The New Year: “What Am I Here For?” (Advice to Undergrads)

For my next blog post, I offer an article I wrote many years ago while in university, which was published in the campus newspaper. The link below leads to a scan of the original typescript (yes, I used a typewriter!), complete with my handwritten edits. This article gives advice about an important question that undergraduates at the beginning of the academic year may be asking themselves:

the new year–what am i here for, arl

“West of the Wall”—May It Rise Again

[NOTE: At the end of this article, there is a link to a YouTube video of the song discussed.]

When I had earned a little money selling my mathematical essay “Understanding Imaginaries Through Hidden Numbers” online, I wanted to use it for something extra special. Then I saw that a website specializing in rare, old, and out-of-print books was offering the sheet music for an all-but-forgotten song that greatly interested me. I quickly placed an order, and soon the envelope arrived from Australia.


Cover and inside (music reduced for copyright reasons).

The song, “West of the Wall,” written by Wayne Shanklin, had intrigued me ever since I first heard it several years ago on an oldies radio station. Listening to such broadcasts, I often rediscovered records I had totally forgotten about; but I could not recall ever having heard this one. I liked what I heard, however, and the record (sung by Shanklin’s wife Toni Fisher) intrigued me for non-musical reasons as well.

For such a short-term and relatively obscure hit, it’s quite amazing how many people are still fascinated by “West of the Wall.” … Australian rock historian Glenn A. Baker declared it one of those rare, hard-to-find gems (it has since become available on the 1995 Ace compilation Early Girls, Volume 1: Popsicles and Icicles).

—”Treated to Wall of Protest and Flawed by a Door,” Canberra Times, January 10, 2004.

Here is what I heard coming out of the radio that first time:

(Female singer:)

WEST OF THE WALL I’ll wait for you;

WEST OF THE WALL our dreams can all come true.

Tho’ we’re apart a little while,

My heart will wait until we both can smile.

That wall built of our sorrow

We know must have an end.

‘Til then, dream of tomorrow

When we meet again

WEST OF THE WALL—where hearts are free.

WEST OF THE WALL your heart can come to me.

And in my arms that hold you tight

You will forget the darkness of the night.

The world knows of our sadness, and we are not alone!

WEST OF THE WALL,

That soon will fall,

And you’ll come home.

 

(Male chorus:)

Wall built upon sorrow,

One day you will end.

Hearts true to each other

Will not break, they will not bend.

In our hour of sadness

How clearly we can see

Tomorrow’s gladness—

Free, free, free W(free)EST OF

THE WALL, where hearts are free.

WEST OF THE WALL your heart can come to me.

And in my arms that hold you tight

You will forget the darkness of the night.

The world knows of our sadness, and we are not alone!

WEST OF THE WALL,

That soon will fall,

And you’ll come home—come ho(west)o(of)o(the)o(wall!)ome!

Sung in a tone of breathless sympathy, love, and encouragement, with a hint of maternal consolation, it nevertheless took a defiant, uncompromising, and optimistic stance in opposition to the Wall—much like the attitude of Kira in We the Living toward her enslaved environment. Knowing what I knew about the appeasement and toleration, and even the promotion, of Soviet communist dictatorship during that period, I found it hard to believe such a song could have been written, published, recorded, released, and broadcast. Later, I learned that it had even made a respectable showing on the charts. For example, here were the Canadian hit parade rankings:

June 25, 1962

19. West of the Wall

July 2, 1962

19. West of the Wall

July 9, 1962

17. West of the Wall

July 30, 1962

29. West of the Wall

August 6, 1962

48. West of the Wall

The record did even better in Australia, hitting No. 1. According to the Canberra Times (January 10, 2004),

“West of the Wall” became the 101st Australian No. 1 when it outgunned Gene Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” on July 7, 1962. It lasted one week on top … . “West of the Wall” did not chart in Britain, but made No. 37 in the US.

