The Edge of History

I hate anniversary journalism, but the remembrances of the fall of the Berlin Wall this week got me thinking. I was in Chicago that week in 1989, watching the news in a hotel room as I rested my feet, which ached from walking all over town in new shoes. Never visit Chicago if you’re wearing new shoes.

The reason anniversary journalism is popular is because of those compelling images of people on top of the wall after so many years, the heavy construction equipment pulling down sections and the East Germans pouring through, looking dazed and happy.

Moments like that are the edges of history, when one era changes into another. In the natural world, biologists find life is most abundant at the edges – where the field turns to woods, where the ocean meets the shore, at dawn and dusk. So it is we remember the good times – the fall of the Berlin Wall – and the bad – September 11th.

I spent a good deal of my time in Chicago thinking about the sudden collapse of the wall, for it did seem sudden at the time. We’d seen news analysis pieces about how the Soviet system was rotting from within, but the Cold War and its propaganda had been with me my whole life. (I was three months old when the Berlin Wall went up.) Who knew what was real and what was CIA?

The Cold War was over, ended by a peaceful revolution of the people. We hoped all that military spending could be turned to peaceful ends. I lived at the time in Northern Virginia, outside Washington, DC. A friend who worked for a defense contractor said, “Oh, this is great. Now I’ve got to figure how to stay employed designing a better plowshare,” but I could tell he was happy too.

It didn’t last. The military-industrial complex soon taught everyone to fear the word “terrorist” as we once feared “communist” and politicians soon exploited the new word as they had the old, using it against people with whom they disagree. The new word contains as little understanding as the old one did. No one seemed to notice that all those “communists” we’d been taught to fear were the ones who tore down the wall.

The politicians who scream “terrorist” at Muslim nations pay scant attention to the crowds in the streets of Iran, trying to peacefully change their government, the way people in the Soviet bloc did 20 years ago. So much easier to focus on the crowds of anti-American chanters in Pakistan, hoping all the while that no one will notice the cynical demagogues who exhort those crowds look remarkably similar to the cynical demagogues exhorting tea-party crowds in DC.

And what of our own rot? The most chilling – and perhaps accurate – thing I heard on the radio last week was a comparison of Barack Obama to Mikhail Gorbachev – a decent man who puts the kind face of perestroika on an economic system as it collapses to the ground.

Do I overstate the case? As unemployment is predicted to remain above 10 percent through the first quarter of next year, Maureen Dowd notes in the Times that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase – all of which were bailed out by taxpayers – will distribute $30 billion in bonuses this year. That’s $100 for every man, woman and child in the United States, going to people who are already well paid.

What else could be done with that money? I don’t need $100 from the Wall Streeters (for which I am grateful), but I’m sure we could find 1.2 million American who could use $25,000 each to keep from losing their homes or to buy food and heat to get them through the winter.

Of course, if the rich did that, it would mean they got the foolish notion that we’re all in this together, that there is no revolution coming and that they’re not walking along the edge of history.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

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