President Obama doesn't understand that the more he speaks the less people listen. Maybe he grasps the lips-to-ears problem in the abstract, but he doesn't seem to apply the sobering ratio to himself. So a speech in Berlin—as a senator campaigning for the presidency in 2008, proclaiming that he is a "citizen of the world,"—was not enough. He had to give another this June, as president, reminding us that he is a citizen of the world.
It didn't seem to bother him that the audience for the first was 200,000, and for the second, 4,500. At this rate five years from now, he'll be speaking to a hundred members of the Brandenburg Gate Rotary Club.
A steady diet of any orator will stale after a while. One supposes that even Winston Churchill's speeches would overwhelm the serial listener at some point, though I've never experienced the sensation myself. But in Churchill's case the danger would be overstimulation rather than stupefaction, that combination of boredom and inability to think straight that Obama induces.
He doesn't intend to, of course. Obama sets out, in his own mind, to amaze and elevate his audience. But 30, 40, 50 minutes or more of astonishment, several times a week, proves cloying. How many times can you watch the same rabbit trick?
He tries to engage the audience not so much by noble words and logic but by evocative dreams. The effect depends on charisma more than on the rhetorical arts, traditionally defined: his stock-in-trade is not the syllogism but the dithyramb, to which he feels free to sacrifice, in no particular order, formality, facts, beauty, grammar, and good sense.
You can find an example that will make you wince in every speech. He began his remarks in Germany this summer, for instance, by exclaiming, "Hello, Berlin!" That might be fine for Mick Jagger at the Olympiastadion, but the president is not a rock star, as you could tell from the small crowd. Or consider this sentence from the same speech: "Whether it's based on race, or religion, gender or sexual orientation, we are stronger when all our people…are granted opportunity…." What's the "it"? It helps only a little to discover, from the previous sentence, that "it" probably refers to "injustice" or maybe "intolerance." The grammar has still gone badly awry, and with it the sentence's meaning.
The facts suffer even worse. He and his speechwriters have only the loosest sense of history, and it shows, in passages that remind me of an undergraduate paper writer in distress. Again, in Berlin: "Here, for thousands of years, the people of this land have journeyed from tribe to principality to nation-state; through Reformation and Enlightenment, renowned as a ‘land of poets and thinkers,' among them Immanuel Kant, who taught us that freedom is the ‘unoriginated birthright of man….'" Thank you, Wikipedia.
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In West Berlin in 1963, John F. Kennedy said, ich bin ein Berliner. At the Berlin Wall in 1987, Ronald Reagan proclaimed, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! In 2013, what did Barack Obama say? It would be impossible to answer with a similar definiteness. But here is a running summary of his speech.
The Berlin Wall fell, and that's good. But we shouldn't have been surprised, because in fact "no wall can stand" against the human longing for justice, freedom, and peace. Today, however, the Western democracies face a crisis of "complacency." The point is not to "remember" history, which tempts us to turn inward, but to "make" history. We need the moral equivalent of the Cold War to rouse us from our selfish slumbers. But we do not need the "perpetual war" against terrorism, which offends our values and is terribly inconvenient.
"Different peoples and cultures will follow their own path" to democracy, but all will get there eventually, so actual war will be seldom needed. Drones and electronic surveillance will do the trick. As "citizens of the world," we must look forward to "the day of peace with justice," when the "walls of division" between rich and poor, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew, will all tumble down. And to get there, we need a global "war" against inequality, intolerance, nuclear weapons, and climate change. He singles out the latter as "the global threat of our time," like Communism used to be.
President Obama gives no sign of knowing what it actually took to win the Cold War. But he is confident that the new, non-war equivalent of global war can be won "if we feel a sufficient sense of urgency." So perhaps his point in Berlin was,Do you feel the urgency? If not, prepare to hear several more speeches on the theme.