Of course, the lyric’s confident prediction “THE WALL / That soon will fall” went unfulfilled; the Wall only came down in 1989. Moreover, “The world knows of our sadness, and we are not alone” was an overgenerous assessment of the cultural atmosphere of the time. Read what a contemporary (anonymous) Time Magazine writer had to say about “West of the Wall” (with particular attention to the phrases I have boldfaced) in relation to a news event:

Few people can look at Berlin’s ugly Wall without wanting to tear it down. Last week someone finally tried. At four isolated spots, mysterious explosions blew gaping holes through the barrier, but East German Volkspolizei quickly sealed each one off before any East Berliners could flee to freedom. The Reds blamed the West for the blasts; Western observers, however, said the explosions seemed to come from the east side of the Wall, hinted at an organized anti-Communist resistance ring.

Whatever the cause of the blasts, they found echoes in the U.S. In its unique way, Tin Pan Alley was joining in the protest against the Wall. Listed by Billboard as one of the “Hot 100″ was a rock ‘n’ roll ditty titled “West of the Wall” (Big Top Records). Sample lyrics: [Song quoted more or less accurately up to "the darkness of the night."]

So mawkishly does the cornball song, with its vaguely Kurt Weillish
tune, exploit the pathos of divided Berlin that the Voice of America has refused to play it, and West German record firms are “apprehensive” about releasing it. Hollywood Songwriter Wayne Shanklin maintains that the record was inspired by a news picture of Bobby Kennedy looking at the barrier. “The Wall offends the dignity of the human being,” he straightfaces. “I want to shape the world a little. I can’t fight with a gun, so I have to use the only weapons at my command.”

—”East& West of the Wall,” Time, June 1, 1962. Boldface added.

Immediately one might look askance at an implication of a merely aesthetic reason for wanting to bring the Wall down—because it is “ugly”—and the equal credibility granted the Communist and the Western explanations for the explosion. These points are debatable, of course, but notice the unmistakable scorn in the other phrases I have highlighted. The reference to Kurt Weill is surely not positive with that adjective “vaguely” and the insinuation of non-originality; the word “exploit” connotes venality; and “pathos” in reference to the tragedy and horror visited on the Wall’s victims is not a word a freedom-lover is apt to choose.

I suspect a further attempt to belittle the song in the reason stated for the Voice of America not playing it: because it was “so mawkish.” Frankly, I do not believe the writer knew this motive for a fact; and no source is cited. The writer goes on to indicate that West German record firms did not release the West Berlin version (titled “Dort in Berlin” ["Here in Berlin"] with lyrics by Hermann Lüth) because they were afraid to do so. This motive is more plausible for the VoA also. But note the doubt thrown on even the German firms’ motives by the skeptical quotation marks around apprehensive.

The most unsettling touch in this article is that word “straightfaces.” Did the writer really wonder how someone could make the statement “The Wall offends the dignity of the human being” without suppressing laughter?

That was then. Things are not much better now. Here is a summary on a website called CONELRAD, describing their CD compilation Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security, which includes “West of the Wall”: “An overly emotional track with a defiant tone about a couple whose love is separated by the Berlin Wall, an indelible symbol of the Cold War that, oddly, is rarely mentioned in this genre of songs” (www.atomicplatters.com/more.php?id=108_0_1_0_M9). Is it possible to be “overly emotional” about the destruction of human relationships, of hope, of life itself? (But by the CD’s subtitle alone, one may accurately guess CONELRAD’s attitude to all manifestations of defense against collectivism.)

Despite the record’s moderate chart success in 1962, it was no doubt hampered by the factors I’ve suggested: fear, cowardice, reluctance to criticize the “noble experiment” of Communism, and misgivings about the song’s directness of expression. One can’t discount, too, the usual myopia and sheep mentality in any society that would have inhibited many persons in a position to promote such a pro-freedom statement.

A Proposal

Now, after the unification of Germany, some might see the song as quite dated—merely, as is said above, “an indelible symbol of the Cold War.” But considering that the world remains chock-full of the desperate victims and prisoners of dictatorship, I think “West of the Wall” is still very relevant to our time, and merits some form of resurrection.

