What Obama could learn from JFK

“No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme,” said JFK in a speech delivered 50 years

Two years have passed since Barack Obama ordered the closure of the US prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, yet 172 inmates continue to be held in Kafka-esque limbo, denied the rights supposedly guaranteed them by law. Just how redolent of Kafka the situation has become was stressed by the publication over Easter weekend of the Guantanamo Files by the New York Times and the Guardian.

These military dossiers, amounting to more than 750 separate documents, cast new and shaming light on that purgatory of careless injustice and cruelty, inflicted on confirmed innocents and suspected terrorists alike with little concern for right or wrong.

Such subjective terms as "right" and "wrong" may have little place in most political discourse. The latest revelations, however, are so far removed from the democratic principles publicly advocated by the west that this language feels not only appropriate but necessary.

Take the detention of a senile, 89-year-old man or that of a child of 14, who had been conscripted into insurgent forces against his will. Then there are the unjustifiable incarcerations of those cleared of wrongdoing, their release in some cases delayed for futile intelligence-gathering purposes. And what about the holding of a British resident on the basis of confessions obtained through torture, or the security briefing that instructed Guantanamo Bay analysts to consider a popular Casio wristwatch to be a marker of al-Qaeda membership?

Now is a time for contrition. Instead, the White House has criticised the disclosures, insisting that the documents, originally handed to WikiLeaks, paint an incomplete and outdated picture of life at the camp. This may well be true – but an adequate apology is what is needed, not more deflections or excuses.

Fifty years ago today, President John F Kennedy delivered a speech entitled "The President and the Press", in which he set out his hopes for stronger ties between government and the media. Though largely advocating a statist line when it came to leaked information, Kennedy acknowledged: "There is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it."

His concern was to "prevent unauthorised disclosures to the enemy" in the interests of national security; but Kennedy was careful to balance the journalist's responsibility to make sure that no strategically dangerous information is handed over to the "enemy" (then the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" that was communism) with a "second obligation" to "inform and alert": "From that scrutiny comes understanding and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary." He continued: "No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme."

Words that Obama should certainly consider. Should he be condemning leaks, or the wrong that leaks expose?

Video footage from a recent NS debate on the subject of leaks and whistleblowers can be found here, here and here, featuring Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Mehdi Hasan, NS senior editor (politics), and Douglas Murray, author and political commentator, respectively.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage