Magazine article The American Conservative

How Lenin Beat Reagan

Magazine article The American Conservative

How Lenin Beat Reagan

Article excerpt

I was around 16 years old the last time I wore a lapel pin: an AC/DC "Let There Be Rock" button that I bought at a head shop along with a couple of vials of amyl nitrite. Such is the level of sophistication I associate with declaring oneself in sartorial shorthand. But before long I decided, or at least hoped, I contained multitudes that couldn't be expressed in the span of a lapel, so I tossed out my AC/DC button with the last of the poppers.

Several years later, while in college, I traveled to the USSR for a summer study program and was amused by the Soviet mania for zrtachki: that is, lapel pins. Not content with the already broad politicizing of Soviet life-sports, science, literature, history, art, industry, most public spaces-the party had all but nationalized the folds of everyday clothing. And several of my American travel mates loved it, however ironically. The znachok (singular) they most eagerly sought on the black market was the "baby Lenin," purported to be a grainy photo of the infant dictator, but they could be satisfied with hammer-and-sickles, anything space-age Cyrillic, and images of the bearded Lenin pointing the way to the socialist future.

It wasn't lost on anyone-certainly not the average Russian-what an all-around joke this was. While we were buying up nationalist kitsch that the Russians themselves had stopped taking seriously, they desired, in exchange, anything Western. Anything. I paid for cab rides with Marlboros, swapped old Nikes for a Russian Republic flag, old Levi's for a Red Army belt and buckle. Michael Jackson and Madonna tapes could fetch great returns, as could packages of tampons or condoms-which, while not strictly Western, were hard-to-obtain commodities. All the trappings of Soviet glory had ended up, if not in the ash heap of history, at least in the bargain bin. The Cold War seemed to have been won on the playing fields of the average American strip mall.

The year was 1988, and my group's arrival closely followed President Reagan's valedictory trip to Moscow-at which he retracted his "Evil Empire" remark of years earlier. That Reagan was an eternally boyish ex-actor who went in for a Southern California aesthetic and, even as chief executive, derided his own country's government seemed to point out our invincibility. It was the triumph of style over substance: both Soviet ideological substance-the one thing the USSR had in surplus, crushingly so-and that of Reagan's own right-wing critics, who were denouncing him as a dupe for supposedly having compromised American security in the face of Russian guile.

Russians, raised on a steady diet of Soviet exceptionalism and "creaking camaraderie" (Orwell's phrase), could conceive of no effective opposition to such dynamic dysfunction as America presented. Tanks, slogans, and ICBMs were useless against "Like a Virgin" cassettes and boxes of rubbers brought into the country by unwashed American undergrads whose criticisms of their own government were little different in kind from their head of state's. The moral of the story was not so much that our brand of patriotism, our brand of ideology, was superior. Rather it was that we largely eschewed such things, or kept them to a decent minimum, lest they bog us down in the sort of ritualistic affirmations we so readily mocked in the Soviet bloc.

So it's ironic that in the 25 years since the USSR went poof, and especially in the dozen-plus years since 9/11, the American right has increasingly adopted the style of the old Soviet Union, starting with the znachki. Reagan didn't wear a flag lapel pin-not when debating Carter, not when debating Mondale, not when negotiating with Gorbachev. Outside the circus atmosphere of a political convention, virtually no one wore flag lapel pins back then. Nowadays they're nearly compulsory in political circles and are a common enough sight on everyone from newsreaders to sportscasters to talk-show hosts: a society-wide assimilation of nationalist kitsch worthy of the USSR and, accordingly, so perfunctory as to have meaning only in absence. …

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