marshall Plan was noted with interest here as an important example of how to get from war to peace. This time the Germans will be on the paying side, and it will cost them a lot of money.

* One of the widely reported statements in the speech (eg. headlined by the Handelsblatt, the usually pro-American and conservative publication of economics and finance) was Obama’s point that there are challenges in the world that the United States -- that no one nation alone -- can solve. The idea was not new. German Chancellor Angie Merkel, at a recent public event in Berlin with Father Bush, made precisely that point. Father Bush’s public grin showed no reaction. What was seen as newsworthy, and so widely reported, was that Obama evidently actually understands this.

* Among the most lively responses to the speech came from the younger people, when Obama was talking about himself and mentioned that his father had been a goat herder. The younger people, including the “young Turks” and Arabs who moved here from rural areas, really enjoyed that. It is apparent the young people of Berlin identified with Obama’s background and evident comfort with his own “mixed identity,” especially those trying to live in multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic Berlin.

Talking with older Germans just after the speech (mostly reporters, who, not only in Berlin, can be cynical) there was relief that Obama’s speech was sober and serious – that he did not grandstand or pump up emotions. (An historical aside: older Germans are nervous and cynical about “charismatic leaders”.) They were seriously pleased that the younger generation here reacted not to hype but to a calm Obama as a role model the kids could identify with. Not so calm was the Berlin mayor. He was, to say the least, delighted. Obama’s visit was of great help – on “the street” and in the schools of big city multi-cultural Berlin. The city is no utopia and there certainly can be “youth problems” among ethnic (including “Aryan”) young people grouping together and forming “gangs” for self- and group-empowerment. Especially in the last two decades Berlin has become “multi-cultural”. Berliners are dealing with that, but it is new and not easy for them.

The visit was also helpful for older Berliners. Germans are not known historically for their lack of racism.

Obama is likeable. More than that, as some otherwise cynical reporters commented, Obama’s speech was indeed well-crafted for Berliners. There are a range of points where he evidently had received excellent, experienced advice.

Obama walked out by himself, and it was a long walkway.

“Setting up a long walk to the podium.” Photo © David MacBryde / The Rag Blog.

Look at the picture of the walkway and podium and also take note of what you do NOT see in the background – no cheerleaders, clapping supporters, balloons and flags, lines of military at attention, and no music hype. Indeed at the time he was scheduled to walk out the music that had been played while people were arriving and waiting (some 215,000 – it took a while) had stopped. There was silence. He walked out simply by himself and started by introducing himself as a citizen of the United States and a citizen of the world. A double identity. He did not try to say “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or try to identify himself with JFK (as some had expected). He said he was here as a US citizen and a world citizen. And he addressed the Berliners, with respect, as being both Berliners AND citizens of the world. This was very well received by both younger and older Germans.

The main question Germans have is, of course, whether he can get elected . Will voters elect Obama? Indeed, the whole world is watching the voters in the United States.

In trying to answer that question here for Germans I usually note that Obama has one very difficult problem, and one huge problem.

In contrast to German proportional voting, Obama has to win a majority off the bat, or he is off the field. So he has the very difficult problem of getting a numerical majority.

And then there is the huge problem:

I think that we in the United States have a problem in our culture with identity politics.

Germans, even those who know the US well, often have a hard time getting their head around this. Some Germans know a lot about the great efforts of the civil rights movement, with its successes and failures. What I think they do not understand is that the very successes (as limited as they were) of the civil rights movement(s), the women’s movement, all the various efforts for empowerment, often were based on specific group identification, on identity politics. Philosophically put, there is a fundamental and ontological difference between an identity defined against others and an identity defined with respect for others. And “identity politics” in a diverse country does not necessarily lead to a sense of common ground. Greg Calvert reflected a lot on this in writing his 1991 book Democracy from the Heart.

Specifically, let us look at Texas. While an Obama victory is a long shot (maybe everything in Texas is a long shot) consider the likely voting patterns ther. How will the Hispanics, Chicanos, Latinos, and, very interestingly, Texans with German ancestors, or “cowboys” vote? (Remember the “Cowboys Need Love Too” Bumper-stickers that appeared after county musician Kenneth Threadgill’s 60th Birthday Party when Janis Joplin flew in with a ring of flowers from Hawaii to give Kenneth what he always wanted – “a good lay”. Kenneth and Janis giggled, and there was much laughter and raucous enjoyment by thousands of hippies and country music lovers.)

So sometimes people who identify themselves differently do find themselves on common ground. Sometimes not.

While some Germans I know do understand how the economy and the media actually work in the US, they still find likely voting patterns in Texas hard to understand.

