poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

November 9, 2009

Another brick in the wall of Berlin Wall diaries.

End of History it was not. Or, when we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, we’re sent running into its arms by the mistakes of the present. Or, how everything would be better if a charming socialist who loves democracy and values US-Russian relations were the ruler of the universe instead of out peddling shi shi luggage. Oof!

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.

1. Global poll: BBC: Free market flawed, says survey.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new BBC poll has found widespread dissatisfaction with free-market capitalism.
In the global poll for the BBC World Service, only 11% of those questioned across 27 countries said that it was working well.

Most thought regulation and reform of the capitalist system were necessary.

There were also sharp divisions around the world on whether the end of the Soviet Union was a good thing.

[Update] Here’s a link to the complete findings of the BBC poll.

2. Former Eastern Bloc poll: Pew: End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations.

The Pulse of Europe 2009: 20 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, publics of former Iron Curtain countries generally look back approvingly at the collapse of communism. Majorities of people in most former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries endorse the emergence of multiparty systems and a free market economy.

However, the initial widespread enthusiasm about these changes has dimmed in most of the countries surveyed; in some, support for democracy and capitalism has diminished markedly. In many nations, majorities or pluralities say that most people were better off under communism, and there is a widespread view that the business class and political leadership have benefited from the changes more than ordinary people. Nonetheless, self reported life satisfaction has risen significantly in these societies compared with nearly two decades ago when the Times Mirror Center1 first studied public opinion in the former Eastern bloc.

Among the many interesting findings: While support for democracy and capitalism have generally decreased in most former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries, it seems to have decreased only moderately in Russia (-8%, -4%) (on par with East Germany) compared to Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, &Ukraine, whose support for the change to these systems has decreased anywhere from -18% to -42%.

There are more fascinating graphs on their website, including support for democratic values (freedom of speech, democratic elections, etc.):

A general conclusion that can be drawn from the poll’s results suggests that Russians express the least enthusiasm for democratic values, while the most acceptance is expressed by those in the former East Germany, closely followed by the Poles and Czechs.

and the belief that forces beyond personal control decide one’s fate:

Americans remain far more individualistic than Europeans. Fewer than a third (29%) of Americans surveyed believe success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside their control. Majorities in 10 of the 13 European countries surveyed think they have little control over their fate.

3. United States poll: Rasmussen: Just 53% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.
Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.

Investors by a 5-to-1 margin choose capitalism. As for those who do not invest, 40% say capitalism is better while 25% prefer socialism.

There is a partisan gap as well. Republicans – by an 11-to-1 margin – favor capitalism. Democrats are much more closely divided: Just 39% say capitalism is better while 30% prefer socialism. As for those not affiliated with either major political party, 48% say capitalism is best, and 21% opt for socialism.

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev In His Own Words.

You know, the man who actually earned the Nobel Peace Prize…

1. NYT: Now Clear Away the Rubble of the Wall.

On avoiding a New Cold War:

I was shocked by a letter that politicians from Central and Eastern Europe sent to President Barack Obama in June. It was, in effect, a call to abandon his policy of engagement with Russia. Is it not shameful that European politicians gave no thought to the disastrous consequences of a new confrontation they would provoke?
At the same time, Europe is being drawn into a debate over responsibility for unleashing World War II. Attempts are being made to equate Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Those attempts are wrong, historically flawed and morally unacceptable.

Those who hope to build a new wall of mutual suspicion and animosity in Europe do a disservice to their own countries and to Europe as a whole.


The current model of E.U. relations with other European countries is based on absorbing as many of them as quickly as possible while leaving the relationship with Russia a “pending matter.” That is simply unsustainable.

Some in Europe are reluctant to accept this. Is this reluctance a sign of unwillingness to accept, and take part in, Russia’s resurgence? What kind of Russia do you want to see: a strong, confident nation in its own right or just a supplier of natural resources that “knows its place?”

Too many European politicians do not want a level playing field with Russia. They want one side to be a teacher or prosecutor and the other, Russia, to be a student or defendant. Russia will not accept this model. It wants to be understood; simply put, it wants to be treated as an equal partner.

