I just returned from the trip of a lifetime. It was a rare one month vacation, where I was able to tour most of the major cities of Northern Europe, including Berlin and St. Petersburg. I’m not going to rub it in by saying what an incredible experience it was, but there were a few truly moving moments on the trip I would like to share, especially for someone who grew up during the height of the Cold War.
My trip into Berlin was especially enlightening. Not just for the sights I saw, but also for some of the social commentary that I overheard. Our ship docked in Warnemunde, Germany, which is just on the edge of Rostock. During the Cold War, Rostock was one of the main seaports for the East German and Soviet fleets. It is now a nice harbor with lots of pleasure craft that hosts a huge boating party every week during the summer.
From the coast we took a train into Berlin. It didn’t even register to me until later that the entire trip was through the countryside of the former East Germany. We arrived in a nice train station and walked outside to see our first stop on the tour, the remains of the Berlin Wall.
This is when it first hit me. I had taken a train through East Germany, I debarked in the main East Berlin train station, and was now looking at the Wall from the East German side. I admit, I got a little teary eyed when I realized that if someone had told me 30 years ago that I would be standing where I was standing, I would have thought they were crazy.
The rest of the day was amazing seeing Check Point Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Reichschadt. After a long trip back, we reboarded our ship and sailed out of the harbor, accompanied by party boats sailing next to us with hundreds of people waving at us, and a final fireworks display in the harbor as we left port.
But that isn’t why I’m writing this.
What I am writing about is the pernicious lure of Socialism toward the weak minded. During our tour, our guide was very open and honest about the history of Communism in East Germany. She pointed out that in Germany they prefer to call the East Germans Socialist instead of Communists. However, she was blunt and direct in her description of the horrible economic and social conditions living under East German “Socialism” and the depredations of the East German Secret Police, the Stazi.
We could see the remnants of the gray apartment buildings and the tiny hovels that the farmers still live in (though they all have satellite dishes now). It is clear that the Germans, especially those in Berlin, are very familiar with the end results of Nazism and Communism on their society, culture, and economic fortunes.
Yet, even with such a recent and obvious example of the direct connection between Socialism and societal ruin, I heard a disturbing conversation on the return train. A woman, clearly wealthy, liberal, and very naïve, engaged in a political conversation with one of our young male hosts. It started with a discussion of Angela Merkle (who my countrywoman had never heard of). After a discussion of the German Prime Minister’s politics, he offered that he didn’t really like her, and sympathizes instead with the politics of the Socialist Party. This triggered an excited healthcare debate where my countrywoman and our host extolled the virtues of socialized medicine, and the superiority of the European model. Of course she was completely ignorant of the economic issues regarding the drain on the German economy and offered that only “Doctors in the US oppose health care reform, because they want to be able to charge what they want”.
After awhile, I put on headphones to stop having to listen to the nonstop ignorance. I was left with the conclusion that Karl Marx was wrong. Religion isn’t the Opiate of the Masses, Socialism is. All you have to do is follow your emotions, and you can ignore facts and rationality. And you can do it while looking directly into the face of its ultimate rewards, without being bothered by the evil it spawns in the least.
What bothers me is the ease with which we, as human beings, are able to slide into socialism and ultimately totalitarianism. This woman is taking a very expensive vacation, paid for by the hard work of her husband. She has an easy life, never really having had to struggle to make ends meet. She is the product of the success of her family and her parents. In her world, she sees the plenty that she enjoys and thinks, “why should others struggle? Why should young people have to worry about health care, instead of allowing them to pursue their dreams?” It is a world view that is divorced from reality, and understanding of the basic economic ties between work and reward. Someone in her present and past has performed significant work to generate the capital needed for her to take a very nice vacation, yet she is blind to that connection and is willing to give away her freedom to excel to a faceless government that is empowered to confiscate wealth and capital and give it to “the less fortunate”. In her world it is easier, because she doesn’t have to make a personal choice to forgo a $300 trip into Berlin and personally give it to the homeless. No, she gets to keep her trip, pass financial responsibly to a nameless group of “others” and continue to live her lifestyle. Her guilt is assuaged without having to personally do without to help another. But when faced with a stark vision of the results of giving up freedom to a faceless and soulless government, the lesson is lost.
I am reminded of a line from the “Phantom Tollbooth”, “Some people can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge, without getting wet”.
I saw many examples of this kind of thinking. “Fair trade” signs in the Starbucks that allow you to enjoy your latte without having to think about the plight of the Colombian farmers that grow the coffee. Car ads that cite the carbon emissions /km of the vehicle that allow you to rationalize your lifestyle isn’t impacting the environment. It has become the modern version of Catholic Dispensations, where a small inconsequential choice allows you to feel good about yourself, and allows you to live on an emotional level, without actually thinking about cause, effect and reality. And it was ultimately depressing to see.
But the fireworks were very cool.