For instance, Germans do not understand the US health care system, and why voters have not changed it. Germans live longer, and pay less. Germans consider their health care system to be a public good. There is a fundamental issue here. Germans want good health-care for themselves and their children, and for their colleagues at work and the other kids in their school, for their neighbors and generally for all in their society. This they see as making common sense.. They think that there are common goods that are important and worth creating, maintaining and improving. There are other common goods they value. Germans want a good school system, as a common good, and have lively controversies about how best to do that. They view their decentralized and democratically operated and publically owned broadcast system as important so that they and their fellow citizens can be well informed, so that they can live in a society of well informed citizens.

Some Germans do understand the United States, and have even read the US Constitution. They understand that the USA is a “work in progress” and that the “we” in “We, the people” now also includes Native Americans, descendents from slaves and even women. They also know that a core purpose in the founding of the USA was “to promote the general welfare”. Concerning that point some Germans I know do laugh. Some know well the phrase made famous in the 1950’s that “what is good for General Motors is good for America”. (Also General Electric, General Dynamics, etc.) They ask: How is the “general welfare” defined, decided upon, historically and now? From here, it seems that what was good for General Motors was not generally and in the long-run very good for the United States, or for the planet. And that GM now is hardly able to take care of itself, or meet obligations to retiring workers, and is certainly not in a position to dominate much of anything.

Even more than that: there is extreme concern here about what in recent times have been the main products “made in the USA” and exported, namely investment products. Investment decisions, the processes in the investment sector, and indeed the question of ownership and decision-making rights in creating the dollar supply are at issue. But this is a topic for a later piece. Here I am trying to focus on the German’s response to Obama’s speech and the question here about how US citizens will vote, and thus invest in their future.

(I will get to McCain later – the short version here is that McCain’s stature now [after his campaign response to Obama’s speech] is not even in the ball park – except maybe with Herbert Hoover.)

The Germans, with their rather commonly held view of the challenges facing us on the thin surface of this planet and in the economy, did not want to see -- and did not see – a “humble” Obama. There was, as mentioned above and so widely reported, relief and appreciation that Obama evidently does recognize that there are problems that no one nation alone can solve, and that in foreign policy, the subject of the speech, indeed a strategic change is needed towards international cooperation instead of confrontation. (Academic aside: I hear there is a new book on recent US history titled “US vs.Them”.)

While there is certainly broad appreciation here for Obama, the far more important concern here is what US citizens will do.

Will the pumping of paranoia for purposes of perpetuating political power prevail? Will, one way or another, Obama be portrayed as something “unknown” or somehow “foreign” and not quite “American”?

The older Germans I spoke with after the speech tried to explain why there was such a positive response to Obama. The common explanation was that the Germans would love there to be an America that they could like, an America that could vote for Obama, whom they saw as so very, a positive sense, American. And who walked out alone and introduced himself as being both a US citizen and a citizen of the world. Obama was someone they could identify as a good American.

I will finish up this report from Berlin with the response here to the McCain campaign activity, and then with a few personal comments.

I already pointed at the McCain reaction on one core issue – the McCain charge that “Der Spiegel” had mistranslated something during the visit in Berlin by the President of Iraq. While Jon Stewart managed to find some humor in that, the serious press here did not. (But then Germans are not necessarily known for their sense of humor.)

Not funny here was the McCain campaign’s dismissive reference to Germans as “fawning” -- the standard translation into German is “kriecherisch,” with connotations of groveling in mindless adulation, and in any case and however translated, a huge insult to all Germans. So even if McCain was not here in Germany, he did, if very briefly, gain much attention.

While the official McCain (“I approve of this”) video blending in Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton has not gotten that much play here, some younger Germans might find it titillating. But the chance of that making the McCain campaign look cool is sub-zero here. I will leave to the readers’ imagination what, say, high school kids in Germany would think of an America that is seduced by such a McCain campaign.

The Republican National Committee video response was an attempted satire in the fictional form of a Made in Germany ad for Obama, “Obama in Berlin.” Starting with some spaced out kids, the clip focuses on “Marxists’” support for Obama and identifying him with Che Guevara. That is of course disconnected from the reality in Germany – the ideological “left” press here did not advertise for but criticized Obama. My sense is that Germans who see the ad would not think that it relates to Obama but that it does position the Republican National Committee as an extremist group trying to play dirty in an historical dustbin.

In contrasting Obama’s visit with McCain’s activities, there was one very particular foreign policy issue raised by McCain and noted by serious observers here, and by the Wall Street Journal, that has to do with foreign policy judgment.

The smallest of the formal international meetings of heads of state is the annual G8 Summit of the main industrial countries. McCain has announced, and made it a campaign promise, that he wants to kick Russia out of the G8. Whatever one thinks of the G8, my considered estimate is that if McCain were to win and were to hold his campaign promise, the net result would be to finish isolating the US completely, even from the narrowest group of traditional allies.

