Kenan Senior Fellow Reflects on the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

A piece of the Berlin Wall on display on Potsdamplatz, a public square in Berlin. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
A piece of the Berlin Wall on display on Potsdamplatz, a public square in Berlin. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

November 9th marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which Kenan Senior Fellow Dirk Philipsen commemorated in a four-part refection published on Medium and in national newspapers.  Philipsen, a West Berliner growing up in the shadow of the Wall, shares his perspective saying, “Walls don’t solve underlying problems, and rarely last. But they do truncate what we see.”

Last week, Philipsen was also invited to speak at the Center for European Studies, University of Florida in Gainesville on this topic.   His talk included several key arguments – one of which had to do with our collective sense of possibility, or, rather, our collective sense of presumed impossibility. 

“It is hard for the world’s elites to admit:  We’re collectively terrible at predicting what’s possible.  Indeed, the historical record suggests a clear trend:  Most major transformations take place right after the experts tell us they can’t, and won’t, ever happen.  Women’s, labor, and civil rights; speed of computer processors; nuclear weapons; the flight to the moon; the building of the Berlin wall.

We may call it the “aura of inevitability” – this terrible idea that somehow our current sense of reality is a good guide to what will, or can, happen tomorrow.  If history followed our collective sense of what is realistic or possible, we’d still be riding around in horse-drawn carriages.”    

(Mis)Reading the Berlin Wall — 30 years later

By Dirk Philipsen

November 9 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most people over 50 remember where they were that day. Yet its meaning is still shrouded in historical fog.

For me as a 25-year-old Berliner in 1984, living a stone’s throw away, the Wall seemed immovable, and eternal. Despite the wall-enclosed death strip slicing through the heart of my beloved city, life seemed normal. I had close friends, freely discussed politics in street cafés in Kreuzberg, played Frisbee in the city’s verdant Tiergarten park, and learned from an astonishing range of scholars at the Free University. Erected in 1961, the Wall appeared simply a symbol of the Cold War, the dividing line between the worlds of American market capitalism and Soviet one-party communism.

In hindsight, scholars understand the construction of the wall as virtually inevitable. Political maneuvers on the part of the occupying superpowers had left two unequal parts — a booming West Germany, a struggling East Germany. As a result, some 4 million East Germans fled to the West between 1949 and 1961. By the time soldiers of the East German People’s Army rolled out the Wall’s first foundations — barbed wire and cement blocks in streets and intersections — East Germany had hemorrhaged its most vital talent. As a nation, its options boiled down to collapse or Wall.

The Wall could be seen as only one hand of a dramatic series of high-stakes poker games between the U.S. and the USSR. Had the Soviets opted for occupation rather than the Wall, only nuclear weapons could’ve deterred a Soviet takeover of the entire city. Famously, President Kennedy responded to the Wall’s construction in August 1961 by quipping, “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

Read the rest on medium.com including links to parts 2, 3, and 4.

Dirk Philpsen is a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Associate Research Professor of Economic History, Co-Director of the Sustainability Engagement Certificate, and Member of the Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity.

Four Ethics Focus Students Named 2023 Baldwin Scholars

Congratulations to all the Class of 2023 Baldwin Scholars, especially four of whom are among the Ethics, Leadership & Global Citizenship Focus Cluster!

  • Lana Gesinsky
  • Claire Kraemer
  • Charlotte Navin
  • McKenna Raley

Read more at https://baldwinscholars.duke.edu/

The Ethics, Leadership and Global Citizenship Focus Program cluster grapples with the questions countries, companies, and individuals increasingly confront in a global world. It is about how to create and evaluate solutions to these ethical challenges. read more

Join the Team! One Team and Team Kenan Couch on Sexual Respect

one team couching with team kenan photo
Team Kenan members talk with a student on BC Plaza

This past week, members of One Team collaborated with Team Kenan to “couch” on questions and actions around sexual respect on campus.  One Team is a new “Sexual Respect Initiative” at Duke, stemming from a multi-year Bass Connections project: Prevention of Sexual Misconduct on University Campuses: Intervention, Implementation and Evaluation, headed by Moran Anisman-Razin (Kenan Institute for Ethics), Suzanne Shanahan (Kenan Institute for Ethics), and Sim Sitkin (Fuqua School of Business). 

