Thirty years ago

The Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic.

In 2021 (we plan ahead), Marilyn and I plan to bundle our family into a transatlantic airliner for a journey to the Czech Republic. Our daughters are old enough now to appreciate the architecture and a little history, but for me, it will be a return to a part of the world for which I’ve always had a deep and abiding affection. In part, this is because my own family originated there; my roots lie in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. But more, for people of my generation, Central and Eastern Europe has a particular historical meaning not entirely irrelevant to my daughters’ own historical period here in the United States.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, at the age of 27, I along with everyone else in the world watched as the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Cold War evaporated in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and many points east. And it happened quickly, within the space of a year. It was perhaps the most deeply meaningful geopolitical event of my youth. It’s hard to explain to generations younger than my own exactly how momentous an event this was. Since my birth in 1962, I and the rest of my generation had been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation; the Soviet Union and its satellites were a region of frightening mystery. The world seemed divided between a capitalist West of liberalism and cosmopolitanism and a communist East of totalitarianism and penury. The Berlin Wall had by 1989 become a symbol of this division. It seemed permanent, bombs and guns from each side pointing menacingly at the other. Then, in November — almost thirty years ago today — the Wall fell, dismantled by citizens from both West and East Berlin, as the Communist Party looked on in paralyzed disbelief. (Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern is an interesting first-person account of the period.)

I didn’t much believe it either, but forbidden things have their own charm, and I first visited the region in 1990: from Vienna to Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade. As cliche as it may seem, the excitement and optimism in the air of these cities was palpable; as an American I was greeted everywhere I went (well, maybe not Belgrade) with a sense of celebration. And Americans were everywhere too; in those pre-EU days, the dollar went far. The ideal of individual liberty was finding a new embodiment in these newly free individuals. The following year I returned to a small village in Moravia where I taught English in a local high school.

It couldn’t last. When I once again visited the region four or five years later, the bloom was off the rose as idealism clashed with the practical compromises necessary to maintain a functioning democratic government. Nonetheless, for that moment, it seemed that most of the ideals of Western liberalism were triumphant.

Triumphs, however, are usually temporary, as history teaches us all too well. The absorption of many of these countries into the European Union was accompanied by various difficulties, not the least of which were economic inequality and migration — difficulties that have led to a resurgence of nationalistic autocracy in many of them. So Václav Havel gave way to Václav Klaus. Upon returning to the United States, however, I maintained my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, philosophy, and cuisine, and hope to share these with my daughters in two years.

Not all of Central Europe’s revolutions in the years following 1989 were quite so velvety or peaceful. I remembered my experience in Central Europe most recently with the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 — further east than the Central European capitals I visited earlier, Maidan was bloodier and its conclusion more ambivalent than those of 1989. And Ukraine’s long experience with Soviet totalitarianism, kleptocratic and oligarchic corruption, and a more violent past, as well as the ambivalent and protean nature of Ukrainian identity, has placed it in a particularly sensitive and dangerous position on the borderland of west and east. And — as the past year has proven — has left it open to extortion and corruption by the west and east themselves. Of western Ukrainian heritage myself, I feel this most deeply.

Among the public intellectuals most scandalized by the Trump presidency are many of my generation, primarily historians, who had similar responses to and experiences in Eastern and Central Europe in the post-1989 era, many of them travelling in that region for the first time around the years that I did. Anne Applebaum (born 1964), Ed Luce (1968), Timothy Snyder (1969), and Marci Shore (1972) have all written far more eloquently than I have about their experience of and deeply personal responses to Central and Eastern Europe’s recent past, responses which led them to study the history of the region and propose lessons we might learn from 1989 and its aftermath. Following in the footsteps of journalist/essayists like Timothy Garton Ash of the generation before their own, they see Western liberalism and the rule of law as ideals that are hard won — ideals for which blood was shed in the not so distant past, and ideals under attack by the Trump administration and other autocratic and neo-totalitarian leaders, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

The thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall takes place this Saturday, November 9. Ironically, Donald Trump is intent on building a new, similar wall of his own. New authoritarianisms and tyrannies will not much resemble those that fell in 1989; they are on the rise in different forms which seem more palatable to many voters in the United States and elsewhere. Here in the United States, the GOP and its supporters, in demonizing the Democratic Party, appear to be perfectly happy to consider a one-party system. In introducing my daughters to those Hapsburg-era capitals that made such an impression on me thirty years ago, I hope to imbue them with some of the dreams, some of the magic, some of the intelligence and compassion, and some of the strength that they’ll need to resist a future which is fast becoming darker.

Where the fault lies

Edward R. Murrow

It appears that among Donald Trump’s (and the GOP’s) strategies to win re-election in 2020 is to paint the Democratic Party as a bunch of anti-American socialists and Communists. This is to be expected from a man proud of his association with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s legal hatchetman; and it’s also an indication of just how far Trump and the GOP are willing to turn back the clock to the 1950s, one of the most fear-ridden and racially-charged eras of modern American history.

