MOSCOW—“Information wars,” “alternative media,” “the end of the mainstream media”—my mind rattles with such thoughts after half a week here. I’ve been to conferences in Moscow twice in the past six months, and these have been the topics of my discussions on both occasions. I plan a column on the general subject of global media, but for now I take up a single phrase. It’s from Liam Halligan, a Telegraph columnist over from London. He referred to “an iron curtain of the mind” in the course of his presentation. It stays with me, needless to say.
As I sat listening to various guests in a hall not far from the Foreign Ministry, a towering edifice in that reach-for-the-sky style Stalin favored, a hammer-and-sickle etched into the façade high up, I thought about all the scars the Cold War decades left on us all. The Russians have theirs, of course, many and deep, but this is a separate conversation. We Americans have ours, and the pity of them now is we don’t even know we bear them. It leaves us incapable of all thought of addressing them.
The very worst of these are those lacerations still apparent in our minds. They are so deep and tender I despair we will ever heal them. All the years of ideological fervor and incessant anti–Soviet imagery came with a price. It is simply stated: We surrendered our ability to think—to think altogether in some respects, but certainly to think for ourselves, each of us. So far from clear thought are we that the above observation lands among most Americans to a reception of sheer incomprehension. How far does this leave us from any remedy?
TO ARRIVE IN MOSCOW from New York is to enter a sort of parallel universe by way of information and prevailing perspectives thereupon. One exits a bubble, and it may be fair to say one enters another, though I have never spent enough time here to say if this is so. My concern rests with us, we Americans, in any case.
We have surrendered all capacity to see from the perspectives of others: This is my point. We gave this up as part of the way we fought the Cold War, it has seemed to me for some time, and we’ve never gotten it back.
The other week I interviewed Andrew Bacevich, the soldier-turned-scholar and writer. (The published version of our exchange can be found in this site’s archives, in two parts.) We came to the question of empathy, part of which entails seeing events as others see them. Americans can no longer manage this—a simple reality. As Andrew and I puzzled through the problem together, it suddenly occurred to me: It is vitally important that we forego all thought of empathy. We feel compelled not to see in any properly rounded fashion, for this is one way, supposedly, we prove our strength and superiority: We don’t have to empathize with others, we don’t have to see things as anyone else might. We’re above all that. Others—it is they who must see things our way.
There must be some immediate gratification in this attitude, though I can’t even imagine that.
My thoughts this week, as I sat among Russians, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Bulgarians, a few Americans, and numerous others from other places, is how utterly marooned this empathy-as-weakness leaves us. In plain language, our Cold War refusal to see the world in any kind of rounded, realistic manner, now carried over in spades into the post–Cold War period, leaves us very out of it. The only thing that gets us through is sheer power—power of various kinds, of course, but primarily military power.
Power as against strength, I mean, a distinction I sometimes make in the columns. The former is brittle. It rests on the unsteadiest of foundations and has little substance to it. It is sheer exertion on its own behalf, nothing more. It is means without end, method without purpose, to put the point another way. And it is inevitably destined to pass. Strength arising out of knowledge of oneself and others, an understanding and pursuit of good purpose, is another matter altogether.
As I sat through days of conference presentations here, I reflected briefly on how delighted I was to be among others whose capacity, precisely, to be among others is so much greater than that of Americans. To watch a Mexican named Blanche Petrich Morena, a delightful woman who writes for La Jornada, a Mexico City daily she helped found in 1984, talking with an editor from the Times of India moves me somehow. I spoke with both, but, in a way I cannot quite explain even to myself, such encounters are more their privilege than mine, as an American.
I’ve had the good fortune—not much by design unless it has been unconsciously so, and that is a possibility—to live many years of my professional life outside America. Most of that time has been passed in what I call the non–West. It leaves me in a peculiar place—less at home at home than in the homes of others. It’s among my blessings, and I take making the best use of it part of my responsibility—professional, personal, all in by way of how I live.
But this morn I prepare to fly home, and I reflect on our self-imposed solitude, our arms-folded refusal to understand other people. Luigi Barzini, the Italian journalist who wrote admirably about Americans in everything he published, titled a postwar book, Americans Are Alone in the World. He meant to reference our post–1945 power and advantages, but the book also hints gently at the price we pay as solitude—a positive, productive value as I see it—turns to loneliness, the dark side of the same moon.
There is the price, and there is the interest, which now, in the 21st century, compounds daily, it seems to me: At this point we also pay a price for not knowing we are paying a price, do we not?