“They’re painting the passports brown.” Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”
I had a sinking suspicion this summer that we were indeed entering into a new global age of nationalism. Brexit seemed to confirm this, and Trump’s election has cemented it. The walls are going up around the world, and the gates are crashing down. In China Xi Jinping has used nationalist rhetoric to bolster his role, and to claim more power. Putin’s brand of nationalism has been the basis of his autocracy. This week comes the news from India that the supreme court has decreed the national anthem to be played before all movies. I am reminded of Sir Edward Grey's line in 1914 as World War I began and young men were sent to war: “The lamps are going out all across Europe. We won’t see them lit again in our lifetime.”
All of this reminded me too of my first trip outside of North America at the age of 18. My senior German class spent a month with students from our sister school in June of 1994. The school was the Yuri Gargarin Schule (named for the Soviet cosmonaut) in Schwerin. We were well behind what five years before had been the Iron Curtain. The students had already come to visit us in the preceding autumn, and we were fast friends. Of course, we had all grown up thinking the others were our enemy. Had the Iron Curtain remained and World War III broken out in the 1990s, we would have been shooting at each other. Well, that’s being optimistic. It’s more likely that missiles launched from my Great Plains stomping grounds would have been vaporizing the wonderful, generous people I met.
My visit to the former East was one of the most important experiences of my life. It made me realize the folly of national borders and the absolute ridiculousness of national hatreds. In the mid-1990s, befriending the former enemy in the forbidden zone, I had the feeling that the world was changing. We were entering into a more connected world, one where we would find understanding, not conflict. The Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation were over. Going to see Checkpoint Charlie, now a museum piece, felt exhilarating. The bad old days were over!
Of course, I was being hopelessly naïve. Now the borders are being tightened. Fewer people reach out to others for understanding, and instead retreat inside of their own borders. We are entering a time of closed borders, closed minds, and closed hearts. We see it in the chants of “Build the Wall!” and in the indifference to the suffering of Syrian refugees, whose need is met with fear rather than understanding. And so we learn to fear and hate once again, and to forget that our counterparts out there are just as kind and noble as we are. It is their leaders, and ours, who we have to watch out for, as well as the fear that can eat our souls and rob us of our humanity.