One Team member Nora Benmamoun pointed to alarming statistics in last year’s campus climate survey finding that 48% of undergrad women and 14% of undergrad men will experience sexual assault during their time at Duke.  In response, the team launched the One Team campaign to address sexual misconduct awareness and prevention and to engage the Duke community in conversation about this problem.


“As part of the campaign, we are launching a social media campaign that we hope will raise awareness among Duke students to the various resources and support, increase participation and engagement in prevention and active bystander intervention and reevaluate social norms about gender norms and sexual misconduct. We will also be couching with Team Kenan to discuss sexual respect with Students, host a variety of events, and soon will be putting posters around Duke’s campus that talk about what exactly is sexual misconduct and consent and how students can be active bystanders, so keep an eye out for that!”
– Nora Benmamoun, Sophomore, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and Economics


one team couching with team kenan photo
One Team members talk with students at the East bus loop


Drawing on Team Kenan’s expertise in engaging spontaneous conversations with students around weekly topics related to ethics, One Team adopted the same brand of interacting with students at various times and locations around campus this week.  While Team Kenan compiles anonymous findings from their couching conversations in their weekly blog, One Team further challenges Duke students to join the team by signing a pledge to be committed to learning, intervening, and supporting other team members to create an environment of sexual respect at Duke.  For Team Kenan member JJ Jiang, the couching topics are often difficult to talk about and controversial, but also crucial to fostering changes. “This week’s partnership with Bass Connections and the topic of Sexual Misconduct demonstrates that those at Duke are willing to have difficult conversations and reflect on how their actions influence their greater community.”

“One Team is based on the idea that it takes all of us to create a respectful culture at Duke. Every student on Duke’s campus has a responsibility to make sure that this changes, and I hope that our campaign will make Duke students more aware of what they can do to address this issue, whether that be through educating themselves or learning how to be an active bystander. We hope that every student can get involved in this campaign through going on our website and signing our pledge to show that they’re on the team!”
– Moran Anisman-Razin, Team Leader

one team couching with team kenan photo
One Team members talk with students at the East bus loop


Better Angels talk at Arete Event on Love and Depolarization in the Trump Era

Conservative Stereotypes:

  • racist
  • don’t care about poor people
  • don’t believe in science
  • gun nut
  • bible thumping Jesus freak

Liberal Stereotypes:

  • elitist
  • snowflake
  • baby killer
  • communist or socialist
  • hypocrite

The above list might represent the top 5 stereotypes conservatives and liberals think the other side holds about them.  This self-identifying Stereotypes Exercise is just one tool used by Better Angels in their Red/Blue Workshops to initiate discussion among a politically-opposed group.  Once each faction has come up with their list of perceived stereotypes, the groups talk about the pain and frustration around them, discuss how they might be unfair, misleading or exaggerated; but also, if they might just hold a kernel of truth.

Tuesday evening, a standing-room-only crowd filled the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room for Kenan’s Arete Initiative talk on “Love Your Enemies?  Depolarization in the Age of Donald Trump”  with Better Angels leaders Ciaran O’Connor and John Wood, Jr.. According to the pair, many people today believe that their political adversaries are not simply misguided, but that they are also bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible.  O’Connor and Wood described political polarization in the US not as a new problem since the 2016 election, but one that has been steadily gaining momentum over the last 20 years.  The Pew Research Center, which has been measuring political polarization in the United States since 1994, recently found that the average partisan gap has increased from 15 percentage points to 36 points.  O’Connor, a former staffer for the Clinton and Obama political campaigns, cited that up from 5% in 1960, today over 50% of respondents would be displeased if their child married someone of the opposing political party.  He also identified an alarming acceptance of threats, violence, and even death as a means to handle political disputes.  Wood, who ran for Congress in 2014 as a Republican against Rep. Maxine Waters in Los Angeles, pointed to data showing on average, Thanksgiving dinners are being cut short by at least 30 minutes because of political conflict; meanwhile, our current Congress has been the least productive of all time.


better angels arete talk - o'connor and wood


In order to combat such a degree of polarization that breeds anger, distrust in others’ good intentions, and threatens our democracy, this talk sought to identify: How can we learn how to talk to one another and find common humanity across partisan divides? How should we engage with “the other side” without compromising our values? Is “Love Your Enemies” a worthwhile philosophy in today’s day and age, or is it naive and counterproductive?  Launched in 2016 and now over 8000 members strong, Better Angels is a national citizens’ movement to bring liberals and conservatives together at the grassroots level — not to find centrist compromise, but to encounter one another as citizens. Through workshops, debates, and campus engagement, Better Angels helps Americans understand each other beyond stereotypes, form community alliances, and reduce the vitriol that poisons our civic culture.