2. Guardian: The Berlin wall had to fall, but today’s world is no fairer.

Gorby on “ultra-liberal capitalism.”

The crisis of ideologies that is threatening to turn into a crisis of ideals, values and morals marks yet another loss of social reference points, and strengthens the atmosphere of political pessimism and nihilism. The real achievement we can celebrate is the fact that the 20th century marked the end of totalitarian ideologies, in particular those that were based on utopian beliefs.
Yet new ideologies are quickly replacing the old ones, both in the east and the west. Many now forget that the fall of the Berlin wall was not the cause of global changes but to a great extent the consequence of deep, popular reform movements that started in the east, and the Soviet Union in particular. After decades of the Bolshevik experiment and the realisation that this had led Soviet society down a historical blind alley, a strong impulse for democratic reform evolved in the form of Soviet perestroika, which was also available to the countries of eastern Europe.

But it was soon very clear that western capitalism, too, deprived of its old adversary and imagining itself the undisputed victor and incarnation of global progress, is at risk of leading western society and the rest of the world down another historical blind alley.

Today’s global economic crisis was needed to reveal the organic defects of the present model of western development that was imposed on the rest of the world as the only one possible; it also revealed that not only bureaucratic socialism but also ultra-liberal capitalism are in need of profound democratic reform – their own kind of perestroika.

Today, as we sit among the ruins of the old order, we can think of ourselves as active participants in the process of creating a new world. Many truths and postulates once considered indisputable, in both the east and the west, have ceased to be so, including the blind faith in the all-powerful market and, above all, its democratic nature. There was an ingrained belief that the western model of democracy could be spread mechanically to other societies with different historical experience and cultural traditions. In the present situation, even a concept like social progress, which seems to be shared by everyone, needs to be defined, and examined, more precisely.

3. The Nation: Gorbachev on 1989.

Katrina and Stephen interview Gorby. Some choice morsels.

A dinosaur and a Bolshevik:

MG: Let historians think what they want. But without what I have described, nothing would have resulted. Let me tell you something. George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, came to see me two or three years ago. We reminisced for a long time–like old soldiers recalling past battles. I have great respect for Shultz, and I asked him: “Tell me, George, if Reagan had not been president, who could have played his role?” Shultz thought for a while, then said: “At that time there was no one else. Reagan’s strength was that he had devoted his whole first term to building up America, to getting rid of all the vacillation that had been sown like seeds. America’s spirits had revived. But in order to take these steps toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and toward reducing nuclear armaments–there was no one else who could have done that then.”
By the way, in 1987, after my first visit to the United States, Vice President Bush accompanied me to the airport, and told me: “Reagan is a conservative. An extreme conservative. All the blockheads and dummies are for him, and when he says that something is necessary, they trust him. But if some Democrat had proposed what Reagan did, with you, they might not have trusted him.”

By telling you this, I simply want to give Reagan the credit he deserves. I found dealing with him very difficult. The first time we met, in 1985, after we had talked, my people asked me what I thought of him. “A real dinosaur,” I replied. And about me Reagan said, “Gorbachev is a diehard Bolshevik!”

KVH/SFC: A dinosaur and a Bolshevik?

MG: And yet these two people came to historic agreements, because some things must be above ideological convictions. No matter how hard it was for us and no matter how much Reagan and I argued in Geneva in 1985, nevertheless in our appeal to the peoples of the world we wrote: “Nuclear war is inadmissible, and in it there can be no victors.” And in 1986, in Reykjavik, we even agreed that nuclear weapons should be abolished. This conception speaks to the maturity of the leaders on both sides, not only Reagan but people in the West generally, who reached the correct conclusion that we had to put an end to the cold war.

Muddled American thinking:

KVH/SFC: What was most important–the circumstances at that time or the leaders?