At the time, McCarthy was eventually brought down, not least because of the efforts of journalists to come to the defense of traditional American values. Edward R. Murrow was among them. Of course, parallels are inexact: McCarthy was a Senator, Trump the U.S. President; we were then in the midst of a Cold War, while Trump seems to be in the midst of a re-election campaign. But the tactics they used are the same — perhaps worse now, as Trump is attempting to smear the entire Democratic party and any dissenters from his administration as “un-American.” An interesting difference, too, is that there’s no real organized threat from the Communist Party, as there arguably was then, not to mention the fact that no world economy is purely capitalist or communist. They’re all mixed economies, including our own; socialist-tinged programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and farm subsidies are now staples of American economic life. Even the greatest 20th century critics of socialism like Leszek Kołakowski admitted that, in a compassionate society, some redistribution of income from the better- to the lesser-well-off was necessary for a functioning democratic state.

Another difference is that in 1954, Joseph Welch could appeal to the “sense of decency” of McCarthy and his supporters. It’s apparent to me that neither Trump nor his supporters possess that sense.

The following speech, with which Murrow closed a 1954 television program about McCarthy, is a stirring and honest envoi that admits our own role and our culture’s role in creating both McCarthys and Trumps. It’s also a reminder that the dynamics that produced the Trump Presidency were infesting American society before his election, and they’ll still infest it when he leaves office, whenever that will be.

Ghost town

The Powel House at 244 South Third Street in Philadelphia.

As part of our mini-vacation in Philadelphia last week, we treated our girls to a twilight “Ghost Tour” of Olde City and Society Hill. A jovial guide led us around the narrow streets of these, among the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, pointing out historical locations such as cemeteries where ghosts have been reported in the past. And, because this is Philadelphia, the guide was able to slip in some historical information as well, not only about the Powel House but also about public health in the 18th century (which was just as scary as any ghost story I can think of).

We didn’t see any ghosts on this tour, but I was reminded that the idea of ghosts, whether you believe in them or not, seems to be something encoded in the human consciousness. Ghosts are not merely spectres, a metaphor for our desire for an afterlife, but a metaphorical reminder that the past infuses the present. In Philadelphia, whether you’re on a ghost tour or not, you’re constantly reminded that you’re walking the same streets as generations past have walked, reaching back not merely to the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also to the Quaker community that founded Philadelphia upon a set of ideals that were the product of Reformation and finally Enlightenment thinking.

At about the same time as we were lollygagging around on the lush green lawn of Independence Mall last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Evangelical Christian and conservative, unveiled a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” snatching up a phrase that was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence in 1776; he also appointed Mary Ann Glendon as the chair of that commission. Glendon is described by Politico as “a social conservative who has been a prominent anti-abortion voice, which could lend credence to the concerns among human rights activists that the commission is a ploy to undercut LGBTQ and women’s rights under the guise of religious liberty.” Somehow I doubt that Pompeo and Glendon ordered up Simone Weil’s study of rights and obligations, The Need for Roots, during Amazon Prime Day.

In announcing the commission, Pompeo said something that gave me considerable pause. “Is it in fact true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts,” he said, “that as human beings we — all of us, every member of our human family — are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?” It may be that the commission was established merely as a rhetorical platform through which the U.S. can condemn the human rights abuses of other countries. But it also sounds like the commission is seeking, one way or another, to define what those rights are: to legitimize some claims to a political right (say, to gun ownership and the inviolability of private property) and delegitimize others (say, to abortion, free expression of speech and religion, and the ability to define one’s own sexual and gender definition, and hence one’s own inmost identity and conscience).

Shelves of books have been written about how the Founding Fathers and other Americans defined “our creator” or “rights” in the 18th century, and Pompeo’s confidence that he and his commission will be able to ascertain precisely those definitions is just a bit delusional. But what is certainly true is that the Founding Fathers believed it was not the role of governments to bestow those rights on its citizens; it was the role of governments to protect them. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest of them did not create these rights out of thin air. They intended instead to conceive of a form of government that would most adequately lay out the basis of political governance in the context of the natural law philosophies of John Locke and others, which themselves had their origins in a study of the Western liberalism represented by certain strands of thought going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans (not to mention, in some opinions, the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine) — in short, to conceive of a government appropriate to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. In Europe, at about the same time, Kant was doing the same thing in his investigations into moral philosophy and the idea of the Categorical Imperative.

In the 1920s, Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker dismissed all this; it was a muckraking time, and the Founding Fathers were the muck that they raked, charging that the stated ideals of the framers of both the Declaration and the Constitution were so much lip service to their genuine concerns, which were the preservation of their own property rights and economic self-interest. Later studies by people like Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Pauline Maier, however, established that many Americans of all persuasions and classes shared the ideals of the framers: that, indeed, Americans of the time, including the framers, meant what they said.

