Saturday, January 24, 2009


The opinions on the Obama phenomenon here are as various and verschieden as anywhere else. En masse,as we saw at the Siegessaule, the Germans can be counted on to give Obama a glorious welcome. Talking to the man on the street, one gets the feeling that people see him as a great symbol, but they possess a healthy skepticism and realize of course that his work is cut out for him and a successful presidency is not a foregone conclusion. I think it's much easier to have an objective viewpoint here in Deutschland because everything isn't clouded by Obamamania. Whether he can make good on his platitudes remains to be seen. People are happy, but it is also testament to the "logical" German brain the most people feel that we will "have to wait and see." Well, I suppose I am underselling the Krauts, as anyone with half a brain could see that.

Still, objectivity trumps the euphoria and I'm feeling a little bit deprived, since the US hasn't seen anything like this since Camelot days. I'm not making hyperbolic comparisons -- but it seems all of the US media are, although venerating this dubious dynasty is as misguided as doing the same with the Bush clan. This wave of magic that is sweeping the country seems unreal to me, but in a way it's the end of an era, and the diametric opposite of 9/11. It's like a shred of hope has been woven into a great gossamer dress -- Michelle Obama's inauguration dress! OK, brocade...

Students, friends, the baker on the corner, they're all unfailingly curious about my view of Obama. During the primaries it was a constant refrain of "Hilary or Obama?" Then Sarah Palin came on the scene, and all bets were off when this turkey and her turkeys seemed to dominate news coverage. It's as if I'm some sort of receptacle for people's hopes, or proxy, as a US voter. For one thing, everyone says a black man would never get elected into office in Europe. For another thing, it allows die Deutschen Leute a vicarious outlet for any nationalistic fantasies they may have, which because of the recent history here is strictly verboten save for at fussball season. And of course the people here are genuinely invested in events on the world stage.

"Ich bin auch zufrieden" said the baker, speaking pridefully of a local who gave 10,000 Euros to Obama's campaign. Others are not so glowing in their reviews. One dude cattily apostrophized, "Is Obama yo' Mama?" Others, again, feel that we will have to wait until the honeymoon period is over and see what remains. "I think it's good that he said he is only one man, and that it will take time to undo all the damage from the Bush administration, because it humanizes him. This is only one man who is taking on this huge task. So I liked that part. But I am still not sure about him" said a measured, soft-spoken pupil of mine sanguinely.

Yes, the tradeoff of Obama's striking and high-flying rhetoric of change, seems to be that most of his words, while striking a chord, are basically rooted in generalities. One tandem partner of mine felt that in this respect Obama strained credulity. But I think it's more the American style he was highlighting, contrasted with that of the German politicians, who are expected to bring concrete numbers to the table, Excel spreadsheets in hand. The people want exact percentages right down to the decimal!

Still others seem tired of the whole thing and wish it would go away. I tried to stimulate a discussion about politics in one of my classes with an article about Obama and change, but they seemed weary after two years of constant news coverage.
Suddenly self-conscious that I had offended them, I segued quickly, doing a 180 turn into German politics, which they claim no-one is interested in because it's boring. Not for me! Quite an interesting dynamic there. We have Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats on the right left, the Green Party on the far left, with Rose, and an unnamed rep on the right right. According to one of my students, Green Party maven Rose is regarded ironically as a radiant celebrity who doesn't focus enough on politics, much like Klaus Wowereit, the openly gay mayor of Berlin (ditto his doppelganger, the young, good-looking, openly gay mayor of the richer Hanseatic port to the north, Hamburg), who, according to the same source is always photgraphed with a glass of champagne in his hand. Whereas the female representative on the right is considered by my student to be the better role model for the new woman, much of the left is derided as being glib, shallow party animals!

After this lively discussion, I realized that the problems of a social democracy are not so far removed from those of advanced capitalism. They are just refracted through a different (telephoto) lens, and everything is turned a degree or two to the left, to clumsily mix metaphors. But the same foibles, messy contradictions and paradoxes, conflicts of interest and personality cults remain part and parcel of both systems. However, I doubt we'll be hearing about Merkel-o-mania on the boob tube anytime soon.

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