Our lives continue to be defined by the Cold War, even as the phrase itself has devolved into an artifact of language.
The Cold War once summoned images of hammers and sickles, the moonlit fedora hats of spies and ballistic missiles parading down the streets of Moscow like apocalyptic floats. Today assigning meaning to the “the Cold War” takes a moment. Even members of Generation X must pause and mentally box the period into an anecdote of history like “the Revolution” or “the New Deal.” Ask an American teenager about The Cold War and they’re libel to think you’re speaking of the latest video game from the makers of Grand Theft Auto.
I grew up near a major Air Force base and spent summers barbecues with adults who offered pleasantries such as, “Well, if the Soviets ever do strike we won’t have anything to worry about, because we’ll be the first to go.”
One heard this often. Standing knee-high, you would look up at these fatalists and think, “That’s good.” There was peace in that; in knowing that if this thing called The Cold War turned hot, the geographical choices of your ancestors positioned you to be vaporized before the people you loved suffered.
And then the 1980s became the 1990s, and it all ended. Nuclear annihilation vanished from the domain of public gossip. It was as if overnight all the B-52s, Tupolovs and ICBMs had transformed into compact discs and Sega Geneses. The Soviet Union dropped its sleek and spooky name and became a bit of a bore. Suddenly we were supposed to call it “Russia,” and Russia was just another country that needed a loan.
Political economists will tell you that the Cold War was won by outspending Russia. There is an element of truth to that, but not an overwhelming truth. Not the flood of reasoned clarity that clears the mind of other notions. The Cold War consumed hundreds of thousands of lives in war zones from Korea and Vietnam to 1980s Afghanistan. Over a half-century, the Cold War’s dueling parent nations spent trillions of dollars in state treasure in a custody battle over planet Earth. No arms race ended that. Nations will print money when they need more rockets, but rockets alone don’t breed converts over the long haul.
The Cold War was a propaganda campaign, and propaganda invokes the soul of marketing executives more than four-star generals. Its combatants surrender to the truest song. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union teetered at the brink and the world waited for a tipping-point. Then came the thermonuclear weapon of messaging: Michael Jackson.
In the 1980s, Michael Jackson’s fame had a trajectory and impact that surpassed the reach of Titan rockets. He was a celebrity before it was an occupation. When to be a celebrity still reflected some degree of exceptionalism and fame existed as the byproduct of talent. His was universal. The kind the world sees once a century. Typically, to achieve that kind of fame across the world requires the invasion of most of it. You’ve got to be an Alexander the Great. A Napoleon. Or you’ve got to be The King of Pop. In the Eastern Bloc of the 1980s, his image was more potent than the decade’s political leaders. That he achieved this by peaceful means is a testament to technology; what he did with it is a testament to his person.
Michael Jackson wrote the decade’s soundtrack with songs like “We Are the World” and “Man In The Mirror,” the latter a ballad of accountability as rare in popular music as the man performing it. In the 1980s you weren’t supposed to write songs like that. The 1960s and ’70s scorched America’s appetite for the maudlin and sentimental. We were all too grown up and cynical and we knew better. Michael Jackson didn’t seem to know better. It was as if no one had told the boy who “wanted us back” that he was supposed to be cynical. He chanced his celebrity, instead, upon sincerity.
Through the growing reach of television, he cultivated an image of America that was fun – a Norman Rockwell painting on steroids. He unfurled explosions of cool in music videos like “Smooth Criminal,” echoing the choreographed dancing of West Side Story. These were broadcast worldwide as life in America. America as Michael Jackson saw it – and life became entertaining again. Amid malcontent sometimes it takes a man who, like the “shackled millions” behind the Iron Curtain, never experienced a normal American life to illustrate what is beautiful about it. He instilled a worldwide fervor for all things American: Levi’s jeans, MTV, Pepsi Cola and copies of Thriller. Vilifying materialism has become the pseudo-intellectual hitching post of our age. The Soviets certainly scoffed at it, but they, like many among us today, missed the larger point. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Materialism is not America itself, but a mere symptom of what America has come to represent as its highest value: the right to enjoy your life.
Michael Jackson reflected that value during an age of nervous frowns – and people across the globe responded.
Tens of thousands of young people in the Eastern Bloc congregated to scream his name. His fans howled and fainted like possessed churchgoers. His concerts assembled armies of the excited, with casualties carried off in stretchers still screaming “Michael!” All the while, the gloved-one stood upon stage frozen, staring off into the future we now inhabit. It took the bravery of intelligence spies years to cultivate individual human assets behind the Iron Curtain. With a mere concert Michael Jackson was able to flip and earn the loyalty of fifty thousand. How does a government like the Soviet Union, built around coercion, combat the jubilant screaming of 50,000 people?
Nations are leveled by such fervor. It starts as a love that exceeds reason and ends with young people jumping the Berlin Wall. In 1984, the soft-spoken Cold Warrior appeared at the White House alongside Ronald Reagan dressed in military garb and Aviator Sunglasses. It was Reagan’s grin on that day which said it all. A grin that suggested that Reagan, no stranger to the power of communication, knew he was standing with his most effective general.
One year ago today, news of Michael Jackson’s death swept across the country in a tidal wave of sensationalism, crashing upon magazine stands and record stores, absorbing billions of dollars before retreating back into a sea of static as though it never were. Such is the shelf-life of national moments today. Barring the utterly devastating, we view news as yet another intrusion upon our time from a nation of multiplying freaks with video cameras. Michael Jackson deserves a longer moment of thought. He served as a transformative agent of peace in a time that was poised to end in disaster. His fame reached corners of the world our diplomatic core could not go, and he became the symbolic bridge upon which millions saw what was irrefutably right and unique about the United States.
We should be bold enough to honor him properly. Not for being famous or for the tumultuous years he experienced in the 1990s, nor even for his quantum talent, but rather, for what he did with that talent when it burned its brightest. He lightened the spirit of a serious age and urged each of us to look to the man in the mirror for redemption. And on this, the anniversary of his death, we should honor that – remembering Michael Jackson not as the world came to see him, but as he once saw all of us.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.