Sky-high expectations

People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad - all this and mu

This was not the first American election I watched on foreign soil. Last time around (also when I was in London, as a matter of fact), Senator John Kerry sank beneath the undertow of a swift boat smear campaign and his own weighty rhetoric as America re-elected George W Bush by a slim margin.

So I had a mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as I watched the results come in last night, wary to the last. It took McCain’s gracious and humble concession speech for the reality to sink in that America had just elected Barack Hussein Obama as the next president.

Obama carries on his shoulders a heavy burden and sky-high expectations. He inherits a global financial crisis, two faltering wars, global climate change, a trillion dollar national debt, a possible recession and America’s tarnished international reputation.

Republican pundits snidely remarked that he walked on water and parted the Red Sea, but with the situation as it stands in America and around the world, President-elect Obama may indeed have to perform such feats.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to an expectant crowd of thousands, he was careful to mention the possible setbacks and sacrifices ahead, preparing the nation for the hard road ahead.

His election, no doubt, represents the making of history and the breaking of barriers, but the true test for president-elect Obama will come when he takes office in January, replacing a deeply unpopular and unsuccessful president. People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad, after the devastation of Katrina, after the frustration of Iraq and Afghanistan, after the humiliation of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. People are looking to him to epitomise the ephemeral American Dream, where a global citizen with a Kenyan father, brought up in Kansas and Indonesia, educated in Harvard and refined on Chicago’s streets is able to step into the spotlight on the Washington D.C. stage.

Ironically, if Senator John McCain had run this campaign like the candidate he was in 2000, he might have had a much greater chance at defeating Obama. That bipartisan, dignified and “straight talking” McCain made a brief appearance when he conceded the election to Obama last night, silencing a booing crowd. The last desperate months of the Republican campaign saw some ugly crowds shouting everything from “socialist” to “terrorist,” but pragmatism prevailed over partisan politics as scores of voters chose Obama’s message of change and bipartisanship rather than the Republican party’s politics of fear.

President-elect Obama humbly acknowledged his triumph, saying, “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.” He indirectly addressed those booing in the McCain crowd, saying, “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”

Having run a successful campaign on the effervescent messages of hope and change, Obama will require people to maintain those emotions through his tenure in office. Americans will need to store away the hope left over after his victory and bring it out to savour when the already difficult road gets tougher, when the current dream melts away to the reality of next year. President-elect Obama has charisma, intellect and an undisputable eloquence, but only next year will show whether his ideals and eloquence translate to decisive action in the highest office.

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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