From the moment the barbed wire first went up, the barrier was a monument to failure for the Soviet vision of a just society
Fifty years ago this week, the division of Germany into East and West was, literally, etched in stone with the erection of the infamous Berlin Wall. While the wall stood, there were any number of memorials to its brutality, cost, and tragedy -- crosses and flowers marking where loved ones had been shot by the guards on the Wall, attempting to cross from East to West. Nobody, of course, tried to flee across the other way.
But to me, the one image that always best epitomized the tragedy of the wall was a poster-sized photograph I bought at the Berlin Wall when I was an exchange student in Germany in 1978. It was taken the day the "wall" -- which was only barbed wire, to start with -- made the political border between the two halves of Berlin something more ominous. It showed a very little boy at the barbed-wire barrier, reaching his arms up toward an East German soldier, who had put his rifle over his shoulder and was reaching down, across the barbed wire, to pick up the little boy. The soldier's eyes were frightened, and he was looking not at the boy, but over his shoulder, as if to see if anyone was looking.
The story of the photo, related by the press photographer who took it, was that the boy's family had fled across the barbed wire, as many people did in those first, chaotic few days as the wall was being built. But the boy had gotten lost in the frenzy and inadvertently left on the wrong side of the wire. The soldier who chose to lift the boy over to join his family, instead of shooting him, as his orders required, was, in fact, seen by others and taken away. The boy got away safely. But the photographer was never able to find any trace of the soldier again.
That gut-wrenching division of families, friends, a culture and a nation has had many long-lasting consequences. On the 20th anniversary of the Wall's demise, I wrote about some of them here, and about how slow and frustrating the process of healing and change can be. Germany was divided for less than 50 years. Two generations. And yet, even today, the people raised in East Germany are struggling for social and economic equality with their western German counterparts. Having been wrenched apart so brutally, it is now a bit like some of the countries declared by decree after World War I -- dissimilar cultures struggling painfully to find enough common ground to bridge the differences.
The good news is, Germany actually does have a shared cultural and political history that dated at least from the time Otto Von Bismark unified the country in 1871 up until 1945. The bad news is, by 1990, when the country began to try to find its way back to that, there were very few people alive who had been old enough, back before the world wars, to remember that time. What's more, the DNA of East German society and culture actually did change, under its communist Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) government.
And that's the aspect of the story that has struck me the most, the past few weeks, and as Germany solemnly marks the half-century anniversary of the Wall's construction.
Three weeks ago, I was in Vienna, where I spent a few hours at the famous Cafe Central -- an elegant coffee house with tall, marble columns, chandeliers, and impeccably dressed waiters. The great and radical writers and thinkers in Vienna used to congregate there at the beginning of the 20th century. Three of the "regulars" who patronized the cafe between 1907 and 1914 were a certain Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, and Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- later known to the world as the Marxist revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Josef Stalin.
Sitting there, I could imagine the young revolutionaries, in exile from Russia and surrounded by the opulence of the Hapsburg Empire at its height, arguing vehemently about how to right the wrongs of class and economic disparity in the world. They must have seen the world in very black-and-white terms -- it's almost a prerequisite in order to pursue the extreme means of bloody revolution to achieve your goals. But somewhere in the midst of that certainty and radicalism, there was an idea that the vast gap between rich and poor, and the ostentatious spending and decadence of the rich (a trait stunningly obvious in the gilt halls of 1907 Vienna) was wrong. And that some kind of cooperative society, where equality reigned and people took care of each other, would be a better option.
The dream in its ideal form didn't last long, of course. The revolution was wrought by factions, burdened by bureaucracy and characterized more by brutality than any cooperative utopia from almost its first bloody days. But when I left Vienna, I discovered that the taxi driver taking me to the airport was a recent emigre from Berlin. East Berlin. I asked him about how reunification was going, and he told me about some of the same problems I'd heard before: East Germans being second-class citizens, economic resentment on the part of the West Germans who had to pay to upgrade East Germany, and the like. But then, he said:
"You know, everyone sees it as the West helping the East. But it could have been done better. We could have helped them, too. But nobody wanted what we had to offer."
Intrigued, I asked him to explain. There was a long pause. Then he answered:
"For all the problems of the system, in East Germany, it wasn't all about consumerism. It wasn't how much you could buy, how much ahead of your neighbor you could get. We really did have more of a sense of helping each other out. Community really mattered more to us than things."
A century after those discussions in the Cafe Central, and 50 years after the dream had become such a nightmare echo of its original vision that the government felt compelled to build a wall, top it with barbed wire and armed guards, and back it up with an ominous swath of anti-tank defenses and mine fields in order to force people to stay in the society once envisioned as such a utopia ... some little seed of the dream still existed.
The ideal -- the idea of a fair, egalitarian society where people cared more about each other than about the stuff they could buy -- was, and still is, a noble idea. That the vision went so wrong, in Lenin and Trotsky's world, that it required dogs, barbed wire and walls to try to keep the "vision" intact is itself a tragedy -- one of many tragedies the revolution and its aftermath spawned, over the years. (One could argue, of course, that the bloody methods they employed were almost guaranteed to end badly, or even that humans don't really want that kind of egalitarian utopia.)
On the one hand, the building of the Berlin Wall was an admission of sorts that the glorious revolution, meant to be so attractive that workers around the world would flock to its banner, was a failure. A failure that would lead, not even 30 years later, to the dismantling of that very wall.
