When I was a kid and the Cold War was in full bloom, we were terrified of the Russians. We didn’t know what it meant, exactly, but our teachers did. They showed us cartoons with ogre-looking creatures – the Red Menace – reaching across the ocean to beat us to a pulp. Every so often, we were instructed to “duck and cover”, the practice drill for diving under our ancient wooden desks: protection from the nuclear bomb that grownups were certain was heading our way.

Sure. A wooden desk was going to save us from nuclear annihilation.

But the larger point was clear: for all our progress, military strength and moral superiority, America felt vulnerable to attack, and those early years of crouching under desks programmed our psychological hard drive to make sure we understood the seriousness of world events.

Not much has changed in half a century. Even now, one political party still worries about Communists in our midst and would probably bring back Joe McCarthy to hold hearings on fifth column activities that threaten our way of life.

It’s true, though, in a sense. America has always seemed to be at war or on the precipice of war with any number of enemies who scare the bejeezus out of us. One miscalculation or itchy, red-button finger and we’ll all be looking for wooden desks to dive under.

The duck-and-cover days reached a climax of sorts in October 1962 when the Soviet Union moved nuclear missiles into Cuba, setting off thirteen days of frantic political chess known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F Kennedy finally cut a deal with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, that involved extracting US missiles from Turkey in exchange for removing a threat just 90 miles off our shores.

Americans all breathed a sigh of relief, but it didn’t end fears that we were sitting ducks for the next confrontation. After all, the Iron Curtain across Europe was an ever-present reminder that some countries were our guys and others were their guys. The Berlin Wall was the avatar of division, and we worried the Soviet empire would grow faster than ours.

As the Cold War dragged on, our leaders decided we couldn’t abide any more Communists taking over another country. So we made our commitment to the western-facing parts of Vietnam. Whether one believed in the cause or not, this adventure had a particularly nasty impact on America’s young men who either volunteered to fight or were forced into uniform through a draft lottery.

One itchy, red-button finger and we’ll all be looking for desks to dive under

A low-tech system decided our fate: a hand-cranked Bingo cage spit out 365 balls, each with a specific date on it. If your birthday was on the first ball, you were drafted. And so on. The predictions were that half the balls were required for the military branches to get what they needed. I was lucky. My birthday came on the 289th ball, so I was in the clear. Not so many of my friends, nor the thousands of other young men who became fodder for years of swampy guerrilla warfare.

More than 55,000 American deaths later, the Communists won anyway and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote a memoir in which he conceded the whole idea of US involvement was a mistake and he knew it all along. Thanks, Bob.

We relaxed a bit after that war. The draft ended, though not our appetite for keeping the world safe from Soviet-backed bad guys. We always knew who and where they were as the Cold War held. But we also knew the next military adventure could be right around the corner, in Asia, Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere. The fear level was lower, but the Soviet Union was still a nuclear power, making many of these skirmishes a proxy exercise in the never-ending quest for world domination.

Then something changed, and nerves jangled again. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet sphere melted away, stateless threats we’d never heard of brought anxieties back – Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Shabaab. Who were these guys with their rocket-propelled grenades, open-toed sandals and misogynist views, and how could their loosely configured forces cause us so much pain?

We found out on 11 September, 2001, when hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon in Washington. These attacks were not only the first deadly incursions onto American soil from a foreign source since 1812 but terrifying for their audacious style. For many months, we expected more attacks but had no clue how they might come.
It’s fair to say we are still on edge, and no matter who occupies the White House we don’t seem confident we can handle the next attack, no matter what its form. China scares us for its sheer size, trade policies and computer hacking capabilities. No one knows what North Korea might try. Iran remains a territorial threat through proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and its nuclear aspirations.

And so long as Vladimir Putin holds his vision of a revanchist Russian Empire, many of us fear that the Baltics or Poland might be next after Ukraine, which would require additional defensive manpower from us. The Russians have also demonstrated expertise in computer hacking, viz the 2020 elections.

