2018-08-14 16:32:09 UTC
The Boston Globe
Arguable - with Jeff Jacoby
Monday, August 13, 2018
Lessons from the 'Wall of Shame'
On this date in 1961, the Berlin Wall first went up.
It began as a barbed-wire barrier, hastily installed by East German soldiers
just after midnight along the perimeter separating the free enclave of West
Berlin from the surrounding territory of East Germany. Over time, the barbed
wire barrier turned into a thick and ugly concrete wall, 96 miles long and
reinforced with guard towers, floodlights, dog runs, anti-vehicle trenches,
and a wide “death strip” in which anyone attempting to cross could be easily
seen and cut down.
The Berlin Wall came to be known by Germans as Schandmauer, or wall of
shame. It was a literal monument to evil — to the evil of communism and its
totalitarian cruelty — and when it was finally breached 28 years later, it
brought down with it the long and bloody reign of the Soviet empire.
On my desk I keep a small chunk of the Berlin Wall mounted in Lucite; I
purchased it during a 1996 visit to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum . I was
stirred by the thought of owning a piece of one of the most hateful edifices
of the 20th century, and to be able to gaze at the physical, tangible proof
of its destruction. But I found even more affecting a cheaply printed
paperback book that I bought during the same visit. Titled Es Geschah an der
Mauer (It Happened at the Wall), it consists of photographs taken of the
Berlin Wall over the course of its 28 years, from the earliest, puzzling
moments when the barbed wire first appeared to the tumultuous exuberant joy
when East Germans realized that they were free to leave.
A number of the photographs show attempts to escape from East Berlin — some,
ingenious or reckless, that succeeded; others that ended in a burst of
bullets and left desperate men and women bleeding to death. But one of the
most striking images of escape is a picture taken on August 13, 1961, in the
very first hours after the barbed wire was unspooled. It shows an East
German guard, nervously looking to see if he is being watched, lifting up a
strand of the wire to let a small child through.
“The guard has orders to let nobody pass,” reads the caption accompanying
the photograph. But he chose to help the little boy get past the barbed wire
and return home. At that moment, the soldier was spotted by his superior,
who immediately relieved him of duty.
“Nobody knows what has become of him,” the caption concludes.
Less than three weeks before the Wall went up, John F. Kennedy had delivered
a stirring nationwide address on the Berlin crisis, making it clear — or so
it seemed — that the United States would not permit the Soviet Union or its
East German satellite to alter the status quo in West Berlin. Lying deep
inside East Germany, surrounded by Soviet troops, the city was “an island of
freedom in a communist sea,” Kennedy said, “a link with the free world, a
beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain, an escape hatch for refugees.”
That meant, the president declared, that Berlin had become “the great
testing place of Western courage and will.” His warning was blunt: “We
cannot and will not permit the communists to drive us out of Berlin, either
gradually or by force.”
Within a month, Kennedy’s words were put to the test. But when the
communists began to seal off West Berlin — posting troops at the border
crossings, halting crosstown subways, rolling out the barbed wire — the
United States did nothing. There was no demand that Berlin be reopened or
else. There was no sharp ultimatum. There was no Allied show of force.
“To make the communists stand down would have taken very little,” I once
wrote, “perhaps no more than two or three US tanks showing up to bulldoze a
few of the barricades.”
But JFK refused to act. The barbed wire stayed. And Berliners, desperate for
freedom, began dying at the wall.
Two years later, Kennedy went to Berlin to deliver an even more electrifying
speech, one the world remembers to this day. “Freedom has many difficulties
and democracy is not perfect,” he acknowledged in that speech. “But we have
never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” Those words, too, were
unmatched by deeds. Fearful of triggering a clash with the Soviet Union,
Kennedy again did nothing to pressure the communists into tearing down the
wall. That would have to wait for another president, 24 years later.
The Berlin Wall is gone now; an entire generation has grown to adulthood
never having known a world in which Eastern Europe was ruled by the Soviet
Union. But the wall is more than just an ugly memory of a very different
time; it teaches lessons worth learning in the 21st century too.
