wo fairly recent and unrelated global transformations, one ideological, the other technological, are responsible for facilitating the at-times outsized reaction to the now year-old corona crisis.
The first of these transformations was the 1989-90 unraveling of the communist system, abruptly ending 50-years of East-West enmity known to most as the Cold War. The second, still ongoing, has been the introduction of the internet, devised during that very same Cold War to speed the military’s entry into the computer age. The web’s explosive entry into all facets of civilian life has, in less than 25 years, altered (if not overturned) aspects of social, commercial, and personal reality once considered all but immovable.
The Cold War’s end erased a long postwar rivalry portrayed as worth fighting and dying for, while the expansion of the internet has introduced an age of instant “connectivity” by now so sophisticated it can serve as a virtual surrogate for the direct personal contact once considered a preamble to all commercial, intellectual, and romantic human intercourse. It is an insidious surrogacy that, as the virus period has shown, can at times approximate a supplanting of previously steadfast norms.
Since March of 2020, much of the planet’s public dimension has been placed on hold, replaced by a peacetime medical siege that has witnessed the imposition of near-autocratic restrictions in the holy name of public health and welfare.
These measures have been imposed not by dictators but by governments acting on the recommendation of a serious, well-versed medical establishment that has undertaken to stop the spread of the virus as a military force might seek to repel an invader, mass media complicit in the occasionally hysterical propaganda.
Ironically, it has triggered the kind of fear and anxiety the pre-online, Cold War world worked overtime to prevent, its leaders styling themselves as protectors of public morale. Preserving that morale was a sacred legacy that emerged from the horrors of World War II.
What all this means, stripped of intellectual gloss, is that as recently as 30 years ago, the shutting down of the so-called “free world” to fight disease would not have arisen as a viable option.
Though the Cold War West was already medically advanced, at least relatively speaking, the ideological consequences of “imprisoning” one’s own citizens would have been too high a price to pay in what was then the bigger picture — war.
In the 1950s, 1960s, even well past 1970, such a closure would have been perceived as a strategic capitulation to the communist enemy at freedom’s gate. In the defense of that freedom, interpreted in terms of a way of life, victims of disease would, like soldiers, have been exalted in a bend-not-break scenario.
Understanding the stakes as they existed between 1945 and 1990 requires a considerable amount of backtracking, which here will be oversimplified.
At the height of the Cold War — 1960 is as good a year as any — East-West relations were ponderously geopolitical and required that both the United States and the Soviet Union boast of their moral and military superiority and work overtime to avoid any sign of national weakness. When weakness did make an appearance, officials on both sides shamelessly denied the obvious as part of another paramount priority, that of saving face.
In that time, military advances were like today’s software upgrades, amazing and enviable. In the nuclear sweepstakes, size mattered.
The United States and its Western European allies were allowed abundant domestic political squabbling (democracy at work) so long as their joint anti-communism was unaffected. Strictly forbidden was the kind of appeasement that had blighted Britain’s ill-fated pre-war overtures to Nazi Germany.
Of the two communist Goliaths, Soviet Russia retained Western diplomacy openings that Mao’s Communist China set aside in favor of near-total estrangement from the West’s heretically alien democracy (a model followed by both tiny Albania and North Korea).
A 1970s thaw was derailed within a decade as Moscow’s Red Army invaded Afghanistan and President Ronald Reagan soon after labeled the Soviet world “the evil empire,” a phrase later appropriated in part by George W. Bush in his “axis of evil” anointing of several states with strong Muslim terrorist ties. Under Reagan, the U.S. secretly intervened in support of Afghan guerillas fighting the Soviets, befriending their charismatic leader, a Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and that was very much the case during the Cold War.
What mattered above all else was the steadfast exalting of the American way and the anti-virus like resistance to communist contamination.
America of that time was less a nation than a metaphor, a synonym for the truest liberty anyone had ever known. In it, all were free to own businesses and goods and travel and respond clamorously when government did things they disliked.
Life in the West, unlike the reality in leaden-hued Iron Curtain states, exuded the dynamic and invited possibility.
Western strategists — they would now be called spin-doctors — minimized the stains, racism among them, that communist leaders used time and again to portray the American-led West as sick with greed, if not on the brink of collapse. Exacerbating the rhetoric was fierce opposition to the undeclared but all-out Vietnam war, an avowedly anti-communist undertaking that would end in just the way America did not want, disgrace (labeled “Peace With Honor”).
In that period — and this point must be stressed — the symbolism of “anti-weakness” was the thin ice on which both sides skated. And such symbolism would have applied even to a strategic retreat in the name of public health. Retreat was retreat.
For the authoritarian Soviets, whose prisons and gulags were legion, the sick were best abandoned to their Darwinian fate. You lived and died based on 19th-century fatalism. If you became ill, weak character played a role, a view advanced for decades in European literature.
