All posts by bencw99

The Extent of Self-Interested Support for Civil Rights

 

In my TiC I explored the relationship between the Cold War and government support for the civil rights movement, focusing on the notion that the government supported civil rights throughout this time period to combat communist propaganda efforts accusing America of racial discrimination. However, the Cold War was also known for the oppression of opposition including leftist groups such as those pushing for the civil rights movement. In my RBA I would like to further examine the dynamic between the oppression of opposition and acceptance of opposing ideologies during the Cold War, and how this dynamic contributed to the American democracy today. More specifically, given that leftist and “other” groups were targeted alongside communists, and that government support for civil rights during the Cold War was primarily self-interested, I would like to further research the extent of this self-interested support, and whether this support was maintained as Cold War tensions lessened and global pressures lifted.

My brainstorm may be found at https://www.mindmeister.com/794841844?new=1

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The “Achilles Heel” of Cold War Democracy

The Cold War was largely fought on ideological grounds, with America supposedly fighting for freedom and democracy against Soviet communism. However, racial inequality through segregation and Jim Crow laws within the United States contradicted much of the advertised American philosophy, greatly undermining the good-and-evil dichotomy the American government hoped to project. As communist criticism of pervasive racism revealed the contradictions of the contemporary democracy, the American government was forced to acknowledge the nation’s faults and concede rights to previously discriminated groups. This ideological “Achilles Heel” of the American cause drove much of American policy during the Cold War period, eventually helping the United States more fully realize the true democratic principles upon which the nation was founded.

This theme has been addressed by numerous scholars. One of the most prominent such historians was Gerald Horne, who dubs the term “Achilles Heel” mentioned above and discusses how communists highlighted and helped break down racial discrimination and its political manifestations. Specifically, in his book Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle he examines how the Communist Party’s criticisms of the Scottsboro case drew international attention, pressuring the government into recognizing and acting against inequality. Another scholar, Damion Thomas, offers the perspective of the American government on this matter in Globetrotting : African American athletes and Cold War politics. Though the book mostly focuses on African American integration in sports, Thomas also addresses how the American government first attempted to defend its “Achilles Heel” by calling Soviet claims propaganda. However, they eventually realized the futility of this effort and acknowledged existing racial inequality, recalling historical context to soften the blow. This admission, made possible through the opposing viewpoints of communists, resulted in new policies resolving this admitted fault. Erik McDuffie responded to Horne’s original works in Black and Red: Black Liberation, the Cold War, and the Horne Thesis but chooses to focus on how specific African American leftist groups responded to racial discrimination and anticommunist aggression.

To further research this topic and the viewpoints discussed in these sources, I hope to examine the paradoxical relationship between anticommunism and growing support for civil rights within the American government. While ideologically opposing communism and upholding democracy, America was forced to acknowledge and swallow certain oppositions, even those coming directly from the Soviet Union. Arguably, this is the most important aspect of democracy and I would like to further research the dynamics of this paradox.

From Kohms and Yangs to Communists and Yankees

Many aspects of the popular science fiction television series Star Trek serve as allegories to policy and culture in the United States, making arguments about many contemporary controversial policies and issues. One such allegory was presented through the episode “The Omega Glory”, originally airing on March 1, 1968. In this episode the Enterprise discovers a planet called Exeter where two groups called the Kohms and the Yangs, representing the communists and the Yankees, are constantly fighting. The crew realizes that this planet is an alternate version of the Earth, and that the holy words that the Yangs follow are actually the Constitution and other patriotic documents. However, despite supposedly sharing the American ideology the Yangs believe different individuals should have different rights and freedoms, and the the Kohms should be treated as subhumans. Captain Kirk explains to the Yangs the true meaning of freedom and democracy, principles misunderstood and perverted by the Yang rulers. This relatively obvious allegory specifically references the Cold War, during which fear caused the deterioration of the democratic ideals of freedom and equality, and causes Americans to question whether the these pillars of the American identity are truly expressed in government policies at home and abroad.

Unlike news and other nonfiction sources of media, the primary goal of science fiction and fantasy is arguably to entertain viewers and readers. Subtle messages imbued through allegories, for example, are offered indirectly or hypothetically. This subtlety allows authors and directors to make claims about real world matters without directly challenging any authority, but instead projecting general ideas applicable to real world issues. Sarantakes calls “The Omega Glory” a “patriotic but thoughtful piece of propaganda”, a work with a clear message about American ideals imbued into a piece of entertainment. A science fiction similar to Star Trek is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, which depicts an intergalactic battle between humanity and an alien species known as the Buggers. The story focuses on the use of propaganda to create binary representations of humanity and the alien race, and ends with the discovery that the whole conflict was caused by inability to communicate with the other species. This work can be viewed as an allegory of the Cold War, criticizing the endless propaganda and lack of any actual righteous cause behind many aspects of the war.