MG: The times work through people in history. I’ll tell you something else that is very important about what subsequently happened in your country. When people came to the conclusion that they had won the cold war, they concluded that they didn’t need to change. Let others change. That point of view is mistaken, and it undermined what we had envisaged for Europe–mutual collective security for everyone and a new world order. All of that was lost because of this muddled thinking in your country, and which has now made it so difficult to work together. World leadership is now understood to mean that America gives the orders.

KVH/SFC: Is that why today, twenty years after you say the cold war ended, the relationship between our two countries is so bad that President Obama says it has to be “reset”? What went wrong?

MG: Even before the end of the cold war, Reagan, Bush and I argued, but we began to eliminate two entire categories of nuclear weapons. We had gone very far, almost to the point when a return to the past was no longer possible. But everything went wrong because perestroika was undermined and there was a change of Russian leadership and a change from our concept of gradual reform to the idea of a sudden leap. For Russian President Boris Yeltsin, ready-made Western recipes were falling into his hands, schemes that supposedly would lead to instant success. He was an adventurist. The fall of the Soviet Union was the key moment that explains everything that happened afterward, including what we have today. As I said, people in your country became dizzy with imagined success: they saw everything as their victory.

In Yeltsin, Washington ended up with a vassal who thought that because of his anticommunism he would be carried in their arms. Delegations came to Russia one after the other, including President Bill Clinton, but then they stopped coming. It turned out no one needed Yeltsin. But by then half of Russia’s industries were in ruins, even 60 percent. It was a country with a noncompetitive economy wide open to the world market, and it became slavishly dependent on imports.

How many things were affected! All our plans for a new Europe and a new architecture of mutual security. It all disappeared. Instead, it was proposed that NATO’s jurisdiction be extended to the whole world. But then Russia began to revive. The rain of dollars from higher world oil prices opened up new possibilities. Industrial and social problems began to be solved. And Russia began to speak with a firm voice, but Western leaders got angry about that. They had grown accustomed to having Russia just lie there. They thought they could pull the legs right out from under her whenever they wanted.

The moral of the story–and in the West morals are everything–is this: under my leadership, a country began reforms that opened up the possibility of sustained democracy, of escaping from the threat of nuclear war, and more. That country needed aid and support, but it didn’t get any. Instead, when things went bad for us, the United States applauded. Once again, this was a calculated attempt to hold Russia back. I am speaking heatedly, but I am telling you what happened.

Parable of the goose:

KVH/SFC: Finally, a question about your intellectual-political biography. One author called you “the man who changed the world.” Who or what most changed your own thinking?

MG: Gorbachev never had a guru. I’ve been involved in politics since 1955, after I finished university, when there was still hunger in my country as a result of World War II. I was formed by those times and by my participation in politics. In addition, I am an intellectually curious person by nature and I understood that many changes were necessary, and that it was necessary to think about them, even if it caused me discomfort. I began to carry out my own inner, spiritual perestroika–a perestroika in my personal views. Along the way, Russian literature and, in fact, all literature, European and American too, had a big influence on me. I was drawn especially to philosophy. And my wife, Raisa, who had read more philosophy than I had, was always there alongside me. I didn’t just learn historical facts but tried to put them in a philosophical or conceptual framework.

I began to understand that society needed a new vision–that we must view the world with our eyes open, not just through our personal or private interests. That’s how our new thinking of the 1980s began, when we understood that our old viewpoints were not working out. During the nuclear arms race, I was given a gift by an American, a little figure of a goose in flight. I still have it at my dacha. It is a goose that lives in the north of Russia in the summer and in the winter migrates to America. It does that every year regardless of what’s happening, on the ground, between you and us. That was the point of this gift and that’s why I’m telling you about it.

KVH/SFC: Listening to you, it seems that you became a political heretic in your country.

MG: I think that is true. I want to add that I know America well now, having given speeches to large audiences there regularly. Three years ago I was speaking in the Midwest, and an American asked me this question: “The situation in the United States is developing in a way that alarms us greatly. What would you advise us to do?” I said, “Giving advice, especially to Americans, is not for me.” But I did say one general thing: that it seems to me that America needs its own American perestroika. Not ours. We needed ours, but you need yours. The entire audience stood and clapped for five minutes.

