I just realized today that there is an enormous population of internet-literate people out there who never grew up during the Cold War. An entire collection of slashdot posters who don't remember when the world was divided into East and West. Kids for whom "MAD" and "Nuclear Winter" belong more in the Fantasy section, and who never had to wonder about how these terms might one day apply to their lives.
Of course, that's what happens as time goes on. I was born well after the era of "duck and cover", my favorite memory of the moon landings is The Onion's "coverage", and I don't remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Even so, I start to get this feeling that people are forgetting those days. Not that I blame them. There are plenty of things from those times that bear forgetting. It's no coincidence that Charles Stross's "A Colder War", an insane worst-case scenario of the Cold War, is the only short story I've ever read that gave me nightmares.
But there are a lot of good things from that time, too. Among the good things from the Cold War that people are rapidly putting behind them is the whole purpose and reason that we fought a forty-year global struggle and put modern civilization under the constant threat of catastrophic war. Just why were the Russians so reprehensible in the first place? I've known some Russians, even been good friends with some, and they always seemed just fine.
What was the difference between East and West? Of course, this is slashdot, and so you'll never get a simple answer when a complex answer will do. Not that this problem only exists on slashdot. Plenty of people will tell you that it was about ideology, or economic systems, or simply a power struggle between the two great powers of the age. They are probably right, too. But for me, growing up in the 80s, watching movies about people escaping into West Germany and having my Saturday morning cartoons interrupted by live coverage of Tienanmen Square, the difference between East and West always boiled down to freedom.
The word "Freedom" is incredibly vague and flexible. To one person, a slave is free if he willingly made the choice to become a slave. To another person, a person is not free unless he has the right to a telephone. But the Cold War was ultimately a war of freedom, vague or not.
During my childhood, a picture of the East built up in my mind. On that part of the planet, you could be jailed for criticizing the government. Police would break your door down in the night and ransack your house if you were a suspect. The cliched "Papers, please!" The government choosing your job for you. No travel without a permit. No leaving the country at all, unless the government trusted that you would be coming back.
The picture I paint above is probably wrong in many respects. I do not begin to claim that it is accurate, but it is what existed in my mind at the time.
Of course, the West in general and the United States in particular was the exact opposite. The police could not search your home without a warrant. You can feel safe criticizing the government, even the President, in your home, on the street, or even in a nationally-distributed newspaper. If you were stopped by the police, you could refuse to allow them to search you, and they'd have to listen unless they were sure they had a reason that would stand up in court. No permits or papers or anything needed to go from one end of the country to the other. No need to ask anybody's permission before leaving the country. Nobody would follow you around because of your political affiliations. Nobody would tap your phone lines because you liked Russian music. Nobody would rummage through your library records searching for Communist ties. A place where "because I feel like it" was good enough reason to be wandering around somewhere at two in the morning. Innocent until proven guilty.
Just as it happens for everybody, the world became more complicated as I grew older. Black versus white blurs into shades of gray. I learned of McCarthy, of the excesses in Vietnam. I learned that not everybody was an unhappy, oppressed slave in Communist countries. I learned about racial profiling and Big Business, about monopolies and environmental disasters and Syphilis studies.
But even through it all, the US remains a place that strives for freedom. Of course, we don't have perfect freedom, even if such a thing could exist, but we strive for it. It is the entire reason and purpose for this country's existence, even if we do a bad job of it sometimes.
Neal Stephenson puts in nicely in The Diamond Age:
"That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code."
"Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power."
This post is for everybody who's ever questioned the need for anonymity, everybody who's ever stated a preference for catching terrorists over following proper judicial procedure, and everybody who thinks more intrusive airport security is worth it. Many people have forgotten, or never remembered, the fundamentals of what freedom is all about. It's not about being rich, or safe, or cared for. It's not about stifling technology. It's not about prohibiting companies from making their products secure, and it's not about spurning anonymity because it might help child pornographers. It's about being free to speak your mind, run your life, and be without persecution. In the end, it's about not having to justify your own actions just because they're different. In a free society, you don't have to justify your desire not to be identified, your desire to be free from searches, or your desire for privacy.