Archive for July, 2008

So yesterday Rebecca Traister at Salon’s Broadsheet wrote a piece that basically suggested Kittywampus might throw a lot more weight around if we didn’t have a frivolous name and address too much feminine stuff like parenting and cats and – well, maybe also feminism:

It is not without irony, for instance, that one of the women Jesella [NYT staffer Kara Jesella, writing on the recent BlogHer conference] interviewed about not being taken seriously online runs a blog called Lemonade Life. This isn’t a blog about lemonade; it’s a blog about living with diabetes, and a cursory read suggests that it’s a very good, smart one. Lemonade Life’s Allison Blass has written on her site that the name is in reference to making lemonade of the health lemons life has handed her. And that’s terrific. It makes sense.

But we can’t pretend that a title doesn’t affect how a blog is read and digested. And the fact is that the people over at Netroots are calling their blogs things like the Plank and the Page and First Read and Hotline, names that scream solidity and self-importance and power. A blog about personal experience and illness certainly needn’t be named with an eye to political urgency, but what about starting from a place of self-regard and personal authority and naming it after yourself, like Kos, or Drudge, or one of the women who does get taken seriously online, Arianna Huffington? Think about how much easier it would be to get the respect that some of the BlogHer women crave if they started taking themselves more seriously.

This is a tricky argument to make, since there is nothing intrinsically wrong with giving a blog a cute name or, for that matter, writing a blog about a feminized topic — be it motherhood or fashion or dating — that is destined for a niche audience. In an ideal world, of course, the experiences of parenthood and style and love wouldn’t even be marked as feminine, since they are all shared.

But this is not an ideal world.

Now, I don’t have any ambition to become the next Arianna Huffington. If I did, I’d have to spend a bunch of time talking to Larry King. I don’t need that kind of annoyance. I’m perfectly happy having a few loyal readers.

But I do want to think about whether it’s a good idea to act oh-so-serious – to join in the Drudgery, so to speak. If women do that – if we help devalue those things “marked as feminine” – aren’t we condemned to second-class status forever? Aren’t we then abandoning feminist causes instead of furthering them?

As Traister ought to know from Salon’s own in-house blog on women’s and gender issues – Broadsheet, where her analysis appeared – issues involving women and gender still tend to be trivialized and marginalized, even in left-leaning publications. Broadsheet’s comment section attracts way more trolls than the rest of the site. Where Salon used to have a whole department dedicated to gender (“Mothers Who Think) and a whole ‘nother section devoted to sex, neither of these have survived multiple reorganizations. More’s the pity.

We see similar marginalization in the way the Democratic Party has begun to see abortion rights as optional. We see it in the way issues like equal pay or maternity/paternity leave are painted as the concerns of “special interests.” We see women voters being trivialized as “soccer moms.”

In other words, it’s not just femininity that’s marginalized and trivialized. The same thing happens to feminism, too. I’m not going to defend every aspect of conventional femininity. I think high heels are just a torture device, for instance. Still, if we devalue “the feminine” in a knee-jerk way, we shouldn’t expect feminism to be taken seriously, either.

So I think some of us are needed for the skirmishes in a different register: redefining what topics matter in the first place. For me, parenting is absolutely as important as politics. In fact, parenting is political, on a micro-level, and that’s one of the things I’m exploring both here and in my academic work. I could say something similar about sex, which – although men are supposed to love it way more than women – is an intensely feminized topic.

While I’m grateful that there are at least a few prominent political bloggers who also happen to be women (I adore Jane Hamsher, to name just one), I think that – perhaps unlike the conventional media – the blogging world is vast enough that we need to work on both levels. We need women writing on macro-level electoral politics and on micro-level parental politics. We need women writing on the economy and on sex. And then there’s the thorny question of how these different levels intersect.

To my mind, anyone writing on any of these issues is a “political blogger.”

I also think that it’s really okay to not always be deadly earnest. I’d like to believe I don’t blow my credibility if I pillory fat cats sometimes, while other days, when I’m sapped from the summer heat, I just want to be tickled by … an actual fat cat. I know that most readers are more than smart enough to tell the difference. I trust that my serious writing speaks for itself. And honestly, I think that a sprinkling of silly posts keeps me from waxing too pedantic.

