Right Question

Asking the right question is usually more productive than trying to prove the right answer.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Defining Moments

For my parent's generation, a defining political moment was the Kennedy Assassination. Ask any of them where he was when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, and each will have a story for you -- not just of what they happened to be doing at the time, but of how it affected everyone, changed everything. September 11th was obviously another such moment, where for a moment nearly all of America was drawn together in a shared emotional experience of shock and grief. The political clarity of the moment was intense, putting the lunatic fringes at both extremes into harsh perspective as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed "the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians" and Michael Moore commented that he couldn't understand why New York and D.C. were targeted when people there had voted against Bush.

For me, another such moment was the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9th, 1989. I can still remember where I was, and how I felt. It was my first year of college, and I was just beginning the slow shift from the unquestioning liberalism of my youth to the naïve libertarianism of my post-college years. I was back at my high school that week, hosting the return visit of a group of Russian exchange students. I can remember wondering what this moment meant to them -- raised with a very different understanding of the world, though I had neither the nerve nor the clarity to ask. For myself, I can recall playing over the sequence of events in my mind -- imagining what it must have felt like for a million East Germans packing up their lives in their station wagons and heading to Hungary, nominally on vacation, only to cross the now-open border into Austria and thence to West Germany. Recalling the peaceful surrender of the communist governments in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, I was in awe at the peaceful ending of a war that had always loomed over me. It had been an article of faith for me as a child that if The War came, I'd never even know it. It's hard to explain to someone even ten years younger how certain I was that I could be vaporized in a nuclear explosion at any time. Throughout the Gorbachev years, chinks of doubt began to work their way into that fear -- and when the Berlin wall fell and still the Russian tanks didn't roll in, that fear exploded.

Between the "orange revolution" we've just witnessed in the Ukraine, the miraculous events in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the revival of the democracy movement in Lebanon, these memories have been powerfully stirred recently. It's hard not to wonder if yet another certainty about the world is about to fall. Over my lifetime we've seen a world in which most people lived under oppression transformed into one in which a slim majority now live in free nations, and every indication is that the vast majority of the world will live in freedom within the turning of another generation.

Friends and family on the left often ask me how I can support President Bush's foreign policy. I have trouble understanding how anyone, especially anyone professing progressive liberal ideals, could oppose his policies. Looking back over the last fifteen years, I think that my beliefs -- my ideals -- have remained constant. It's just that I've lost some of my cynicism (while retaining my healthy skepticism -- hat tip to Penn and Teller for this useful distinction). In 1987 when Ronald Reagan stood in Berlin, pointed at Checkpoint Charlie and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." I was right there with the political left -- I understood that Reagan was being childish, all this talk about "evil empires" and cartoonish black-and-white morality was risible. Today, hearing Bush speak passionately about freedom as the birthright of every human being in every nation, I am instead moved. We're living the progressive idealistic dream of my youth - now that the Cold War is over, America is proclaiming her support for freedom everywhere, and actually meaning it. It's a cliche that Democrats are idealists and Republicans are cynics -- my experience has been entirely the other way around. I didn't become a conservative by growing out of my idealism - I became a conservative by growing out of my faux-sophisticated cynicism.

The fall of the Berlin wall, the fall of communism, changed how I see the world and what I imagined to be possible. In my better moments, I imagine a multitude of cynical young idealists in this country with the image of a burkha-clad woman's ink-stained finger seared into their consciousness, just as the image of Germans with hammers pounding the Berlin wall into tourist souvenirs was seared into mine. I doubt we can even imagine what miracles the next twenty years may bring.

UPDATE: I think by now the images of ink-stained fingers have been overwhelmed by the image of the human tsunami in Beirut. This is beyond incredible.


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