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.

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