As for the name of my blog: I picked it because it’s a great, quirky word that I associate with my North Dakota upbringing. It’s a word my parents use occasionally. And of course, it gives me an excuse to feature a kitty here and again. I suppose it goes without saying that felines are regarded as both feminine and frivolous (mostly by people who don’t know cats!). But I won’t be renaming it anytime soon.

What do you think? Do femininity and/or feminism automatically detract from a writer’s credibility? Does occasional silliness undermine a writer’s more serious posts? And what’s with all those girly flower pictures, anyway?

(This daylily was blooming in my garden the day I flew to Berlin. Yes, it’s a flower; it’s pink; it should put you in mind of sex. And the problem with all that is … what exactly?)

Read Full Post »

Catty Corpulence

Photo from the Chicago Tribune, reproduced here with the presumption of fair use; I’ll take it down if anyone objects.

This cat was found wandering (or “waddling,” as all the news accounts have it) in New Jersey. She weighs 44 pounds – two less than the all-time world record. That’s a couple pounds more than my son the Tiger, who’s a substantial five-year-old person.


“Princess Chunk,” as rescue workers have nicknamed her, is pictured here with Deborah Wright, who’s acting as her foster mom.

For more images, see the slideshow here.

Read Full Post »

I don’t do any of these weekly memes, but I do have a slight voyeuristic soft spot for this TMI Tuesday thing – and this week, it’s prim enough that I can do it without giving any of my former students, well, TMI.

1. What is your language pet peeve. (example ‘hot water heater’, why would you heat hot water)

Other than a missing question mark where one is clearly needed? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) My biggest pet peeve would have to be “nucular,” as pronounced by George W. Bush in his loathsome twang. It might make a good drinking game to watch the State of the Union address and take a swig every time Dubya mangled it – except I’m too old to think getting slobbery drunk is a good idea. One of the pleasures of seeing Obama’s Berlin speech last week was that he actually talked about “nuclear” containment.

2. What is your favorite word? Both dirty and clean?

Hmm, I’m not sure how to interpret this question. If the word has to be both dirty and clean at once, then I think lick does great double duty. (And here I was trying to hard to keep this from turning naughty!)

I love words that are onomatopoetic. A lot of the “dirty” words fall into that category. Fuck is overused as an all-purpose cuss word. But when you think about it, when it’s used literally and in a friendly way, it really does capture the force and friction and suction.

3. What is the one word you cannot spell?

Indispensable and irrefutable and irresistible all give me trouble. I can’t remember which ones end in -able and which in -ible. By almost random chance, I got ‘em right this time, but I rely pathetically on the spellchecker for them and their ilk.

4. What is the one word you always pronounce wrong?

I do pretty well in English, and I’m compulsive enough (see my initial response to #1, above!) that if I knew I was a serial mis-pronouncer, I’d fix it.

But oh, German! A couple of years ago, my son the Bear – then only six – said to me, “Mama, your Rs are getting better.” I’m just vain enough to believe that most Americans have a more noticeable accent than mine, and I got all puffed up once when a German guy initially mistook me for Swiss for about 60 seconds. That hasn’t happened since and surely never will again.

5. If you could erase one popular catchphrase from the english language, what would it be?

This isn’t technically a catchphrase, but you know the newish tendency to use periods for emphasis? I. Wish. It. Would. Stop.

Bonus (as in optional): The late, and very hot Michael Hutchence (INXS) once sang, “Words are weapons, sharper than knives” . What is the most hurtful thing you have ever said to anyone? Was it deliberate or accidental? What was the most hurtful thing ever said to you? Do you think it was deliberate or accidental?

Oy, I think this does cut too close to home, so I’m only going to give a partial answer. I’m pretty sure that the most hurtful statements have passed between me and the people I love best, just because we have the most power over each other. I’d bet that’s true for most people.

I’ll confess to just one thing: When I say hurtful things, it’s usually been with some degree of awareness and intent. I think I’m reputed to be a fairly nice human being, and that’s mostly true; but I also pretty tuned in to my own motives and to the nuances of language, and so if I say something unkind, I have a hard time claiming ignorance.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but as I’ve gotten older and often see faraway friends for only short snippets of time, I’ve gotten much more blunt and willing to ask potentially nosy questions. I’ll usually preface them with “I don’t want to pry, but …” I’ve noticed that when there’s only a little time to reconnect, it’s easy to just skate along the surface and not actually make those connections at all. A dose of bluntness can really help get past the superficial level. But I’m sure one of these days, I really will offend someone. (If I already have, they were gracious enough not to tell me!)

