I am very grateful for the opportunity to say a few words here tonight on behalf of American Voices Abroad - Berlin. Our group was founded in February 2003 as Americans in Berlin against the War. We are a non-partisan group open to critical Americans of all persuasions; not just an antiwar group, we focus on civil liberties, justice and responsible US foreign policy. It is a way for those of us who live abroad to remain engaged and active as US citizens, to reconcile notions of global and American citizenship. Crucial to this kind of citizenship is intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and openness to political discussion and debate, whether on the Stammtisch or the policy level; this is what American Voices Abroad – Berlin has sought to uphold throughout years when critical thinking was often denigrated as unpatriotic. Little did we dream that we would one day welcome a new president who would so persuasively embody and encourage this kind of citizenship.
I am profoundly grateful for this historical moment. It is a moment which many of us have been awaiting for eight long years. Let me speak on a personal level, though I believe my feelings are shared by many, not only in our organization or in the antiwar movement. These have been bitter years that have challenged my faith in America as a country governed, at the very least, by common sense and common decency. In many ways, unreal-seeming years which I spent counting down toward the unreal-sounding year 2009. At the same time, my expectations were almost cynically low. What would January 20, 2009 bring? A lesser evil? At least the semblance of normality? Of sanity? At any rate, it would bring an end. It was much harder to imagine this day as a beginning. That, to me, is a measure of the demoralization of the Bush years; even those of us in opposition found it more and more difficult to imagine an America that rises above them. Barack Obama’s first great accomplishment was to enable us to imagine this America. In this act of imagination, America has already risen above itself, taking an unexpected and important step toward overcoming a legacy of racism.
Who could have imagined that this Inauguration Day would follow so significantly on Martin Luther King’s 80th birthday – a symbolic milestone followed by a real one, the painful reminder of promise tragically cut short followed by the celebration of promise realized? That it would follow on an election campaign in which America realized for the first time that the face it presents to the world could be a black face, or a woman’s?
Over the past months we have already grown used to these remarkable developments. Now, I hope, we will also grow used to a new political culture, one that encourages, rather than marginalizing the notion of critical, active citizenship and genuine debate. Obama has inspired millions of Americans to become politically active, creating their own vibrant and diverse political initiatives far from the halls of Washington. His openness toward this sort of grassroots political engagement has the potential to truly rejuvenate our political system. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once responded to the labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Now that we have a president with a similar gift for breaking down barriers, let us take up the challenge. Those of us who have spent the past eight years protesting and criticizing must now, more than ever, learn how to protest and criticize constructively, how to support, as well, how to contribute ideas and inspiration in the difficult times ahead.
But now, let us celebrate a moment that few of us ever imagined we would experience!