Monday, January 12, 2009

American Brandenburg

At the end of a bustling thoroughfare near a city park in Berlin lies the Brandenburg Gate. Completed in 1791, it stands as a stylistic testament to its own era, and originally functioned as a gate to the center of town. But through the course of history, the gate assumed a greater significance. As the cold war enveloped Berlin, the gate came to symbolize the boundary between the East and the West, in Europe and the rest of the world. At that time, the gate became the site of some of the most memorable speeches of American presidents, including Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and Reagan's "Tear down this wall" speech. Last year, Obama notably and somewhat controversially gave a campaign speech in the nearby Tiergarten park, in which he echoed the call to tear down walls, this time metaphorical ones.

Here in St. Louis, we rode to the center of town to look at the famous Gateway Arch. Aesthetically, the arch bears little similarity to the Brandenburg; it's simplistic rather than ornate. And in true American style, it's larger than life, and bears a striking resemblance to a recognizable corporate logo. It's loud in a quiet way, while Brandenburg is quiet in a loud way, a fitting summation of the contrast between our two continents. But the two gates, the Brandenburg Gate and the Gateway Arch, both compel their visitors to reflect on the differences between life on either sides of them. The Brandenburg represents more of a cultural divide; the continent spans dozens of languages and disparate traditions. The arch represents the vast geographical disparity between eastern and western North America, an acknowledgment that even though English is spoken from the Pacific to the Atlantic, people's lives are dramatically different from city to city or state to state. Yet, with the demise of the Berlin wall, and numerous bridges spanning the Mississippi, the two gates serve the opposite function of traditional gates. They don't divide, they unite.

As my associate and I cross over from West to East, we reflected on this. And we both are hopeful that our next president will make good on the pledge made hypocritically by our last president; that he will be a uniter, not a divider.

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