Many Germans working on foreign policy will say privately, and some have said publically, that while they would prefer to work with someone like Obama in order to get things done, there is one sense in which working with McCain would be easier – it would be easier to say “no” to McCain, to dismiss his foreign policy positions as not serious or helpful.

And they can certainly count on an informed German public to agree with that.

I will conclude this report with a few personal comments.

First, on the faith of my father: He was a “Carolina boy,” a veteran who proudly fought the Nazis in WW II. He and my mother well knew that freedom is worth fighting for, and if it must be, to die for. He went on to serve as a minister in a small North Carolina town. He worked hard to get different churches in town to hold joint Easter Sunrise services, white and black together. He found the most difficult problem he had to deal with in pastoral care was the intensity of feelings about sexuality and race. Any whisper, indeed any image, placing sexy white women near a black man was the hottest button that could be pushed.

I will also mention that he had worked in military intelligence during WW II, including psychological warfare, and found his most rewarding work was after the war in Berlin, working on de-Nazification and for a democratic culture here. The greatest help he found right after the war was the arrival in Germany of jazz (which the Nazis called “neger musik” and tried to ban). The Armed Forces Network radio, and black soldiers were greeted here as fresh, lively and very American.

Given my father’s experience, in Berlin and North Carolina, and in psychological warfare, I ask you to imagine what questions he might now have about McCain’s “I approve of this” ad titled “Celeb.” If one wanted show “celebrities” in relation to Obama, why not show a popular celebrity boxer, like Mohammed Ali, or musician like Prince? Why pick sexy women and in particular a celebrity, a virtual porn star, to place with Obama? What did John “Straight Talker” McCain, with his claimed experience as a military tactician working on hearts and minds, show about his judgment, or lack thereof, in personally approving this ad?

My first reaction to the ad was to laugh. I thought it silly, and showed poor judgment by McCain to insult the citizens of Germany, to insult their reaction to Obama.

When I reflected on my father’s experience I was concerned about the effects, the consequences of putting out that ad. In his time and place he would not have been amused at all, and would judge harshly what the production of the ad showed about the judgment and trustworthiness of its producers. What are the ad’s actual effects? Many, I presume, might simply see it as silly. Those who reflect on how Germans might react may make a judgment about McCain’s foreign policy expertise. I ask, however, who today would react to the images in the racist way that so concerned my father, as a man of faith and with experience in combat and psychological warfare?

My father, may he rest in peace, enjoyed revisiting peaceful Berlin, now not a hate-filled enemy city but a friendly place. And I have enjoyed living here over 20 years, having also experienced the Germans, actually the East Germans (and not Regan or Gorbachev) taking down one wall. Obama talked of the other walls that must have our attention, at this moment. While I will admit that Obama was not my initial choice, I will say that it was a pleasure to work with fellow Americans living in Berlin on some preparations for Obama’s visit. It was also a pleasure to see the response here to the visit of a fellow American. After the pre-visit hype and after the speech it was good to experience the broadly positive, serious and sober response among the often cynical press. Some who were not familiar with Obama but who knew the “I have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr., and who also may have had pre-judgments about the style of the black preacher, expressed some disappointment. The speech itself was not as “rousing” as some had anticipated. But most I talked with later, after having actually read the speech, did acknowledge with respect how well crafted it was. And “good workmanship” is a serious compliment here.

For me it was pleasant to hear an American being complimented.

AFTER the speech: me grinning at a happy fellow American, Dr. Susan Neiman (off camera) who directs the Einstein Forum in Germany. The other happy guy with a tie is Klaus Wowereit, who has the mixed identity of being both a governor of a state and mayor of a city (and considers himself to be a citizen of the world) – Berlin being both a city and a state. Susan was being interviewed and doing interviews – writing a quick opinion in the New York Times and a long thoughtful piece “Obama in Berlin: Finding the Right Tone,” The Huffington Post, 31. July 2008. She looked at how the speech was designed and received, and focused on media hype and substance, and on satire, irony and cynicism in reporting. And, at the end, how happy she was.

In the end I was happy, indeed feeling some layers of depression melting away – layers of depression reaching back to the time of the Nixon elections, and all that we learned about what happened in that time. While the economic news may be depressing, compared to McCain (or Herbert Hoover for that matter) it was a relief to see a fellow American who has gained rather than destroyed respect here. Someone who has now convinced a lot of people here that he understands that there are very hard problems on this planet that must be faced, that no nation alone can solve, that will require great effort, and that in particular require a fundamental change toward international cooperation. Obama’s visit and McCain’s actual responses provide a vast contrast in judgment and capability on that foreign policy point.

With best wishes from Berlin,
For now, and for the future

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