I’ve been told that I belong to the boomer generation. I was born in post-war Germany. Frankfurt, to be precise – a city that had been bombed into ruins. Until I was six, I lived in ruins: houses with sections missing, rooms with no doors, no running water, a toilet in the courtyard. My brothers and I played in ruins. This was where I first started to learn about the world.
Looking out onto the street from our second floor apartment, I would often see men in sleeping bags on the sidewalk, next to a truck or a tracked vehicle: soldiers, American soldiers. While playing on the street, we kids would shyly walk closer. We learned the word “chewing gum,” but of course mispronounced the “w” as a “v.” It delighted them and they would give us candies or small brown tins of milk powder. My father would often help them with various things, as a translator or chauffeur, and would get paid in packs of Lucky Strikes or Camels. Cigarettes were, after all, the currency of the time. I loved Americans. They were friendly; they had things.
My parents, like most of their generation, were politically apathetic. No one talked about politics in Germany in the Fifties. Of course at that age I didn’t know what that meant – being political. I knew that the Nazis had done bad things, but I had no frame of reference of what constituted “good” politics.
The uprising against the Soviets in East Germany on the 17th of June 1953 had no meaning for me. I didn’t even know about it while it was happening. But as I proceeded through elementary school, I took note of some “political” events; a new German Army, a treaty with France and other European countries, France’s difficulties in Algeria. I heard the name “Mau Mau.” There was a revolt in Hungary and Russian tanks were deployed. I came to dislike Russia, the Soviet Union. And I still liked America a lot.
I remember reading a slogan during some federal election, “On Saturday Daddy belongs to us.” I liked it; I liked the people who wrote it.
Everyone loved the chancellor. He brought prosperity and material goods. My dad had a good job, so we could afford a nanny from the East. Nothing spectacular happened in the Fifties – at least nothing that I would have noticed. Elvis Presley sang in German; America discovered das “Deutsche Fräulein.” There was another election. This time the slogan affirmed stability – “Keine Experimente!” – no experiments. It had a good ring to it. That party won by a landslide.
The later high school years brought the Beatles, long hair, and a pronounced fear of a nuclear war between the superpowers. Germany would have been right in the middle. In school, we’d predict how Russian tanks would push through the “Fulda Gap”, charging for the Atlantic. Our teachers made us practice getting underneath our desks. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan provided the soundtrack to my youth.
These years brought something else – a reckoning with our parents’ generation.
“How could you let this happen?” The war, the Holocaust, the partitioning of Germany, the threat of nuclear destruction. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” became the slogan of the day. Our parents had avoided talking about politics; my generation talked of little else. Germany buzzed in the Sixties, especially the universities. I found it hard to settle on a comfortable political home amid all the high-voltage choices. Marx and Lenin were re-discovered, along with Mao, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon. The Americans were fighting a war in South East Asia – a colonial war. My contemporaries were very much anti-American. “U.S.A.-S.A.-S.S.” was their battle cry.
I had joined the youth organization of the German Social Democrats. Friends brought me into it, mostly. Willy Brandt, their leader, had been the mayor of Berlin when President Kennedy came there. Brandt been exiled during the war and was not tarnished by the Nazi past. He was someone to look up to.
The Six Day War in 1967 created my first political conundrum. My heart was with the Israelis; I kept newspaper clippings and followed the campaigns closely. I had finished high school and was doing an internship. Many of my classmates had gone to university and their support lay with the Arabs. Over coffee and cigarettes – still the currency of the day – we would debate in cafes for hours. I’d established a position that I could defend in support of Israel. It felt good to stand for something, and to debate it well with others.
In ’68 a lot happened all at once. I started university in Munich; the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia; French students fought the police in the streets of Paris and Nanterre in hopes that de Gaulle would resign; the military in Greece putsched; the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive.
In Germany, as elsewhere in Europe, radical students wanted to fire up the masses, and ended up becoming criminals. In the U.S., the civil rights movement gained traction. Students were killed in campus protests. Chicago and Detroit were torched. The Black Panthers talked about armed uprisings. I transferred to the Freie Universitaet in Berlin to study political science. I attended seminars on Karl Marx and studied Das Kapital and Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?
Berlin was a volatile place in the Seventies. I was excited by the activity, by the potential to change things, but not by the politics that drove it. My wife and I smuggled someone across the Berlin wall. We gave false testimony to protect our friends. We went to protests and carried signs. But we did it for the sake of those actions themselves, not for Ho Chi Minh or for Che. My fellow students organized in socialist groups bent on imploding the “Establishment” that their parents had built. A full buffet of political ideologies was available on every campus – Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists. But it seemed that these organizations were almost as authoritarian as the much-reviled organizations to which their parents had belonged.
A few years later, in the mid-Seventies, the Americans pulled out of South East Asia. What came after was not pleasant. The Khmer Rouge killed a million people while the North Vietnamese cleansed the South.
