Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it's good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey, disconnect the phone
I'm back in the USSR
You don't know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the US, back in the US
Back in the USSR
(Paul McCartney, The Beatles, The White Album, 1968)
Godless Communists and Would-Be Heroes
For those of us raised in the chilliest days of the Cold War, the interactions between Russia and the US today are hard to imagine. The idea that Americans would ever visit Russia, much less choose to stay there, would have been inconceivable in 1968 when the Beatles’ satire on the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry rose to the top of the charts as the lead song of The White Album.
Knowing how true blue Americans were supposed to feel about Russians was not difficult during the Cold War. The Russians and their Cuban dupes were the folks who had come within one hour of launching the fiery end of the world in a nuclear holocaust in 1962, blinking only at the last moment in the Cuban missile crisis. The Russians were anti-God, anti-democracy, anti-freedom. Schoolchildren were taught to deride Russian leaders with new versions of the Christmas song Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer which began “Khruschev, the bald-headed Russian” even as we learned to duck and cover to avoid being blinded by the nuclear flash a not so-amused Kruschev might have launched in response.
Perhaps that’s why today’s news feels so strange to many of us Baby Boomers who wonder if we’ve awoken from a Rip Van Winkle century long snooze to find self-proclaimed freedom fighter Edward Snowden accepting asylum in Russia to escape US legal prosecution for revealing spying tactics. And we have to shake our heads in disbelief to see the homophobia of 1960s America now championed by Russian politicians under the tired banner of “family values.”
Cognitive Dissonance en el Campo
Of course, this is not the first time I’ve had to deal with the cognitive dissonance in the face of a world whose previous understanding had been stood on its head. In 1992 I was a part of a team of seminarians who came to El Salvador under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to observe the cease fire in the long, bloody civil war there. One of the sites we visited was a community of burn victims who had survived horrific injuries from napalm poured from helicopters down on their heads quite literally. Whole sections of the countryside still bore the marks of the fiery scouring by napalm where bare rock stripped of all life, scorched black was all that remained in many places.
The young man we talked with at the community was scarred from head to toe including his face. How could anyone have survived such a painful ordeal? He spoke of being burned as he rushed from his house when napalm began to descend on his village where rebels against the US-supported regime were living. Trying to remain as silent as possible given their grievous injuries, he and others had hid in muddy, water-filled ditches overgrown with weeds as government troops drove by to mop up those who had survived the aerial assault.
So, who treated you for your burns, we asked. “The Cuban doctors,” he said.
The first wave of cognitive dissonance swept over me. In my world, Cubans were evil, the cause of the missile crisis which caused Floridians to fear imminent annihilation in 1962. The duck and cover exercises in our schools triggered by sonic booms of the nuclear bomb laden jets constantly flying overhead from nearby MacDill, McCoy and Patrick Air Force Bases gave birth to nightmares of fiery mushroom clouds, Over and over we had been told that the time to say goodbye before atomic bombs launched from Cuba arrived in Florida was a mere 90 minutes. How could anything from Cuba ever be good?
Later that same day, our group visited a base community named for the house keeper of the Jesuit massacred by paramilitary terrorists at the University of Central America. “We want to show you something,” the village elder said, And so we walked to the top of the hill where a village square of sorts had been fashioned among the trees. And towering overhead lashed into the tree branches was the fuselage of a military helicopter. “This is the helicopter they dropped the napalm out of,” the elder said.
To my right, my fellow seminarian softly observed, “It’s a Hughey. It’s one of ours.”
The US government had, indeed, provided much of the weaponry used against the rebels in a number of Central American countries during the 1980s. US supported regimes resisted the calls for the distribution of fallow lands to farmers dying of starvation. They branded unions, intellectuals, clerics, anyone who questioned their heavy handed authoritarian regimes subversive. And they brutally repressed the inevitable uprisings with the help of US aid, weaponry and training in terrorist tactics provided by the School of the Americas.
The second wave of cognitive dissonance now overtook me. The Cubans were the good guys in this story. My own government was the villain. It was responsible for atrocities whose evidence had seared my conscious mind. How was I to make sense of that?
It was a valuable if painful lesson in recognizing the constructed nature of understandings of the world. And it would be only the first of many lessons in the destructive impact US foreign policy and the ravages of a rapidly globalizing “free market” has had on the world outside our borders. For all of the good things America has been, its repressed Shadow is brimming with death and destruction.
Asylum in the Panopticon
Thus I found myself once more shaking my head in disbelief as the events of the past week have played out. Edward Snowden, who took it upon himself to reveal a widespread pattern of spying that the American government has conducted around the world - including within the US borders on US citizens – was granted asylum in Russia. Snowden, whom opponents of the security state seem ready to canonize, came to Moscow from Hong Kong after China rejected his bid for asylum there.
Neither state is exactly a beacon of liberty and both have long routinely conducted spying on their own citizens that would no doubt make the NSA look tame. (Honey, disconnect the phone…and turn up the radio so we can talk….). Indeed, if Jeremy Bentham were alive today, he might well proclaim the Russian bear the winner in the race to create a society-wide panopticon which successfully maintains all its citizens under almost constant surveillance.
No doubt, there have been previous Americans who have made this seemingly perverse flight for freedom into the maws of the Russian bear. Ironically, the only figure I can recall is Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin of President John Kennedy, a desperate figure whose rapid disenchantment with the Soviet empire drove him to return to America within a few years.
Frankly, an advocate of freedom from governmental snooping who seeks asylum in a security state which is famed for its efficiency in snooping in order to avoid facing the music in the country he allegedly sought to save doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. And, in all honesty, as much as I empathize with Snowden’s concerns, he simply doesn’t strike me as much of a hero though this hardly fazes his supporters. Even so, there is no small amount of irony in watching the same people who have decried godless communism for so long now defending Snowden, the icon of freedom, defecting to the successors to the Soviet system.
Homophobia and Ex-Communist Family Values
Perhaps even more ironic is watching the banner of a rather virulent homophobia dressed up as traditional, family values being unfurled in Russia on the eve of the Winter Olympics. Of course, the violence against LBGTIQ people and those who would dare to support their rights to be treated with equality and dignity in Russia today is hardly unfamiliar to an America which has only recently begun to repent of their homophobia.
Historically, Evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic wings in America have been key players in the fight against what they saw as the godless communism of the Soviets. It is a fight in which homophobia played a major role during the Red Scare of the 1920s and 1950s. Homosexuality came to be seen as a security risk by homophobic anti-Communist politicians. It was also seen as a symptom of moral decay by puritanical religious leaders, the same claim made by many Russians today who claim membership in the revival of Russian religiosity post-Soviet Union.
Today America seems to be on the verge of finally rejecting this base social prejudice that has informed its cultural values and its resulting law for so long. It is the successors of the godless communists who now utilize the rhetoric of God and country in a Russia which has largely committed its communist system to the dustbin of history.
No doubt it is more than a little uncomfortable for folks like Pat Robertson to realize that while most of his fellow Americans have rejected his fear-driven religious morality, his message finds willing hearers across the ocean in a Russia who has taken up the banner of homophobia disguised as traditional family values. According to all the polls, Robertson and company now have more in common with folks like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the imams of fundamentalist Islam than their fellow Americans.
You know that’s got to smart.
Charles Dudley Warner noted in 1850, politics often makes strange bedfellows. These days there seems to be plenty of cognitive dissonance to go around.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.