The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Opinion

The State of the Union (from Berlin)

Photo by Jonathon Coleman

Barack Obama gave his State of the Union address yesterday and there was one particular passage which struck me.

America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. …(That’s) not how people feel from Tokyo to Berlin, from Cape Town to Rio, where opinions of America are higher than they’ve been in years.

As a Berlin resident of eight years, I feel to a certain extent qualified to judge the Berlin part of how people feel. There is no doubt that the election of Barack Obama was a hopeful moment; perhaps the most hopeful political moment of my lifetime. Try getting Germany to elect a black man. Once in office, Obama has consistently handled himself with grace and aplomb.

But to answer the question of how Berlin feels about America, here are a few pen portraits of the kind Obama, speechifying, so likes to give.

In Louisiana, a 33-year woman named Christie Cheramie is sitting in jail, convicted for a crime she was arrested for age 16 and for which she retracted her confession in 2001. It seems possible her partner of the time committed said crime and his underage partner gave false testimony in a situation of stress.

As of time of writing, January 24th, 2012, there are 171 men at Guantánamo Bay, an illegal prison to Cuba’s southern tip, is still open. In that prison are likely people who are innocent, stuck in diplomatic limbo, as other men before them, since released and never charged.

In Preston Hollow Texas, there’s a 65-year old man living in great wealth and luxury who condoned the use of torture during his last job in direct violation of the Geneva convention. His fellow torturers have also continued most comfortable existences.

Obama cited what Berlin feels about the U.S. And here’s how my one tiny part of Berlin feels, in an obscure flat in Kreuzberg where the President’s mind would never go, living how it could never even imagine anyone could live, without a car, without a TV, and without the sense that the U.S is any better or worse than anywhere else in this world.

“The United States of America form the richest and most powerful country on earth. And if you as President of the U.S were to acknowledge that, saying something like, we’re like an elephant, it’s difficult for us not to do damage but we’re doing our best – then I, and I think Berlin too, could get with that. But to say that America is admired around the world again just because an executive order was signed to close Guantánamo – the prison remains open – just isn’t enough to bring back the ‘feel-good factor’ after Abu-Ghraib and Iraq, after urinating onto corpses.

What enrages Berlin so much is not that America does things wrong but that in public it pretends not to, and styles itself as possessed of some innate moral compass as a nation; the problem here, and a deeply shaming one for anyone who knows anything about politics, society and history, is the gap between reality and rhetoric, between Reagan’s ‘shining city on the hill’ and Guantánamo. The preposterous claims make the trespasses against them seem particularly lurid and derange those who seek justice for these latter.”

Sorry to be so negative, Mr. President, but you did ask. Or rather you didn’t. I suppose can always go talk to Tokyo.

Note. Those of who you follow this blog will remark that there has been a large gap since the last post. For me the problem doing this blog is the same problem with Obama’s statement. Dealing with the official American unreality is exhausting, and working on it too much sends you doolally. ‘You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there’ as William Empson once wrote. All these comments respect my fondness for my American friends and acquaintances and in part come from my concern for them.

Ron Paul and the hipster delusion

Here’s a clip which shows why I think the Ron Paul-hipster love affair is so misjudged.

In the excerpt, Congressman Paul is presented with evidence of government providing a service, in this case public transportation, which provides a public good and societal amenity regardless of the profit it makes. The D.C. Metro averages over a million riders a day, a million riders coursing through the city, or, to put it another way, a million trips which might otherwise have been made by car. Surely even Ron Paul would admit that the entire surface of D.C. being covered in cars might be a problem for intracity mobility. But ideology is rarely practical; reality keeps getting in the way. Whether the Washington Metrorail turns a profit or not, the benefits it offers to its host city are enormous; perhaps a campaign to get Mr. Paul to take a ride on it should begin here.

It’s become apparent that for your average, bicycle-riding, big-glass wearing city hipster  or discharged, war-saddened soldier, Ron Paul is a cult figure. And he does have a certain caché, a bit like smoking dope in your Grandad’s bedroom and watching him, high on passive fumes, embarking on ever wilder flights of fancy which you, baked, lap up. But does anybody, even his supporters, really believe, in a country where public goods have been systematically undermined for the last 30 years and the outside observer struggles to find a non-privatized park bench, that what is needed is more profit motive and more selfishness in the U.S.A.? And surely to argue for less financial regulation three years after a crash which, motivated by bandit capitalism and financial whizzkiddery, i.e. fraud, wiped out billions in savings and lost people their homes, suggests that Mr. Paul does indeed come from another planet or as he calls it ‘Texas.’ He is also, and this should identify to anyone doubting exactly where Ron Paul fits on the political spectrum, a global-warming denier. To me, global warming denying, along with a lack of concern for climate change in a wider sense, is a moral wrong, equivalent to, when your child tells you what they want to be when they’re older, mockingly sneering and saying, ‘Sorry – you don’t get to grow up.’

Ron Paul is right about two things and two things only: the U.S.’ ‘War on Drugs’ is idiotic, and the States has to stop embarking on expensive and pointless wars. When he sticks to those points, as below, he can be very good indeed. For the rest of the time he can and should be ignored while the search goes on for someone who opposes the war on drugs, wants to slim down America’s military and who will honour the social contract that, if we wish to have a civilisation, we automatically enter into by being born into a given society at a given time. It’s out there and in droves. Try Rocky Anderson for starters.


Obama’s narrative

Opinion. There’s a lot of talk by pundits that Obama needs to get his ‘narrative‘ back. Bill Clinton, who knew something about telling stories, says: ‘He seems to have lost his narrative.’ But does this exactly mean? Presumably Obama is, at a press conference, to lean towards the camera and say, ‘You know, a lot of Republicans say this election is going to be about the deficit. I don’t think that. I think it’s about – The Quest for the Golden Acorn.’ This signals the beginning of an epic fantastical battle, in which long-retired Democratic politicians are brought back for one last struggle for the future of civillisation and Amtrak.  It’s bad enough for Obama having to preside over a people of gun-owners, god-followers and gay lovers – the U.S. Congress – without having to tell tales too.