I said that no, in fact, I hadn’t. I asked the same of him, and he said, yes, in fact, he had. I asked if he’d been in the service. Yes, he said, I was. I made a guess, based on his apparent age. “Vietnam?” I asked.
He looked me right in the eye for a moment and said, “No, man. The Cold War.” I tried very hard not to let my face move. “Yeah,” he said, turning back to his beer, talking to it as much as me now, “yeah, that Cuban Missile Crisis really fucked me up.”
I thought of this story — to be fair, I often think of this story, but I thought of it in particular — a couple of weeks ago when, after the Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews launched into a bizarre monologue. “I have my own views of the word socialist,” a visibly upset Matthews shouted at a visibly uncomfortable panel of news media personalities:
. . . and I’ll be glad to share them with you in private and they go back to the early 1950s.
I have an attitude about them. I remember the Cold War. I have an attitude toward [Fidel] Castro. I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War, there would have been executions in Central Park, and I might have been one of the ones getting executed. And certain other people would be there cheering.
The video became a viral hit, and most people seemed inclined to treat it as sad comedy — an “OK Boomer” moment for an aging, former insider unable to process the current moment in politics except through sepia tones of a long-dead and increasingly irrelevant conflict. Castro? The Reds? Really?
Just a week later, though, Matthews perseverated even more spectacularly, reacting to Bernie Sanders’ decisive victory in the Nevada caucuses by comparing it to the Nazis’ triumph over France in World War II. The Vermont senator has family who was exterminated in the Holocaust, and the comment outraged even some of his most committed opponents. (Matthews has since issued a public apology.)
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While it’s easy to dismiss an out-of-touch television personality trying with increasing desperation to fill dead air — to come up with something, anything, to say about the horse race — these episodes nonetheless betray the desperation of a party establishment and its media allies to stop a Sanders campaign that is gaining momentum — to use their word — by the day.
Sanders isn’t even especially far left: it is only the deranged conservatism of professional politics and the American media class that portrays him that way.
“In Cold War travels, Bernie Sanders found much to admire behind enemy lines. Now that’s a problem for his campaign,” declared the Washington Post, although the article provides no evidence that it is, in fact, “a problem for his campaign” in any meaningful, empirical sense. Videos of and anecdotes about Sanders’ visit to the Soviet Union have been circulating since he ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, to little effect.
These stories, and this ineffectual effort to red-bait Sanders and smear his supporters as wannabe Stalinists or violent revolutionaries, are absurd on their face. Sanders isn’t even especially far left: it is only the deranged conservatism of professional politics and the American media class that portrays him that way. In Western Europe — rich, comfortable and largely ruled by neoliberals — he would count as a centrist and might even find a home as an idiosyncratic gadfly on the center right. His supposed admiration for the communist bloc is itself remarkably tame. The Soviets did build great subways and palaces of culture. The Cubans did transform an uneducated, agrarian society into perhaps the most literate country on earth.
But these efforts do reveal a persistent psychological inadequacy that seems to haunt a segment of the Baby Boomer generation — a sense that they’re not getting the credit they deserve for winning their great struggle with the Soviets. Matthews and his ilk look toward the triumphalism of the early 1990s not because it was, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama once put it, “the end of history,” but because they’d won goddammit, defeating tyranny just like their parents had a generation before.
The Sanders campaign, many of whose supporters weren’t even alive for the fall of the Berlin Wall, forces them to acknowledge their moment has receded into the distant past. It may offer some points of historical interest, perhaps even some lessons for present-day politics, but no 30-year-old with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and a four-year gap in health insurance coverage since he got kicked off his parents’ plan cares one bit about some old man’s fantasy of going toe-to-toe with the Russkies. If capitalism triumphed 30 years ago, then it now has no convenient foreign foil with which to distract from its own record of losses and humiliations, violence and repression.
Better dead than red, they used to say. But when you are staring down the cost of insulin or the rising ocean lapping at your door or another wildfire season coming for your home, a little pink feels like a reasonable option after all.