The day after the U.S. Presidential election, on Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, I entered my classroom full of college seniors for my 10 am class. Many of my students were tired from watching the election results and shell-shocked at the results. I told them that today is a historic day. Given the mass of support millennials had for Hillary Clinton, my comment was not met with much excitement or emotion. So this is the brief talk I gave.
I told my class on 11/8/16 that it was a historic day today. It was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ok, so the mention of a wall livened up the place just a bit. A student made a comment about walls. I replied that I was unsure that a wall to keep people out – anywhere – was an effective form of security. But I said that I definitely know that a wall to keep people “in” is morally repugnant. Then I explained some things about how the idea of the Berlin Wall affected my young adulthood when I was their age in 1987.
First, there was a lot of uncertainty in the global community. The Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a cold war. This meant that I actually participated in nuclear bomb drills during my elementary years. Public buildings and schools had “Fallout Shelter” signs for basements and rooms that were created in the event of nuclear attack. In German class, I learned about families that had relatives on the other side of the Wall who they never got to visit; I learned about people who died trying to cross the wall to the West.
I also told them that the cold war was an ideological war with actual fighting taking place by proxy. Our country was riveted on the civil war in Nicaragua. NICARAGUA! Seriously, I mean no disrespect to Nicaragua or the Nicaraguan people. But the fate of the world’s superpowers being dependent on events in Cuba or wars in Nicaragua and Viet Nam is rather stupid if you think about it. But here we were, at the time, paying rapt attention to the Marxist Sandinista Rebels in a fight with U.S. backed government forces in a country smaller than New York State.
I told students that I felt there were several learning moments for me during this period of my life. One was that there was constant fear that some politician could start World War III. This didn’t happen and it would be tough to happen today. I joked that one criticism of Trump in Clinton political commercials is that he is unstable and might use nukes. In the same breath the media is saying Trump is tight with Russia and Putin. So at least we won’t be nuking Russia. Not sure who we would consider nuking. “Hopefully, not New Zealand. I lived there for 6 months and love it…” (millennials love randomness).
Another thing I learned is that while all kinds of unsavory sh*t happens behind the scenes in politics, there is a checks and balances system in our democracy. We have three branches of government for a reason, a brilliant design by our founding fathers. This system dilutes power and ensures that positions of high power like our President turn over regularly. While 4 or 8 years seems like a long time it takes a lot longer to screw up the country than that. We’ve quickly extricated ourselves from the Middle East and Bush’s war but at the same time many of the promises made by Obama didn’t completely materialize, although ISIS did. So don’t fear change because globally it often looks the same.
I noted that actions speak louder than words. Early in the cold war the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev, told the United States, “We will bury you…” But he never fired a missile and neither did we. There were a lot of words in this election but very few of them were connected to real issues or topics. I said that Ronald Regan was the U.S. President and Margaret Thatcher the Prime Minister in the UK during the my early adulthood. People asked how could an actor be a good president, especially a conservative? How could a woman stand up to the pressure of the Soviet Union? Evidently, pretty well, because capitalism won. Although there is still an old guy in the humanities building who still thinks communism is the greatest form of government! “I had him for a class”, said one student…”
To close, I noted that last week I read a WSJ story about Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista rebels during my youth. He was the President of Nicaragua for many years, took a break and since 2007 is now back as President. Ortega is now turning to Authoritarian idealism, a complete 180 degree pivot from marxism, to remain in power. Even his brother issued a statement that disagreed with Ortega’s approach to remaining in power. Ortega wouldn’t make in the U.S. Our term limits would have thrown him out a long time ago and he’d be off running a foundation or charging top dollar for speeches somewhere.
I told my students, “You may not have faith in who the people elected. Or you may have a lot of faith in him if he was your guy. Either way, I lived through challenging times, too. You’ll get through it and the country will be ok. A lot of people, both inside and outside the U.S. thought they could bury us. But we’re still here, living in the greatest country in the world. Even if it’s great, it’s not perfect. That’s what you millennials are for. Whether you agree or don’t agree with the Presidential choice, it’s time to keep America being great.” Oh, and that Berlin wall? Remnants of it now make a great selfie location. I took a photo of my millennial children in front of it in 2014.
Maybe you’ll take your kids to Mexico and photograph them in front of the remnants of the U.S. Wall someday. In any event, you’ll get through challenging times. I did, and you will too.