Though it is not, in my view, a “great” song—the melody lacks the sort of complexity that most impresses me, and the lyric might be more inventive—it is certainly a good one. I had liked the tune to begin with, but I found the actual sheet music even more interesting. For those who know music theory: (1) The chords turned out to be much more sophisticated than I had supposed. (2) Unusually for a pop song, the key relationship between the verse and the chorus is quite distant (A flat to D). (3) There is a very atypical ending: while the melody ends in D major, the final chord never gets there, but moves rapidly to G major sixth, which suddenly becomes the end tonality. When I first heard the record, I even thought the ending had been cut off, because it sounded inconclusive. But in subsequent hearings this ending seemed fine and added to the song’s impact.

The tune is amenable to a variety of styles besides the one used on the Toni Fisher record. For example, performed slowly it would make a fine ballad or art song, and the unusual ending works even better.

To Shape the World a Little

The sheet music of “West of the Wall” may have been rushed to publication: there are several mistakes in the notation and the chord symbols, neither dynamics nor tempo are indicated, and the lyric uses the spelling “nite.” These glitches might have something to do with Wayne Shanklin’s anxiousness to get the music out into the world, as was intimated in his words quoted earlier:

The Wall offends the dignity of the human being. I want to shape the world a little. I can’t fight with a gun, so I have to use the only weapons at my command.

Shanklin’s noble attempt deserves more recognition than it got then and now. It should not be relegated to the status of a historical curio. I invite Objectivist musicians, or others involved in art and entertainment, to look into “West of the Wall” as a work that has something to say in our time.

••••

Just after typing the above words, I checked YouTube and saw that the first-ever video containing the song was posted only yesterday [this article was written April 7, 2008]. Here is the link:

Click to hear “West of the Wall”

Nadia Comăneci, Surprise Heroine

The words “surprise heroine” in my title might puzzle the reader. Everyone who has ever heard of Nadia Comăneci knows about her stunning, history-making triumph at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal at age 14, in which she scored a perfect 10—in fact, seven of them—for the first time ever in gymnastics and won three gold medals (plus a bronze and a silver), returning to her native Romania, a country previously insignificant in the eyes of the world, as a national hero and revered and celebrated worldwide.


She mostly fell out of public view after that, however. When I myself thought of her, I assumed, like doubtless many others, that her subsequent life would be a fairytale of fame, glory, wealth, and comfort.

But reading her 2004 autobiography, Letters to a Young Gymnast: The Art of Mentoring, I was astounded to learn that her post-1976 life was far different from anything I would have guessed. In fact, somewhere past the halfway point of the book, there occurs this passage:

Friend, have you ever seen Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream?Can you comprehend a moment of such total horror, insanity, and dread? I can.


The first time I saw that painting, I knew it. Really knew it. The man is a prisoner, and he will never escape the cell Munch painted him in; he will never be free.

Here Nadia is introducing the story of the defection of her coach Béla Károlyi from Romania, and imagining his state of mind. But it is clear, and soon becomes clearer, that she is speaking also of her own growing feelings. Earlier in the book, she had said:

You wanted to know what life was like after the 1976 Games. … Where are the fairy-tale endings, the mansions, and money? Where is my sweet sixteen birthday party and dinners at Ceausescu’s palace? They are the stuff of fantasies. In truth, after 1976, I began the sometimes troubling and difficult process of growing into a young adult in a Communist country.

Letters actually begins with a description of what is still a recurring dream of hers: Two lovely young girls in nightgowns hover over her with cupped fingers holding some mysterious promise. But as they come closer their mouths open into “cavernous, yawning black holes.” Nadia is terrified, “but the scream catches in my throat.” Sometimes the dream ends in happiness and beauty. But other times she cannot grasp the girls’ hands, and is swallowed in darkness. Then she wakes “drenched with sweat, my heart skipping and racing and grasping. … I see the ghost-like girls fade from my vision and their almond-shaped eyes fill with regret.” The details of these dreams indicate that they signify the terrible choice she faced years after her Olympic victory, and the awful lifetime consequences she had narrowly avoided.

At the time of Nadia’s triumph, even those who knew Romania was a dictatorship might not have realized how bad things were, especially given the 20th-century media’s tendency to treat all big nations as civilized and respectable.

