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.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution -- and make for one beautiful gallery
Dinosaur and bird feathers preserved in amber from a Late Cretaceous site in Canada reveal new insights into the structure, function, and color of animals that date back to about 78 million years ago.
Researchers led by University of Alberta paleontologist Ryan McKellar say these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution, from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds. After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today. They can't determine which feathers belonged to birds or dinosaurs yet, but they did observe filament structures that are similar to those seen in other non-avian dinosaur fossils. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
This is a low-stress way to ease back into the ancient art of blogging. Our leaders, from J.J. Gould to Chris Bodenner, have explained the logic behind this new feature on The Atlantic’s site here. My colleagues, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, have gotten into the swing of things as you will read.
What it's like to look for romance when "a big smile can be frightening"
The way to Paulette's heart is through her Outlook calendar. “Honestly, if you want to be romantic with me, send an email through Outlook and give me all the possible dates, locations, and times, so that I can prepare,” she said.
The former Miss America system contestant and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music-trained opera singer knew she had a different conception of romance than her previous boyfriends had and, for that matter, everyone else.
“People tend to think of romance as spur of the moment and exciting,” she told me. “I think of romance as things that make sense and are logical.” However, she didn't know why until this year when, at the age of 31, when she was diagnosed with autism.
Grasses—green, neatly trimmed, symbols of civic virtue—shaped the national landscape. They have now outlived their purpose.
The hashtag #droughtshaming—which primarily exists, as its name suggests, to publicly decry people who have failed to do their part to conserve water during California’s latest drought—has claimed many victims. Anonymous lawn-waterers. Anonymous sidewalk-washers. The city of Beverly Hills. The tag’s most high-profile shamee thus far, however, has been the actor Tom Selleck. Who was sued earlier this summer by Ventura County’s Calleguas Municipal Water District for the alleged theft of hydrant water, supposedly used to nourish his 60-acre ranch. Which includes, this being California, an avocado farm, and also an expansive lawn.
The case was settled out of court on terms that remain undisclosed, and everyone has since moved on with their lives. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though—well, besides the fact that Magnum P.I. has apparently become, in his semi-retirement, a gentleman farmer—is how much of a shift all the Selleck-shaming represents, as a civic impulse. For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first landscaper-philosophers, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”