One of those lessons is that pendulums swing back. Tectonic plates shift. In
1961, the mighty Soviet empire seemed a permanent fact of life, one with
which the United States and the free world would have to contend forever.
But there are no permanent conditions in the world order. Powerful nations
can be brought low. Little-noticed irritants can metastasize into global
threats. Confident democratic republics can succumb to populist
Another lesson is that national leaders can be easily deluded by their own
wishful thinking. In January 1989, East Germany’s communist ruler, Erich
Honecker insisted that the party’s grip on power was unshakable. “The Wall
will stand in 50, even 100 years,” he confidently predicted. By the end of
the year, it had been reduced to rubble.
For Americans in 2018, however, perhaps the most pointed lesson of the
Berlin Wall is what it says about the ultimate inability of walls — of
physical barricades — to impede the magnetic pull of freedom and hope.
Governments can erect high walls, it can top them with barbed wire and equip
them with machine-gun nests, it can do everything in its power to stop men
and women from fleeing tyranny and desperation. But some will always get
through. There will always be those whose hunger to live in freedom will
spur them to take the gamble. Cubans will brave 90 miles on the open sea in
flimsy rafts in a frantic quest to escape dictatorship. North Koreans will
risk torture and the imprisonment of all their relatives in order to flee
their horror-show of a country. East Germans tried anything to make it to
the West — they dug tunnels and lofted hot-air balloons, they wore fake
Soviet uniforms and stole tanks, they swam and ran and drove for their
lives. Most didn’t make it. But enough did that still others were encouraged
National borders cannot be hermetically sealed. Even the most brutal and
conscienceless regimes, those willing to shed blood without compunction,
have never been able to lock up an entire country. Certainly no free and
democratic society could come close to doing so. Walls and security barriers
have legitimate uses, of course. But the Berlin Wall should temper the
enthusiasm of anyone who believes that human beings seeking decency,
freedom, and peace can be thwarted by the expedient of building a wall.
A massive barrier did not make East Germany stronger or safer; in the end,
it only confirmed the evilness of the Evil Empire. And it reinforced a
lesson still relevant today: Nations may build great walls, but walls can
never make a nation great.
Another round of the ‘People’s Pledge’? No, thanks.
One of the dopier ideas to come out of the Massachusetts political realm in
recent years was the so-called “People’s Pledge,” first adopted in 2012 by
then-US Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor
who challenged his bid for reelection.
The agreement signed by the two candidates was meant to dissuade third-party
advertisers from playing a role in their battle for the seat that Brown had
won in a special election two years earlier. To that end, they promised that
if any outside organization spent money targeting either candidate in
broadcast or online advertising, the campaign being helped would pay a
penalty: It would donate half the value of the ad buy to a charity named by
the other campaign. As I explained in a column at the time:
Thus if the League of Conservation Voters were to sink another $1.85 million
into commercials like the one that accused Brown of having “sided with Big
Oil,” the Warren campaign would have to fork over $925,000 to a charity
designated by the commonwealth's Republican senator. And if Crossroads GPS
chooses to double down on the $1.1 million it spent recently on anti-Warren
videos, such as the one linking her to the bonuses bank executives were paid
out of federal bailout funds, Brown's team would have to kiss $550,000
Brown and Warren reaped loads of praise for their deal. It was hailed as the
key to restoring civility to political campaigns by curbing the influence of
special interests with narrow, agitating agendas. I thought the whole thing
was an arrogant, antidemocratic gimmick — more on that in a minute — but
mine was plainly a minority view.
The People’s Pledge has made an appearance in a few other campaigns since
2012, and it just resurfaced in the Massachusetts secretary of state race
between longtime incumbent Bill Galvin and his Democratic primary
challenger, Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim. Galvin is calling on Zakim to
sign on to a deal much like the original one, as Lauren Dezenski reported
As Galvin put it, “Under the agreement, if a third party pays for
advertising or a general mailing in support of one of us, the other will
give 50 percent of the cost to the charity of their opponent’s choice. This
agreement would obviously not restrict labor unions or other organizations
from contacting their members directly, but would prevent them from
advertising to the general public or doing a broader mailing. We would also
agree to close any loopholes to our agreement that might arise, and to ask
media outlets to enforce the pledge.”
The success of such an agreement depends on the willingness of both
campaigns to agree – and enforce – it. Last year, Warren called for the
return of a People’s Pledge in her latest Senate race, though her Republican
opponents have been disinterested in adhering to the restrictions.
The whole thing comes across as a faintly desperate stretch by Galvin, who
has never previously showed the least interest in curbing campaign
expenditures, but who is running scared this year under the threat of Zakim’s
strong challenge. I can’t think of a reason why any outside group would feel
the urge to involve itself in a contest for the relatively obscure
Massachusetts secretary of state’s office, but Galvin has nothing to lose by
calling on Zakim to forswear any such outside spending on his behalf — just
On Friday, however, Zakim’s campaign rejected Galvin’s proposal, calling it
an “empty gesture” on Galvin’s part. It was. But that wasn’t the only reason
why Zakim, and every candidate, should give the People’s Pledge short
The pledge is not just an empty idea. It's a very bad one. I wrote in 2012:
The candidates say their objective is to “provide the citizens of
Massachusetts” with a Senate campaign free of messages coming from any
source “outside the direct control of either of the candidates.” On Monday,
Brown proclaimed it a “great victory” that he and Warren have put “third
parties on notice that their interference in this race will not be
tolerated.” But what they mean by “third parties” is not just heavily
endowed superPACs parachuting in from out of state. They mean anyone not
taking orders from them, including individuals, charitable groups, policy
advocates, and party committees.
And what they mean by “interference” is political free speech.
Brown and Warren have a simple message for anyone with something to say
about the Massachusetts Senate race: Shut up. To win one of the most
powerful positions in American politics, they are prepared to spend tens of
millions of dollars making sure that they are heard loud and clear by
voters, donors, and opinion leaders. They won't hesitate to trumpet their
views — and make potentially momentous promises — on issues ranging from
taxes, health care, and the economy to foreign policy, immigration, and
defense. They'll warn that America's future is riding on the outcome of
their competition. Between now and Nov. 6, they'll be talking without letup
about the urgency of this Senate race and the vital importance of electing
the right candidate.
But if anyone else talks about it, that's “interference.” Let voters,
donors, and opinion leaders hear about Brown and Warren from someone other
than the candidates themselves? That “will not be tolerated.”
Far from deserving the props and applause they are collecting in some
quarters, Brown and Warren deserve bipartisan scorn. There is nothing
admirable about candidates for Congress seeking to squelch electoral speech.
Brown and Warren wouldn't dream of demanding that news organizations refrain
from commenting on the campaign or trying to influence voters. Why should
any other organization — liberal or conservative, broad-based or niche,
brand-new or long-established, local or out-of-state — be treated with any
The People’s Pledge, in other words, amounts to a scheme to repress the form
of speech most valued in the American constitutional system: speech about
candidates, elections, and issues. Candidates who trumpet such a deal are
demanding, in essence, that groups of citizens stifle themselves about a
political choice that might affect their families and fortunes for years to
come. It’s a call for self-censorship, and deserves no applause.
As it turned out, the People’s Pledge was as ineffectual as it was
objectionable. When all was said and done, the 2012 Brown/Warren race, far
from restoring civility to politics, was among the nastiest in America that
year. And the pledge did nothing to keep down spending: According to the
Center for Responsive Politics, the Brown/Warren battle was the most
expensive Senate race in that political cycle.
The People’s Pledge boiled down to two politicians demanding that no one say
anything about them without their approval. That wasn't just an effort to
thwart deep-pocketed super PACs from out of state. It was an effort to
squelch anyone – individuals, charities, businesses, political parties,
advocacy groups – from catching the electorate’s attention during a
high-profile election campaign. A rotten idea in 2012, and a rotten idea
Singing at the neo-Nazis: A Twitter thread
Yesterday, on the anniversary of the violent "Unite the Right" rally by
neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., a small group of
far-right-wing extremists staged a demonstration in Washington, DC, where
they were outnumbered by a far larger crowd of counterprotesters.
Fortunately, no blood was shed this time, thanks in part to an overwhelming
After the Charlottesville events a year ago, I took to Twitter to relate my
own encounter with marching neo-Nazis during my college years. In the wake
of yesterday's rally in Washington, I wanted to share that Twitter thread
with readers of Arguable.
Site to see
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands
of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to
one of these online treasures.
This week’s site is The Phrontistery [URL:
http://phrontistery.info/index.html], and the clunky name is just about the
only thing wrong with it. The site was launched in 1996 by linguistic
anthropologist Stephen Chrisomalis with the goal of “expanding the study and
enjoyment of English words and wordplay through the medium of the Internet.”
If you take any pleasure in the variety, history, and oddities of the
English language, you are bound to marvel at The Phrontistery’s offerings.
These include the International House of Logorrhea, a vast compendium of
weird and obscure English words (aerolith, hipparchy, parousiamania);
topical vocabulary lists for more than 40 areas of interest, such as Dance
Styles, Divination and Fortune-Telling, and Words about Words; polling data
on pronunciation (is basil pronounced “BAY-zle” or “BAZZ-le”?); and all the
two- and three-letter words that are kosher in Scrabble.
And then there is the Loquacious Location of Lipograms, a feature on the
site devoted to pieces of writing that completely avoid the use of one or
more letters. Chrisomalis opens the section with a remarkable extended
lipogram in which the most frequently used letter in the English language —
“e” — doesn’t appear. Here’s an excerpt:
Writing lipograms is, as you might think, a difficult task. In my lingo, 2/3
of all words contain that symbol which I am now avoiding, including many
common pronouns and similar words commonly found in writing. Without using
abbrvs., slang and odd jargon, which most purists scorn as cop-outs, it's
darn tough to impart information in a stylistically satisfying way.
Stripping paragraphs of particular symbols has a way of making looking at
lipograms jarring. No doubt about it, a lipogram is a particularly arduous
form of wordplay.
Having said this, acquiring a knack for lipogram composition isn't that
hard, and may assist you in your non-lipogrammatic writing. Not to say that
I'm without aid in this activity; my dictionary is always handy, as is a
book with synonyms for words. And, notwithstanding any drawbacks flowing
from passing many an hour looking for unusual ways to say ordinary things,
it might aid your socialization skills. Chicks truly dig lipogrammatists, or
so my old lady says.
Sadly, a handful of critics find lipograms ridiculous, ugly or without worth
(as fiction or as wordplay). To such sorry saps, I say only that in
constraining your thoughts and writing in a particular way aids in promoting
branching paths of thought, thus amplifying vocabulary and instilling adroit
linguistic skills among both young and old.
As far as unusual writing skills go, what’s as wondrous as an ability to
craft a paragraph without using that most popular of linguistic symbols?
(Whaddaya know, I just did it!)
Please recommend a website for this feature! Send me the link and a short
description (***@globe.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject
My column yesterday was about the Massachusetts Legislature, which is one of
only a handful in America that doesn’t have the good sense to take care of
its business in an annual session lasting only a few months. Instead, state
senators and representatives stay in formal or informal session year-round,
collecting lavish paychecks for what is, for most of them, largely a
do-nothing job. Massachusetts, I wrote, ought to emulate states like New
Hampshire (where all legislators are essentially unpaid volunteers) or like
Texas (where the legislature meets for about 4½ months every other year).
Short live the Legislature!
My Wednesday column provided missing context from an incident at Smith
College that became a national story. A college employee called the campus
police to report that someone who “seem[ed] to be out of place” was in a
section of a residence hall not in use during the summer. The officer who
responded quickly determined that the person was a student who was relaxing
after eating lunch. The student claimed on social media that racism was
behind the call to the campus police, and angrily insisted: “All I did was
be black.” As I wrote, however, there was no suggestion that she was singled
out because of her race. It seems much likelier that the police were called
in keeping with Smith’s extra-cautious policy on campus security.
The last line
“VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.” — Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953)
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