The Tangible and Intangible Safety of Suburbs

In his essay Disaster and Decentralization: American cities and the Cold War, Matthew Farish discusses the influences of the Cold War and more specifically atomic weaponry on American society. He argues that the principle of containment was relevant not only in preventing the spread of communism on the global scale but also in the domestic sphere. Focusing on the dispersal of American cities and the formation of suburbs, Farish explains that “suburbs embodied order, safety, and a deeply gendered consumerism”. As areas of relatively low population density suburbs were considered safe from nuclear attacks, which were believed to target centers of high population concentration such as cities. This conception was compounded by post World War II imagery of nuclear mushroom clouds and complete destruction over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Beyond safety from physical threats, Farish explains that suburbs were ideologically unified communities filled with middle class white citizens. The danger of other ethnic and ideological groups prominent throughout cities was non-existent in carefully contained suburban homes. Overall, suburbs embodied containment internal containment, where any threats, tangible or intangible, to the American identity were minimized.

There are direct parallels between how images of nuclear destruction in Hiroshima deepened American anxiety of living in cities and the effects of the imagery of the Twin Towers falling on public ideology after the September 11th attacks. These both highlight cities and urban centers as primary targets of attacks, whether by enemy nations or terrorists, giving the public the impression that cities are unsafe and promoting decentralization of population concentration into the suburbs. However, unlike the imagery of nuclear explosions in Hiroshima, the September 11th attacks specifically targeted symbols of America, rather than cities in general. Despite the notion that imagery from both of these tragic events spread fear in Americans, the terrorist attacks embodied an attack on the American identity, largely acting to unify all American people, the imagery of nuclear warfare was not associated with America itself, and was instead just caused dispersion of Americans away from cities.

The Paradox of Suppression

I found McDuffie’s analysis with regards to Horne’s depiction of the suppression of leftist black groups contradictory. According to Horne, during the Red Scare left-wing African American were tied to communism along with many other marginalized groups and treated as a domestic threat to the American way of life. While he claims that such suppression benefited the communist cause, citing the example that it helped spark the Watt uprising, he also argues that government attempts to silence these groups successfully kept them on the defensive, deterring civil rights groups. I found this seemingly contradictory portrayal of the effects of forcing domestic conformity supportive of the paradox found in the Nadel reading, which explained that such suppression of vocal domestic groups could both create unity by silencing opposition and leftist ideas but also cause backlash emboldening opposition against the unified American image and ideology.

Containment Culture in “Halo”

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September 11th represents an inflection point in American ideology, as the unprecedented terrorist attacks shocked many into believing Cold War-like containment policy was necessary. In addition to ideological and political shifts, culture and popular media reflected the resurgence of containment thinking. On such example, the video game Halo, is a first-person shooter developed by Bungie that was originally released in November of 2001. The Halo storyline revolves around an intergalactic conflict between humanity and an alien species known as the Covenant. The game is played from the perspective of Master Chief, a supersoldier artificially created to help humanity combat the technologically superior Covenant aliens. Throughout the story Master Chief fights to defend against the invading Covenant forces and control a superweapon known as the Halo powerful enough to exterminate all of humanity.

The trailer for the original Halo game can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0kHiEME0Vk.

The premise of the Halo story imbues several containment principles. There is an evident black-and-white distinction depicted between humanity and the Covenant. While humanity is portrayed as an honorable force of justice fighting to defend itself, the Covenant are theocratic repulsive-looking creatures determined to destroy all humans, who they perceive as blasphemous. The purpose, ideology, and even the physical appearance of the Covenant are depicted as primitive, barbaric, and simply evil. This absolute negative characterization is justification for the player’s endlessly slaughtering hordes of the Covenant, just as such binary portrayals have been employed to justify imperialist and interventionist policies during the Cold War, the War on Terror after 9/11, and at numerous other occasions throughout human history.

In addition to the good-and-evil dichotomy between humans and the Covenant, the concept of the Halo itself is a direct reflection of containment ideas, specifically those of weapons of mass destruction. In the trailer, a military commander explains to Master Chief, “if Halo was a weapon, and the Covenant gained control of it, they’d use it against us and wipe out the entire human race”, to which Master Chief confidently responds “that’s not going to happen”. The existence of the Halo, an extreme threat that could devastate all of humanity, gives the battle against the Covenant much greater weight and significance. In the context of atomic weaponry in our world, this results in widespread fear, in some cases causing the public to desperately grasp for security. In Halo, this security is provided by Master Chief, the confident superhuman male hero willing to do anything to control the Halo, even if it means killing millions of the Covenant. However, in the real world, this security-providing figure might instead be far right government, and the Other being mindlessly disregarded for personal security would be other human beings.