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.
Some researchers believe that the microbiome may play a role in regulating how people think and feel.
By now, the idea that gut bacteria affects a person’s health is not revolutionary. Many people know that these microbes influence digestion, allergies, and metabolism. The trend has become almost commonplace: New books appear regularly detailing precisely which diet will lead to optimum bacterial health.
But these microbes’ reach may extend much further, into the human brains. A growing group of researchers around the world are investigating how the microbiome, as this bacterial ecosystem is known, regulates how people think and feel. Scientists have found evidence that this assemblage—about a thousand different species of bacteria, trillions of cells that together weigh between one and three pounds—could play a crucial role in autism, anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
In the 1970s, a new wave of post-Watergate liberals stopped fighting monopoly power. The result is an increasingly dangerous political system.
It was January 1975, and the Watergate Babies had arrived in Washington looking for blood. The Watergate Babies—as the recently elected Democratic congressmen were known—were young, idealistic liberals who had been swept into office on a promise to clean up government, end the war in Vietnam, and rid the nation’s capital of the kind of corruption and dirty politics the Nixon White House had wrought. Richard Nixon himself had resigned just a few months earlier in August. But the Watergate Babies didn’t just campaign against Nixon; they took on the Democratic establishment, too. Newly elected Representative George Miller of California, then just 29 years old, announced, “We came here to take the Bastille.”
Tom Hanks’s Doug has a lot in common with “Black Jeopardy” contestants—except, of course, for politics.
SNL’s ongoing “Black Jeopardy” series has been, in part, about divisions. In each edition, black American contestants answer Kenan Thompson’s clues with in-jokes, slang, and their shared opinions while an outsider—say, Elizabeth Banks as the living incarnation of Becky, Louis C.K. as a BYU African American Studies professor, or Drake as a black Canadian—just show their cluelessness.
When Tom Hanks showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat and bald-eagle shirt to play the contestant “Doug” this weekend, it seemed like the set-up for the ugliest culture clash yet. The 2016 election has been a reminder of the country’s profound racial fault lines, and SNL hasn’t exactly been forgiving toward the Republican nominee on that front: Its version of Trump hasn’t been able to tell black people apart, and it aired a mock ad painting his supporters as white supremacists—which, inarguably, some of them really are.
Trump’s greatest gift to the GOP may be the distraction he’s provided from other party meltdowns.
Even though 2016 appears to be the year of painful, public disqualification from higher office, you may be forgiven for not noticing the extraordinary implosion of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After all, the Trump surrogate and White House Transition chair has benefitted from his early endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee in unusual fashion: Christie’s power in the Grand Ole Party has decreased, rather than increased. The likelihood of a plum position in the Trump administration—Attorney General, perhaps, since Christie was spurned as the Republican running mate—is decidedly dim, what with the presently apocalyptic predictions about November 8th.
Instead, Trump’s gift to Christie has been shadow: the top Republican’s national meltdown has obscured that of the one-time rising Republican star and sitting New Jersey governor. But make no mistake—Christie’s is a fall of epic proportions, precipitated by an unfathomably petty revenge plot. The contrast of the two, the top-heavy-ness of the fallout compared to the insignificance of the initial transgression, would be comic, were it not so tragic. Remember that in November of 2012, Governor Christie had a 72 percent approval rating. Today, it stands at 21 percent.
Just why was Tom Hanks dancing in a black-and-orange suit on Saturday Night Live so funny?
This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live offered a mini masterpiece: a gloriously silly Halloween-themed piece revolving around a “Haunted Elevator” ride and its unusual star attraction. Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon played a couple looking for spooky thrills who instead found something far more bewildering: a pumpkin-suited man who would randomly appear alongside two cheerful skeletons and perform a dance routine. “Who are you?” asked a frustrated Bennett after the man (played by Tom Hanks) appeared for the second time. “I’m David Pumpkins!” came the reply.
McKinnon followed up: “Yeah, and David Pumpkins is … ?”
Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
On a recent evening in San Francisco, Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, took a name tag from a man in pajamas called “Honey Bear” and wrote down his pseudonym for the night: “Presence.”
Harris had just arrived at Unplug SF, a “digital detox experiment” held in honor of the National Day of Unplugging, and the organizers had banned real names. Also outlawed: clocks, “w-talk” (work talk), and “WMDs” (the planners’ loaded shorthand for wireless mobile devices). Harris, a slight 32-year-old with copper hair and a tidy beard, surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.” He keeps the background set to an image of Scrabble tiles spelling out the words face down, a reminder of the device’s optimal position.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Why cultures that value interdependence, like Japan, win at being deep
Think of the last piece of big news you got. How did you feel about it? Happy? Sad? Angry? Worried? Excited? Grateful? A little bit of all of the above? Experiencing multiple emotions at once may make it seem like you don’t actually know just how you feel about something—that you’re ambivalent, or indecisive, or wishy-washy. Psychologists would say it just means you’re emotionally complex. And according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, emotional complexity varies a lot between countries.
There are two definitions of emotional complexity that researchers tend to use. One is called “emotional dialecticism,” which just means feeling positive and negative emotions at the same time. The other is “emotional differentiation,” which is when someone is able to separate out and describe the discrete emotions they’re feeling.
Trump supporters are convinced Democrats are using “oversampling” to stuff the polls in Hillary Clinton’s favor. But they’re just wrong about statistics.
Late last night, pro-Trump Twitter lit up with excited chatter. Donald Trump is falling fast in the polls, sliding through a month-long decline most statisticians would say is a result of him being, you know, unpopular. (And maybe this. Or this. Or this.) But one blogger had another theory: Polling organizations are deliberately interviewing more Democrats to skew the surveys toward Hillary Clinton.
This afternoon, Trump threw his support behind the idea. “When the polls are even, when they leave them alone and do them properly, I’m leading,” he said at a rally in Florida. “But you see these polls where they’re polling Democrats. How’s Trump doing? Oh, he’s down. They’re polling Democrats. The system is corrupt and it’s rigged and it’s broken.”
Washington's zeal for humanitarian action ebbs and flows. And many are dying as a result.
To revisit the U.N.’s anointing of Aleppo as a World Heritage Site is a haunting exercise. The U.N. celebrated the city’s “13th-century citadel, 12th-century Great Mosque and various 17th-century madrasas, palaces, caravanserais and hammams,” all of which constituted “the city’s cohesive, unique urban fabric.” This Aleppo, after five years of brutal war, is a place now dead and buried.
The war has turned ordinary Syrians into flotsam and jetsam, lost amid national forces beyond their control, including the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, extremist groups such as the Islamic State, and regional actors like Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. But if the civilians were hoping for Western action to stop the bleeding, they have fallen prey to another set of dynamics they can’t govern or even necessarily understand. Historically, Washington’s zeal for intervention in humanitarian crises follows a cycle. And the Syrians, unfortunately, are dying during the wrong phase.