“The wall belongs to history,” President Barack Obama said,near the end of his speech in Berlin Wednesday. The Berlin Wall, which fell in November 1989, was not the only one he had in mind. Wherever liberal opinion perceives a barrier, physical or spiritual, to human equality, Obama argued, we must take out our chisels and pickaxes. “As long as walls exist in our hearts to separate us from those who don’t look like us, or think like us, or worship as we do,” he said, “then we’re going to have to work harder, together, to bring those walls of division down.” Or as his wife might say: Let’s move.
The image of the barrier recurs frequently in Obama’s rhetoric. Reading his Berlin speech I was reminded of a passage in his second inaugural address, where the president spoke of “this world without boundaries” that “demands” the “qualities” of “youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for invention.” There he likened the business of leveling to an ongoing, indeed endless, quest. “Our journey is not complete,” he said, “until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.” It’s going to be a long journey.
In Berlin, where he first proclaimed himself “a citizen of the world,” Obama suggested that the field of our never-ending journey of equalization is not confined to American borders or to the borders of any city, any nation. Afghans, Israelis and Palestinians, the Burmese—“they are who you were.” “They, too, in their own way, are citizens of Berlin.” (What about the Turks?) If everyone is a citizen of Berlin, then the concept of “citizen,” which implies rootedness, partiality, particularity, has no meaning. If we are citizens of everywhere, we are also citizens of nowhere. What is Obama saying?