Among the ghosts that I thought I saw in Philadelphia last week, I’m afraid, were the ghosts of those ideals, which are becoming thinner and thinner in the Trump era. Rights, in Pompeo’s conception, are to be given and selectively protected by governments, not by God or nature, and in the end, what difference does it make anyway? As Russian President Vladimir Putin said at around the same time as the creation of Pompeo’s commission, “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Of course, Putin, as usual, was sowing discord, deliberately conflating the long history of Western liberalism with annoying contemporary politicians who call themselves liberal by contemporary ideological standards. But most Americans — especially those who support Trump — may not care about the distinction. Which is the best way to whittle the memory of those ghosts to nothing.

See also: Trump Fatigue

Trump fatigue

Two years into his administration, Mr. Trump’s ability to evade responsibility for his behavior, his rhetoric, and his authoritarian gestures has left many of us in a state of exhaustion. Even the Democratic Party — itself deeply polarized and divided between progressive and centrist blocs, between those leaning towards impeachment and those who fear it — seem unable to determine a way forward. Other authoritarian projects, such as those recently attempting to undermine abortion rights, curtail efforts to confront a near-future environmental catastrophe, and engage in isolationist economic strategies fatally incompatible with the geoeconomics of a globalized world, create new headlines each day, as the 24-hour news and social media cycle churns out material designed to stoke fear, resentment, and a sense of fatalism. So we’ve all turned fearful, resentful, and fatalist, which is precisely where authoritarians — especially those in Russia, which is strongest when its enemies are most divided — want us to be. We are rendered, if not impotent, then pessimistic about the actions we can take to alleviate our situation.

During a recent Reddit AMA, historian Timothy Snyder, whose books Bloodlands, On Tyranny, and The Road to Unfreedom may be among the most useful for understanding today’s situation, wrote in regard to how we may respond to those defending Mr. Trump, his behaviors, and his policies (if they may be so generously described):

I think one has to be passionate without being shrill, and insistent without exaggerating. It’s hard because not everyone believes those rules mean anything. I say that I am a partisan for my country, that I am a partisan for my children having a future with everyone else’s children, etc. The “partisan” idea is a way that people tempt themselves into thinking that all that’s going on is an argument between two sides about a reality that is basically fine. Part of what one has to do is talk in ways that make it clear that we’re all in the future together, regardless of the buzzwords right now. I know it’s hard.

Mr. Snyder and his wife, Marci Shore (also an exemplary historian), likely have little in common with me except that we both have two young children growing up in a particularly frightening political and social landscape. Mr. Snyder seems to be suggesting that labelling oneself a “partisan” is to contribute to a rhetorical standoff certain to lead to paralysis, but what strikes me most is his sentiment that he is speaking for his “children having a future with everyone else’s children,” a future that, importantly, is not yet determined — and a future that we, as historical actors, can influence. The obvious corollary is that we abandon our responsibility for this future when we permit ourselves to be drowned in a sea of lies, however exhausting the effort to stay afloat and however narcotic the waves may be.

So it’s our children that I have in mind when I consider that we need to continually renew our dedication to confronting Mr. Trump’s attempts to cordon himself off from responsibility for his actions. Mr. Snyder’s On Tyranny offers twenty practical suggestions as to how we can do so, perhaps the most important of which is the last:

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. [Written in 2016.] Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

And the generations to come include, most immediately, my and my wife’s children as well as those of Mr. Snyder and Ms. Shore.

Mr. Snyder’s list seems to be fairly comprehensive, and of course one needn’t limit oneself to choosing just one of his suggestions. But with apologies to Mr. Snyder I take the liberty here to offer one more, which may be labelled 20a:

20a. Learn about America’s history and the principles and ideals under which it was founded. Bear in mind that the compromises that politics makes necessary does not render these principles and ideals any less valid; those compromises say more about politicians than about ideals. The better we can live up to those principles and ideals and put them into practice in our personal and social lives, the better for us and our children, however short we may fall.

In just a few weeks, we will celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — another document of protest against an authoritarian, tyrannical ruler. My family and I will be in Philadelphia then, And I hope to revisit the fine Museum of the American Revolution, Independence Hall, and the National Constitution Center (perhaps to follow up with a meal at City Tavern, surprisingly excellent for what might be construed as a “theme” restaurant and which I highly recommend). I was born in Philadelphia and spent a great deal of my youth there; it was hard to walk the streets of that city without being reminded of its history. The past was ever-present in the architecture of the neighborhood, a past which also contained the ideals of liberty, freedom, and communal responsibility for each other in its history. I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm for this history rubs off on my daughters. (I’m unaware that Mr. Trump has ever visited any of these places.)

Our generation is fortunate in that there is a wealth of great historical writers about the early years of the republic, all of whom remain active: Gordon S. Wood, Pauline Maier, Joseph Ellis, and many others have in recent years contributed to a fuller understanding of the philosophical and historical basis of American liberal democracy, as well as the hypocrisies that accompanied the foundation of the republic — again, hypocrisies which say more about politics than about the ideals and ideas of the American Experience. As we slide into what will surely be an even more exhausting election period, I’ll try to write here about just why these ideals and ideas remain important, and that Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ and enablers’ undermining of these ideals and ideas constitute a threat to our children’s future lives in the United States. Mr. Snyder’s history constitutes a warning; perhaps the history of American liberal democracy can constitute a brighter possibility.