When Realism Becomes the Enemy of the Necessary and Good

By Dirk Philipsen

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President Ronald Reagan speaks at Brandenburg Gate June 12, 1987.

A common response to a good, transformative idea is the admonition “to grow up” and “be realistic,” followed by “that won’t happen” or “show me where this was successful,” or, my least favorite, “human nature being what it is, this will never work.” There are endless ways to dismiss good ideas, usually before seriously considering them. Routinely, we call them “naïve” or “impractical” or “radical.”

I vividly remember myself falling into this trap. It was June 12, 1987, and I was a 28-year-old graduate student. President Reagan was in Berlin, giving a speech in front of the Berlin Wall. Famously, he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I was not a great fan of Reagan. I was tired of western Cold Warriors blaming the Soviet Union for all international tensions — I was studying history, after all; knew about the West’s troubling past of stoking conflict, supporting totalitarian regimes as long as they served the West’s interests.

Yes, I realized that, on some level, the wall cutting through Berlin was an abomination. And yes, if I gave myself permission to reflect, Berlin without wall sounded great — not just morally right, but immensely attractive. On the other hand: come on, be realistic. The whole world was organized around the iron division between East and West. It was the Cold War era, after all. What could possibly transpire an opening of the Berlin Wall? It was unimaginable, the height of naïve thinking.

In hindsight, of course, we know that a little over two years later, on 9 November 1989, the wall was torn down and the disintegration of an entire empire and way of life quickly followed. Communism: dead. The Soviet Empire: gone. Yet, virtually no one saw it coming. It happened not because of what people thought possible, but despite of it.

History is full of such examples. Who would have thought, to take a few recent examples, that a great majority of Americans would be OK with people marrying who they love, independent of gender or sexual orientation; that a black man would overwhelmingly win a presidential election; or that, in a flash, most written and unwritten rules of decency and ethical conduct would be unceremoniously discarded in the highest circles of U.S. governance? And yet: it all happened.

It is hard for the world’s elites to admit: We’re collectively terrible at predicting what’s possible. Indeed, the historical record suggests a clear trend: Most major transformations take place right after the experts tell us they can’t, and won’t, happen. Women’s, labor, and civil rights; speed of computer processors; nuclear weapons; the flight to the moon; the building of the Berlin wall.

We may call it the “aura of inevitability” — this terrible idea that somehow our current sense of reality is a good guide to what will, or can, happen tomorrow. If history followed our collective sense of what is realistic or possible, we’d still be riding around in horse-drawn carriages.

This is a relatively easy historical argument to make. But watch what happens when we try to project it into the future and have serious conversations about the biggest challenges we face today, chief among them, climate change. Greta Thunberg, and millions of young people around the world, are certainly right about one thing: The ideas of most economic and political leaders, from right to left, are painfully narrow and inadequate; guided by a truncated sense of both dangers and possibilities, not to mention a troubling lack of creativity and vision. The introduction of carbon taxes, for instance, is just as likely to solve our existential climate crisis as as more ladders would have been to bring down the Berlin Wall.

As an economic historian, I marvel at the fact that humanity has demonstrably created enough wealth to provide a good, decent life for every woman, man, and child on earth — food, health care, education, housing, jobs. This truth stands in stark contrast to a reality in which the total number of desperately poor and embattled people is likely higher today than it’s ever been; inequality is rising everywhere; and our leading experts still peddle a development model based on voracious planetary expansion and economic growth, rather than focused on the wellbeing of people and planet.

If anyone will be around to record this history in a hundred years, it will likely be called “the era of squandered opportunities,” or simply “an age of failed imagination.”

Ronald Reagan may have been no visionary, but at least he did not, on October of 1987, let inherited dogma blind him. On this, we should all become Reaganites.

This is part four of a four-part series on the meaning of the Berlin Wall — a 30-year Retrospective. Dirk Philipsen, author of We Were the People — Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989 (Duke UP, 1993), and The Little Big Number — How GDP Came to Rule the World (Princeton UP, 2015/17), teaches at Duke University.

Click these links to read parts one, two and three of this series.

Duke University is home to nearly 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

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