There's been a lot of discussion, this week, about whether President Obama has fulfilled enough promises or expectations of change since his election a year ago. "I voted for him, and I really thought everything would be different," one disappointed voter from Iowa said in a televised interview.
It would be easy to dismiss the expectations of such voters as unrealistic or naive, but we often expect more from big watershed events, and in more sweeping, immediate fashion, than life dishes out. Consider, for example, another important anniversary coming up on Monday: the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On November 9, 1989, after weeks of protest and slow chiseling away of the East German Politburo's power, the East German government announced that henceforth, East Berliners could travel freely to the west. Faced with massive crowds at the border checkpoints, the guards opened the gates, and people streamed through. A party erupted on top of the wall, and people started hacking away at it with hammers and picks.
It was a celebration and global party; the end of an era that had brought incalculable pain to millions of Germans separated from family members and death to thousands, over the years, who had tried to cross over to the west anyway. I wrote about some of the sacrifices, and the lingering legacy of the Wall, in an essay on this site last May, after a German artist released an exhibit sparked by the anniversary of the Wall's demise.
Given all the damage and fear it caused, the fall of the Wall was truly an historical watershed moment to cheer. But then the celebration and festivities ended, and the real work of reunification began.
In the moment of celebration, it seemed all good. The rift was healed; the country would be united again. Cue the trumpets and national anthem. Roll credits. If the story had been a Hollywood movie, it actually would have ended there, because the morning after is always messier and less satisfying than the triumphant night. Every screenwriter worth their salt knows that.
There were, of course, some things that did change immediately. People could travel back and forth across the border. Restrictions ended. But national, economic, and social integration and change proved far more challenging than perhaps even anyone in 1989 would have predicted.
Many in the West resented the tax they had to pay to upgrade the infrastructure, buildings, and resources in the east. And "Ossies" (Easterners, from the German word "Ost" for East) found themselves in a no-man's land between cultures. They were suddenly without the social security of the Russian/East German state system, but were still often considered second-class citizens by their western counterparts. Their knowledge of Russian and German didn't help them in an economic world where English had become the common language. For all the celebration on November 9th, change brought with it a disruption of the world they'd known ... and gave rise to fear.
In 2004, 15 years after the Wall came down, I spent some time in the eastern German village of Krausnick, in the Spreewald, or Spree Forest. Krausnik was founded in 1004, so it had seen a lot of changes. It has also seen a lot of battles. In 1945, more than 30,000 German soldiers and 10,000 civilians from the area were caught by the advancing Russian army and slaughtered over the course of a week. Looking at some of the dilapidated houses and crumbling stone walls in the area, I could imagine the Russian soldiers advancing over the land, and the terror that sight must have bred.
One would think, after a massacre so terrible, that the Russians would have been hated forever. But when I visited, there was still a memorial in the center of the village celebrating the Red Army heroes who had died there "in the war against Fascism, 1941-1945." The same soldiers, mind you, who had killed so many of the local people. And as I watched, a couple of older villagers carefully cleaned the memorial and planted new flowers in front of it. The Russians had been gone for 15 years. And still the villagers preserved the memorial with loving care.
When I asked about it, several people told me that, in truth, they actually missed the Russians, because at least then, you had security. You didn't have to worry about losing your job or not being able to pay your rent. All you had to do was keep your head down and your nose clean. It was nice, they acknowledged, to not have to wait 20 years for a bad car. But you had new burdens of figuring out how to pay for that car, now.
Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany is still struggling to fulfill the promise of that event. And that's a change that, at least in theory, everyone in Germany wanted. Imagine if the country had been deeply split on the basic premise of reunification?
Consider the events of July 2, 1964. On that date, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Its passage was the result of years of effort and struggle, and the signing of that Act separated American history into "before" and "after." As with the Berlin Wall, some things changed immediately. On July 3, 1964, discriminating against a person on the basis of the color of his or her skin was suddenly illegal. But life did not change with the stroke of a pen. Four years later, not only had glorious change not triumphantly come to pass, but both Martin Luther King--who had been present at the signing ceremony--and Robert Kennedy, one of the Cvil Rights movement's heroes ... were dead at the hands of assassins.
Change--especially nationwide change--is a slow-moving train. Power shifted with the Civil Rights Act, and the wheels of change were set in motion. But a year later, a black person--especially in the South--might not have noticed that much tangible difference in their life. Forty-five years later, we still fight some of those battles, as the events of the past year have certainly illustrated.
Symbolically, many things can change in a day. A law is passed, a wall comes down, a couple gets married, or a person is elected President. The event that initiates the change is called a watershed, because it marks the moment and place where the course of things turn in a new direction. But even in the best of circumstances, it takes a while after that event for any visible shift to become evident. Especially in a deep, complex, and layered environment where all the currents aren't headed in the same direction.