Read Full Post »

Via an email from alert reader Kevin K. (who’s got a great post on LaRouche supporters posing as PUMAs), I just got wind of a rumor that free beer and bratwurst were available at Obama’s Berlin speech last Thursday to entice a larger crowd to show up.

It’s total bullshit.

As I reported right after Obama’s appearance, there was lots of beer available. There were half-meter long bratwursts for sale, too – I recall this because even though I loathe sausage, a friend of mine was almost hungry enough to buy one. They looked too nasty, and he decided to go hungry instead.

But the point is, they were for sale. No one was offering free food or drink to lure unsuspecting Germans to the event. And let me say I have a keen nose for free comestibles, since I was usually broke in college and grad school.

People need to use their pea-brains! The sheer cost would have been ridiculous. And just assume for a moment – thinking along with the conspiracists – that a candidate wanted to use beer as a lure. You’d then expect to see posters or other advertisements getting the word out in advance. I arrived in Berlin a week earlier than Obama, I’ve been out and about by bike, subway, and bus, and I can testify: There was no such publicity. The German press didn’t make any mention of freebies either – not before the speech, and not afterward. (And yes, I’m highly fluent in German.)

So who’s pushing these rumors? The first hits on Google led me to pro-Hillary sites, including this gem from the Hillary Clinton Forum:

Now we know why Obama had such a large crowd. Free Beer, Pizzas, Bratwurst, and two favorite rock bands. All for free. Obama supposedly help share the cost.

Yes, the bands played for free (from the audience perspective). It’s possible that the campaign payed for them. It’s possible that they volunteered; there’s enough grass-roots Obama love here in Germany that this is conceivable. While I’m sure some of the younger audience members would’ve known the bands, I didn’t recognize their names. Everyone around me thought the music was too loud. We weren’t there for the free concert.

A blog called Pagan Power is also pushing the rumor. It too seems to subscribe to Hillary revanchism and sports a big PUMA logo. (Since I left a very civil comment there, debunking the rumor, I’d like to refer anyone who followed me back from there to my comments policy at the top of the right column. Feel free to say hello – nicely.)

I’m sure that this rumor is mostly demon spawn of the wingnuts or other Republican ratfuckers. (Update 7/30/08: Two people already asked me offline about the apparent hypocrisy/hilarity of me breaking my own civility rule right after I invoked it for visitors. But ratfucking is actually a technical term. It’s what Nixon’s minions called their efforts to gum up the Democrats’ campaign machinery. It goes back to Donald Segretti and the Young Republicans that came out of USC – including Karl Rove.)

But gosh, you’d think my fellow Democrats would have better things to do. Like rallying around the effort to defeat McCain in November. Because if he wins and we spend the next 100 years in Iraq, you can be sure none of us will be getting any freebies.

(I rarely have a chance to debunk actual breaking news/rumors, since I’m too lazy, too busy with kids and work, and too much a historian at heart anyway. So it’s sort of fun to use my perch in Berlin to play journalist.)

Read Full Post »

Cliché-lit cat from I Can Has Cheezburger?

I first saw this meme at Sugar Mag’s but can’t link her because her blog has disappeared! (Where are you, Sugar Mag?!) I bumped into it again via Brandy at Moue Magazine.

Supposedly the average American has read just six of these books. Could be; plenty of people don’t read at all, which would tend to drag down the average. But I’m guessing nearly everyone I know has read a lot more than just six.

No one seems know who originally picked the books or why. The list is partly just plain nonsensical. Why list Hamlet separately and then also include the complete works of Shakespeare? Why pull a similar trick with C.S. Lewis?

It’s a curious list in terms of its selections and omissions, too. Why all the Austen and Dickens? Where are the post-war big boys like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth and Saul Bellows and John Updike? Where are some of the more recent literary luminaries like Don DeLillo (I’ve read a fair amount of him even though I’m not a huge fan) or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (to name two novels that totally derailed work on my dissertation at the time)? And The DaVinci Code just makes everyone go WTF.

