rom the murk of a deep and dark Cold War forest came a propaganda phrase one side used as a bramble to goad the other. There might indeed be refrigerators and superhighways, said East to West, but what about lynching in the South? In the 1950s and 60s, the battle between competing systems — booming consumer capitalism vs. state communism, Soviet Russia vs. the United States — elicited loud and often hypocritical sparring. Moscow pointed at racism run amok while ignoring its Flanders Fields of gulags. Washington promoted “fair shake” social affluence and space travel while downplaying domestic inequities.
The nervous silver lining of the Cold War, if such a lining existed, is that the U.S. in fact possessed a modicum of self-awareness regarding some if not all of its faults. The Vietnam War, an anti-Communist disaster, was all but cancelled — albeit far too late. More important, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, passed against bitter, diehard southern opposition, began a basic (and still ongoing) overhaul in American race relations. That legislation, endorsed by years of public protest, would never have passed had then-President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, not put set the moral principles of egalitarianism against his southern roots. His was an immoveable stand that still ranks high among brass-tacks demonstrations of American presidential character. The Civil Rights Act legally leveled the racial playing field and robbed the lynching-dependent Communist Bloc of a potent weapon.
Three decades after the end of that massive global standoff — the Soviet Union become a kind of malformed dwarf of its former incarnation — the East-West finger pointing endures. Russia, to America, is still a conniver of evil deeds, and America, in Russian eyes (and not only) is a country that offers much but cannot exorcise its rollicking inner demons – the most recent ones in the form of citizens that slaughter their young with bullets, from hotels, at movie theaters, in schools. The attackers themselves are rarely ideologically motivated, instead either socially alienated or imbued with self-righteous rage no digital detector can fully pick up on.
What is shockingly different between the two periods is that the America of the early 21st century feels no need to cancel out this particular form of lynching. Lulled into unproductive partisan feuds, fiercely protective of outdated constitutional rights, its citizenry prefers to integrate gunplay and massacres into a warped byproduct of freedom. No longer threatened by Soviet propaganda, which would have treated school massacres with the same zeal as lynching, Washington and the rest of the nation mostly stands pat, content to express week-long outrage until the media storm passes. Left blames right and vice versa. Endless argument elicits resignation. There is no president determined to change what in 1958 would have been an unbearable status quo. The lowbrow incumbent — a vigilante at heart — predictably suggests that teachers take up weapons, apparently agreeable to the prospect of domestic combat between bad gunmen and new-age militia. An America that comes first needs no repair. Nor does it have an enemy it cannot vanquish.
Except its own smugness, which takes the form of accepting the unacceptable.
Yes, Soviet Russia had political prisoners and gulags and a torture network as wide as its sprawling territory. But the worst of Stalinism made the need to suppress lynching no less pressing. A more alert version of America still believed its unique luster depended on making massive amends when necessary. This brawl-happy version, largely middle class, supine, distracted, and politically influenced by a lobby larger and more sophisticated than the Ku Klux Klan Deep South ever were in conjunction, has lost any semblance of its driving will. Absent a bogeyman to challenge its sheen, it is a nation insulated from the values system that once drove it, better or worse, to make an inspirational mark. Instead, it stews in its own poisoned political juices, led by a president who is ironically more than ever disdainful of government itself. Bad news fades fast, massacres quick-to-heal among those rationalize them as aberrant loyalty to a constitution on which they impose biblical literalism — though it is and always has been legally open to amendment. It is ferocious laissez faire that the “cleansing” culture of lynching would have been proud to embrace, and another, now-hibernating America might well have worked to dismantle.