End of Year Reflection

As we reach the end of 2016, I can’t help thinking: “What just happened?“. It’s been a year of unexpected (and far from conclusive) electoral outcomes. Renewed Cold War hostilities threaten to break out on a weekly basis. Sectarian conflicts have created levels of mass-migration not seen since the end of WWII. Meanwhile, there have been more celebrity deaths than I can recall in a single year. (And a Scotsman is the #1 tennis player in the world.)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

The Brexit and Trump poll results are being cited as either examples of the new populist/nationalist politics, or proof that our current democratic systems are highly flawed. Either way, they are indicative of a certain public mood: anger fueled by a sense of despair at not being able to deal with the rapid changes brought about by globalisation, multiculturalism, modernisation and the “open source” economy. Ironically, both the Brexit and Trump campaigns relied heavily on the global technologies of social media, 24-news cycles and internet-driven soundbites (plus they surely benefited at various times from fake news, false claims and belligerent rhetoric).

As I write, I am in the UK, which is heading for a mini winter of discontent (with high-profile strikes in the rail, mail and airline sectors). The last time I was here about two years ago, there was a general sense of public optimism; now, post-Brexit, it feels very subdued, even depressed. Whether this is a delayed response to the Brexit result, or uncertainty about the exit process itself, it’s hard to tell. While the governing Conservative party leadership is struggling to implement the outcome of a referendum that many of them did not want (or expect), the opposition Labour party (whose own leadership was highly ambivalent about the Brexit vote) is busily re-enacting the 1970’s and 1980’s….

Speaking of the 70’s and 80’s, the return to Cold War hostilities has felt like an inevitability for the past few years, and if it weren’t so serious it might be the suitable subject of a satire by Nikolai Gogol. While the primary fault lines are again between the USA and Russia, there are some complications and distractions, that don’t paint as clear a picture compared to the past: first, the relationships between the US President-elect and Russia confuse matters; second, the ideological war has shifted from capitalism vs communism, to liberalism vs autocracy; third, the role of “satellite” states is no longer to act as proxies in localised disputes – these supporting characters might now provide the trigger for all out hostilities between the super powers.

The ascendancy of this new nationalism (within the USA as much as in Russia) and the increased autocratic leadership on display in democratic, theocratic, oligarchic and totalitarian regimes alike is a renewed threat to enlightened liberalism and classical pluralism. Hence the significance of failing democratic institutions and political leadership in the west – the vacuum they leave behind is readily filled by the “certainty” of dictatorship and extremism. With China added to the mix via recent maritime events, plus ongoing strife in the Middle East, the potential flash point for a new Cold War conflict might be in the Spratly Islands as much as Syria, Ulaanbaatar as Ukraine, or Ankara as Aden.

On a (slightly) lighter note, the number of celebrity deaths reported in 2016 could be explained by demographics: artists who became famous during the explosion of popular culture in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are simply getting old. In terms of dead pop stars, 2016 was book-ended by the deaths of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. Both were experiencing something of a renaissance in their professional fortunes, and each left us with some of the most challenging but enduring work of their careers. Of their surviving contemporaries, some might argue that Neil Young and Bob Dylan continue to keep the musical flame alive, but for my money, Brian Eno and John Cale are the torch bearers for their generation.

In a satirical end of year review in The Times last weekend, the following words were “attributed” to Bowie (someone known to understand, if not define, the zeitgeist):

“Sorry to bail, guys. But I could see the way things were going.”

Next week: Content in Context is taking a break for the holidays. Peace and best wishes to all my readers. Normal service will resume on January 10.

10 Examples of Cold War Nostalgia: We Can’t Get Enough Of It…

I don’t know if any historian, politician or media commentator has ever said it publicly, but someone must have coined the phrase, “You knew where you stood during the Cold War”.

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There was some strange comfort to be had in knowing exactly where the geo-political lines were drawn in the days before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution of 1979* – events which could be argued to have brought about the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, but also heralded an era of constant challenge to American hegemony.

35 years after those momentous events of 1979, numerous books, TV series and films continue to feed our appetite for Cold War nostalgia. Here is a (highly subjective and selective) list of 10 such contributions from recent years:

  1. “Stasiland” (2003) – While not strictly speaking about the Cold War, Anna Funder’s  contemporary work of non-fiction on East Germany’s surveillance regime is a powerful account of her investigation into the activities of secret police operatives and their victims, and what has become of them since the Berlin Wall collapsed and the re-unification of Germany
  2. “The Lives of Others” (2006) – This film, set in 1984, is a somewhat romanticized look at events described in Funder’s “Stasiland”, but still manages to convey the numbing effects of life behind the Iron Curtain
  3. “Equals” (2014) – The year will not be allowed to pass without SOME sort of reference/homage/pastiche/exhumation/sequel to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984”, which was published 65 years ago, and set 35 years in the future of the titular year itself. While not exactly a Cold War novel, it’s seen as an allegory for life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and a veiled warning to the rest of us about the threat of a totalitarian regime. Upcoming movie “Equals” is supposed to be a romantic interpretation of “1984”….
  4. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) – A movie adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy novel (itself published 40 years ago, and first dramatised for TV 35 years ago when the Cold War was very much alive and kicking).
  5. “Foyle’s War” (2000-2013) – The latest episodes in this long-running TV detective series show our hero transitioning from investigating crime during war-time to the new world of espionage, counter-intelligence and Cold War intrigue.
  6. “The Hour” (2012-13) – This short-lived TV drama series was ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at a 1950’s news and current affairs programme, but uses the Cold War events like the Hungary uprising and the Suez Crisis as a backdrop (along with a healthy dose of “reds under the bed” which implicitly references the Soviet agent scandals that rocked the British establishment during the 1950’s and 1960’s and beyond – Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt et al).
  7. “Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK” (2013) – Geoffrey Robertson delves into the truth behind the criminal prosecution and media castigation of a bit-player in the so-called Profumo Affair, which likely contributed to Ward’s suicide in 1963. The Profumo Affair of 1961 had it all – prostitution, Cold War politics and Soviet agents. And even though it led to the resignation of the UK’s War Minister, it has been suggested that the Establishment demanded scapegoats, and Ward was seen as a suitable victim.
  8. “Solo: A James Bond Novel” (2013) – William Boyd is the latest novelist to be invited to add to the Bond canon (original Bond author, Ian Fleming died 50 years ago), and chose to set the story in 1969 with a strong Cold War context. Boyd is, of course, no stranger to this genre – nearly all of his recent novels (“Any Human Heart”, “Restless”, “Waiting for Sunrise” and “Ordinary Thunderstorms”) incorporate elements of war-time espionage, betrayal, double agents and industrial sabotage that span the 20th century.
  9. “Sweet Tooth” (2013) – Ian McEwan uses the Cold War politics of the early 1970’s as the setting for his novel about love, trust, (self-)deception, “official” propaganda and bureaucratic betrayal.
  10. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) – Finally, bang up to date with a film version of the Tom Clancy novel. Clancy, who died only a few months ago, was a veritable Cold War warrior of the fiction world, and this latest addition to the Jack Ryan saga includes some (reassuring) Russian elements. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure it will satisfy my appetite for Cold War nostalgia.

* The events of the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, of course, were recently dramatised to great effect in “Argo” (2012). And just this month, The Atlantic described current US-Iran relations in Cold War terms.