Glory? Sure, there was a bit at the beginning. When Nadia arrived home with her medals, she was greeted by thousands of Romanians, dictator Ceauşescu having ordered a celebration for her arrival. Doubtless much of that jubilation was real on the part of the populace, but “our leaders believed that athletes represented the power of the government and validated our way of life.” Her later treatment by the government illustrated this in spades. “When my gymnastics career was over, there was no longer any need to keep me happy.” Demotion of the Károlyis came more quickly: “[B]y the end of 1977 Ceauşescu had decided to change Nadia’s coaches. ‘I don’t want to share Nadia’s fame with a couple of dirty [Hungarians],’ he said.”

Wealth? “Perhaps you’ve heard rumors, but our country was closed to foreign journalists, and the only information that got out to the world was what my government chose to share. … [M]ore often than not it was self-serving.”

Comfort? Because of Nadia’s status, she was spared some of the horrors such as compulsory appointments with the fertility police, but in most respects she was no different from anyone else. “[T]here simply wasn’t enough food in Romania for its inhabitants. By 1981, things went from bad to horrific.” Aside from the usual privations under communism, their leader was exporting food, giving the people rations that were not enough for one person let alone a family. “People could have stopped having children … but they couldn’t afford to. Plus, failing to reproduce was a crime.” Even Nadia had to pay a large tax because she had no children.

But this was not the worst of it. “You have asked what the exact moment was when I finally decided to defect. I cannot tell you. There were so many factors. … But one day, I realized that where I was in life was where I was going to die. There were no opportunities in my country for advancement unless I wanted to be a savvy political player, and that was not in my nature. … I realized that I could either be like all of those people silently screaming around me or give myself permission to have a voice. … I finally heard myself scream, and I listened.”

Nadia’s account of her gradual awakening and launch of a daring escape is very moving. The terror-filled winter trek in utter darkness over the border, in constant fear of a bullet in the back delivered by some anonymous minion of the system, strongly reminded me of Kira’s attempt to flee communist Russia at the end of Ayn Rand’s We the Living.

In the novel, Kira did get shot, but in her mind “Life had been, if only because she had known it could be. … A moment or an eternity—did it matter? Life, undefeated, existed and could exist. She smiled, her last smile, to so much that had been possible.” That is, for her, the possibility of a future is just as sacred as life itself. And it was the same for Nadia:

So, what gave me the courage to slip out of that house on the border and into the night? Everything I’d done, heard, spoken, experienced, yearned for, suffered through, desired, required, hoped, and dreamed.


I never thought of turning back. … Back to no future? Wasn’t that the same as being dead?

Indeed, those acquainted with philosopher Rand’s ethical system will find much to ponder in this book. Above all, the narrative provides a real-life enactment of that theory’s precept of rational self-interest, of “reason, purpose, self-esteem,” and its earthly power.

In early childhood, Nadia writes,

I was a wild, strange scrap of a girl who was as happy playing alone as I was with friends. I didn’t seem to need anyone. … I remember that period of my life as very happy.

She carried this spirit, in ever-more-mature forms, through each stage of her life:

Some say my eyes do not match my smile and that there is a coldness in them that adults find uncomfortable but to which children are oblivious. … I look back on pictures of myself as a young gymnast and understand that some see blankness. But I see intensity, determination, desire. Always desire.

As long as Nadia’s aspirations happened to match the rulers’ idea of the interests of the national collective, she had felt free. But more and more, there was a conflict, and in time she saw that she’d become a puppet and was ultimately regarded as expendable. Confronting and dealing with this fact called on all her realism, determination, and courage, heroic qualities that went far beyond athleticism.

I don’t give up, ever. I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.

Not only was Nadia’s escape, described in detail in the book, successful, but she eventually found and married the man she describes as “the love of my life,” Bart Conner—also a gymnast, who had in fact, at the urging of a photographer, kissed her anonymously in 1976.

Rand has written, “To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started.” Nadia Comăneci, with no real knowledge of philosophy or of Rand, and merely living as the unique creature she felt born to be, provides an inspiring example of this ideal, writing in her final pages: “I feel as if I’ve lived the joy of a thousand lives.”



Ellen DeGeneres as destroyer: Coin flip politics

From “10 Questions for Ellen DeGeneres” by Jeffrey Ressner:

I’m not a political person, and that may be surprising to hear. I don’t know enough about what’s going on to say anything. It’s probably fair to say that I’d support the Democratic candidate, but that being said, I really don’t know who it will be.

