I Wasn’t Paying Attention When the Wall Came Down

I’m sorry I wasn’t and I don’t quite know what happened.  I don’t say this to be flippant in the least.  I knew that big things were happening, but unlike many others’ experiences, it all seemed very gradual to me and finally anti-climactic.  It seemed like something that was gradually sliding into place that had been sliding into place for a long time but was also terribly fragile.

I credit that feeling to two things.  One was that I was working in a Manhattan law firm, and completely buried in learning international tax.  The other was that I had spent the previous several years putting in large amounts of time with Human Rights Watch, both its Americas division and its Helsinki division.  I had done many missions in Yugoslavia, watching the Soviet empire fall apart while watching Yugoslavia fall apart very much upclose, at the village level, and watching it lead to war, affected how I saw the Soviet Union.  I had a huge anxiety that war would break out in the Warsaw Pact; or that it would be a repeat of 1968 – especially a fear of a repeat of the end of Prague Spring, that fear more than anything – or something that I didn’t know, but bad, would happen.

I was also perhaps lulled into a sense of passivity that was somewhat Bush senior’s approach – looking backwards, it had important advantages by treating it as a matter of course – but for me, at least, it felt a little like events were unfolding, not so much as Frank Fukuyama would later say, but more as people like Adam Michnik and the Eastern Europeans intellectuals I knew said it would, if only the US and Western Europe would stay the course.  In Yugoslavia, it was a very different sense; the intellectual elites of Yugoslavia understood very well that the end of the Cold War undercut the existential position of Yugoslavia and so it did.  I had a sense of trepidation, not of liberation and freedom. The profound sense of liberation came later for me, when I finally believed that it was permanent and not a temporary blip.

Not very Reaganite, but then I wasn’t a Reaganite or a con or a neocon then.  The books that were on my mind were George Konrad’s magnificent, but unbearably sad, The Loser and Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and, above all, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I had a deep fear that if one looked at it all too closely, someone, the Red Army, someone, somewhere would take it all away again.  I was an editor with Telos, the critical theory journal that had introduced so much of the zamizdat intellectual production into English from Eastern Europe; I knew lots and lots and lots about the intellectual politics there.  It was very hard for me to believe that this was actually real and tangible, and not something so fragile that a little puff could bring the house of cards down.

So I wish I had been more attentive to events, and wish that I could blame it merely on working such long hours in the law firm – but rather, it felt to me like something happening in slow motion across many years.  November 11 was weirdly not so special for me, because I had been involved for so many years, since the early 1980s, with HRW and Telos watching events unfold at the level of civil society activists.

A close friend of mine was there when it happened, though, David, a gay man with AIDS.  I was astounded when he stopped by to see me in New York with photos of himself chipping away at the Wall.  Possibly a little bit cheated – since when was David off partying in Berlin and not me?  He had never been “political” in any sense, not gay rights, not really anything, and I told him I was pretty sure he couldn’t find Bratislava on a map – until AIDS caught him and he became deeply involved in ACTUP.  Since when did he deserve to go celebrate the end of Communism and the Wall?

But David saw in some deep way, as AIDS closed in on him, that being at the fall of the Wall was as an act of liberation even for people otherwise altogether uninvolved in the politics of the Cold War, or the politics of Europe, or any of that.  It was just freedom, and maybe David actually captured its pure spirit – dissociated from politics.  If that is possible, and  I don’t know that it is; actually, I am pretty certain it is not.  But David died just a month later, AIDS caught up with him for good, in the hospice of the San Francisco Zen Center; the Lord bless him and keep him, he was a good man, and so were the monks of the Zen Center who watched over him.

And so, for better and worse, that’s how I remember the fall of the Wall.  Photos of David that I no longer have, pre-digital, gaunt and his long hair swinging round, laughing and singing, wearing some kind of weird poncho that he never would have worn in 80s LA (but of course I might), standing on top of a big pile of cement.  There isn’t any big moral here about freedom and liberty – there is all of that, for me as for others, but in my case it wasn’t associated with the actual moment.  The comprehension of liberation and freedom came later.

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