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
A Hillary Clinton presidential victory promises to usher in a new age of public misogyny.
Get ready for the era of The Bitch.
If Hillary Clinton wins the White House in November, it will be a historic moment, the smashing of the preeminent glass ceiling in American public life. A mere 240 years after this nation’s founding, a woman will occupy its top office. America’s daughters will at last have living, breathing, pantsuit-wearing proof that they too can grow up to be president.
A Clinton victory also promises to usher in four-to-eight years of the kind of down-and-dirty public misogyny you might expect from a stag party at Roger Ailes’s house.
You know it’s coming. As hyperpartisanship, grievance politics, and garden-variety rage shift from America’s first black commander-in-chief onto its first female one, so too will the focus of political bigotry. Some of it will be driven by genuine gender grievance or discomfort among some at being led by a woman. But in plenty of other cases, slamming Hillary as a bitch, a c**t (Thanks, Scott Baio!), or a menopausal nut-job (an enduringly popular theme on Twitter) will simply be an easy-peasy shortcut for dismissing her and delegitimizing her presidency.
The talk-radio host claims that he never took Donald Trump seriously on immigration. He neglected to tell his immigration obsessed listeners.
For almost a decade, I’ve been angrily documenting the way that many right-wing talk-radio hosts betray the rank-and-file conservatives who trust them for information. My late grandmother was one of those people. She deserved better than she got. With huge platforms and massive audiences, successful hosts ought to take more care than the average person to be truthful and avoid misinforming listeners. Yet they are egregiously careless on some days and willfully misleading on others.
And that matters, as we’ll come to see.
Rush Limbaugh is easily the most consequential of these hosts. He has an audience of millions. And over the years, parts of the conservative movement that ought to know better, like the Claremont Institute, have treated him like an honorable conservative intellectual rather than an intellectually dishonest entertainer. The full cost of doing so became evident this year, when a faction of populists shaped by years of talk radio, Fox News, and Breitbart.com picked Donald Trump to lead the Republican Party, a choice that makes a Hillary Clinton victory likely and is a catastrophe for movement conservatism regardless of who wins.
Which is a different way of asking: Can a bot commit libel?
Facebook set a new land-speed record for situational irony this week, as it fired the people who kept up its “Trending Topics” feature and replaced them with an algorithm on Friday, only to find the algorithm promoting completely fake news on Sunday.
Rarely in recent tech history has a downsizing decision come back to bite the company so publicly and so quickly.
The San Francisco quarterback has been attacked for refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner—and for daring to criticize the system in which he thrived.
It was in early childhood when W.E.B. Du Bois––scholar, activist, and black radical––first noticed The Veil that separated him from his white classmates in the mostly white town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He and his classmates were exchanging “visiting cards,” invitations to visit one another’s homes, when a white girl refused his.
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows,” Du Bois wrote in his acclaimed essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk. “That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.”
Practices meant to protect marginalized communities can also ostracize those who disagree with them.
Last week, the University of Chicago’s dean of students sent a welcome letter to freshmen decrying trigger warnings and safe spaces—ways for students to be warned about and opt out of exposure to potentially challenging material. While some supported the school’s actions, arguing that these practices threaten free speech and the purpose of higher education, the note also led to widespread outrage, and understandably so. Considered in isolation, trigger warnings may seem straightforwardly good. Basic human decency means professors like myself should be aware of students’ traumatic experiences, and give them a heads up about course content—photographs of dead bodies, extended accounts of abuse, disordered eating, self-harm—that might trigger an anxiety attack and foreclose intellectual engagement. Similarly, it may seem silly to object to the creation of safe spaces on campus, where members of marginalized groups can count on meeting supportive conversation partners who empathize with their life experiences, and where they feel free to be themselves without the threat of judgment or censure.
Like a little white Lazarus with red eyes, the paralyzed mouse was walking again.
A few days earlier, the mouse had been sprawled on an operating table while two Chinese graduate students peered through a microscope and operated on its spine. With a tiny pair of scissors, they removed the top half of a fingernail-thin vertebra, exposing a gleaming patch of spinal-cord tissue. It looked like a Rothko, a clean ivory rectangle bisected by a red line. Cautiously—the mouse occasionally twitched—they snipped the red line (an artery) and tied it off. Then one student reached for a $1,000 scalpel with a diamond blade so thin that it was transparent. With a quick slice of the spinal cord, the mouse’s back legs were rendered forever useless.
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.
As pay TV slowly declines, cable news faces a demographic cliff. And nobody has further to fall than the merchant of right-wing outrage.
Updated at 12:05 p.m.
October 7, 2016, will be the 20th birthday of the Fox News Channel, and at the moment, the network is experiencing the soap-operatic highs and lows typical of any teenager on television. In many ways, the summer of 2016 may go down in Fox News history as the company’s nadir. Its founder and leader Roger Ailes has been dishonorably dispatched, the remaining executives are dealing with a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, and one of its most public faces, Sean Hannity, has ignominiously remodeled himself as a gutless Trump whisperer.
And yet Fox News’ fortunes are ascendant, at least in the most quantifiable sense. The network’s annual profit in 2015 soared by about 20 percent. For the first time ever, Fox News has been the most-watched cable network among both primetime and daytime viewers for several months, with a larger audience than its nominal rivals, CNN and MSNBC, combined. Led by “The O'Reilly Factor,” Fox News doesn’t just have the best-rated news show on cable television; according to The Wrap, it has the 13 best-rated news shows on cable television.
The meaning of HBO’s hypnotic miniseries lay in its characters’ eyes.
One of the most memorable images of The Night Of, the now-concluded HBO miniseries that seemed only to ever deal in memorable images, was among its simplest. In Sunday’s finale, the lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) presented his client Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) with the difficult decision of whether to report his other lawyer, Chandra (Amara Karan), for kissing Naz. Doing so could result in a mistrial—which could be a good thing for Naz, but would ruin Chandra’s career.
Naz said almost nothing as he listened to Stone. But his eyes were steadily focused, glassy, reflecting the white light of a window across the room. “What do you care, you like her like you like Andrea?” Stone asked, referring to Chandra and the woman Naz is accused of killing. He told Naz to think about looking in the mirror, 20 years from now, regretting his choice today.
Bernie Sanders never showed up, and former staffers at Our Revolution believe the organization's 501(c)(4) status hurt Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s primary challenger.
The political revolution has let Tim Canova down. Bernie Sanders hasn’t shown up to campaign for his chosen primary challenger to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee. Heading into a Florida Democratic primary on Tuesday, Canova is behind by double digits in recent polling and looks likely to lose the race.
But that’s only part of the story. Former staffers at Our Revolution, the organization created to act as a successor to the Sanders campaign, believe the group did not do as much as it should have to help Canova in his bid to defeat the veteran Florida congresswoman.
A number of staffers who resigned from Our Revolution in protest over how it has been run say the organization’s 501(c)(4) status made it impossible to coordinate strategy with the Canova campaign, leaving the campaign worse off as a result. At least some departing staffers believe the organization should be set up under a different legal structure so that it can coordinate with candidates it endorses in the future and do more to help them win.