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Guest Column

May 14, 2011

The Iron Curtain of ideas

A long time ago, and far, far away, I stood on the border of two distinct cultures. The "Wall" was a stone divide between two very different political ideas, but one people.

You could stand near one of the observation points and turn west and see a thriving culture of capitalism, industry, bright lights, and also see a people striving to succeed, independent of government control.

Or you could look east and see a drab, gray existence, still see the ruins of the war in the distance, no bright-light nightlife, the occasional Lada 2-cycle auto sputtering blue smoke on the Freidrickstrasse, every morning the people shuffling to the next queue for whatever consumer product was available that day, the people now acting almost as machines, trying to survive day-by-day. We could listen to commercial West German radio and the upbeat Western music and entertainment, or turn to the tightly controlled East German Rundfunk der DDR and listen to the glories of the "Workers' Paradise."

The real part of this equation was these were the same people: Germans, a unified and proud people, but divided by political ideas, and the part that confused us the most is that there were West Germans who wanted what the East had.

Today we almost have the same equation here in America. East Coast and West Coast states, fiscal fiascos, buried under the ever- rising costs of dependency programs, raising taxes that are driving what little industry left out to more-friendly states, and yet find no fault with their systems.

Then we have rural "fly-over" states such as Nebraska. There is 4 percent unemployment in Lincoln, industries moving in and actually having problems finding workers, actually having to recruit from nearby states, and people more than willing, moving into the area for the jobs.

Yet in New York, for example, people will root themselves to their homes, and demand more benefits to survive, all the while hoping for jobs to return. They almost demand that Nebraska foot more of the bill for New York, raising our taxes and sending them east into that vast sucking sound that has turned New York and other areas of failed experiments in social programs designed for equality.

Again, a different set of values and culture between the two political ideas, and yet the same people.

I inherited a fine home in Davenport, and considered moving back to New York, but after two years living there renovating the house, I saw the futility of that effort. Why give up a far higher standard of living in Nebraska for the high tax, high consumer costs, and little employment potential for my wife?

Having left New York in the 1970s and returned in '09, I found a culture that had changed so much from what I knew of my youth. Newburgh, where I grew up, went from an “All-American City” to the crime capital of New York and near the top of the nation.

Oneonta, visited many times while my parents lived in Davenport, was changing, and with each visit, it became more noticeable.

So I had a decision to make: lower my standard of living, and keep struggling to maintain in Davenport, or return to Nebraska. I am still a New Yorker deep in my heart, but reality is a hard thing to shake off. I went to Ruffino’s the last afternoon before I left and just walked Main Street, and in my mind almost saw a stasse in East Berlin before the fall.

I returned to Lincoln, and we went to dinner in what is called the “Haymarket,” a thriving downtown area of small mom-and-pop storefronts and bright restaurants, and knew that I made the right choice.

There are so many here in America that want to return to the ideas of East Germany: a controlled economy, a managed people, and only one authorized train of thought. Those of us who stood on that wall, and looked into the heart of “The Workers’ Paradise” that many here want to revive, just can’t understand it.

I still remember the film of the young East German border guard just before the Wall was finished. He stood there contemplating,  dropped his weapon and dashed to the West, jumped the wire, stood up, looked back, smiled, and the West Germans welcomed him with open arms.

The look on his face explained all. He sacrificed everything he knew for what many here condemn. Where were the films of West Germans dashing east?

John M. Stanley of Ceresco, Neb., is a retired master sergeant from the U.S. Army.

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