Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Walls Come Down

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Assistant professor in the Department History with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

Some twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall, an impenetrable barrier of concrete that divided Germany for nearly half a century, came crashing down, reduced to rubble by the people it separated. The East and West Berliners who tore it down acted not out of impulse but out of a deeply rooted desire to be free not only of the physical structure that forcibly separated them but of the political and economic systems that reinforced that separation.

Today, we celebrate the destruction of the wall and the reunification of Germany by waxing poetically about the forward march of progress. But there was nothing inevitable about what happened in this Cold War hot spot. The cascade of events leading up to that fateful day in November 1989 frightened world leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In his personal journal, U.S. President George H. W. Bush fretted about the rapid pace of progress and wondered how he could slow things down. Even his predecessor was greatly concerned. When President Ronald Reagan implored Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall” he did not mean so soon.

Like so many events that change society for the better, ordinary people were ahead of political leaders. They were the agents of change – the makers of the “inevitable.” Had it been up to the usual suspects, the “inevitable” would have taken considerably longer to materialize and there is no telling what kind of truncated form of freedom would have eventually emerged.

The Berlin Wall no longer stands and Germany is no longer divided. In fact, Germany has emerged from the turmoil of the Cold War and the uncertainty of reunification as a major industrial power. But like all western societies, walls remain and divisions persist. In Germany and elsewhere, modernity has eliminated the need for concrete barriers. (The tragic exceptions are America’s wall along its border with Mexico, and Israel’s wall in the West Bank.) Yet the supposed forward march of progress has failed to get rid of other kinds of walls, the most notable being those based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and citizenship status. In many ways, these socio-economic barriers are harder to tear down than physical structures like the Berlin Wall because they are invisible to so many people. Indeed, it is often the case that the only people who see them are the people negatively affected by them. And like the Berlin Wall, these barriers will not come down on their own. Ordinary people will have to tear them down, led not by political leaders but by the people who see them everyday. If and when these barriers fall, it not be because of the natural progression of things, but because of the hard work and determination of ordinary people to live free and full lives.