When I was a child in the late 1970s, the Cold War was beginning to heat up again. The Cuban Missile Crisis was well before my time, and I was too young to remember the way the United States and the Soviet Union both went on high alert during the Yom Kippur War, but I vividly remember the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In fact, I was so utterly certain that there was going to be a nuclear war that I refused to do my homework for weeks. Why bother? As Barry McGuire said in his classic song Eve of Destruction, “if the button is pushed there’s no running away. There will be no-one to save with the world in a grave.”
In 1951, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, commissioned a short movie called “Duck and Cover,” which was written and narrated by Robert Middleton, directed by a man name Anthony Rizzo, and made with the cooperation of the New York City school system. I have no idea how widely it was shown back in the 1950s, but it’s a hilariously stupid piece of security theater designed, not to save lives, but to scare the ever living hell of the American people. While the end of the United States nuclear monopoly in 1949 hovers menacingly in the background, Middleton never mentions the Soviet Union. On the contrary, nuclear war is presented as a vague, ill-defined existential threat, the omnipresent specter of death that could emerge over the horizon at any moment, far more terrifying than an attack by a rival power like the Russians. The world of Duck and Cover is menaced, not by communists, but by a dark, capricious God, the kind of perverse deity dramatized so well by Ingmar Bergman in The Seventh Seal.
Duck and Cover is a perfect encapsulation of our government’s use of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like the weaponization of nuclear energy in the service of mass murder, Covid-19 is not entirely an accident. While of course it wasn’t designed by the Chinese or the American government, it is the natural, organic emanation of neoliberalism capitalism, the inevitable result of the destruction of the environment in China, and the financialization and de-industrialization of the American economy. The Chinese ruling class raped their own land in order to profit off of their abundant supply of cheap labor. The American ruling class established “just in time” supply chains all over the third world because they didn’t want to pay Americans a living wage, or, God forbid, that capitalism is prone to periodic recessions that need to be mitigated by government action. So the virus migrated from Wuhan to northern Italy, where it was brought to the United States by rich New Yorkers jet setting between the Upper-East Side and Milan, and carelessly released into the nursing homes by Andrew Cuomo.
While the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t mean the end of the world it doesn’t mean that that Cold War didn’t kill anybody. The Cold War killed a lot of people, millions of Vietnamese, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, Congolese and Cambodians, tens of thousands of Chileans, Argentinians, and working class American draftees. The Cold War was the best thing ever to happen to ruling class, and even upper-middle-class Americans. They made a fortune in defense contracts. They got to kill socialism for good. Even today, in the middle of a pandemic, we’re told that we can’t have universal healthcare because Bernie Sanders said some nice thing about Cuba’s literacy program. But, as Martin Luther Kind said in his speech at the Riverside Cathedral, the speech the military industrial complex killed him for, “we were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
Covid-19 will end the way the Cold War did. It won’t. It will also disproportionately affect the working class, and the poor. We could end the pandemic if we chose to, if we established some sort of Universal Basic Income that would allow people to stay home, if we put our healthcare system on a war footing, and took it out of the hands of the insurance companies, if we nationalized all of the vacant housing in New York City, and used it to isolate and quarantine people already infected (instead of sending them into the nursing homes). But we won’t, and by “we” I mean “those rich motherfuckers who rule over people like you and me with an increasingly more blatant disregard, even for capitalist democracy.” Their “solutions” will be just as useless as the idea that you could protect yourself from a nuclear attack by ducking under your desk at school, and they will be permanent. Indeed, mask shaming, social isolation, restrictions on the right of assembly, heavily manipulated, compressed telephoto shots of stupid people at the beach, fulsome praise for “essential workers” they have every intention continuing to shovel into low-paid, deadly “front line” jobs, and universal, high tech surveillance are all part of a society that was beginning to emerge, even before the pandemic hit.
Yet, the people responsible for the filthy disease currently ripping apart the last of our civil society, the people who made its worldwide spread inevitable, have names and address. Their castles in the Hamptons and penthouses on Central Park West are hard to miss. We know where Andrew Cuomo and Donald Trump live. Dare I hope that in the very near future we might all meet up — with or without masks — and drag our rulers out of their towers on Wall Street down to the public square to the guillotine? Or will we just continue to tell our children to “duck and cover?”