I was thirteen years old when the Berlin Wall fell, but I have a hard time thinking of myself as a child of the Cold War. I certainly heard a lot about how evil the Soviet Union was and all that, but I was totally unaware of how things like Russia’s food problems and Ronald Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric were pushing us to the verge of a hot war when I was still in grade school. More than that, despite how iconic the cartoons and jingles were (and continue to be in this YouTube era), I was never taught to “duck and cover” at any of the schools I attended. I certainly didn’t have the same experience with the Cold War that my parents did, and even though the war certainly shaped a lot of my upbringing, it did so in ways that were far more subtle than those my predecessors experienced.
As I’ve lived through these past few weeks of the pandemic, and the infection and death counts here in America continue to soar, I’ve sometimes wondered how Americans in the sixties and seventies would have reacted to a mass movement proclaiming that the USSR was a figment of some people’s imaginations: Russia was a hoax, communism was “fake news,” and Leonid Brezhnev was really a guy from New Jersey named Vinnie Striker who just pretended to be a foreigner to help further the ruse. Believing in all that would certainly be comforting — I don’t even want to think about how being forced to watch all those “duck and cover” films as a young child would have messed with my brain — but that comfort wouldn’t make the illusions any less false.
It could certainly be argued that some on the American left during the Cold War downplayed the threat posed by the Eastern Bloc, but when people on the other end of the spectrum are literally screaming “better dead than red,” it raises the question of whether throwing ice water on that kind of rhetoric might have been a wise strategy at the time. There must have been a handful of Americans who went around saying that the USSR and the Cold War weren’t real, but they were probably easy to sweep up and put in mental asylums (assuming the asylums weren’t already, you know, full of gay people). Still, you can’t pull the microfiche of any newspaper that was a primary news source of more than 10% of the American public back then and find nonstop coverage claiming that the very concept of the country of Russia was some kind of mass conspiracy theory designed to poison everyone’s minds. (We’ll save fluoridated water for another time.)
In 2001, following the 09.11 attacks, no one would have dared say that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda didn’t exist. If nothing else, the first World Trade Center bombing, and other attacks like the one on the USS Cole just months earlier, had put them at least in the back of most Americans’ minds for a long time. Again, you can argue the seriousness of the threat posed by terrorism, and the conspiracy theories surrounding that day in 2001 are enough to twist my stomach into a thousand Gordian knots, but the idea that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were fictional creations would be taking things too far even for a lot of the “truthers,” both then and now.
As the past couple of decades have gone on, though, that kind of denialism became not only more commonplace, but more accepted. It’s easy to point to any number of examples of contemporary conspiracy theories being mainstreamed — all those dead kids at that elementary school in Connecticut is just the tip of that iceberg — but this is all just the logical consequence of four decades of allowing the politically-charged fiction of a deranged group of right-wingers to be portrayed as “reality” in mass media. Maybe we should look all the way back to the termination of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan Administration, and the resulting rise of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, as the turning point in all this. Maybe we should look at the launch of Fox News Channel, and how these fantasies became a literal twenty-four-hour-a-day blanket for people to wrap themselves up in, as that crucial point. Maybe it was right-wing manipulation of the Internet and social media over the past decade that turned the tide. I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that I have long argued about how dangerous it was to let these things go unchecked and unchallenged. Few things made me angrier than people who would just throw up their hands when confronted with the perniciousness of this problem, and say words to the effect of, “People are gonna believe what they’re gonna believe, so why waste your breath?” We’ve now lived through three years in this country where this kind of thinking has been allowed to literally govern our existence, and I honestly don’t know if this country is going to live another three years at this point.
The fact that COVID-19 — which will probably kill more Americans in a single day than we lost in the 09.11 attacks at some point in the near future — is invisible just makes this all the worse. You’ve probably already heard some of the ways that right-wingers have tried to deny or minimize the seriousness of the pandemic, and I literally can’t bring myself to mention any examples right now because they’re so nauseating. In a lot of ways, a pandemic may have been the worst thing to happen to us, simply because the relative invisibility of a virus makes it so much easier to deny that things are happening, or at least that they’re as bad as the effects we can see with our eyes — worn-out doctors and nurses, mass graves, everything from trailers to soccer fields being turned into treatment facilities — because, after all, they could all just be actors, right? People paid to put on a performance to trick our feeble little minds?
As much as I’ve come to accept that the death toll from COVID-19 is going to be brutal, I’m still hoping against hope that the number of deaths is as low as possible. I’ve seen some people online argue that a higher death toll will actually be better for America in the long-term, since these people apparently believe that more Americans dying will make it harder for people to deny how serious the pandemic is (and, by extension, how much the Trump Administration butchered the response America should have taken), but I think that ship sailed long ago. We’re at a point now where no number of dead bodies will stop a good third of the American public from saying that COVID-19 is “fake news” or whatever. I just wonder how much of America, the country, there will be left to save at the end of this, because judging by how things this last week went, it sure feels like a lot of people want to pull the plug right now and give up.