The protests of 2020: a Cold War perspective
I wrote this essay on June 2, 2020 to process the chaos and uncertainty that surrounded us in 2020. I did not post it anywhere. Instead, I saved it and immediately forgot about it. I found it today while cleaning out some files from my computer. Although it’s two years old, I feel it’s still relevant. I hope you find it useful or at the very least, interesting.
I did not edit it from it’s original draft.
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Protests of 2020 reminds us that in times like this, one comes to realize how little we pay attention to the nuances and details of our daily lives. Or maybe it is that we pay too much attention to those details that we lose sight of the big picture with its overlapping themes and issues. Even though the current state of events are shocking- but not surprising- different generations are understanding and conceptualizing these events in very different ways.
As a member of a generation that came of age towards the end of the Cold War, I can attest to the many societal changes -both good and bad- that helped forge our present situation. Technology and innovation was state-sponsored so it moved quickly. At the end of World War II, aviation still depended on propeller airplanes, many without pressurized cabins. Fifteen years later, a rocket flew through earth’s atmosphere and landed on the moon. We did it before the Soviets. And that was the real goal. Since then, our society became one of dichotomies. The way we choose understand and accept people, ideas, issues, and even technology is through the lens of dichotomy which we developed during the Cold War.
During the Cold War, the world and all of its inhabitants were either Pro-America (democracy and capitalism) or Pro-Soviet (Communist). Those were the First and Second (industrialized) worlds. The remaining countries -those who pledged no allegiance to either or played both became known as the Third World and they were up for grabs. The entire world was on one side or another, or at least pretended to be on one side or the other. This became a shared global perspective. Economic sanctions, clandestine funding for military or political coups, invasions and wars all became part of the power grab between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Lines in the sand became the norm. Anti-Soviet and Anti-Communist was a unifying banner for most Americans. Racism, sexism, socio-economic disparities still existed, but they were American problems. We owned them. When Communism crumbled and the famed Iron Curtain fell, the United States remained as the victor of the Cold War. That was the universal perspective because Cold War had placed the world in flat plane with a line drawn across it. Communists on one side, and us on the other. But decades after the defeat of the Soviet Union, we have learned the end of the Cold War did not equate a solid and undeniable victory for democracy and capitalism because nothing is one dimensional, especially a war victory.
Most GenXrs were born around the time of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcom X. Growing up, our history books presented a single-dimensional understanding of the writings, speeches and legacy of those men. King, the peaceful, turn-the-other cheek, non-violent Baptist Pastor, the other, an angry, separatist and violent Muslim. Reducing these complex, intelligent men and their beliefs and philosophies to a simple “non-violent vs violent” comparison ignores the complex and powerful messages they both contributed to the Civil Rights movement. It also negates the richness of the nuanced philosophies that drove their singular goal: to have African Americans be treated as equals and to be afforded the same rights, privileges and respect as their white compatriots.
History books have positioned King and MalcomX as polar opposites because history books are written primarily by white men who already see both men as the “other”. There are also historians who have Cold War-inspired perspective of the world. They see the world in two very distinct and separate sides to everything. There is no room for grey or overlapping areas of commonality. Dr. King and MalcomX are presented to American students as opposites. Enemies, even. They were not. There was never a cross word between them nor was there animosity or criticism of each other’s philosophies. They were supportive and respectful of each other because they understood that few differences in philosophies did not outweigh the common goal.
When we graduated from high school in the late 1980s, both Dr. King and MalcomX had been dead just over 20 years. The Cold War was coming to its slow demise leaving us with the false sense of victory and overinflated confidence that our world view was without a doubt, righteous. We still had internal issues, but those issues were now, more than ever, to be accepted as everything else, having two undisputed and concrete sides. One is right and one is wrong. One will reign with power, the other will try to take it away. Only one side can have all of the power. The other will have to surrender all power and accept defeat. This is how we have lived in the United States for centuries, but more so after the end of the Cold War.
We have been stuck in this perception of the world for 30 years and it’s time to change that. Understanding the world only through compartments, pigeon holes, or strict categories, while ignoring the nuances and delicate connections and grey areas between cultures, economies, religions, languages and people, has brought us to a breaking point. The breaking point we are witnessing in the streets of the United States is a collective mental break down of millions of Americans. Anyone who has ever experienced a mental breakdown will understand the feeling of those out there chanting, demanding better. They will even understand burning of buildings and destruction of property. (I did not say “support” or “defend”, I said understand).
Understanding the frustration of millions of people who have broken down and are acting out is one of those grey areas that needs to be recognized and accepted. Understanding is to empathize. Again, it does not mean to condone or support. Validating feelings, beliefs or perceptions -however different they are from the accepted norm- is a way to begin the change that needs to happen. When we empathize, understand and validate others, we open ourselves to discovering a common place we all inhabit. Willingness to see that common place requires us to be vulnerable and Cold War taught us that vulnerable means weak. Vulnerable means you can be invaded and controlled. So we don’t allow it. Not at a national, societal or personal level.
GenXrs grew up with this mentality ingrained in our brains. It’s difficult to unlearn or change a long-lasting perception of the world. We are now in our 50s and so we are closer to retirement age than we are to that era of Cold War that helped shape and mold us. The world has changed, no doubt. And today’s teenagers -GenZrs- do not see the world as we did. As we, GenXrs still do. They do not draw lines in the sand. They are accepting of all types, shapes, colors, religions. In fact, I believe GenZ is not “accepting” as much as they are indifferent to characteristics GenXrs use to categorize and qualify the world. They don’t make an effort to accept people different than themselves because they don’t really allow those differences to be part of their perception of others. My children are GenZrs and I have decided to learn from them. GenZ has a lot to offer our society, but it also has a lot to learn. We can teach each other. I follow their lead and I make a daily effort to refocus my perception of the world around me in a post-Cold War, (even Post-Iraq Invasion) era. But I also make sure they understand why certain things are the way they are instead of forcing them to accept things as they are. They will choose what needs to change and how to change them.
I hope my GenZ kids will understand that their GenX mom’s musings about the current state of the world helps them to understand the world we all share.