There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.
A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War. It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.
I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?) But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well. (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,
25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.
Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.
All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)
What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.
These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.
When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.
Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.
We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.” But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.
The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):
Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.
And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:
It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.
This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.
But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.
US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to
Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.
After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that
for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.
Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.
Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.
This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”
This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.
“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”
Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA.
More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.
“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”
“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.
CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:
The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.
The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.
We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?
The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters
200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …
Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.
During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:
Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:
You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.
Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God! And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”
What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!
There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in – so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals. Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.
America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.
What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.