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 paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
This is the third in a series. Readers are invited to send their own responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will post their strongest critiques of the book and the accompanied reviews. (The first batch is here.) To further encourage civil and substantive responses via email, we are closing the comments section. You can follow the whole series on Twitter at #BTWAM and read all of the responses to the book from Atlantic readers and contributors.
Several years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates took his son, not yet 5, to see a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As his son made his way off the escalator, a white woman pushed him and said, “Come on!” Chaos ensued. There was a black parent’s rage and a white man’s threat to have the black parent arrested. Coates narrates the incident in cool, steady prose. Ultimately, he writes of the regret he carries: “In seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.”
Readers discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates's bestseller. Is it too bleak? Does it convey any hope for race relations? Is that even the point?
Thus far, The Atlantic has posted three essays on Between the World and Me, from Michael Eric Dyson, James Forman Jr., and Tressie McMillan Cottom, all of them uncritical. Among the reader responses so far, the strongest critique comes from Melvin Rogers, a professor of African American Studies and Political Science at U.C.L.A. Rogers emailed an eloquent seven-page review, but below is a shorter edited version, posted with permission:
Between The World and Me is an exquisite book, overflowing with insights about the embodied state of blackness and the logic of white supremacy. Coates’s prose is capable of challenging our understanding of the United States even as it captures our hearts. I plan to teach the book for two of my courses this academic year.
But for all of the beauty and power of the book, it is also profoundly troubling. The wound of racism is too fresh; the sharpness of the pain captures Coates’s senses and arrests his imagination. The worry is that if we follow along, we, too, shall be captured.
The book initially seems like it will reveal the illusion of the Dream and then open up the possibility for imagining the United States anew. But Coates does not move in that direction. He rejects the American mythos but also embraces the certainty of white supremacy and its inescapable constraints. For him, white supremacy is not merely a historically emergent feature of the United States; it is an ontology. White supremacy, in other words, does not structure reality; it is reality.
There’s a danger there. When one conceptualizes white supremacy at the level of ontology, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar, and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained. Action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us, but there can be no affirmative politics when race functions as a wounded attachment.
What about all those young men and women in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago, New York, and Charleston—how should we read their efforts? Coates’s answer seems to appear in one of the pivotal and tragic moments of the book—the murder of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police:
[N]o one would be brought to account for this destruction... The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.
But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University—“Mecca,” as he calls it—serve to question the world around him. But interrogation and struggle to what end?
“It is truly horrible,” Coates writes in one of the most disturbing sentences of the book, “to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.” Herein lies the danger: Forget telling his son it will be okay; Coates cannot even tell him it may be okay. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” What a strange form of control. Black folks may control their place in the battle, but never with the possibility that they, and in turn their country, may win.
Releasing the book at this moment—given all that is going on with black lives under public assault—seems the oddest thing to do. For all of the channeling of James Baldwin, Coates seems to have forgotten that black folks “can’t afford despair”:
The reason why you can’t say there isn’t hope is not because you are living in a dream or selling a fantasy, but because there can be no certain knowledge of the future. Humility, borne of our ignorance of the future, justifies hope.
Much has been made of the comparison between Baldwin and Coates, owing to how the book is structured and because of Toni Morrison’s endorsement. But what this connection means escapes many commentators. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin reflects on the wounds that white supremacy left on his father:
When he died, I had been away from home for a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father's bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.
Similar to Coates, Baldwin’s father was wounded and so was Baldwin. Yet Baldwin knew that wounded attachment would destroy not the plunderers of black life but the ones who were plundered. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Baldwin’s father, as he understood him, was destroyed by hatred.
So Coates is less like Baldwin in this respect and, perhaps, more like Baldwin’s father. “I am wounded,” writes Coates. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” The chains reach out to imprison not only his son, but you and me as well.
Lastly, given the power of the book and its blockbuster success, Coates seems unable to linger on the conditions that gave life to the Ta-Nehisi Coates who now occupies the public stage. His own engagement with the world—his very agency—received social support. Throughout his book he recounts the rich diversity of black beauty and empowerment, especially at Howard. His father, William Paul Coates, is the founder of Black Classic Press, which focuses on the richness of black life. His mother, Cheryl Waters, financially support the family and provided young Coates with direction, especially with writing at an early age. And yet the adult Coates seems to stand at a distance from the condition of possibility suggested by those examples.
Black life in America is at once informed by, but not reducible to, the pain exacted on our bodies by this country. This eludes Coates. The wound is so intense he cannot direct his senses beyond the pain.
The former secretary of defense lobbied for the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and has now ended the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters.
Eagle Scout. Young Republican. CIA recruit. Air Force officer. CIA director. Secretary of defense.
It’s not the resume of a radical civil-rights campaigner, but Robert Gates has now integrated two of the great bastions of macho American traditional morality—first the U.S. armed forces, and now the Boy Scouts of America. In both cases, Gates pursued a careful, gradual strategy, one that wasn't fast enough for activists. In both cases, he was careful to take the temperature of constituents. And in both cases, once he was ready to act, he did so decisively. In the end what seemed to matter most was not Gates’s personal feelings but his determination to safeguard institutions he cared about and his deft skills as a bureaucratic operator.