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
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.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
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.”
Bruce Springsteen’s breakout album embodied the lost ‘70s—the tense, political, working-class rejection of an increasingly unequal society.
Forty years ago, on the eve of its official release, “Born to Run”—the song that propelled Bruce Springsteen into the rock-and-roll stratosphere—had already attracted a small cult following in the American rust belt.
At the time, Springsteen desperately needed a break. Despite vigorous promotion by Columbia Records, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, had been commercial flops. Though his band spent virtually every waking hour either in the recording studio or on tour, their road earnings were barely enough to live on.
Sensing the need for a smash, in late 1974 Mike Appel, Bruce’s manager, distributed a rough cut of “Born to Run” to select disc jockeys. Within weeks, it became an underground hit. Young people flooded record stores seeking copies of the new single, which didn’t yet exist, and radio stations that hadn’t been on Appel’s small distribution list bombarded him with requests for the new album, which also didn’t exist. In Philadelphia, demand for the title track was so strong that WFIL, the city’s top-40 AM station, aired it multiple times each day. In working-class Cleveland, the DJ Kid Leo played the song religiously at 5:55 p.m. each Friday afternoon on WMMS, to “officially launch the weekend.” Set against the E Street Band’s energetic blend of horns, keyboards, guitars, and percussion, “Born to Run” was a rollicking ballad of escape, packed full of cultural references that working-class listeners recognized immediately.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
The Republican frontrunner has offered Bush the perfect chance to display some passion—but he’s declined to take it.
Donald Trump has gotten a boost in his efforts to maul Jeb Bush in recent days from an unexpected source: Jeb Bush himself.
Trump’s attack on Jeb isn’t mostly about issues. As with most things Trump, it’s mostly about persona. The Donald thinks Jeb is a dud. “He’s a man that doesn’t want to be doing what he’s doing,” Trump said in June. “I call him the reluctant warrior, and warrior’s probably not a good word. I think Bush is an unhappy person. I don’t think he has any energy.”
Over the last week, Jeb has proven Trump right. Trump, and his supporters, continue to demonize Mexican American illegal immigrants. On Tuesday, Trump threw the most popular Spanish-language broadcaster in America out of a press conference. That same day, Ann Coulter warmed up for Trump in Iowa by offering gruesome details of murders by Mexican “illegals,” and suggesting that once Trump builds his wall along America’s southern border, tourists can come watch the “live drone shows.”
The woman who gave her name to the women-in-culture standard would, true to the method, prefer to share the credit.
It’s come to be known as the Bechdel test, and it goes like so: For a given work of fiction to pass the test, the work must 1) have at least two women in it, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something other than a man.
The test is a blunt, basic measure of gender equality in a given film/show/book/etc. It revels in its own absurd simplicity. And it is often—still, ridiculously—not passed by Hollywood movies. It’s often failed in other settings, too. As the A.V. Clubsummed up the current controversy at Duke, which involves incoming students’ refusal to read Bechdel’s celebrated graphic novel on the grounds of its sexual themes: “Duke students refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, will probably fail the test.”
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 fathers of American landscaping, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”