It’s fun anyway. It tickles my inner nerd. Plus, editorializing is just irresistible. Please feel free to editorialize right back at me.

And if you do the meme, I’d love it you link back to it in comments, okey dokey?

The rules are:

1) Bold what you have read
2) Put in italics what you have started to read
3) Put an asterisk next to what you intend to read

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (I love Austin and so does this list.)
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien (See The Hobbit, below.)
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Might this be the origin of my weakness for enigmatic, dark-haired men?)
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (I’m probably the only person in America who hasn’t read a single page of it – or seen the movies.)
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible (When I was about in fifth grade, there was a Bible in our bathroom and I tried reading it start to finish. I got bogged down in Leviticus. Purity rules, anyone? Also around that time, I read Revelations under the covers at night by flashlight. Not recommended.)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell (My high school never assigned this, so I read it on my own steam shortly thereafter – in the summer 1984, in fact. I don’t know if that made it more or less chilling.)
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (I read this multiple times as a kid and wept harder every time when Beth died.)
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (I’ve read a bunch of the more famous play but nowhere near all. I started with Romeo and Juliet when I was 13 and had the chicken pox.)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien (I really tried to get into this. All my friends liked it. There were certain cute nerdy boys who were completely fixated on Tolkien. And I just couldn’t get involved in the storyline. I bailed after about 150 pages.)
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger (I read this for “diversion” when my husband had just survived multiple close brushes with death, and – even though I also kept accidentally picking up novels with a cancer theme around that time – this one disturbed me more than anything else. The central male character’s trajectory – the time traveler edging ever closer to calamity – captures the dynamics of catastrophic illness and the ICU with terrible, perfect clarity. Even though nary a hospital appears in the story, it’s a poetic and horrible depiction of what actually awaits most of us time-bound mortals. *Shudder.*)
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby- F. Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (Oh, this was one of my biggest bail-out moments ever. It was assigned for a class my last year of college. I got within 100 pages of the end. And then I got busy with final projects and never finished. Isn’t that awful?)
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (All the cute nerdy guys liked this, too, but since I actually enjoyed it, I read the whole set.)
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (I’d like to re-read this one, as well as East of Eden)
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
*37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini (This one’s in my to-read pile.)
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne (I read the whole thing out loud to my son, the Bear – who resembles Pooh not in the least)
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell (I think I was in sixth grade the first time, but I re-read it a few years later when I was old enough to grasp the political allegory)
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (Everyone who does this meme wonders why this book is on the list. Maybe because it became part of the cultural fabric for a while?)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (I read this over 20 years ago but still think of the plague of sleeplessness sometimes when I’ve got insomnia – oh, and during my first pregnancy, I thought of the babies born with the tail of a pig more often than was smart.)
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving (This book is forever tangled up with the end of my first, preliminary research trip to Germany during grad school. I started reading it while I was breaking up with my then-boyfriend, and I finished it on a Pakistani Air plane from Amsterdam to New York. Under other circumstances, I might have sneered at the ending as emotionally manipulative. As it was, I wept loudly for about a half hour, right in the middle of that airplane, obviously mourning a lot more than poor Owen Meany.)
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (I love everything Atwood has written. This isn’t my very favorite – I think Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride top my list – I re-read it last fall in order to teach it and was amazed at how presciently Atwood described a mix between the Taliban and the Religious Right today.)
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan (I think McEwan just keeps getting better, and he already ranks with Atwood in my literary cosmos. So, while I really enjoyed Atonement, I was totally captivated by Saturday and On Chesil Beach.)
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert (Here’s another one from the cute, nerdy boy collection that I couldn’t really get into.)
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon (This is such a fascinating book, funny and touching and suspenseful. I’m sure I’ll read it again.)
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt (Her second book, The Little Friend, was wonderful too – another compulsive page turner. It cured me of ever wanting to try meth – ever. Not that I was planning to.)
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold (I thought this was haunting and wonderful, not overhyped in the least)
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy (But don’t ask me to reproduce the plot line; by now it’s pretty, um, obscure to me.)
68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding (And y’know, I loved it. Sometimes silly comedy is just the best.)
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville (Uh-oh. I was supposed to read this late in my college career but hated it and just got bogged down. The shame!)
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce (But I have a friend who read it; does that count?)
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (I read this when I was maybe 12, and I wish I knew why the adults around me allowed it. I was way to young for it. But I was also totally fascinated – and still am – by Plath’s talent and her trainwreck life.)
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt (Another favorite author of mine – but I liked Babel Tower best.)
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker (This is de rigeuer for women’s/gender studies scholars. I love it anyway.)
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert (I read this for a history seminar in the college where we read oodles of nineteenth-century European novels – that’s where I read Germinal and Great Expectations, too – but this was my fave of the bunch. What I most remember from the discussion: my professor discussing what Flaubert meant when he referred to cold feet in bed. I think I should re-read this now that I’m a putative adult.)
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (Um, this is in the Moby Dick category for me.)
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams (This goes back to junior high for me; I loved it at the time.)
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole (I read this with bronchitis and a high fever; light delirium meshes well with it.)
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute (I’ve never heard of this one and have to wonder: where is On the Beach?)
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (My older son discovered this book about a year ago, too; it’s so fun to see him adore it.)
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Read Full Post »