And yet, East Berlin and East Germany, walled off from the west, really did change. The values of the two cultures are not identical. How long, I asked my Viennese taxi driver, until he thought Germany would really feel like a single country again?
"At least two generations," he said.
Two generations. The same amount of time it took to be torn apart. Long enough for those who remember the way it used to be to grow old and die. As I got on the plane, I thought about how nice it would be if more of that East German sense of community over consumerism could, in fact, be absorbed into that "new" Germany.
Utopian ideas, it seems, die hard. Even when they're buried beneath a Wall.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
Can Republicans repeal Obamacare without imposing the greatest costs on the older, white, blue-collar voters who put Trump into office?
As congressional Republicans race to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, one of their principal challenges is finding an alternative that does not expose older and less affluent white voters at the core of Donald Trump’s electoral coalition to greater costs and financial risk.
The paradox of the health-reform debate is that many of Obamacare’s key elements raised costs on younger and healthier people who generally vote Democratic as a means of limiting the financial exposure of older and sicker people, even as older whites have stampeded toward the GOP. Conversely, many of the central ideas common to the Republican replacement plans would lower costs for younger and healthier adults while exposing people with greater health needs, many of them older, to the risk of much larger out-of-pocket costs, even if it reduces the health-insurance premiums they initially pay.
After an unexpected loss in November, Democrats are nowhere near ready to take on the president-elect.
For Democrats and other progressive types, Winter Is Coming. Scratch that. Winter has hit—full force—and hordes of White Walkers are now wilding across the land.
It’s not merely that the party’s presidential dreams were crushed. Defeat came at the hands of a chest-thumping reality-TV star with the attention span of a toddler on speed to whom the norms of civilized society, much less politics, don’t seem to apply. Donald Trump’s jerkiness is central to his appeal, and for whatever cocktail of reasons—fear, awe, confusion—even many of the guy’s detractors find him hard to resist.
How the heck is non-Trump America supposed to forge an effective opposition to such a character, especially when his political team controls all the levers of power?
Is there room in the movement for people who morally object to abortion?
Updated on Monday, January 16 at 4:05 p.m.
Pro-life women are headed to D.C. Yes, they’ll turn out for the annual March for Life, which is coming up on January 27. But one week earlier, as many as a few hundred pro-lifers are planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, which has been billed as feminist counterprogramming to the inauguration.
With organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsoring the event, pro-life marchers have found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. What’s their place at an event that claims to speak for all women, but has aligned itself with pro-choice groups? With roughly a week to go before the march, organizers also released a set of “unity principles,” and one of them is “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.”
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
VIRGINIA— For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Surfing the app on a trip back home can be a way of regressing, or imagining what life would be like if you never left.
My parents moved out of my hometown almost as soon as I left for college, and therefore I am obsessed with the idea of other people’s hometowns. Over any major holiday or break from a work schedule, hometowns become a sort of time travel, a way for people who have made adult lives elsewhere to return to their origin story.
Going home for the holidays can act as a kind of regression. Most of us know people, whether our friends, our partner, even our own parents, who suddenly turn into their teen or pre-teen self once they step foot in the house where they grew up. My mom used to say that whenever my dad got within 50 miles of his mom’s house, he suddenly became a teenage boy. Our hometowns become a kind of permission and hideaway, a place where we don’t have to be ourselves, where our actions don’t count and we get to be briefly less visible than we are in the adult homes we’ve made for ourselves elsewhere, the places where we expect ourselves to take action and achieve things and move upward through each day. For many of us, hometowns allow the luxury of a brief period of stasis, a rare few days of doing nothing.
When it comes to basic policy questions such as the minimum wage, introductory economics can be more misleading than it is helpful.
In a rich, post-industrial society, where most people walk around with supercomputers in their pockets and a person can have virtually anything delivered to his or her doorstep overnight, it seems wrong that people who work should have to live in poverty. Yet in America, there are more than ten million members of the working poor: people in the workforce whose household income is below the poverty line. Looking around, it isn’t hard to understand why. The two most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson and cashier. Eight million people have one of those two jobs, which typically pay about $9–$10 per hour. It’s hard to make ends meet on such meager wages. A few years ago, McDonald’s was embarrassed by the revelation that its internal help line was recommending that even a full-time restaurant employee apply for various forms of public assistance.
King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," published in The Atlantic as "The Negro Is Your Brother" and excerpted below, was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. It stands as one of the classic documents of the civil-rights movement.
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of "outsiders coming in"
Billy Barr moved to the Rocky Mountains four decades ago, got bored one winter, and decided to keep a notebook that has become the stuff of legend.
It was a year into his life alone in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains when Billy Barr began his recordings. It started as a curiosity, a task to busy his mind during the winter. By no means, Barr told me, having skied down from his cabin to use the nearest phone, did he set out to make a vital database for climate change scientists. “Hell no!” he said. “I didn’t know anything about climate change at the time.”
In 1973 Barr had dropped out of college and made his home an abandoned mining shack at the base of Gothic Mountain, a 12,600-foot stone buttress. The cold winds blew through the shack’s wood slat walls as if they didn’t exist; he shared the bare dirt floor with a skunk and pine marten, his only regular company for much of the year. Barr had moved from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains precisely because of the solitude, but he couldn’t escape boredom. Especially that first winter. So he measured snow levels, animal tracks, and in spring the first jubilant calls of birds returning. He filled a notebook with these observations; then another notebook. This has continued now for 44 years.