Wood talked about his motivation and commitment to this cause despite all the grim statistics which have lead to our current moral challenges, saying, “The United States of America is defined by its ability to foster powerful relationships across differences.”  At the core of this resolve he likens his experience of growing up in a biracial and bipartisan family:

“My mother is a liberal black Democrat from inner-city Los Angeles and my father is a conservative white Republican from Tennessee — I grew up explaining my mother to my father and my father to my mother.  For so many people in this country today if you’re a Democrat then Republicans are the enemy and if you’re a Republican then Democrats are the enemy — but for me, Democrats and Republicans have always been Mom and Dad.”

Wood further explains: “The differences that persist between us are real, and it is important to understand the origins of what divides us, but the opportunity that affords us is one in which we can discover those values that are more deeply rooted – that make us a community and made us a community in the first place.  The heart of Better Angels’ work is providing the context for that discovery and rediscovery to take place.  For O’Connor and Wood, establishing a new set of norms in this country in terms of how it is we look at and communicate with each other and how we organize, can set an example for politicians running for office, activists pursuing causes of social justice or liberty, students, and elected officials statewide and nationally  Then, we can begin to stimulate a change in political culture from the demand level up – from the grassroots filtering up to the highest level of our society.

Regardless of what happens in Washington, there can be a sea change in how the American people choose to treat each other that can set the stage for a more responsible and heartfelt brand of politics and social engagement — because the alternative to that is that we can continue in a race to the bottom where victory is going to be defined by our ability to destroy the other side, regardless of whether or not that winds up destroying the country along with it.” – John Wood, Jr.

better angels arete talk - o'connor and wood

For O’Connor, polarization can best be described as geographic.

“If you live in an area that is liberal, you could go six months without ever talking to a Trump supporter. You can surround yourself with like-minded people, you follow people who confirm your biases on social media, you watch MSNBC, you are feeding your image of what someone on the other side looks like without every exposing yourself to them.” 

The question then O’Connor raises is how to bring people together in a way that is constructive?  “People have been conditioned to see cross-partisan engagement as a battle to be won.”  To this end, O’Connor laid out the simple structure used in Better Angels workshops:  “You are not here to change anyone’s mind.  You are not here to persuade or to convince, but to listen and be heard.”

Both O’Connor and Wood agree that while a grassroots movement bringing people together and building relationships across ideological differences is the ultimate goal of being able to work together, there is much more work to be done on social media platforms, high profile media pieces, and podcasts that seek to influence norms in a positive way and closely mimic  the face to face interactions of their workshops.

“Polarization is a long game.” – Ciaran O’Connor

Learn more about the work of Better Angels from their website: better-angels.org

The Arete Initiative sponsors scholarship and learning opportunities that are focused on recovering and sustaining the virtues in contemporary life, especially in the workplace, the university, and the public square. “Arete” is a Greek word that connotes moral virtue or, more broadly, human excellence.

Tayari Jones joins Kenan’s Ethics of Now

Tayari Jones

Friday night, author Tayari Jones was greeted by a full audience at the Durham Arts Council for Kenan’s latest in the Ethics of Now series.  Jones, a Women’s Prize for Fiction recipient and NY Times best-selling author of An American Marriage, was led in conversation by EoN host Adriane Lentz-Smith.

Together, Jones and Lentz-Smith discussed diversity, race, opportunity, obligation and family, particularly around Jones’ hometown of Atlanta, through stories of their own experiences and further examined through the lens of her characters.  According to Jones, “When I write about the South it’s easy for me, I’m not making a point about the South – I try to create the world as I understand it.”  She contrasted the common perspective with her own feelings about growing up in the South:

“People do think of the American South as shorthand for black unhappiness.  But I would say that the South was also the place where there was the most resistance to racism — the civil rights movement — so much was born in the South.  The South as I understood it was a place of incredible black community and diversity in blackness.”