Whichever cause I tried to latch onto bared its ugly underbelly before long. I wanted, but still couldn’t find, a political home. All of the options were seriously flawed. I drifted towards Anarchism. I got away from party lines and political organizations. My partisanship belonged in my soul, not on a membership card in my wallet. The violent political upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies had not dented my belief that humans could sort out their issues based on compassion. If anything they’d only strengthened my conviction that ideologies, and the parties that coalesced around them, were more often a hindrance than a help to human progress. I could not tolerate any party that prescribed how people should do things. Plus, my experience had been that many political activists were only in it for the money (as Frank Zappa understood before me), and they often despised the very masses for whom they were allegedly doing their politicking.
In 1978 my wife and I moved to the Yukon. People were more relaxed in Canada – maybe because of the space. Political discussions were nothing like the verbal battles in Europe that I was used to. Frequently, much to my chagrin, the conversation ended before I was even warmed up. There seemed to be an aversion to controversy. Passionate debate was impolite, I learned. My wife and I weren’t used to this. When a federal minister flew into Whitehorse, we showed up at the airport draped in white sheets to protest the testing of cruise missiles down the Mackenzie River corridor. None of our friends joined us.
Meanwhile, the Iranians had a revolution and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and numerous African countries, “revolutionary” movements were active. In almost all cases the end result far from improved most people’s lives. My faith in the new ideologies had already faded. Now it was fully quashed.
If my political journey seems chaotic, it’s because it has been. Entropy has still not given way to resolution, but I’ve realized that at the root of my politics are two fundamental principles that have never wavered.
The first has to do with human purpose. I believe that the general goal of life should have something to do with the survival and betterment of the whole species. For most of my time, that was widely accepted. But by the mid-Seventies, in the wake of the feminist and civil rights movements, that purpose had changed. It wasn’t about the species anymore; it was about the individual developing his or her potential to the fullest. That was the beginning of the era of self-interest.
This development has impacted my second principle, which is that the human ability to generate and debate ideas should never be underestimated nor constrained. The age of individualism has fundamentally changed how people interact and even how they talk. We are, by some accounts, in an era of scientific innovation far beyond what Newton and Edison could have ever imagined. We develop new technologies almost daily. Yet the political correctness that has developed in complement to the advancement of the individual has, in many ways, stalled the innovation of ideas. Instead of having debates worthy of the memory of the Enlightenment, we too often stifle ideas at their incipient stage because someone might take offence. Of course, we still argue about politics, about culture, about religion. But even then, we’re often presented with a binary choice of views: Pro-development or pro-environment? Israel or Palestine? Obama or NObama? And your answer largely defines you in the views of others: You questioned aboriginal rights? Racist! You support sending troops to fight the Islamic State? Jingo! You want renewable power? Hippie!
These two principles are the standards against which I measure politics. I cannot stand anything that constrains human freedom, but this classical liberalism is tempered by my belief that an individual’s purpose should have some bearing on furthering society as a whole. The individual spirit and the collective good are the yin and yang of my political core.
My views on various issues are rooted in those principles but are otherwise dynamic. Finding a political “home”, resting there, was never my goal. My politics remain an unfinished symphony, and I will integrate any new instrument or motif that seems worth adopting, as long as the harmony of the whole stays intact. Today, we too often defer either to the party line or to the “nuances” of issues as an excuse for not taking a stand. I liked it better when we stood for things.
The wailings of an old man? I don’t think so. Socrates was old. So was Aristotle. I’m not comparing myself to either. The point is that principles are, in my view, the best politics. They’re sturdier than party platforms and harder to change than membership cards. To me, it’s not a sign of ambivalence that I have found myself associating with various political streams over the years. I consider myself a political traveller. But there are ports which I will never sail into.
At the end of the day, it’s no particular achievement or event I cherish most. It’s my experience, and that can’t be bought, sold, or traded. What I’ve learned is to stop chasing the next big thing. Too often, people are tempted to look for new solutions to modern issues. After all, the world is as much a mess today as it was sixty years ago – history seems to have little good to teach. But sometimes the road less travelled doesn’t lead anywhere better than the well-worn path. History doesn’t repeat, but issues do. And many of the issues we face today have precedents in the past. Syria is not the first Civil War. This is not the first time oil has crashed. Our kids are not the first generation to act up. There are good ideas to be found in the human archives. Experience remains the best research, and we’ve been around long enough to have plenty of it. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in my time is that novelty and progress are not the same thing.
I am in my seventh decade now. I consider myself wiser than I was fifty years ago. Back then, my issues were less practical and more idealistic. I haven’t given up on idealism, but, alas, I am no longer young. Experience has moderated my enthusiasm somewhat, and I can now appreciate the merits of small practical steps towards big idealistic goals. Still, young minds ought to be involved in politics precisely because they are idealists. After all, it’s not the wise but the naïve who come up with the greatest human endeavours because they have the audacity to imagine what could be instead of the memory to predict what will be. The old guard will close the practical damper soon enough.
Bernd Schmidt is a high school counsellor in Whitehorse. He has lived, hunted, hiked, skied and snowshoed in the Yukon for over 35 years and considers it the best place in the world.