Monday, July 07, 2008

"Tear Down That Way of Thinking!"

Al Giordano:
Avi Zenilman at Politico notes that the German daily "Der Spiegel is reporting that Obama may give a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate - which would, of course, lead to another round of articles wondering if Obama is the ‘liberal Reagan.'":
A member of Obama's campaign has already met with Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, and the Secret Service has reportedly started to investigate security questions surrounding a visit.

No location has been announced, but the Berlin Senate has reportedly been asked whether Obama can speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where former US President Ronald Reagan gave a famous speech in 1987. Reagan made a show of asking then-Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin WallReagan's June 12, 1987 speech could also describe what is today the growing wall erected by the US government along the Mexican border:

Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall. But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same--still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar...

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Reagan was not the first president to go to that spot to make a global speech. On June 26, 1963, it was Democratic President John F. Kennedy that delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" remarks, just as fierce in Cold War rhetoric:

Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was "civis Romanus sum." Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner."

I appreciate my interpreter translating my German!

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say, on behalf of my countrymen, who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope and the determination of the city of West Berlin. While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.

The speculation about a possible Obama speech at that same spot makes Peter Beinart's column in the Washington Post today all the more interesting, especially because Beinart is a senior fellow of an organization, The Council on Foreign Relations, that has, for decades, promoted a Cold War lens through which to view US foreign relations:

Having seen fellow Democrats destroyed in the early 1950s because they tolerated a Communist victory in China, (President Lyndon) Johnson swore that he would not let the story replay itself in Vietnam, and thus pushed America into war. The awful irony, (author David) Halberstam argues, is that Johnson's fears were unfounded. The mid-1960s were not the early 1950s. The Red Scare was over. But because it lived on in Johnson's mind, he could not grasp the realities of a new day.

In this way, 2008 is a lot like 1964. On foreign policy, many Democrats live in terror of being called soft, of provoking the kind of conservative assault that has damaged so many of their presidential nominees since Vietnam. But that fear reflects memories of the past, not the realities of today. When Democrats worry about the backlash that awaits Barack Obama if he defends civil liberties, or endorses withdrawal from Iraq, or proposes unconditional negotiations with Iran, they are seeing ghosts. Fundamentally, the politics of foreign policy have changed...

Beinart cites polling data that shows that Americans are not as worried or obsessed with foreign or terrorist attack as they were years ago. He concludes:

Because Americans are less afraid and because Republicans have abandoned the foreign policy center, Democrats need not worry that Obama will suffer the fate of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale or John Kerry. He won't lose because he looks weak. The greater danger is that he will change positions in a bid to look strong -- as he recently did on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- and come across as inauthentic and insincere. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin have noted, the Democrats' biggest political liability is not that Americans believe they are too liberal but rather that they believe that Democrats don't stand for anything at all. On foreign policy, Obama has a chance to change that: to articulate a vision based on the principles of global cooperation and human dignity that animated Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. He shouldn't be deterred by fears of being called soft. Those fears are the echoes of a bygone age.

Growing up with the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989 - and the Red Scares of the McCarthy Era before it - were generations of Americans whose thinking formed and calcified around it. After the fall of the wall (and with it the former Soviet bloc), US politicians - Republicans and Democrats - did their best to sustain that fear and loathing and transfer the mania to other things: the so-called war on drugs and, since 2001, the so-called war on terror. You will know the dinosaurs by those still harping on such bi-polar descriptions of an America under siege by a monstrous external threat and the corresponding witch hunts to track down and purge the imagined internal enemies within it.

The situation in the United States, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has been as if the lights were turned on in the house of a blindfolded man. You can remove the furniture and even the wall, but he won't notice and will continue acting as if it's still there.

We've seen evidence of that old style of political thinking rear its head again and again this year as another, newer and fresher, one has gained the upper hand over it. There will no doubt be more shrieking - "where's my wall?" - before this year is out.

With every day's obituary pages, that worldview is, little by little, dying off. From behind come new generations, not stunted by such cowering fear of "the other," and in fact disgusted by it and those that try and inflict it upon us. And a solid number of elder Americans can also see and think beyond its destructive matrix.

The Berlin Wall is now 19 years torn down.

What the moment needs - and speculation in the press suggests we might get it - is someone on the global stage to stand up and say, now and in the present: "Tear down that way of relating to the world around us!"

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