More and more people are stuck with each other in this world, even as rejectionists pretend — if only for a minute or two — that we’re not.
I wasn’t much of a political junky as a kid, and I was certainly no wunderkind at foreign relations. The Cold War was a fact of life, as solid as the skyscrapers of New York. The world was divided by ideologies of life or death — the bad guys threatened to take over, “and that’s the way it is.”
The war just ended one day when I was 17. Peace was suddenly a real possibility, not just an abstraction in my mind, and right away it felt far superior to both hot and cold wars.
Soon to follow was the belief that exposure to people who are different is healthy and leads to discovery of human similarities. This might seem natural for someone growing up in the big city. It was not. Violent crime rode on the backs of constant class and racial rage. Stereotyping and self-segregation were an easy recourse even in a city as diverse as New York, and many took it. My dreamy ideals about people knowing, appreciating and learning from each other earned me little more than condescension, or painful derision.
But when the wall fell, I saw things differently; maybe I felt vindicated before I truly knew the word. This new world became a place I was excited to enter, having learned that huge things could change — for the better.
An experiment in openness
I entered university just in time to have those early days of post-Cold War euphoria blasted by ethno-nationalist hell: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, post-Soviet wars and bitter racial violence in the U.S. My professors told us that nationalism, stifled for a short century, was rearing its bloody head.
It was no time for illusions or cockeyed optimism. The only conclusion to reach, we were told, was that human beings contain a great and a terrible instinct to hurt each other.
Yet how to explain, I wondered, the equally powerful human urge to do good, to be kind, to cooperate, to connect? Are these less important? Children can make friends before they even share a language. Adults fall in love. And countries cease to be at war. The dueling urges to draw boundaries and break them is the contradiction that defines humanity.
In that confusing decade of the...Read More