Monday, November 09, 2009

walls in my mental topography



pondering walls, like everyone else on this 20th anniversary of the fall of the berlin wall. already last night on the news, they were discussing it and the significance of the event, which marked, at least symbolically, the end of the cold war. sabin was watching and her response was, "berlin wall, blah, blah, blah," which is interesting. because it's clear that she has no reference for it (being 8 and all). she can't imagine what all of the fuss is about just because some people knocked down a stupid old graffiti-covered wall. she knows nothing of NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact, nor the Iron Curtain, nor the Soviet Union. (strange that those things are so deeply etched in my mental topography that i can't bring myself not to capitalize them.)

when i think about the fall of the berlin wall, it takes me back to college. i had personalized plates on my car that read CCCP (believe it or not, the state of iowa allowed that), i was studying russian, i was an avid fan of gorbachev and i despised ronald reagan with a passion (the only thing that cooled that was the 8 years of dubya, who made reagan seem quite harmless in retrospect). i don't believe for a single second that ronald reagan was a visionary that foresaw the downfall of soviet-style communism. he was just a guy who could deliver a good speech and happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the credit. and those who really deserve the credit were the people on the ground who pushed their way through that wall and in all honesty, the wall coming down was just the culmination of a long, slow demise of the soviet empire (which took another two years to formally dissolve).

but do i remember it per se? in all honesty, i really don't. i remember more the aftermath. i remember russian history departments in universities all over the world scrambling to find a new narrative. i recall those pierce brosnan incarnations of the james bond franchise that struggled to find a new narrative without the cold war as backdrop. i remember studying in russia in the early 90s with an east german guy who was a bit of a character and had a big fat laptop named hannah as his pride and joy. i remember that the other germans i studied with found him very strange because he was from the east. it was obvious that the divided germany had set itself deeply on the personal topographies of its people and that it would take more than the symbolism of knocking down of a wall to change that.

strangely, i'm left with a nostalgic longing for the dichotomies of cold war rhetoric - the whole notion of good and evil was so straightforward then. plus, i think we've struggled since with only one superpower in the world. i don't think it's been good for us. any of us, not just americans. in one symbolic gesture - breaking down that wall - an entire ideology and way of life crumbled - on both sides of the iron curtain. and we've had trouble picking up the pieces. it took another broad symbolic gesture in the form of september 11 to give us a new narrative, but i'm not sure the narrative of terrorism is a worthy replacement for the cold war. i don't really believe today's possessors of nuclear weapons have the same cool heads that the leaders of the soviet union and the cold war united states had. where is mutually assured destruction when you need it?

and speaking of destruction, i find myself thinking of other walls that have fallen. wall street for one, last year at about this time. but it's back up where it was now, isn't it? and the financial wizards are collecting their taxpayer-funded bonuses once again. and nothing has really changed.

maybe the last time there was real change was when the berlin wall fell. it had such fantastic symbolic value. and so we watch it again and again this week. and we read the stories. and we remember simpler times full of grander gestures. and i try not to let in the sneaking suspicion that what we are witnessing now in a kind of slow motion accident-type sequence, is the demise of the american empire...

14 comments:

Judith said...

Nice thoughtful post. I've been wondering the same things. Although last year's collapse was frightening, I was optimistic that maybe we would find new narratives that might include people and the environment. But as things recover, I'm not sure we will.

The Redhead Riter said...

hmmmm...that really made me think

lovely pic too...FULL of feeling and emotion when paired with your post

Bill Stankus said...

The Cold War was in many ways an Orwellian morality play. Both the U.S. and the Soviets played a brinkmanship’s game and both ramped up their military to the point life seemed a constant twisting wrestling hold with annihilation possible at any moment.

The results of the Cold War still ripple. First, the U.S still acts as if it is the champion of righteousness. Second, one of the fallouts of U.S. spending on it’s super power military is the crumbling infrastructure of the country .... healthcare, schools, roads, bridges, etc. have all been neglected due to funding issues. As of today, about 50% of the U.S. Federal budget is spent on the military. Third, when the U.S. and Soviets were locked in their dance of death a side effect was a constant iron fist on smaller countries, especially the 3rd world variety, and most rebellious factions in those countries were dealt with as hostiles and then removed.

Once the Cold war symbolically ended the U.S. remained distrustful of foreign politics (the U.S. has forever distrusted Europe, especially following World War I) and continued in a Cold War mind set with all countries in disagreement with U.S. foreign policy.