It's a point worth remembering. Too often, we look to those big, symbolic events as magical tonics that will change everything overnight--maybe because we were fed so many "and then they lived happily ever after" endings. More than one person has imagined that when they got married (or became a parent, or got that new job, or that new ... fill in the blank) they'd magically become happy ... only to discover that it takes a lot of work, patience, and time to make the promise of that symbolic change anything close to real.
The truth is, even events as big as the demise of the Berlin Wall don't change a country or the world overnight. They just make a new kind of change possible. Even if the journey turns out to be longer, rockier, and more complex than we wished or imagined ... or a Hollywood screenwriter would have written it.
Photo Credit: Flickr User antaldaniel, wikimedia commons
The president-elect’s lawyers have explained why they don’t think he’ll violate the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause—but their arguments fall apart under closer scrutiny.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump’s lawyers issued a brief, largely unnoticed memo defending Trump’s plan to “separate” himself from his businesses. We believe that memo arbitrarily limits itself to a small portion of the conflicts it purports to address, and even there, presents claims that depart from precedent and common sense. Trump can convince a lot of people of a lot of things—but neither he nor his lawyers can explain away the ethics train wreck that will soon crash into the Oval Office.
It’sbeenwidelyacknowledgedthat, when Trump swears the Oath of Office, he will stand in violation of the Constitution’s foreign-emoluments clause. The emoluments clause forbids any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from accepting any “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” (unless Congress explicitly consents).
The Russian leader tries to claim the role of senior partner in relationship with the U.S.
You have to feel bad for the Moldovan president. The newly elected Igor Dodon had traveled to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first Russian-Moldovan bilateral meeting in nine years. Yet here he was, standing side by side with Putin, his hero and model for emulation, at a regal-looking press conference and some reporter has to go and ask about the prostitutes.
“You haven’t yet commented on the report that, allegedly, we or in Russia have been collecting kompromat on Donald Trump, including during his visit to Moscow, as if he were having fun with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel,” said the reporter with the pro-Kremlin LifeNews. “Is that true? Have you seen these files, these videos, these tapes?”
A mix of patriotic balladeers and apolitical acts will take the stage on Thursday and Friday.
It is not true, as a lot of commentary would have it, that Donald Trump’s inauguration will feature “no stars.” Some of the entertainers who have signed on to play have, in fact, built their success on entertaining millions of people. But it is true that what’s considered “the A-list” will be conspicuously absent, as will be acts from other lists: The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, backed out from an unofficial inaugural party after outcry; Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday reneged from the main concert event.
The mix of entertainers lined up for Thursday’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” on the National Mall and Friday’s swearing-in ceremony represents a hodgepodge of ideology and expediency. In a savvy MTV essay about Trump’s national-anthem singer Jackie Evancho, Doreen St. Félix argued that booking the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent runner up was “a matter of scavenging, and then gilding over the spoils”—a description that could apply across the lineup given the many headlines about Trump’s team getting turned down by celebrities then saying that not having famous people is a good thing. But in its relative lack of glitz, and in its coalition of performers well familiar to state-fair stages, this week’s bill may inadvertently achieve the stated inaugural goal of projecting an image not of Trump but of the people who elected him.
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.
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
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.
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.
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.
Those who worry that it undermines state secrets would do better to start addressing the core reasons that the classification system is losing legitimacy.
On Tuesday, President Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, a former Army analyst who violated several laws that forbid disclosing facts that have been declared classified by the U.S. government. Laws against revealing state secrets are intended to protect national security and the safety of the men and women who serve in the military and intelligence services. Those are worthy aims and the laws are defensible in principle.
In practice, the legitimacy of state-secrets laws has been undermined by their frequent abuse.
Many both mainstream and alternative doctors help patients avoid or delay vaccines. Trump’s rhetoric might empower them further.
When Andrew Brandeis encounters patients who are skeptical about vaccines at his family-practice clinic in San Francisco, he doesn’t toe the typical pediatrician party line—that the standard vaccine schedule is a must-do. Instead, he might help the patient delay or space out their child’s shots beyond the recommendations of public-health agencies, if they so desire.
“The earlier you introduce a vaccine to a kid, there is evidence suggesting various adverse reactions,” he said. He believes early administration of the Hepatitis B vaccine is linked to allergies, asthma, and multiple sclerosis—something doctors and health agencies vehemently deny. “The parents might say, ‘I’m just going to wait on that one,’ I’d say that’s okay.”
How America’s best and brightest once again steered the country to failure
They were the best and the brightest. But, most of all, they believed they were right. Although the scale of disaster was considerably different, the same that was said of those who oversaw foreign policy under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could be said of the Obama administration.
These were academics, intellectuals, and technocrats who were not only very smart; they took pride in being practical, grounded in reality, and wedded to facts. After the supposed anti-intellectualism and ideological rigidity of the George W. Bush administration, many of us welcomed the prospect of a president who was cerebral and professorial. Even those sympathetic to President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy instincts, however, will agree that it didn’t quite go as planned.