Time, February 23, 2004, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,993428-1,00.html.

Ellen DeGeneres as destroyer? Bear with me.

I once heard one person speaking to another and arguing for a drastic reduction in the scope and powers of the government; the other person responded, “But then who would run the country?”

This, I find, is a common reaction of most people to such a statement—in fact, to any proposal of limiting governmental powers in a major way. Countries, nations are seen as analogous to firms with a boss, and of course a company without a boss would quickly come to ruin.

The function of government is thought to be a managerial one. The problem of who to vote for, then, becomes that of choosing a good manager or executive.

We hear this all the time. Around the water cooler, or in the overheard conversations of commuters, discussions of politicians are punctuated with such observations as “I like him/her” or “I hope he/she will keep his/her promises” or “I hope he/she will get something done.”

And, incredibly, this represents the entire scope of their political concern. There is no discussion of ideas—no discussion of the content of the promises and plans of those genial people to whom they would give all-encompassing power. There is no discussion of the nature of government, or of any possible limits to what it may do. There is no discussion of human rights that might exist prior to society itself, and whether any such protections might stand in the way of the things the state says it wants to “get done.”

There is only debate about what “works,” what is “evidence-based,” according to some hazy notion that the government is there to take care of people from birth to death. It is indirectly conveyed that no man has rights to claim against this noble endeavor; there is no “opting out,” if the government needs something from you in order to pursue it.

It is as though the whole country were an employer, an entity whose goals you might not agree with but must go along with as long as you are employed there—except that having this particular job is the same as living your life.

Most of these people have more sense than this, and at times they do realize they have to back up their political opinions more deeply. So they do a little more listening to the political platforms of and positions taken by those running for office. They observe the existence of the two main political parties, conservatives and liberals, and decide they only have to choose between them, since these two groups seem to disagree on everything, and the mass media seem to imply that this is the basic choice in politics.

Thus, such people see the choice of political allegiance as essentially a “coin flip.” You just have to call it right, and you will be right about every other political question.

These “coin flippers” have only the foggiest notion of economics; so even though political debates seem to give that field of knowledge prominence, they are unable to judge on that basis. And any existing ideas they might have about “the rights of man,” rights existing apart from society and prior to it, are undermined by the sense that democratically elected officials have the perfect right to do anything they have promised the voters in their campaigns—or by the idea that all the basic problems have been solved and it is all just a matter of sound administration.

So they look around for something that will flip them to either the conservatives or the liberals. They decide that if they can find just one thing that either party is definitely wrong or definitely right about, that must be the answer to all the other issues, since they only need one “counterexample” to disprove an entire social outlook.

That conservatives might be right about some things and liberals about other things—all of these things being important—does not enter into the flippers’ minds. To consider this possibility, they would need to delve deeper intellectually and arrive at some wider principles to guide their thoughts. Intelligent though they may be in certain ways, they do not have the intellectual tools for it. Such abstractions are beyond their grasp, and anyway all their lives they have heard that philosophy is irrelevant to practical life.

Nor might they want to give it the time it might require. Many such intellectually inclined individuals are deeply into some pursuit that dominates their mental life: science, chess, gaming, mathematics, theater, music. These persons are apt to believe that, globally, human society is modern, scientific, constantly improving—similarly to the insulated world of their own pet interest and comfort zone. Should they see horrible things in the news, implying otherwise, their momentary shock is always tempered with the firm belief that mankind is, overall, steadily progressing—that now, in this 21st century, ignorance and brutality have had their day and are inexorably on the way out.

So they think that, basically, whatever “the authorities” decide to do to solve society’s “problems,” there is nothing fundamentally to worry about as long as the authorities democratically elected on an open platform. As the flippers see it, there are no grand battles of the mind left to fight—just battles against what they see as ignorance or stupidity within a safe framework of steady human advancement.

In those who are not intellectually inclined, the mental pursuit is replaced by some “hobby horse” they constantly ride—some issue that affects them specifically because they fall into some group: drunk driving victims, cancer sufferers, gay persons. Implicit in this attitude is, again, the thought that the really life-and-death problems are basically being handled well.