To fortify this, Russia cheered its peasant workers as all but immune to the West’s flus. Vodka cured all, unless the state chose to murder you. And since neither the Soviet Union nor China were fond of circulating death tolls, no one knew.
Both were callous, but not casually. Through war and domestic oppression, they had together lost upwards of a 100 million over the first 50 years of the 20th century. The Holocaust toll made little impression on these countries. Overall, the medical enlightenment that characterized the early 20th century was very much a Western movement.
Put in the simplest possible terms, most serious diseases, infectious or otherwise, lacked cures. Until the advent of antibiotics, tens of millions died annually from a host of bacterial and viral infections, some known, others mysterious. The mass “cure” was to learn to live with disease, keeping clean (also a recent concept), and hoping for the best.
Well into the Cold War, the number of deaths through disease went largely uncounted. Again, the only battle of moral substance was not medical but ideological.
“Evil Empire” propagandists held fast to the notion that democracy was but a flawed sham that could not handle true hardship and would show a harsher side if faced with it. The haves would rise up against the have-nots and a police state emerge.
The massive Western protest rallies of 1968, both in Western Europe and the U.S., combined with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy fueled Soviet skeptics. But that same year saw Soviet tanks in Prague quash the liberalism of the “Prague Spring,” explained by pamphleteers as a Wall Street-style correction.
But the tanks unnerved still-wounded Western Europe, and the Cold War game escalated again.
By then the bipolar clash had deepened in heft and symbolism.
Thanks to NATO, America was now democracy’s de facto protector against Moscow’s tanks.
Though it had suffered grievous losses in the two world wars, the U.S. had never itself been invaded, a critical psychological advantage in its advocacy of a new and free world order. Not once had it endured evacuations, bombing raids, citizen dispersals, let alone systematic domestic curfews. It was — and yet again symbolism comes into play — emblematic of irrepressible forward progress.
War had not hurt but boosted the American economy and definitively extricated it from the throes of the Great Depression. When peace came, the American middle class consumer entered the limelight as an example not only of democratic life but of a vibrant and unfettered public reality. These Americans simply could not and would not sit still.
America of the 1950s and early 1960s rose to near-mythic status, a place whose streets and stores were packed. Social visibility was central to the affirmation of the American self.
Cars, buses, trains, and planes (soon jets) were in perpetual motion, the antithesis of the cinder block life under communism. What was the Soviet Union but a backward state that hosted a poor, semi-imprisoned population that could not move without permission slips?
In addition to public movement and commerce, education was a huge piece of American pride. In public schools, students recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance daily. To bar them from this schooling and thus disrupt patterns at the core of the American way would have left parents stricken — no previous epidemic had brought teaching to a halt — and in those days parents would have been unable to do what is now fairly common, home school their children using web tools or turn them over to digital teachers. Add to that the closing of churches and Sunday School training, far more of a bastion then (communism was atheistic, after all) and the result, in effective terms, would transmit a diminished nation too afraid of disease casualties to steadfastly uphold the columns that shouldered its noble structure.
Hollywood extolled that structure, harping on themes of diligence and paychecks, of ambition rewarded through patience and focus, and uprightness of character, prized as a centerpiece of optimism and essential to attaining the admiration of a pretty girl. The substance of optimism was toughness and resolve, with slogans such as “When the going gets rough, the tough get going” celebrated as typically American for all the world to copy. Even mortality itself had a bromide, long since cast away in favor of prevention and prolongation, “It’s my time,” implying a cycle (and a modest sense of inevitability) more modern citizens at times cannot reckon with, seeking the clock’s “adjustment” through healthy habits and medicine.
If Western Europe, battered and guilt-ridden, wished to produce raw films and literature based on its wartime reversals and the Holocaust, so be it. But the free world, as led by American values, was just that, and it could include biker gangs, Beat Generation skeptics as easily as white-collar ad executives.
The paycheck was not only a capitalist cornerstone but a holy grail that opened the gates to bank loans, mortgages, layaway plans that led to two-car garages.
In this affected Nirvana, greedy gangsters and clever criminals were eventually humbled until they saw the light. “You can run but you can’t hide” became a popular line because to hide was a coward’s way out (a view that may need amending in view of recent events).
The police may not have been beloved but nonetheless stood, Norman Rockwell-style, as a force for good — at times assisted by the likes of Superman, he who stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
Early television focused heavily on domestic harmony (modern kitchens included), with mischievous but ultimately lovable children “beavering” their way in and out of mischief. Even dogged dogs, American at heart, “Lassie” and others, barked to ensure no one remained in harm’s way for long.