4. Gorbachev interview on RT:

[The Place Where I’m Posting Random Berlin Wall-related Items of Note]

1. Review: “THE YEAR THAT CHANGED THE WORLD :The Untold Story Behind The Fall of the Berlin Wall,” By Michael Meyer.

Superfly fun and interesting read by a journalist who was on the ground in the Eastern Bloc as Communism fell.

Friedrich Nietzsche once described an argument about history. “I have done that,” claims memory. “I cannot have done that,” pride retorts. Or, to put it differently: The past is what happened, history what we decide to remember. We mine the past for myths to buttress our present.
The good historian is a myth buster. Michael Meyer is a very good historian. As Newsweek’s bureau chief for Eastern Europe in 1989, he watched the world turn on a dime. The myth he busts in this book concerns the contribution the United States made to the collapse of communist regimes that year. Some Americans want to believe that those regimes crumbled because of White House manipulation — clever diplomacy backed by raw power. In fact, American meddling was rather benign and, during that fateful year, conspicuously ill conceived.

The preferred myth begins with Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. “We hear from Moscow about a new openness,” he sneered, demanding proof. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” According to the myth, the wall came tumbling down because Reagan, like some benevolent wizard, shouted “Open Sesame!” The moral drawn is that evil, dictatorial regimes crumble when confronted by righteous indignation. Cue Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush, who idolized Reagan, tried to emulate his hero. His distortion of the past inspired tragedy in the present.

The real story, minus the comic book hero, is more complicated — and interesting. Reagan still plays a role, but as diplomat, not Rambo. His contribution came in accommodation; his willingness to talk to Gorbachev gave the Soviet leader the confidence to break molds. Gorbachev, furthermore, did not tear down the wall; he merely suggested that change would be tolerated.

2. RT interview of Putin on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For some reason this totally cracks me up.

Tonight we’re gonna to party like it’s 1989.

Filed under: Politics: Europe,Too Much Information — poemless @ 11:15 AM
Tags: ,

I’ve probably spent the better part of my life having something passionate to say about the Berlin Wall. Yet now that I have an incredible excuse to say it, meh. Everyone and their mother has something passionate to say about the Berlin Wall on this occasion. Some profound insight, some vivid memory to share, some sober reflection on the victories and failures of foreign and economic policy over the past 20 years… The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those events that turns everybody into a poet. But no one actually reads poetry now, do they?

And yet… That’s it, isn’t it? With 20 years of hindsight, many people see clearly now that November 9, 1989 was neither the end of Soviet Union, Communism nor History itself. Many historians assert that November 9, 1989 was the result not simply of a bottom-up grassroots political movement of angry East Germans nor of the right and might of American ideological persuasiveness. And yet it is not the anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic nor the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Pact that we commemorate around the world with rock concerts and special editions of current events programs. Because these events didn’t turn everyone into a poet.

Most likely, the fall of the Berlin Wall is not so remarkable for the actual political changes which both precipitated and followed the event as it is for its allegorical power. Of course it dramatically impacted the lives of East Germans, but this doesn’t explain its enduring symbolism outside of Germany. For me, even as an American, it is comparable only to something like 9-11, or Obama’s election. You know where you where when you found out about it. You can close your eyes and see the images projected inside your lids as though you were watching a movie. Like 9-11, it came so unexpectedly and seemed to practically violate the laws of nature. For someone born in the 70’s, there had been no “before the wall,” so how could there be an “after the wall?” Like the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the event seemed to confirm everything we want to believe about the implicit goodness and remarkable agency of average people, and reinforced the tenuous beliefs that hold our questionable worldview together: that democracy works, that people can be free when they decide to be and that, like a Hollywood movie, just when things can get no worse, the good guys will band together, defeat the villains, and save the world.

Just because that may not be how it really happened does not make the subjective experience of it any less compelling.