It is no surprise, then, that flippers accept in one gulp the worldview embodied by the mainstream media, and this is their substitute for independent thinking in the philosophic/moral realm. They figure that if they live in a modern, progressive world, and this world has a certain way of looking at things, then that must be the correct, scientific viewpoint. They’ll accept that and then just use logic and common sense from that basis.

For those with such a mindset, any idea that implies we need to step back and question some major aspect of the modern world that has been in the background ever since they can remember, or at least that everyone respectable seems to accept, strikes them as wild and crazy—a “conspiracy theory,” requiring that numerous, anonymous people with vast power had to have gotten together, plotted, and executed nefarious plans under everyone’s radar.

So, for example, anyone who questions the “green” movement is beyond the pale intellectually and not deserving of serious attention. Have all those scientists, reporters, and pundits been deliberately lying all these years? Nonsense! Could a certain very popular and charismatic politician actually have a Marxist background, and could he be constantly lying and pretending and putting on acts to hide his agenda, depending on people’s ignorance, with the complicity of the major media outlets? Fantastic!

The thought that there might be fundamental ideas dominating and controlling an entire culture or hemisphere, or that people can have nefarious motives and keep them well hidden behind other stated goals everyone agrees with, is not part of such persons’ worldview. That would mean there was something seriously wrong all around them, and everything looks so serene from where they stand.

So when it comes to elections, if there is any big, crucial choice to be made, it could only be between human progress, as exemplified in the “magnificent world today,” and those who for whatever reason “resist” it. The flippers observe that liberals constantly invoke the language currently in the cultural atmosphere, and that the conservatives constantly go against that language in big and small ways. For example, the liberals are always saying that we must improve the lot of the poor and downtrodden; the conservatives are resisting it and speaking the language of individual responsibility and property rights. Which line is easier to follow, requiring no deeper thought than that which already exists in newspapers and on TV?

Even if much of what the conservatives say about economics seems reasonable, the flipper does not really feel competent to form any opinions on that subject. In other areas in which both parties have plausible-sounding arguments, he simply cannot decide with confidence.

In this arena, conservatives’ religiosity is fatal for them—in the sense that it drives undecided voters out of their camp. Conservatives, basing everything ultimately upon faith and tradition, often take some positions glaringly at variance with reason and with a focus upon actual life here on Earth. Bingo! The flipper, seeing this, decides he does not have to consider economics or any other topic; it is the conservatives who must be the representatives of regress, and the liberals of progress.

And here is where the flippers become agents of vast destruction.

Protection of their own specific intellectual interest or hobby horse, under the influence of an unquestioned social outlook in the background, leads them to support politicians who are on the wrong side of far more fundamental and important issues than sexual-orientation acceptance. Sure, you could marry someone of the same sex. But what if you had to do it in the midst of a crushing depression, runaway inflation, and food riots? What if you had to do it in a society continuously hunkered down in anticipation of a terrorist attack?

So I ask: Isn’t it far better to vote for someone who is on the wrong side of the same-sex issue, than for someone who is on the wrong side of those issues that affect our most basic safety and well-being?

But this sort of decision demands that one be able to distinguish what is essential and what is derivative, and to realize that politicians can be mistaken on some issues that are dear to one’s peers while nevertheless being correct on issues that actually matter to humanity as such. It means that the battle lines in politics must be drawn on the basis of principles and ideas, of which some are crucial and others are trivial, and not of personalities and cartoonlike heroes and villains to which one pledges eternal allegiance or enmity.

Now, I like Ellen; I find her very funny and an appealing personality. But, as a flipper, she is disastrous. Her influence is vast, and many people who might otherwise vote somewhat haphazardly follow her lead. She “flips” people to the Democratic side of every issue, on the mere basis of the same-sex question, on which most ordinary people tend to agree with her just because they like her and are not bothered by homosexuality. Both those who share her orientation hobby horse or who have an analogous hobby horse of their own, and those who regard governance as simply a question of good management and personal character, will go along with her.

To be sure, there are many other flipper celebrities. But for the sake of broadcasting an important lesson, it has to be said: Ellen DeGeneres is a destroyer.