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
“Don’t underestimate me,” declared newly announced presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. That may be good advice.
By conventional standards, Sanders’s candidacy is absurd: He’s not well known, he doesn’t have big money donors, he’s not charismatic, and by Beltway standards, he’s ideologically extreme. But candidates with these liabilities have caught fire before. Think of Jerry Brown, who despite little funding and an oddball reputation outlasted a series of more conventional candidates to emerge as Bill Clinton’s most serious challenger in 1992. Or Pat Buchanan, who struck terror in the GOP establishment by winning the New Hampshire primary in 1996. Or Howard Dean, who began 2003 in obscurity and ended it as the Democratic frontrunner (before collapsing in the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses). Or Ron Paul, who in 2012 finished second in New Hampshire and came within three points of winning Iowa.
The Nobel Prize winner and author of The Grapes of Wrath on the importance of waiting for love
Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) might be best-known as the author of East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, but he was also a prolific letter-writer. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters constructs an alternative biography of the iconic author through some 850 of his most thoughtful, witty, honest, opinionated, vulnerable, and revealing letters to family, friends, his editor, and a circle of equally well-known and influential public figures.
Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom's 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck's words of wisdom—tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious—should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.
After viewing news photographs from China for years, one of my favorite visual themes is "large crowd formations." Whether the subject is military parades or world-record attempts, mass exercises or enormous performances, the images are frequently remarkable. The masses of people can look beautiful or intimidating, projecting a sense of strength and abundance. Individuals can become pixels in a huge painting, or points on a grid, or echoes of each other in identical uniforms or costumes. I've gathered some of these images below, taken around China over the past several years. (Note: a few of these images can create a dizzying effect when viewed while scrolling, which is fun, but could be surprising.)
What is the appropriate penalty for having sex on the beach? This is a story about how that offense, like so many others, allows a penalty far longer than is just.
Were I a cop who stumbled on a couple hooking up beneath a blanket at night I'd look away. Confronted with people going at it during daylight hours in view of passersby, I'd think, "The abrasiveness of sand dissuades most people from doing this and the best outcome would be for Fark.com to mock their breach of community standards, but I suppose I'm obligated to make them stop and issue a ticket."As a prosecutor, I'd seek a sentence of community service plus one weekend of house arrest with the Jimmy Buffett song "Who's the Blond Stranger?" played on repeat over and over and over. A person never forgets that.
Last week, Atlantic coverage was dominated by the dramatic events in Baltimore. Ta-Nehisi Coates lit up the Internet with his controversial take on the rioting in his hometown, followed by a forum at Johns Hopkins University about the broader meaning of the unrest. Conor Friedersdorf frowned at conservatives' response to Baltimore and police brutality in general—though he didn't fail to condemn the rioting as well. Conor also recognized the role that cameras played in the Freddie Gray story, as did Rob Meyer, who offered sound advice on recording cops. David Graham, who has been all over the Gray story, examined how the rioting arose and explored the impact of Twitter. Adam Chandler chased the breaking news while Alan Taylor illustrated the drama with imagery.
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.
Marilyn Mosby's press conference Friday shocked residents of Baltimore and everyone else watching protests over Freddie Gray's death. Barely 24 hours after police had completed their investigation into the death of the 25-year-old black man in police custody, the Baltimore City state's attorney announced a strong slate of charges against the six officers involved. It wasn't just the speed (Mosby said her office had begun investigations the day after Gray's arrest, and six days before his death) but the charges: second-degree depraved-heart murder against one officer, with the others facing a mix of manslaughter, assault, misconduct, and false imprisonment.
The decision was met with jubilation in West Baltimore, where protestors had rioted just four nights before. But almost immediately, critics began to second-guess Mosby, who's been on the job for just a few months. Were her charges politically motivated, or perhaps calculated to calm protests? Had she overcharged the officers, picking unfair charges, or ones she couldn't win? Did she move too fast to charge the officers?
Two years ago, a Dutch creative agency opened a concept restaurant in Amsterdam that would be, in the words of its founder, “the perfect place to dine in pleasant solitude.” The restaurant is called Eenmaal—this name has been translated into English as “dinner for one”—and was launched in an attempt to start dissolving the stigma attached to going out alone. Apparently picking up on the same cultural drift, a new fast-casual restaurant in Washington, D.C., has tiered, bench-like seating with individual trays, an arrangement that caters to solo diners.
As antisocial as those ideas may sound, it’s surprising that the world hasn’t seen more of them. Today, more than a quarter of American households are home to just one person—a figure that has tripled since 1970. Also, the median age at which Americans get married has recently reached a record high. Given these demographic shifts, one would think that by now, going out to the movies or to dinner alone wouldn’t be the radical acts they still are.
The simplest way to reduce the number of Americans who are abused by police officers is not to retrain cops or to reform their subculture. It is to significantly reduce the number of adversarial interactions people have with police.
Questions about how frequently Americans ought to interact with law enforcement are often associated with the debate over Broken Windows theory. Its proponents champion a model of policing where foot patrolmen are a regular presence in high-crime neighborhoods, vigilantly guarding against the sorts of low-level disorder that ostensibly leads to more serious crime if left unchecked.
For now, let's defer debate about Broken Windows theory.
Even if it is correct, there are still a number of reforms that would reduce adversarial contacts with police officers without increasing disorder on the streets.
In the 2001 movie Donnie Darko, a group of teenage boys are drinking and shooting guns when the topic of conversation turns, as you might expect, to the topic of women. “We gotta find ourselves a Smurfette,” one of them says.
“Smurfette?” his friend asks.
“Mm-hmm. Not some, like, tight-ass Middlesex chick, you know? Like, this cute little blonde that will get down and dirty with the guys. Like Smurfette does.”
“That's bullshit. Smurfette fucks all the other Smurfs.”
This exchange came to mind when watching the actor Jeremy Renner's appearance on Conan this week, during which he called Black Widow, the Avenger played by Scarlett Johansson, “a slut.” He'd already made a joke along these lines a few weeks ago, after which he apologized to anyone who'd been offended. But apparently Renner believed his joke wasn't actually vile—just misunderstood. “Conan, if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut,” he said. “I’d be a slut.”