My interest in politics and US-Russia relations date back to elementary school. In the sixth grade I had the same faith in Mikhail Gorbachev that American sixth-graders now have in Barack Obama. I positively adored him. For my whole life the Cold War had raged, and in my childlike, idealistic dreamer’s mind, I knew it was wrong. I thought it was too dangerous and too petty and, above all, perfectly avoidable if people could just act like adults. (Hell, my adolescent peers were being held to a higher standard of behavior than world leaders.) And here was the head of the Soviet freaking Union and sharing my opinion! Not only was he engaging in some “new thinking,” that childlike glimmer in his eyes inspired in me a confidence that, yes, I should hold on tight to my idealism, because if the leader of the scariest country on earth can be a bit of a dreamer, damn it, I can too. That just might be what it takes.

It was never that I wanted the USSR to become like America. In fact, I was pretty disturbed by the reports that jeans and Pepsi were at the top of Russians’ wish lists, while I was bitter about having been born into a country where people don’t care about poetry or ballet. I was raised by a subversive hippie-type and from a long line of system-bucking progressives. As my brilliant sixth grade teacher said, “Don’t be proud to be American, just be thankful to be one.” Back in 1986 we could be thankful, too. The end of the Cold War is not the only thing to have changed in the past few decades… But even then, neither the American “way of life” nor our President inspired much admiration on my part. Precisely because the thought was implied to be taboo, I suspected we could learn as much from Russia as they could learn from us. If only we would put down our arms, sit down and listen. I simply believed the whole world had the capacity to get along if they would just try, and when there are differences, the solution should never be the erecting of walls or the threat of nuclear war.

And I still do.

So as I sat on the hardwood floor in my grandmother’s rarely used formal living room, watching cable TV as Berliners celebrated, waving their flags in the night, teenagers partying along the wall, I felt a vindication and optimism I would not feel again for another 19 years. It was probably the first time in my life I felt cognisant of the fact that I was witnessing history. If I recall correctly, the Challenger disaster may have been my only previous experience of being witness to a spontaneous, shocking event simultaneously with millions of people around the globe. No one had even heard of the Internet back then, at least in the universe of people I knew. Watching events unfold live on TV along with people all over the world was still a novel experience, in the same way encountering an old friend on facebook is today. There was a wow factor inspired not only by the message but the medium as well. I remember explicitly thinking it was a good thing we had gotten grandma cable TV.

The fall of the Berlin Wall instilled in me a curious understanding of historical and political evolution, and one that reflected acutely that I was only 15 years old. The invisible hand of progress, I will call it. Good things happen because good is more persuasive than bad. People want good things. Those who stand in the way of progress are just uninformed; there is nothing that can’t be tackled with a few PSA’s on MTV and a benefit rock concert. We’d put an end to hot wars, and now to cold wars. Sure, there were mysterious scuffles around the world, but those were last gasps of the old way. People stuck in the past. Hold outs. The more evolved cultures (ahem – I was 15) were embracing peace. Apartheid was ending. We’d taken on racism, sexism, and now even gays were being afforded protection under the law. AIDS had made it ok to talk about sex. Diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, democracy and human rights were the catchwords of the era. The early 90’s were a good time to have an impressionable young mind.

The next 20 years passed. A lot happened. Most of it shattering my belief in the invisible hand of progress. Or the possibility of any progress. Ever. Or the implicit good and agency in people. Or almost anything which might be remotely worth believing in. Life in 1990’s Moscow and 21st century America. The death of my mother from cancer. 9-11. Katrina. Abu Graib. Oh it is all too much. Which is not to say it’s been all bad. It has just not been the world I was led to believe I had been born into. And let’s not fool ourselves, it’s been pretty bad. And even the bad things might have been more tolerable if I could maintain the conviction that we were generally moving forward, toward a better, more peaceful, more equitable society. That we’d learned lessons of the past. That these setbacks were only hurdles along the road of progress.