Through the 1940s, 50s and early 60s we could have peacefully negotiated with Mao or Ho Chi Minh prior to hostilities but we didn’t. That sort of miscalculation has had a true domino effect. We’ve propped up dictators of any stripe as long as the fostered U.S. desires and now we’re dealing with rebels and terrorists who see us as the reason their countries are messed up.

Suecae Sounds said...

I pretty much agree with Bill. The problem today is that the walls have become more invinsible. There are social walls, economic walls and mental walls. They are so well constructed that we generally do not think about them as much. Of course, these walls are more prevalent in third world countries, still, they are there here as well as there.

I think we are moving beyond neoliberalism and post-modernism now. But the narrative isn't clear cut now: there are still political forces struggling to describe the scenery. And religious forces, lets not forget. In Europe the far right has made a recovery in several countries, although they tend to be marginalized.

B said...

Really interesting post. I was waiting for your "Russian" perspective on this! :)
I think I remember when the wall fall, although I may just remember seeing it in the news in the years after... who knows?
There is certainly a sense nowadays that ideology ended then, isn't there? What did Fukuyama say? The End of History? Maybe he was right (on that one thing), I should revise my notes from Uni before I say any more...

Suecae Sounds said...

I think you are reffering to his work 'The End of History and the Last Man' by Fukoyama. To my limited knowdledge he said that liberal democracy after defeating nazism and communism would be the lone victor on the world scene. His narrative was indeed very popular, yet I think that he was wrong. But still, narratives aren't really about what is wrong or right all the times. It is about defining what is and maintaining the power of writing history.

While I am at it writing about things I know to little about; which I honestly do, I have read that Fukoyama's ideas was supersceded by Huntingtons nominal neo-concervative work 'Clash of Civilizations'. Which perspective helped shape republican foreign policy after Fukoyama's perspective got out of fashion and people wanted a more agressive stance on terrorism. Fukoyama is also described as conservative on wikipedia, yet it seems to me that these two men belong to different camps.

Suecae Sounds said...

I just realised that my last post came off as giving to much power to these two writers and individuals.

So yeah, I am stepping off the soapbox right now... :)

Char said...

i grew up in a city that was always a top target of bombs (according to all the anti-communist) because all military officers were trained here. I still see old bomb shelter signs and i can remember sampling candy they put in bomb shelters with nutrients.

the thing about all of this is...there is always someone to hate, a government to overthrow, and wrong to do if we all look hard enough for it.

though there is much wrong doing here in our little empire - i still like the united states. maybe that comes from a sense of never living outside of the boundaries of the country and not having a sense of the world. but, i would sometimes argue that is the same of many other people in their country.

change for change's sake is not always good but is sometimes the only way to be heard.

i remember the wall falling - i remember thinking at least people will be free to travel where they would like to travel. freedom is indeed precious.

marinik said...

wow a really good post... i grew up in the soviet union, and remember the patriotism that was actually expected from the people there. then after moving to the us in the early 80's i could feel the cringe people felt as they said the word "russians"... my kids don't get that either... how could they? their world is quite different now...as you said, enjoyed the read today :))
thanks

Just Jules said...

wow - marinik's comment interesting.

Your post - always good, thought provoking, keeps us coming back.

It has been 20 years? I remember watching it on t.v. didn't know I was that young - wow.

rayfamily said...

Thank you. Beautifully articulated!

Kristina said...

Being 25 and german, it is a little strange for me to read this post and the comments attached. I don't remember the fall of the Berlin Wall nor the changes attached to it, I was too young at the time. In my memories Germany has never been divided, though historically I know otherwise of course.
It's amazing to me that this event has so much more meaning for you than for me (and I feel guilty that it doesn't mean more to me).
I guess while we're not a very patriotic nation, we Germans tend to forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall had so much of an impact on the rest of the world, that it meant so much more than bringing a divided country together again. For me, amidst the celebrations of which I read in newspapers, the political connotations attached are/were not obvious.
I disagree with your last sentence...a year ago I would have felt otherwise, but I do believe that things are changing for the better for the US (and consequently the world), slowly but surely.

julochka said...

i love the thoughtful and erudite comments this provoked! thank you all for that!!!

corabela said...

Ah such deep and deliberate thoughts on such an old subject. My family was vacationing in Italy at the time. I remember nothing of the aftermath...I was too young. But I do remember being gathered around the television at the county inn, watching mobs of people take it down, bit by bit. I'll never forget it.

That era was most certainly very black and white...we all preferred it that way. But there was a price, I think. People bought into a "truth" for the sake of stability, whether it was truth or not. I can only think of the well-known Rosenburgs. I don't know that humanity was ever meant to have absolute truth on a mass scale. It's too delusional. Individual truth is far less harmful. But then we end up wanting to spread it...