On my latest trip to DC, I was cruising on Amtrak listening to David Bowie’s 1977 album “Low.” I was struck by one song in particular and it got me thinking about how we overreact.
The song isn’t a chartbuster- it’s Warszawa, a roughly six-and-a-half minute instrumental. There actually are a few words, but not many at all, and they appear to be a combination of languages or dialects that Bowie mashed together. Most of the song is just…well, a disconcerting electronic score that brings back memories of a scarier time.
Warszawa is named for the Polish City of Warsaw, which Bowie visited very briefly in the 1970s. At the time, Poland was part of the Soviet Union-dominated Eastern Bloc of countries, and Bowie’s work puts you right back into those times– during the heart of the Cold War. For those of us who remember, we were in the thick of it in the late 70s. Everyone agreed that the Soviet Union were the bad guys, and there was a constant feeling that World War III was around the corner. Warszawa brings that all back, right from the very start of the song.
The opening bars are haunting. The deep electronic notes resemble the ominous tolling of a bell. And when the synthesizers come in with higher notes for the first time one feels as though you’ve been transported into a Tom Clancy novel (one of the earlier ones- the good ones. Not some of the crap that he wrote after the Iron Curtain fell). Throughout the piece one can feel the darkness of Soviet controlled Poland. It brought back scary days from my youth.
I remember having Cold War inspired nightmares as a kid. I still recall one vividly— Soviet tanks were rolling down my street in New Jersey. I watched them from the center of the road outside my house and despite my attempts to run in the house, I couldn’t. My feet were frozen to the pavement. I had that same nightmare dozens of times.
I know I’m showing my age when I say this, but I am struck by how, today, an entire generation (or two) has no recollection about the fear instilled by our confrontation with the Soviet Union. A large part of our population doesn’t remember (nor understand) the evil of Stalin snd the craziness of a shoe-banging Kruschev.
Younger generations think they can identify- after all, today we have a big bad Russia that’s trying to hack our elections. But while there is certainly truth that Russia poses a danger to us, it pales in comparison to the threat of the USSR. Plus, we need to face a political reality— part of the Russia paranoia we see in the media today is an attempt to pump up the issue so it can be used to derail the Trump Administration. Not that it’s complete hogwash, but it’s not nearly the Whatever-gate that’s being depicted in the media. Things were different, however, in the 1970s.
Back in the 70s, our history lessons in school included a discussion about the possibility of MAD— Mutual Assured Destruction. It was the scenario that could unfold if the USSR launched it’s nukes against us and we did the same to retaliate. The result, of course, would be annihilation. And it felt like that was a possibility at any moment. The only thing keeping balance and preventing apocalypse was the nuclear deterrent. Today, by comparison. we’re up in arms about election hacking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important, but it’s hardly the same. And it’s not new.
This sort of spy game has been going on since time immemorial. It’s just that no one knew about it. Espionage and counter-espionage has been a reality in our country since it was founded. We’ve been fighting this game before Russia was communist, while Russia was the USSR, and after Russia entered it’s current freaky political state. Serious dangers have always existed- the general populace just didn’t know about many of them because the reporting wasn’t as advanced, Wikileaks didn’t exist, and the speed that information travels around the globe (because of the internet and social media) is a new phenomenon. These systems aren’t revealing new problems, they’re just making the problems that have always existed apparent to people who were once blissfully ignorant.
The issue of Russian hacking an election is serious. We need to address it without question. The Trump-Russia story needs to be explored fully. But let’s try to keep things in perspective— we live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. This latest spat with Russia is not nearly as dangerous as the perilous era of the Cold War. And if you want to get a bit of a feeling for what it was like in a more dangerous time, go listen to Warszawa.