The fall of the Berlin Wall has been one of those moments I’ve held onto when I am looking for hope against hope. Proof. It is within our capacity to make things better. People are not doomed to live forever in oppression. We can choose peaceful revolution over conflict, cooperation over isolation. Ok, fine, Gorbachev turned out to be rather ineffective at home and his leadership (or was it lack thereof?) resulted in some serious strife, both existentially and physically. Fine, democracy can give you a leader like George W. Bush. Fine, actually a significant percentage of East Germans like the old way better. Not the wall, especially. But let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there wondering what happened to Capitalism’s willingness to make good on that promise to improve our quality of life. Not to mention all of the crap we sold Eastern Europe when we basically forced them to abandon democratic socialism, a “third way” for a liberal free-market if they wanted our aid. America, the original predatory lender! But why complain? You have your damn jeans and Pepsi now. And fine, many people fled East Germany less for the promise of political freedom than for that of material gratification. And fine, so it’s not like the fall of Wall was the culmination of years of some underground East German democratic resistance that finally outmaneuvered the Party bosses. And fine, the Cold War has in recent years managed to rear its nasty undead corpse from the graveyard of history, leaving me to make the same goddamned impassioned speeches today that I was making in 1985. When I was 10. Ten! For crying out loud! Fine! Fine, fine, fine!

Wait. What exactly are we celebrating today?

The tearing down of a wall is the tearing down of a wall, no matter how you slice it. That’s worth something. Walls are never the solution. Because the problem is never migration. Migration is a symptom. Humans are remarkably resilient and adaptable. If droves of your citizens are so miserable that they feel it preferable to leave your country – knowing fully well it may result in imprisonment or death, for themselves or their families – maybe YOU are the problem, not the people who want to leave. And yes, overall, the quality of life on what was the other side of the Iron Curtain has mostly improved since the fall of the Berlin Wall, even if these improvements have been accompanied by some undesirable trade-offs. And perhaps we should just celebrate the celebration. Regardless what came before or what came after, that was one wildly magical night. And who doesn’t love an 80’s themed party?! I know I do! Could it be precisely the parenthetical nature of the event that makes it so precious, so worth celebrating? Perhaps, like a myth, acknowledging that the story may contain some fantasy should not undermine its basic message: freedom, peace, progress. And sometimes metaphors are necessary to motivate us in the face of discouraging facts. They are what keep us from resigning en masse to cynicism and stagnation. They are the stuff that makes us all poets.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes! So get your Ostalgie on, baby. Bust out your 80’s gear (which any fashionista in good standing has handily available this season anyway.) Celebrate the end of the old Cold War. Dance on its grave. Relive your youth; remember who you were before George W. Bush damaged your soul. And this time around, let’s try to learn the right lessons and give credit where it is due and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Thanks for reading!

Appendix I.

From Odds & Ends: 99 Luftballons Edition, written about the 08-08 war:

“Oh, I know that the first Cold War was more a struggle of world powers than beautiful ideas. But ideas were the currency used. And even though the ideas were armed with nukes, they still had a seat at the table. There was always the possibility that reason could prevail. Religion, blind faith, armed with nukes, however, offers no such peace of mind. Of course, it’s no guarantee that we will all perish in one magnificent mushroom cloud of glory. Leaving a loaded gun the hall closet is no guarantee that your small child will blow his brains out. Who the hell wants to gamble it? People who are sure they are going to heaven, I guess…

I don’t have the answers. I don’t understand what is going on. That’s fine. But I don’t think the people running my country really understand what is going on either. Or they don’t care because there are no consequences. For them, anyway.

I feel like a kid whose parents are on the verge of a divorce. These are the two countries who have shaped who I am today. Why can’t they just fucking get along? Jesus! I just want to run into my room, slam my door shut and blast “99 Red Balloons” on my tape player. Except. I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t even have a functioning cassette tape-player. I am a citizen. What am I supposed to do? What can I do? Any ideas? Let me know if you come up with something. In the meantime, I’ll be in my room listening to 80s Europop and dreaming about the good old days of the first Cold War, when everything was less complicated because I was 10, because everyone thought it would be over soon, because walls were coming down instead of being built up. Because back then I had faith in people and the things we could accomplish when we worked together.”

Appendix II.

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