Monday, November 9, 2009

Maybe not "The End of History," but certainly the Beginning of Life Not Sucking So Bad

It's difficult, I think, for people who have never lived in an un-free society to appreciate exactly how galling are the countless petty injusticies that the inhabitants of those places must face on a daily basis. Living in a Warsaw Pact country more than a decade after the Wall fell, I got a taste for the different sort of relationship that people have to government, the sense of resignation at incompetent bureacracy and bullying authority. After forty-odd years of totalitarianism, there's not much room left for outrage.

That's why I think it's so important that amidst all the talk this week about the 20th anniversary of the Wall's fall, the meaning of the Cold War's end, and the progress (or lack thereof) towards global liberty over the last two decades, we should remember exactly what that day meant for millions of people: not the End of History, not universal emancipation, and not the permanent demise of tyranny, but real, genuine freedom for people who had suffered its absence for so long. From George Packer's piece in this week's New Yorker:
A recent Pew poll shows that Germans, Czechs, and Poles remain relatively enthusiastic about democracy and capitalism; Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Lithuanians less so. Former East Germans’ hopes of achieving the living standards of their Western countrymen have not been fulfilled, and the inevitable disappointments have muted anniversary celebrations. Last month in Dresden, a retired schoolteacher acknowledged the pining of some East Germans for their simpler, cozier former lives under state socialism. There’s even a neologism for it: Ostalgie. But, the teacher said, “What matters is that I can talk with an American journalist without going to jail, that I can travel without filling out forms, that I can read what I want to read, that I’m not told what TV station I can watch and not watch, that at school I don’t have to say something that I don’t say in private at home. This is what is decisive to me today.”
And there's something to be said for that, eh?


  1. Bless you for this post, Gulliver.

    *Have you read any of Herta Muller's novels? The Nobel Prize winner for literture this year? When I went to find her book, right after the win, I found very few people carried her novels printed on a small academic press. I got ahold of one small book of short stories. The stories, personal, disjoined and unusual, occupy a very strange mental space. Hard for us to understand, indeed.

  2. Madhu -- I'm not familiar with Herta Muller, no. Anyone you might compare her to?

  3. Gulliver, good post. We shouldn't forget that the right to shoot your mouth off is also valued by Afghans, Central Asians, Iranians and Pakistanis.

  4. Here's a NYT article with excerpts of her work; as she dealt with living under such conditions I thought it appropriate to the post.


  5. Madhu -- I feel less ignorant now that I've read that Muller was little known outside of intellectual circles before being named as a Nobel Prize winner. (Perhaps this is why her work -- which sounds really interesting to me -- has been so difficult to find.)

    I'm biased, of course, having lived in a post-communist place for a couple of years. But I find stories of the way people cope with the sort of crushing resignation that comes with state domination even of your thoughts to be really compelling.