Other challenges are keeping us on edge. Covid hasn’t been eradicated, returning facemasks to our everyday wardrobe. AI prompts aspiration and perspiration, leaving none of us certain whether it’s ultimately a tool for good or evil. Thousands of foreigners overrun our southern border every day. The Russians are working on a nuclear satellite that would obliterate the computer-based systems that are the infrastructure of our lives.

The worst part is that we have an episode of Antiques Roadshow as our presidential campaign. Joe Biden’s shambling demeanor instils confidence in only a few; Donald Trump still has his passionate followers, but he terrifies many more Americans for his lies, vengeful nature and court-blown cover as a great businessman and negotiator. According to his critics, he’s an autocrat-in-waiting who would return the country to an “America First” crouch.

Come to think of it, that may be the best position to hide under a desk.

More ammo for the culture wars

Hardly a week goes by without a new wrinkle in social policy.

Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act allows couples using in vitro fertilisation to sue facilities that lost or destroyed frozen embryos. The rationale, as the court ruled, is that frozen embryos are regarded as children and deserve the full protection of the law.

Basing the decision on Christian belief, Chief Justice Tom Parker said the embryos “cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.”

Even in a conservative state that has banned abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest, this was a bit far. State lawmakers from both parties, as well as the Republican governor, Kay Ivey, vowed to protect in vitro fertilisation facilities through new legislation. Even Donald Trump, a darling of the far right, said he opposed the court decision.

While Parker’s decision was praised by anti-abortion groups, it added more fuel to the national debate over where life begins – from prior to implantation, as the court would have it, to birth, as some groups argue, or to a point in between, for which there is no national consensus.

Others contend that Justice Parker’s ruling violates a key Constitutional mandate.

“Our country’s promise of church-state separation is meant to protect citizens from government officials enshrining their personal religious views into law,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State said on its website. “The Alabama Supreme Court ignored that constitutional promise to impose on all Alabamians a policy rooted in religious theology about the origins of life.”

Darryl George, eighteen, was suspended last year for securing his long hair on top of his head

The immediate impact of the ruling led to three clinics pausing their in vitro services while legal challenges play out. Longer term, the Alabama ruling spurred speculation that courts in other conservative states might rule the same way.
A few states away, a Texas court ruled that state law upholds a school district’s right to discipline a Black student over the length of his hair.

Darryl George, eighteen, was suspended last year for securing his long hair on top of his head, a style commonly favoured by Black men in keeping with cultural traditions. The school district asserted that hair length is contemplated by the state’s CROWN Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of hair style or texture, even if it does not explicitly address length.
The school district argued that the law effectively supports its own regulation banning hair styles that extend beyond eyebrows, ear lobes or collars even if, as George wore his, it was pinned back onto his head.

The George family is suing Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who signed the CROWN Act into law, and the state Attorney General, Ken Paxton, claiming the Act violated federal civil rights protection. George remains under school suspension.

The school district superintendent, Greg Poole, defended disciplining George, saying in an advertisement in the Houston Chronicle: “Our military academies in West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs maintain a rigorous expectation of dress. They realise being an American requires conformity with the positive benefit of unity, and being a part of something bigger than yourself.”

Well, okay. In his family’s federal court filing, George said, “I am being harassed by school officials and treated like a dog.”

Pulling the plug?

Both President Joe Biden and California Governor Gavin Newsom have moved to phase out sales of fuel-powered vehicles by the middle of the next decade.

But this effort is proving too aggressive for some. First, there’s been a huge pushback from the fossil fuel industry, arguing that weaning the country off gasoline would wreck the economy. Auto worker unions also claim they’ll lose jobs when vehicle manufacturers retool their factories.

Then there’s this: sales of Teslas, America’s most popular electric vehicles, are falling due to insufficient charging stations as well as a growing dislike of Tesla’s boss, Elon Musk, over his stewardship of X, formerly Twitter. Critics argue X does not act forcefully enough to keep hate, offensive messages and Russian propaganda off the platform.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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April 2024, Columns, Stateside

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