Wildlife in the City

What to do when the city starts to stink in the summer heat, as Berlin with its century-old sewers tends to do: Head for the park. What not to do: Make a beeline for the smelliest part in town.

Of course, that’s just what we did today. We biked to the Jungfernheide, a big wooded park in the northwest of the city, to visit the wild pigs – Wildschweine – which are so strange and fascinating that we do this every time we’re in Berlin.

The ground is bare dirt because they spend most of their time snuffling around in it or – when they want to prettify themselves – bathing in it.

They stop snuffling only when visitors offer to feed them – which, luckily for them, seems to be a pretty constant gig. This pig is showing off her talent at standing on her trotters while my husband feeds her raw spaghetti, their snack of choice.

The adults are not beauties. They have improbably adorable babies, though. We saw about a half-dozen nearly newborn piglets (“Frischlinge”) but they were running so fast, my camera didn’t stand a chance. (There actually shouldn’t be any newborns so late in the year, but these Wildschweine seem to be quite overcrowded in their quarters. Either they’re no longer closely managed due to Berlin’s financial woes, or someone decided that surplus pigs could be sold to local restaurants at an easy profit.)

Here’s what the Frischlinge look like when they’re several months old and ready to start competing (mostly unsuccessfully) for their share of spaghetti. Their markings are so cool; I don’t know of any other critters that have lengthwise stripes.

On the long bike ride home, we saw a group of five bunnies who were obviously being fed by humans, because they were about two yards from the bike path, yet they didn’t flee. No, they weren’t as unusual as the Wildschweine – but at least they smelled blessedly neutral.

All photos by me, Sungold. The Wildschweine don’t like to hold still and the park is deeply shaded, so although I took dozens of photos, even the best are a bit blurry.

Read Full Post »

Obama Postgame

I had a pretty good vantage point for Obama’s big Berlin speech yesterday. It wasn’t – as Salon’s Joan Walsh opines – “political brilliance.” Nor was it – as Time claims – “a soaring address that invoked echoes of the famous speeches in this city in which John F. Kennedy made common cause with Berliners against communist oppression in 1963 and Ronald Reagan called nearly 20 years ago to tear down the Berlin Wall.”

No, Obama’s speech didn’t make history. But after years of tensions with Europe, Obama’s appearance was a lovely gesture of friendship and good will. He offered up a laundry list of mostly good-to-excellent foreign policy initiatives and approaches. But the speech wasn’t wonky. He wrapped it all up in a warmly welcomed vision of America as an equal, cooperative partner, which constrastly nicely with the global policeman, cowboy, and rogue state that Germans have perceived over the past eight years. You can read the full text of his speech here or here, and you can also view the video. So instead of summarizing it, I’d rather discuss its reception – a point that the media has analyzed rather superficially, possibly because the respectable press had a comfy perch on risers rather than mingling with the sweaty audience.

