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Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Jeremi Suri wrote, it was a great time to be young. The unification of Berlin meant the end of the Cold War was finally in sight, fizzling any immediate threat of war and sending markets the world over into a dizzying upward spiral. With their fears allayed and their prosperity apparently assured, American idealists were galvanized to make the world a better place.
Many more walls have fallen in the quarter century since. Democracy has spread across Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East, and the United States in particular has made tremendous progress toward racial and gender equality. But today, idealism isn’t in vogue, and no longer is it easy being young. The global economy did not grow as exponentially as it was expected to after the Cold War, and youth unemployment has become a flashpoint across the entire world. When the fall of the Soviet Union did not spell the end of ideological conflict, the developed world took a dangerous turn toward restricting civil liberties in the name of security. And with each market crash or terrorist attack or failed revolution, the idealists of the recent past became more and more jaded.
It’s easy to see why. Today’s world is far more deeply interconnected than that of the late 1980s. Access to information has become more universal, and new and diverse perspectives are constantly rising to the forefront of public discourse. Americans have seen how tearing down oppressive systems led to anarchy and sectarianism in the Balkans and in Egypt and in Syria. Simply put, a lot of young people today are too informed and their futures too uncertain for directionless idealism.
That being said, 1989 still has value to us today — and not just in the form of a Taylor Swift album. While we should remember that not every barrier falls as smoothly as the Berlin Wall, the ensuing collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe demonstrates that peaceful protests with clear agendas provide the most conducive path toward societal change.
Most notably, today marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution, in which Czechoslovakia disassembled its communist government and dissolved into two sovereign states. The protests were multiethnic, inspired by high school students in the Slovak capital of Bratislava and catalyzed by Czech literary icon Vaclav Havel. Their demands were explicit and their methods civil. After just six weeks, the Czechoslovak government had planned its first election in half a century, and the country split peacefully in 1993.
Tearing down walls creates open spaces, both physically and culturally. Only when those open spaces become safe forums for tolerance and pluralism, as they did during the Velvet Revolution or the recent Tunisian Revolution, can protest beget progress and revolt breed responsibility. When they don’t, extremists rise up to fill the vacuum, often causing more harm than the repressive systems ever could.
Given how definitive the end of the Cold War must have felt for the idealistic activists of Suri’s generation, it makes sense that they thought that all could turn out well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the ensuing two-and-a-half decades reminded the world that change is rarely so simple. We haven’t become afraid of tearing down walls. We’ve just realized that some are better left standing.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut.
Wednesday saw an interesting unintentional experiment on the Internet. In an overt attempt to “Break the Internet,” PAPER magazine ran an article on Kim Kardashian featuring some more-than-scandalous photos. In the same 24 hours, the Rosetta mission landed Philae, an unmanned space probe, on a comet just 2.5 miles in diameter, a feat which CNET says is about as difficult as “trying to cling to that rolling Indiana Jones boulder with your fingernails.” Many feared that this historic achievement would go unnoticed by the social media generation, often accused of foregoing an interest in science for a fascination with flash and fame.
But as the Wall Street Journal noted Thursday, this same social media generation brought a pleasant surprise: The digi-verse was more animated by and had more positive sentiments about the comet landing. Kardashian only saw about 60 percent of the total tweets about the comet, of which the general sentiment was negative, ranging from feminist concerns to distress about the state of society today where provocative photos are newsworthy.
One reason that no doubt contributed to this social media response was Philae’s social media presence itself. Through Twitter, Philae updated the public on its progress with endearing tweets such as “I’m quite photogenic! That was one steep fall! Thanks for watching out for me during my #CometLanding.” The cosmic triumph even sparked the self-reflective hashtag #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant, where twitter users finished the statement with seemingly elementary things that our society has failed in through misplaced priorities, calling attention to real priorities like affordable education, global warming, the gender wage gap, etc.
New technology is always met with a degree of hesitancy. Unsurprisingly, social media has traditionally been rejected as frivolous, disingenuous and unimportant. But this comet versus Kardashian showdown paints a new picture for the generation coming into power: We really do know what’s important; we just express it in a new way.
Haight is an associate editor.