Much of the conversation also focused on Jones’ writing process –  exploring her rich character development, the difficulty she experienced ending the book, and bucking the stereotypes her editors and readers expected to find within her work.  Giving budding writers a bit of advice, Jones said, “If you’re an artist, keep your job!”  She attributed her freedom to write exactly what she wanted to having a job in the meantime.

Duke student Anya Parks reflected on Friday night’s Ethics of Now saying “My favorite things about Tayari Jones’ talk were her sharp humor and distinct sense of self. I was amazed to hear how people challenged her during the writing process, especially in regards to the role of women in marriage. Her work had a deep effect on people. Audience members thanked her for her authentic characterization of black women. That was particularly powerful to me.”

Adriane Lentz-Smith added: “Reading Tayari Jones feels like hearing someone who knows you well giving voice to thoughts you did not even know you had. Unflinching but compassionate, she brings a deep humanity to our conversations about structural inequity and a generosity to our understandings of ourselves and each other.”

Jones continued the conversation with her audience during a reception and book signing.

Tayari Jones Tayari Jones

The Ethics of Now is a series of conversations between Duke historian Adriane Lentz-Smith and a range of artists, advocates, and authors that explore the ethical challenges facing the Durham and Duke communities.”

Provost’s Forum: A Focus on the Benefits and Human Costs of Immigration

Nicholas Kristof
During Thursday’s keynote address, columnist Nicholas Kristof used the story of his father’s immigration to underscore the history and importance of immigration in the United States. Photo by Les Todd


Wednesday, Kenan Director Suzanne Shanahan moderated the opening discussion of this year’s Provost Forum: Immigration in a Divided World.  The conversation, entitled “Immigration Between Nationalism and Humanitarianism” was a discussion between Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review and author, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, and Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize winner, Founder, Define American and author, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.

“One of the realizations I had in this conversation about the intransigence of the politics of all of this is we do not in fact share an identity. The question of who we chose to come and who gets to stay — we don’t have a common set of values that drives that.  We don’t share enough to proceed in a way that would be intelligible, which is how we end up with this incredibly fractured fate. The two memoirs are lovely and thought provoking, but if we don’t at some point in the two days here deal with the profound question that we as Americans have children in cages at the border, it is not ok.  So this question about identity has to lead there.”
— Suzanne Shanahan

from left: Suzanne Shanahan, Jose Antonio Vargas, Michael Brendan Dougherty.


from today.duke.edu

Provost’s forum brings different perspectives to an issue that challenges universities and the country


A two-day forum on immigration this week sought to put a face on a topic often overshadowed by policy debates and partisan hate-speech.

“I want to recognize clearly here that immigration is not some abstract topic or principle,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth in her opening remarks Thursday at the annual Provost’s Forum, “Immigration in a Divided World.”

“I know that many of our students, faculty and staff experience this issue on a very personal level — either for themselves or their families and friends,” she said.

“Immigration policy and practice has a very real impact on their lives and futures. And by discussing it at an intellectual, conceptual level, while we want to understand all aspects of the issues and options, at the same time, we do not want to lose sight of the real consequences of the topics we’ll be discussing on the individual lives of our friends and colleagues.”

Over the two-day event academics and journalists representing different views, perspectives and disciplines explored topics organized in consultation with Duke students.

“We don’t pretend to have exhausted the topic (through this forum), instead we have a more modest goal, which is just to frame the ways in which this conversation might be had in more and better and different and productive ways on this campus going forward,” said Noah Pickus, associate provost and senior adviser.

In the keynote address Thursday, New York Times columnist and author Nicholas Kristof spoke on the topic, “Immigration as a Test of Our Values.”

He compared U.S. practices on the Southern border, specifically putting people in cages and separating families, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and America’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.

“One lessons of that (history), I think, is that when people stoke fears today about caravans, about threats to American well-being and security, that we bare a special historical responsibility to look very, very closely at those claims,”
— Nicholas Kristof



Read the full story at today.duke.edu

Keith Lawrence, Geoffrey Mock, Scott Peters and Steve Hartsoe contributed to this story.