The crowd itself was remarkably young. I was probably in the upper quintile as far as age went – and I’m younger than Obama himself. The typical audience member was somewhere in their twenties, and German, although it seemed as though every American in Berlin (except for the one dear soul babysitting my kids) had turned out for the show, along with a noticeable smattering of Italians. The Democrats in Berlin were working their butts off to register voters – a smart tactic, given that the expat community tilts liberal anyway, and I doubt many Republicans bothered with the hour-plus wait at the security checkpoints.

Photo from Obama’s campaign, aka Flickr user Barack Obama (!), used under a Creative Commons license. This shot must have been taken about two hours before the speech started, or shortly before I got through security. Note the crush of humanity still behind the barricades; by the end of the evening, this whole area was packed.

Oh, and the crowd was huge. The police are estimating upward of 200,000. The Berliner Morgenpost – a paper known for lowballing crowd size – puts it at about 215,000. I was pretty far enough forward, in the middle of the actual plaza where he spoke; I’d hope to get even closer, but we arrived only two hours before the speech. Also, the crowd was much denser than at Grateful Dead shows, where you could dance your way close to the stage. At any rate, I was far enough forward that I couldn’t see the long column of bodies filling the boulevard behind me. And I did get a pretty decent view of Obama, albeit one filtered through the dreadlocks of a guy in front of me. Plus, have I mentioned that Germans are really, really tall? So at just over 5’7″ I was craning my neck constantly.

Photo of the view down Strasse des 17. Juni by Flickr user helter-skelter, used under a Creative Commons license. Note the big screen on the left. The trees lining the street are part of Berlin’s lovely central park, the Tiergarten.

The set-up did look remarkably like the “fan mile” during the World Cup, complete with giant screens for those not lucky to get as close as I did. Oh, and there were even stands hawking beer, both inside and outside the security checkpoint. When’s the last time you could buy beer at a political rally? Now, not too many people were actually drinking it. The weather was hot (mid-80s, but hotter due to all the bodies) and the portapotties so vile that I would’ve preferred dehydration. But the Berliner Kindl did remind me that I definitely wasn’t in Ohio anymore.

Photo by me, Sungold. Berliner Kindl is not a very good beer, by German standards.

Another thing that I don’t recall ever seeing at a major political rally, including Kerry/Edwards in Dayton in 2004 or Michelle Obama’s stop in Athens, Ohio: There were no preliminaries. No introductions apart from his name. Once the security helicopter hovered low as his motorcade arrived, it was all Obama.

Photo by Sungold – you can see the security copter to the left of the Siegessäule.

Obama began with a reference to the Berlin Airlift (which, as I’ve said more than once before, is politically smart to tap into) but belabored the story much longer than necessary for his live audience. Even a young crowd of Germans is on top of the history. He also relied on clichés and oversimplifications. Do we really still believe that the Soviet tanks were ready to roll westward? I wasn’t the only one who criticized this: We were hanging with an old friend who is German, Jewish, and a historian, and she would just as happily have deleted that whole section of the speech. I can only think that both the excess detail and the oversimplification were geared to his audience in the States. Or maybe his speechwriters just missed the mark.

Politically, too, the first section of the speech was somewhat misguided. Obama devoted too much attention to the old Soviet menace. Sure, Berlin’s significance comes largely from its Cold War history. But as my husband said afterward, you can’t demonize the Soviets at the start of the speech and then credibly ask them for greater cooperation at the end of it. Somewhere in the middle, you’d have to express some grounds for friendship – but that didn’t happen.

The problem is, the farther the Cold War recedes into the past, the harder it is for a visiting politician to tap into Berlin’s former drama. When Kennedy came here, the city felt besieged, and the Wall was like a fresh laceration running through the city. Without the barbed wire and gun turrets, no politician who visits here can summon up the same tension or significance. That’s why Clinton’s 1994 speech was not especially memorable – and why it’s now virtually impossible to give a “historic speech in Berlin.” In fact, despite all the pre-speech analogies between Obama and JFK, this city is probably the one place where the comparison is most doomed.

So, while Obama’s repeated references to the Wall and the airlift worked fairly well as metaphors, they were also predictable and went on too long. They weren’t able to catapult his speech into the realm of history. For that, he’d have to do something new and different – like he did when he addressed race in America last winter. That was a historic speech.

