Posted in Commentary, Lessons Learned, Politics

Living at DefCon 1

I was listening to 10@10 on Tuesday morning, and the year was 1984. Lots of songs related to the Cold War, which was still a going concern at the time. When I first started teaching, the maps in all the classrooms still had a vast swath of land in the east labeled “U.S.S.R.,” but the kids in those classrooms didn’t really know what the Soviet Union was. I have to admit, I’m still a little surprised when people refer to Russia, probably as surprised as my great-grandparents were when people referred to the USSR. Maps are expensive, though, and I would not be surprised if the classroom maps still show a world that has not existed for some time.

The SALT talks were happening for the first decade of my life. I remember having a very real fear as a child that I wouldn’t live to see my 21st birthday, as we’d all be annihilated by a nuclear warhead; my understanding then, limited and childish as it was, was that the fingers on the respective buttons were more than a little itchy, and that we were at constant risk. And I remember breathing a sigh of relief when the Berlin Wall came down; it was over.

As an adult, I realize that the balance of power was probably not quite so delicate, (though it served the powers that be that we all think so, I’m sure), and that the likelihood that I was going to be wiped out by an ICBM was probably much less than I feared. And I have caught myself over the years thinking, as an old-timer often will, that today’s children will never know the fear of a constant threat like that

Of course, I was wrong about that. Instead of fearing a nuclear warhead that will take out their entire town, they have to worry about every plane they get on, and every bus they ride, and every street they walk down, and every classroom they enter. Fearing a single missile to be sent by a massive superpower that is probably reluctant to test the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction seems almost relaxing compared to the myriad threats we are bombarded with every day. And now, as then, it serves the powers that be to keep us all in a state of heightened fear and insecurity; a frightened populace is a tractable one. The more the government announces that it has done something to improve our security, the more scared we become, or we are bullied back into place with a paternalistic “We’re doing this for you!” I cannot be the only one who’s noticed that every time the heat is on Washington for its latest malfeasance, we get an announcement of a plot that almost was tragic, but was averted by Your Friendly Government. See what we do for you? Pay no attention to the men behind the curtain.

Is the world really any scarier now than it was when we only had to worry about the Soviets? Is it any scarier now than it was when we only had to worry about highwaymen? Is it any scarier now than it was when we only had to worry about large animals with big teeth and claws?

I don’t know. But I find it hard to believe we’re devolving. I suspect that, more likely, we are more volubly (if not actually better) informed, to our detriment. I suspect that the sword is as active as it’s ever been, but the pen is working overtime. Why? Because peace is bad for business, whether you’re selling home security systems or Tomahawk missiles or labor and fencing to close the border. Conflict is always profitable for someone, and those someones will stir the pot to create it if need be. Most Americans are at equal risk of losing their job to a Mexican illegal as my 10-year-old self was of getting taken out by a nuclear bomb. But where the problem lies is when an entire nation, religion, or any other group, responds to the supposed threat with the maturity and reasoning skills of a 10-year-old child.

I also think that 6 billion people are finding the planet a little small for their tastes, and a scarcity mindset takes hold in dangerous ways. Any group of people enclosed together will end up in conflict; anyone who’s been on a long road trip in the family station wagon knows this. And in this, we can only aspire to acting like 10-year-olds; instead, we regress to the terrible twos, the sound of “Mine! Mine! No! Mine!” echoing around the world. Maybe it’s time for everyone to stop at a DQ, get out of the car, have a Dilly Bar and simmer down before someone is bleeding all over the back seat.

Barring that option, I think our only hope is to realize that at bedrock, most people want the same thing: love, safety, liberty, and a chance to live a reasonably content existence. And if you can remember that that’s what others want as much as you do, it makes it a little harder to hate them, which is all to the good. Of course, that requires 6 billion individual decisions. Well, maybe not quite so many now—I know some people have already made the decision to live that way.

As I was listening to the 10@10 mix, then, I recalled a Sting song that is now 22 years old. Beyond the fact that the age of the song speaks to my own aging, I think that the message is as pertinent now as it was then. The names have changed, but the world, it seems, has not.

Russians (<-Click to play)

In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Krushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy
There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the President
There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie that we don’t believe anymore
Mr. Reagan says we will protect you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.