By James Dacey
To me, observing from the UK, American politics often seems to resemble a fairy tale in which heroes and villains battle it out to win the hearts of the American public, spurred on by a big zealous Fox and resting only for the occasional Tea Party.
So I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear the news yesterday that Barack Obama was embracing the strong narrative that surrounds his presidency by releasing a children’s book. Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters, written before he came into office, is a 31-page illustrated work celebrating the lives of 13 great Americans, including, for instance, the patriotism of George Washington and the artistry of Georgia O’Keeffe.
I was slightly surprised, however, to see the inclusion of Albert Einstein: not because of his undoubted inspiration, but because the vast majority of his groundbreaking work was carried out before he took US citizenship in 1940. Einstein “turned pictures in his mind into giant advances in science, changing the world with energy and light,” writes Obama.
In fact Einstein’s relationship with the land of opportunity is a fascinating debate in itself, as documented through the great man’s razor-sharp one-liners. Before moving to the US, Einstein had a pretty negative view of American culture, as he explained after returning to Europe in 1932 in a letter to Austrian-born physicist, Paul Ehrenfest: “For the long term I would rather be in Holland rather than America… Besides having a handful of really fine scholars, it is a boring society that would soon make you tremble,” he wrote.
After taking citizenship, however, Einstein’s feelings began to change and he found a strong affinity with certain American values. “America is today the hope of all honourable men who respect the rights of their fellow men and who believe in the principles of freedom of justice,” he stated in “Message for Germany”, which was dictated over the telephone to a correspondent on 7 December 1941, the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Until his death in 1955, it seems Einstein had a love-hate relationship with American society, which became particularly strained during the McCarthy era. This was apparent in a letter Einstein wrote in 1950 to Gertrud Warschauer, the widow of a Berlin rabbi. “I hardly ever felt as alienated from people as I do right now… The worst is that nowhere is there anything with which one can identify. Brutality and lies are everywhere,” he wrote.
I could go on, but Einstein said an awful lot of quotable things.