Photo by Flickr user azrael74, used under a Creative Commons license. Alas, I got no picture of my own because my camera’s battery was dying by this point and so zooming was out of the question, never mind the dreadlocks in front of me.

When Obama turned to his vision of American in the world, the crowd warmed up. However, there was one real clunker (as the UK’s Guardian notes, too): His call for greater NATO involvement in Afghanistan and in fighting Al Qaeda drew only very muted, polite applause – and quite a few skeptical remarks from the people in my vicinity. Including me. I agree that the Taliban remains a problem, and that we can’t just turn our back on it. But what Afghanistan lacks is a functioning civil society and the rule of law. I’m not convinced that continuing to attack Pakistani military bases (oops!) and Afghan wedding parties (double oops!) is going to foster either of those things.

But if Obama’s anti-terror rhetoric struck a Berlin crowd as leaden and misguided, that’s probably because that snippet of the speech was aimed entirely at his home audience. Lo and behold, MSNBC took the bait with the headline “In Berlin, Obama urges war against terror” and the following lede:

Before the largest crowd of his campaign, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama on Thursday summoned Europeans and Americans together to “defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it” as surely as they conquered communism a generation ago.

In fact, this was a tiny part of the speech. I think Obama sincerely believes we need to act more aggressively in Afghanistan and Pakistan (he said this already during the primary). But I really wish he didn’t feel compelled to play the rhetorical game of invoking 9/11 and Al-Qaeda.

The rest of his speech got a truly warm reception. As another longtime German friend of mine said afterward, “I wasn’t impressed with the first half, but by the end I was satisfied.” And so was I.

Here’s what people loved best, judging from the clapping, whoops, and hollers:

Obama’s thank-yous to his German hosts drew a big (but sympathetic) laugh when he totally mangled the pronunciation of Chancellor Angela Merkel (evidently no one told him that the E is pronounced like a long A, so it came out “Murkle”) and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (which is admittedly a mouthful even if you know the language).

The longest, strongest applause came when Obama promised to bring the war to a close:

And despite past differences, this is the moment when the world should support the millions of Iraqis who seek to rebuild their lives, even as we pass responsibility to the Iraqi government and finally bring this war to a close.

Nearly equal enthusiasm met his call to negotiate with Iran, contain nuclear weapons, and rebuild the Atlantic partnership. He twice invoked the genocide in Darfur and mentioned Zimbabwe’s crisis as well – two issues he needs to bring before an American audience as well. His Berlin audience appreciated it; I personally would have liked to hear him say more about our responsibility to Africa.

People also clapped long and hard for Obama’s pledge to finally take responsibility for America’s emissions:

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya. … This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands. Let us resolve that all nations – including my own – will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere. This is the moment to give our children back their future. This is the moment to stand as one.

Statements like this one – which expressed a healthy humility – aren’t necessarily going to win over voters in Colorado or North Dakota or Ohio. And that’s why I think Obama wasn’t entirely blowing smoke when he started his speech by saying, “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen – a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” Sure, there was a bit of pandering on terrorism, but the speech was much more geared to rebuilding European-American relations.

Apart from his promise to end the war, this line brought possibly the longest, warmest applause at all:

The greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another. The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.

Sucker that I am, I got a little teary – not just at the sentiment, but at the stark contrast between this rhetoric and Bush’s cowboy posturing. I was almost embarrassed – until I saw the tall, blonde, German woman next to me surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes, too. (Then my husband said, “What about the agnostics?” and the spell dissolved into laughter.)

At the end of the speech, that same woman turned to me and said, “If he can manage to half of these things, you Americans ought to bring back the monarchy.” We laughed, and she then said, “Seriously, it does such good to hear these things from an American again.”

And then we all trudged homeward. The crowd was so thick that getting out took nearly as long as getting in. But there was impromptu entertainment along the way …

Photo by Sungold.

… until suddenly the crowd thinned and fresh air flooded in and my German historian friend totally upstaged Obama by spilling the news that – at age 42 and after giving up on it – she’s pregnant. And after I’d finished jumping up and down and hollering in celebration, my husband and I hopped on our bikes and rode the breeze home under a fuchsia sunset along the banks of the Spree River.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers

%d bloggers like this: