Communism

Berlin Wall's Fall Didn't Resolve Everything

Has the promise of freedom that looked so bright in 1989 faded-or are there grounds for cautious hope, in place of the wild-eyed optimism of a quarter century ago?

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Lear 21

The festivities for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a turning point in the collapse of Soviet communism, have passed in the shadow of troubling events around the world. In Moscow, a KGB-bred strongman plots to build a new Kremlin-ruled empire as a nervous Europe looks on. Meanwhile, the specter of radical Islamic fundamentalism is haunting the Middle East. Has the promise of freedom that looked so bright in 1989 faded—or are there grounds for cautious hope, in place of the wild-eyed optimism of a quarter century ago?

Re-reading an essay penned a few months after the Wall came down, "Why Socialism Collapsed in Eastern Europe" by scholar and pro-freedom activist Tom Palmer, one feels nostalgic. After examining the causes of this remarkably peaceful revolution—the inability of statist economies to ensure prosperity and of aging dictatorships to keep out unwanted information—Palmer expressed his excitement at the emergence of a liberal political and intellectual culture in Eastern and Central Europe. If we are lucky, he wrote, these ideas will grow and "drop seeds back into our societies to reinfuse us with the spirit of liberty."

I asked Palmer, now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and executive vice president for international programs at the libertarian Atlas Network, for an updated view. In his email, he sounded more upbeat than one might expect: "Remember what the condition was in 1989 and 1990.  Dictatorships.  Food shortages. Despair.  Visit those countries now and you find very different places.  Yes, they are not perfect, but it's so easy to overlook the progress when you're looking for the faults."

Still, Palmer acknowledges that there is a lingering nostalgia for communism among some in Eastern Europe—especially older people for whom normal nostalgia for their youth is associated with the communist past—and that such sentiment paradoxically feeds into the popularity of far-right nationalist and even fascist movements. In the case of Russia, he says, "there is another element, which I call 'Failed Empire Syndrome': the longing for the days when 'we were feared,' mixed in with conspiracy theories of being betrayed, humiliated, etc."

Unlike many critics of American foreign policy—both leftists and anti-interventionist libertarians and conservatives—Palmer is not persuaded by "the narrative of Putin being spurned, threatened, encircled, and so on, so that his turn toward fascism is all the West's fault." In his view, "The biggest problem was the rise in oil and gas prices, which gave Putin and his cronies the idea that they could succeed without the rule of law, since they could build a crony/rentier state on the basis of abundant revenues." This has been exacerbated by Putin's embrace of an extreme nationalist ideology, which he is now seeking to export by cultivating neo-fascist parties and movements in Europe.

The former Soviet bloc is not the only place where the spread of freedom has proven far more problematic than was once hoped.  A decade after the fall of communism, radical Islamism emerged as a new global ideology implacably opposed to the values of free and open societies. After another decade, the Middle East was rocked by a series of revolutions that some hailed as the Arab world's answer to the liberation of Eastern Europe. Yet in most countries, the "Arab Spring" quickly turned to either deadly chaos or oppression with a new face—and in Egypt, the revolution's birthplace, even the old face is back.

Meanwhile, in the West and even in the United States, confidence in freedom is at a low point. The moral clarity of 1989 is long gone. At the moment, we seem hopelessly divided over the balance between freedom and justice and the role of the state in society. Too many on the right glibly use rhetoric than erases the vast gulf between a democratically elected government with constitutional safeguards—even one far bigger and more intrusive than many of us would like—and communist dictatorship. Too many on the left would just as glibly sacrifice freedom to their understanding of equality. At a recent New York symposium on free speech and "hate speech," British journalist Brendan O'Neill, editor of the maverick online magazine Spiked, noted that the suppression of "harmful" ideas in the name of social justice—once a bedrock principle of the now-defunct communist world—has migrated to the Western democracies. We could use an reinfusion of the spirit of liberty—but from where?

Still, if there is anything the fall of the Wall can teach us, it's that seemingly hopeless situations can change for the better with dizzying speed. When Ronald Reagan issued his famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev in June 1987—"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"—and predicted that the wall would fall because "it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth; [it] cannot withstand freedom," the Soviet press denounced him for giving a "war-mongering speech." Who could have thought then that Reagan's words would come true just two years later?

Today, too, the Atlas Network's Palmer urges a realistic optimism.  "If we don't promote our principles and work to implement them, they will not just be implemented on their own," says Palmer, who has worked extensively on pro-freedom projects around the world. "But I am optimistic that, if we fight, we will win.  Moreover, we have a moral reason to be optimistic, because pessimism is generally a self realizing-attitude.  If you want to promote liberty, you should be an optimist.  You owe it to yourself."

In his 1987 speech, Reagan spoke of a slogan spray-painted on the Wall: "The Wall will fall. Beliefs will become reality." There are many walls, physical, intellectual, and spiritual, still waiting to fall around the world.  Perhaps, twenty-five years from now, we will look back at some of those walls and marvel at how unshakeable they once seemed.

A version of this column originally ran at RealClearPolitics.

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  1. “Global warming” is in full effect at the Ohio State-Minnesota game.

    1. Psst…watch your back. Some people get testy when you try to point out that its cold despite “global warming”.

      *looks furtively around and slips out of the room*

      1. I know, but I don’t care. Episiarch is about as scary as the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

        1. I’ve had nightmares about the Pillsbury Doughboy

        2. Mike M.: “I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us.”

          1. Episiarchs are shaggy, with locks of thick hair covering their entire body, obscuring its shape. The head and abdomen are compacted, with two legs emerging from the bottom.

            There’s a punchline here I can’t seem to find. Something something Warty’s basement something.

            1. Episiarchs are…Fry Guys?

      2. Well…it is a stupid thing to point out.

    2. Warming is an excuse invented so that Obama can “sign your freedom, your democracy and your prosperity away forever,” and give it all to “third world countries.”

      That’s the intellectual caliber of the most celebrated denialist. Yet when it comes to coverage of global warming, we are trapped in the logic of a guerrilla insurgency. The climate scientists have to be right 100 percent of the time, or their 0.01 percent error becomes Glaciergate, and they are frauds. By contrast, the deniers only have to be right 0.01 percent of the time for their narrative–See! The global warming story is falling apart!–to be reinforced by the media. It doesn’t matter that their alternative theories are based on demonstrably false claims, as they are with all the leading “thinkers” in this movement.

      http://www.thenation.com/artic…..laptrap-ii

      1. Flaming shitsucker, here’s the deal:
        You wanna take over the economy with your guns, you are going to have to be 100% right.
        Oh, and fuck off.

      2. “.01%”? They haven’t got *anything* right, you dumbass motherfucker.

  2. Wind of Change my ass. Turns out it should have been “Beware, the Shit Winds are a-comin’.”

    1. “The belief that middle-school children can consent to sexual activity is something one would expect to hear from pedophile advocates, not the second-largest school district in the US.”

      Or, you know, people who lived a hundred years ago, back when “middle age” was 20 to 25 years old.

      1. Are you somehow implying that historically the modern concept of adolescence didn’t exist? Re-education camp for you.

        1. …A camp ironically run by these “guys.”

      2. A hundred years ago 14 year old girls didn’t have male teachers.

        1. Good point, they had husbands

          1. Who could feed them.

    2. “Meanwhile, Wyatt’s quote has caused so much outrage that the district says it will no longer use him for legal matters, ”

      How fucked up can these people be.

      He just won your case for you and saved you (taxpayers) millions.

      So you throw him under the bus and try to act like it’s all his fault.

      Nice people to work for/sarc

  3. “…such sentiment paradoxically feeds into the popularity of far-right nationalist and even fascist movements.”

    Paradoxically?

  4. “The biggest problem was the rise in oil and gas prices, which gave Putin and his cronies the idea that they could succeed without the rule of law, since they could build a crony/rentier state on the basis of abundant revenues.”

    So…if the FedGov would end whatever prohibitions it has against “fossil fuels” then Putin would experience a loss of power, right?

  5. LEMME GUESS THEY’RE BOTH WRONG HA AHA AHAHA HAHAH AHAHA DON’T EVER CHANGE CATHY

    1. Sometimes, both broken clocks are wrong twice a day.

  6. the suppression of “harmful” ideas in the name of social justice?once a bedrock principle of the now-defunct communist world?has migrated to the Western democracies. We could use an reinfusion of the spirit of liberty?but from where?

    Careful, Cathy. That’s getting awfully close to Eight’s Beach, if you catch my drift.

    1. Sorry, you’ll have to explain “Eight’s Beach” to me.

      1. I just hate the term “hate speech”, Papaya.

        1. Is this something new? That’s clever.

  7. In Moscow, a KGB-bred strongman plots to build a new Kremlin-ruled empire as a nervous Europe looks on.

    Putin is certainly an asshole, but the Ukraine situation is a LOT more complicated than that. Kiev’s behavior hasn’t exactly been angelic either, and this mess is right on Russia’s doorstep. We’re not talking about the Soviets in Eat Germany.

    1. What is amusing to me is how I entirely concur with the statement, but not as it applies to the Ukrainian situation.

    2. Wasn’t the whole WWII thing on the Soviets’ doorstep and the Nazis were pretty bad and the Soviets did use those two things to justify East Germany. The Berlin Wall was called an “Anti-Fascist rampart” after all.

      1. I’m aware of the Soviets’ excuse for subjugating Eastern Europe after WW2. It’s not comparable.

        The US invaded Cuba and Grenada, countries which don’t border us, when they switched sides in the Cold War… and sponsored rebels in Nicaragua, another country which doesn’t border us, for similar reasons. If you’re going to damn Putin for sponsoring rebels and/or invading a country that actually borders Russia and is attempting to switch sides, you better damn JFK and Reagan too.

        1. Is ad hom all you got?

    3. the Ukraine situation is a LOT more complicated than that.

      Not really. This is why Russia supports little enclaves in Moldova and Georgia.

      Kiev’s behavior hasn’t exactly been angelic either

      Compared to Russia, they’ve been perfect. This is as black and white as situations get.

        1. No, black and white.

      1. Among other atrocities, the Ukrainian army has been shelling Donetsk in violation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement. This doesn’t get covered much in Western media of course, but you’ve got the Internet, use it.

  8. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall effectively bring millions of East Germans into a world of freedom and opportunity? What’s the problem?

    1. Don’t even mention the relatively quiet crumbling of the Chinese “Wall,” the Indian License Raj, etc….

    2. Choice paralysis, the corrupting effects of materialism, and ska.

  9. The fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t stop Starbucks from taking advantage of Dutch tax laws to gain a business advantage over their EU competitors and beggar the kind hearted Euro welfare states, so what was the point?

    1. Did you mean “bugger the kind-heartded Euro welfare states?”

  10. Pole dancing Jesus in an ermine g-string!

    The laws in Netherlands shield a variety of profits from taxation, making it attractive for big multinational companies like Starbucks, Google and IBM to set up offices. Even rock stars like the Rolling Stones and U2 have taken advantage of Dutch tax shelters.

    The same goes for Luxembourg, Bermuda, Ireland and the British Caribbean countries like the Cayman Islands. Along with the Netherlands, those places rank among the top destinations for foreign direct investment from the United States, according to a review of data collected by the Bureau of Economic Analysis that shows how entrenched tax avoidance strategies have become.

    It’s almost as if businesses see taxation as a poor use of funds, from an enterprise point of view.

    If anybody needs me, I’ll be on my fainting couch.

    1. +1 Divan

    2. “In 2005, the Beatles’ Ringo Starr took up residency in Monaco, where he gets to keep a higher percentage of royalties than he would in Britain or Los Angeles. France’s tiny neighbor Monaco, with zero percent income tax for most people, has obvious appeal for the 72-year-old drummer and his estimated $240 million fortune.
      The Beatles’ resentment of high taxes goes back to their 1960s song “Taxman.” George Harrison penned it in protest of the British government’s 95 percent supertax on the rich, evoked by the lyrics: “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”
      http://bigstory.ap.org/article…..erse-stars
      Most of their remaining fans would presume otherwise.

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    1. Did people in the Soviet Union have to tolerate spambots?

      1. In Soviet Russia, ads watch you?

  12. “In Moscow, a KGB-bred strongman plots to build a new Kremlin-rulef empire as a nervous Europe looks on.”

    The European countries that border Russia are nervous, the rest don’t really seem to give a shit.

    1. East German Chancellor Merkel would sell us out to the Russkies in a Dusseldorf minute if we force that decision upon her. So would several other European countries. Neocon dinosaurs like McCain and Lieberman, and their naive acolytes like Mr. Cytotoxic upthread, are about to push a weak and indifferent president into yet another eminently foreseeable foreign policy catastrophe. NATO could fall to pieces in the next six months or less…. I can already hear them whining that “no one could have seen this coming.”

  13. Your Alt-Text-Free weekend continues here on Reason.com!

  14. OT: Model walks around NY w/ painted on jeans.

    What, no catcalls?!? I’m told that’s unpossible.

    1. There was the guy at the end, sneaking a cellphone picture of her butt.

      And of course, she wasn’t walking in the “vibrant” neighborhoods in which the Hollaback woman got most of her catcalls.

      1. “vibrant”? Is that were “thugs” live?

  15. “Palmer expressed his excitement at the emergence of a liberal political and intellectual culture in Eastern and Central Europe. If we are lucky, he wrote, these ideas will grow and “drop seeds back into our societies to reinfuse us with the spirit of liberty.”

    So Cathy, the thriving welfare state economies in Northern Europe should look to Romania and Bulgaria for inspiration? Hmm, I think they might say nej tak.

    1. They’ve already been moving away from welfarism for 25 years. You lose again.

    2. american socialist|11.15.14 @ 4:37PM|#
      …”So Cathy, the thriving welfare state economies in Northern Europe should look to Romania and Bulgaria for inspiration? Hmm, I think they might say nej tak.”

      So do you expect to get paid for that bit of cherry picking?
      I might say, fuck off.

  16. “The biggest problem was the rise in oil and gas prices, which gave Putin and his cronies the idea that they could succeed without the rule of law, since they could build a crony/rentier state on the basis of abundant revenues.”

    Fracking is one of the best things that has happened for freedom in my lifetime. Diminish the power of those with political control of assets, leaving more relative power to those who *produce* value, instead of *extract* it.

    That will crush the power of exactly those regimes we’d like to see crushed, starting with good old Vlad.

  17. Berlin Wall’s Fall Didn’t Resolve Everything

    Boy, libertarians sure do have a knack for understatement.

    I like the casual conflation of socialist economics with totalitarianism and, on the flip side, the easy juxtaposition of pop-Austrian economics with democracy. One could bring up white elephants like– oh, basically all of Western Europe– that manage to have gay pride parades AND provide a social safety net. Or we could talk about Pinochet and his democratic free market a bit.

    1. Hi DIPSHIT!
      american socialist|11.15.14 @ 10:51PM|#
      “Berlin Wall’s Fall Didn’t Resolve Everything”
      Boy, libertarians sure do have a knack for understatement.
      I like the casual conflation of socialist economics with totalitarianism”
      There’s a reason for that, dipshit, since those ‘socialist’ economies have two alternative futures:
      1) Bankruptcy
      or
      2) Mass murder.
      But ignorant dipshits like you are hoping for otherwise, given your sutpidity.

      “and, on the flip side, the easy juxtaposition of pop-Austrian economics with democracy.”
      Cite missing, dipshit.

      “One could bring up white elephants like– oh, basically all of Western Europe– that manage to have gay pride parades AND provide a social safety net. Or we could talk about Pinochet and his democratic free market a bit.”
      One could pick cherries all day long, dipshit, and the results are the same:
      1) Bankruptcy
      or
      2) Mass murder.
      Oh, and have you paid your mortgage yet, dipshit? Jus’ makin’ sure you’re still the same slimy piece of shit we all know and despise.
      Get fucked with rusty implements.

    2. Or you could get a clue (and a job).

      You leftoids really are evasive, childish little shitstains. Those euro welfare states are economic basket cases drowning in debt with no future.

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