This star-spangled and bucolic sketch of a prosperous and neighborly life hinged on a non-restrictive culture. It was confinement’s loud opposite, an ethos and way of life America wanted Western Europe to imitate, and in some respects, it did — the whole of the effort propelled by the wish to offset communism’s lingering attraction.
Presidential lies, white or not, also had a place in the preservation of national morale because anti-communism ranked ahead of “whole truth” transparency.
The only time movies showed empty city streets was when depicting the peril of a nuclear World War III, which of course “the other side” would start.
In this sculpted scenario, bereft of bigotry and inequity, America sat on high ground it could not abandon.
So it pushed further, landing men on the Moon, an accomplishment even the Soviets had to applaud, since they had lost that race. NASA accomplished the task in a mere six years, taking risks that to today’s risk conscious society would be unthinkable.
All this brings us full circle.
To imagine the nation of that time choosing to stop known life to combat a mysterious disease is just as unimaginable as standing pat while Russian cosmonauts staked the Hammer and Cycle on the Moon.
The abandonment of the symbolically unflappable “all-is-well” facade would have stood in the way. Closures of the kind seen since last year, in the pre-online world, would have seemed like a betrayal, not an act of bravery but one of cowardice. Western Europe, in the crosshairs of Soviet tanks, could not have recoiled collectively.
Times are changed by groundbreaking events, the premise of this essay. Then cannot and perhaps should not be compared to now. At the same time, the Devil demands and deserves his advocate. And a citizenry should be mindful of its own past, which these days it is often not. And poor historical memory obliterates vital context.
For most of the Cold War there was no cable news, no Centers for Disease Control, and of course no human “plan B,” which the web has provided.
The virus may yet mark a watershed in another way. References to the postwar may finally be invalidated, replaced instead by the more apt post-COVID, a period that will take into account all that’s happened between 1990 and the present day.
World War II is over, so is the Cold War, as is the ideological and military threat of communism. In the West, these problems have been replaced by preoccupations regarding the self, including personal and sexual identity, the health of the body and the planet, the need to make public affirmations via the internet, another proof of self. Fear is more prevalent because humankind has more information, and within that information are layers of detail that in overabundance lead to anxiety. Choice is vast, chokingly so.
These are anything but the likes of the concerns that weighed on the 1950s or 1960s, in which COVID would have been forced to the rear of bus, or the illness branded a communist plot. On the contrary, the disease has been elevated to paralytic status, a literal plague on all houses to which the world, led by the developed world, must defer lest it relinquish its commitment to the sanctity of life. This is morally dangerous territory that has been entered into willingly, a newer version of wartime collaboration with the enemy because the enemy for the first time is not ideological, not dominated by systems at war. Instead, the existing system has been stalled to make way for a state of self-imposed, wartime-like paralysis that has no precedent and that carries within it a malignancy as contaminating as the disease itself.
Irony is everywhere present in these confused and oppressive times but perhaps nowhere more poignant than in a European Union that has leaned heavily on immigrant workers to handle disease-related tasks. These pilloried migrants have taken work in viral hot spots their fearful Western counterparts have in some cases fled. They have anchored nursing homes, treated elderly and terminal COVID patients at home, assisted in emergency rooms, and hauled and buried contaminated corpses, all this to help the overwrought developed world deal with a malady whose three million victims so far are but a small number when compared to annual death tolls caused by Third World malnutrition and disease. The COVID toll is modest bearing in mind the 35 million the planet loses annually to cancer, heart attacks, and an array of infections that massacre infants in poor states. It is a microscopic figure on a planet that numbers more than eight billion souls. The cold-blooded reality of these numbers make good intentions no less good but do cast a long shadow over the wisdom of paralyzing strategies that can come to warp the meaning of the much-uttered phrase “be safe,” since safety is not merely anatomical but moral, social, and cultural.
When, some may ask, has life on the planet ever been safe, even in so-called “normal” times? When, some may also ask, does the wish to guarantee safety begin to undermine the meaning of the word itself? No one can yet claim sure answers to any of these questions, a reckoning process likely to take the “new” West decades to achieve.
In long-ago 1977, very much still a Cold War year, I — though still little more than a child journalist — traveled from Rome to Milan to interview the Nobel Prize-winning Italian poet Eugenio Montale, whose work cut to the core of nature’s drive. To him, amid terrorism and Middle East crises aplenty, the world appeared out of balance if not lost. Born in the 19th-century, he recognized little in 1977 which he understood or liked. Even the telephone was an anathema. “Everything’s in a big cauldron,” he croaked toward the end of our session, gesticulating. “Who knows what’s in it. It could be some amazing potion. Or maybe some monstrous frog!”
More than four decades later, in a time of coerced and claustrophobic hibernation, the cauldron continues simmering.