It’s nice to bask in the fact that the leader of the world’s greatest democracy came to our city as a pilgrim at the end of his presidency to deliver a speech addressing his country and ours, the world and history itself. It was a hymn to democracy and battle cry for its survival. Did we understand, though, that the essence of Barack Obama’s Athens speech was that democracy is not an achievement but a continual struggle, an ideal for which each citizen must fight?
Obama’s speech took on even greater significance because the winds that threaten democracy are growing stronger. The visit was planned when it seemed certain that Hillary Clinton would succeed him in office and continue his policies. It was delivered in a different world.
Donald Trump’s victory is proof that the forces of division, of inequality, the forces that exploit citizens’ insecurity, threaten not only Europe and countries in other regions but the United States as well.
Now Obama’s call on each citizen to shoulder their responsibility takes on greater importance. “Because in the end, it is up to us. It’s not somebody else’s job, it’s not somebody else’s responsibility, but it’s the citizens of our countries and citizens of the world to bend [the] arc of history towards justice,” he said. “And that’s what democracy allows us to do. That’s why the most important office in any country is not president or prime minister. The most important title is ‘citizen.’ And in all of our nations, it will always be our citizens who decide the kind of countries we will be, the ideals that we will reach for, and the values that will define us.”
Before Trump’s election, these words would have sounded like platitudes. Today they are a battle cry, a call for vigilance against those who would turn citizens against the common good. They are a reminder that citizens must not abdicate their responsibility to a system of government that allows them to determine their own fate. Let’s imagine how these words sound in the United States today, what they mean to Turks living in fear of their autocratic president, to those Hungarians who undermined an anti-immigrant referendum called by their government by staying away. These words call on the leaders of countries and organizations to recalibrate policies so they focus on citizens’ well-being, while urging citizens to demand this.
We in Greece, other than being flattered by the praise heaped on our ancestors, do we understand our own responsibility, the need to work to solve our problems? Or will we continue to wait for solutions from abroad? Referring to an issue that is at the core of our problems, Obama said: “The jobs of tomorrow will inevitably be different from the jobs of the past. So we can’t look backwards for answers, we have to look forward.” Did we understand what he was saying or don’t we need to consider such questions? Because in the birthplace of democracy we know everything already…