“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?
So easy it would be to tune the president out, to dismiss his words as clichés, to examine his actions instead of his speeches. But that would be a mistake. Falling walls matter to Barack Obama, and it is important to know why. There is the obvious reason: as the first black chief executive, President Obama is living proof of racial advance. One of the goals of the progressive tradition always has been the dismantling of man-made obstacles that block the advance of equality. Obama aligned himself in his Wednesday speech with one of the founders of modern liberalism, Immanuel Kant, “who taught us that freedom is the ‘un-originated birthright of man, and it belongs to him by force of his humanity.’” Kant’s world, Obama’s world, the liberal world, is one of autonomous and enlightened individuals, shorn of attachment, living under republican governments in a global order of perpetual peace.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, American administrations, Republican and Democratic, have done much to build the borderless world. Trade has been liberalized, from the WTO to NAFTA, to the integration of the U.S. and Chinese economies, to the enlargement of the European Union and the institution of the Eurozone, to further tariff reductions, now being negotiated, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Migrants traverse borders. Women and ethnic and sexual minorities are empowered.
We have become detached. Global consciousness is on the rise. The will of the autonomous individual, not inherited religious or civic traditions, has come to establish the grounds of morality. The nuclear family is disintegrating. These developments intersect in the life of Julia, the unofficial mascot of President Obama’s reelection, a single woman who “chooses” to have a child that is shuffled quickly off stage, and whose most important relationship in a life of unlimited options is not with family or church or civil association but with the federal bureaucracy.
Obama is a master at conjuring shimmering images of his promised land, of casting in the noblest terms the ideals of his global Berlin. His rhetoric passes through us like elementary particles, either because we, like the mainstream media, unconsciously agree with his assumptions, or because we, like Dick Cheney, don’t pay a lot of attention to what Barack Obama says. We should pay more attention. The rhetoric is a mask that hides the real-life facts of the world in the early twenty-first century.
Obama is wrong when he says “dreams” and “spirit” and self-criticism make walls fall. What builds and destroys walls is political power. The state commands walls to be built—to keep people in, in the case of the Berlin Wall, or to keep people out, in the case of the Great Wall of China, the West Bank security fence, and the Mexican border fence. And the state tears walls down. In 1989 the East German and Soviet governments allowed the wall to fall. In today’s America it is the federal government that enforces gender or racial or sexual equality through the provision of law, and attempts to give each individual an equal chance through the redistribution of income and provision of benefits.
Historical experience has led us to believe that individual freedom expands at the state’s expense. But that is not necessarily the case. American freedom to gamble, consume marijuana, procure an abortion, and obtain a same-sex marriage has expanded alongside government. As human autonomy increases, as individuals leave the traditional sanctuaries of family and faith, they turn to government to provide economic assistance in raising a child, in nutrition, in education, in health care, in retirement. Freedom and unlimited government are not incompatible. They are eminently compatible.
Citizenship in the world without borders is defined not by affiliation with family or religion, tribe or nation, but by shared ideas. Openness, tolerance, freedom, diversity, equality, opportunity, there are the elements of the universal liberal creed to which Obama subscribes. They are all wonderful things. Just don’t get caught between a liberal and his actualization of one of these ideals. Orthodox Catholics and members of other traditional faith communities, critics of immigration, opponents of affirmative action and advocates of the color-blind Constitution, skeptics of narratives of progress, conservatives in general, all are targets for approbation and demonization, all must be repressed if men and women are to be made free.
Obama is also wrong to suggest that the only laggards in our journey toward a wall-less world are the tyrannous, the theocratic, and the ignorant. There are plenty of losers in this race to the top: the victim of late-term abortion, the child without a father, the single mother who struggles economically, the high-achiever of limited means whose race is a demerit on a college application, the low-skilled worker whose job has been outsourced to China or insourced to migrant labor, the independent contractor saddled with government regulations, taxes, and mandates, the violator of liberal speech codes and other institutes of political correctness, the gas guzzlers and gun owners, the addicted, the broken, the lonely. All these are left behind in a borderless world, handed transfer payments and told fortune-cookie aphorisms on equality and democracy, and every so often given a glimpse of the super-lux world inhabited by their rulers.
I am speaking of course about the global elite, the world-travellers and conference-goers that have benefited the most from the information revolution and the creation of what Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick call Chimerica. Right below them in this new hierarchy are the liberal upper- and upper-middle classes, the bobos and educated elites, that with the super rich make up the caste that benefits from low prices and low wage services and inhabits a shared universe of opinion unmatched in its arrogance and impenetrability.
What continues to puzzle liberals on the left and right is that the world championed by Obama is the same one plagued by income inequality and materialism, the same world divided by race and ethnicity and nation and religion. Frustrated and disappointed, clinging to illusions, these liberals double down on assertions of universality and autonomy. “We are not only citizens of America or Germany,” Obama said Wednesday. “We are also citizens of the world. And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before.” Do the Russians believe that? Do the Iranians?
Obama may be a citizen of the world, a guardian of the world without boundaries. The rest of us know some walls cannot be torn down. Some walls are there for a reason.