I’ve decided to thematize my blog in this space—as opposed to my regular monthly column and the occasional feature—by calling it Niagara Falls Moments. So below will be Niagara Falls Moment #1, followed by #2, and, well, you get the idea. How many will there be? Can’t say; don’t know.
I’m calling it Niagara Falls Moments for a reason—namely, to allude to what I thought was a very famous pre-World War II era comedy skit that, like most from that era, made a transition from being a vaudeville standard to the movies, and from the movies to being a perennial “repeat” on then black-and-white television, where I first encountered it as a boy circa age eight. The skit was such standard comedy fare that at least four versions made it to my television set: one, probably the most famous, by Abbott and Costello; a second by The Three Stooges; a third from an episode of I Love Lucy, and one courtesy of Milton Berle. As best I can tell, no one really knows who crafted the original vaudeville version, or when. Performers Harry Steppe, Joey Faye, and Samuel Goldman all claimed to be the inventor, but each was a world-class fabulist—a trait that more or less went with the tall-tale territory of vaudeville. If S.J. Perelman were still alive, or Groucho Marx or George S. Kaufman, they might know the truth of the matter. But they’re not.
So how did the skit go, and why am I appropriating it for a blog theme? As I say, I think I shouldn’t have to explain this, but I obviously do. I know this because on Tuesday night, at a dinner downtown, I raised it with Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post as a prelude to a point I wanted to make in our conversation, and he claimed he didn’t know what I was referring to. Bob is five and half years my senior and is no stranger to the pop cultural zeitgeist, so if he doesn’t know the reference, I have to conclude that an explanation is needed.
So there are these two guys in a jail cell, and one asks the other what it was that got him thrown in the clinker. So the other guy begins this sad yarn about a cad who steals his wife and baby, an extrusion of which is that whenever someone says “Niagara Falls,” he flips out, says “slowly I turned, inch by inch, step by step…,” and then begins wailing on whoever utters the magic words. In the Abbott and Costello skit, featuring Sidney Fields as the madman, Abbott foolishly says “Niagara Falls” three times. You have to see this to appreciate it, so if you haven’t (that includes you, Samuelson) go have a look.
I appropriate the Niagara Falls skit it for the blog because I do the same thing, albeit in a subtler and (so far) less violent way: Flip out and boil over whenever I hear certain idiotic or misguided language nuggets repeated over and over again. I fear going insane unless I find ways to release the tension, so I intend use of the theme as a form of auto-therapy. Readers may consider themselves most welcome eavesdroppers.
It’s not just me. My cherished anthropologist colleague Anna Simons at the Naval Postgraduate School—someone whose brilliant work has appeared in TAI several times—gets wound up but good and tight whenever she hears the word “tribe” or “tribal” mis- or misleadingly used, which is quite often lately. Last we discussed it via email Anna happened to be in Niamey, Niger; I agree with her analysis, but that is no sure protection, as the skit reveals. However, she was much too far away to reach out and clobber me—she’s petite but very strong—so I felt safe hitting the send button.
This will not be the first time I will have exploded in print over this sort of irritation. I did it last year when “Niagara Falls” sounded like “Sykes-Picot borders,” which also happened to call forth one of my favorite neologisms: “bullshistory,” the definition of which should be obvious.
Much earlier I did it over the relentless misdating of the term “Black September”: It was 1971, not 1970. Do I still care? I wish I didn’t, but I do.
But now my ire is raised over something not related to the Middle East. It is aimed at the suddenly ubiquitous phrase “new Cold War.”
Did you know that the United States and Russia are engaged in a “new Cold War,” just like the one that ended around 1989 between the United States and the Soviet Union? Just about everyone is saying it, which doesn’t make it any truer than the fact that lots of people in Salem, Massachusetts, believed in witches in 1692 made witches real. It is not true—there is no “new Cold War,” and to claim otherwise is misleading or worse.
Let us, first, dispatch a point of usage. It has become preferred in recent years, thanks to the errors of the professional usage fascists, to write “cold war” with a lower-case “c” and “w.” This is unfortunate. One of the uses of capitalization conventions is to enable speakers and writers to make more distinctions, not fewer. Cold War refers to the “not hot” competition between the United States and the Soviet Union dating from roughly 1947 to, at the latest, December 1991. The reason it was “cold” is that the fear of unleashing a nuclear war deterred making it hot—or too hot, anyway, via emanations from violent proxy wars—so that the advent of nuclear weapons had the somewhat paradoxical effect of driving superpower competition down to lower or other levels of violence: guerrilla tactics, espionage campaigns, the aforementioned proxy wars in particular, and so on.
There were other “not hot” competitions in the postwar era, notably the “Arab cold war” between the Nasserite camp and the camp of the more traditional monarchies, so named by the late Malcolm Kerr, that did not involve nuclear weapons. Since that competition among Arab states was not the Cold War, writers appropriately lower-cased it: “cold war.” That enabled a useful distinction, the possibility of which the methodical if mindless lower casing of the U.S-Soviet Cold War destroys.
The difference matters. If what is meant by a “cold war,” or a “Cold War,” is merely a rivalry among states that has not, yet, turned violent, then it becomes a functional synonym for a term that works well enough as it is: a rivalry. We all know what a geopolitical rivalry short of war involves, for that is the stuff of endless library shelves of diplomatic history books about, for example, the storied Great Game—and uncountable lesser games that go all the way back to Sumer.
That, precisely, is what is going on right now between the United States and Russia, mostly at Russia’s insistence for the Putin regime’s domestic political purposes. It is a geopolitical rivalry, shorn of any significant ideological pretext—a rather old-fashioned competition for influence, status, and position that, with minor exceptions so far (in mid-February in eastern Syria), has remained non-violent. No useful purpose is served by calling it a “cold war,” new or otherwise, except to humor minds too lazy to discern the crucial differences. Indeed, in doing so there is a risk of misleading the dim-witted, because it suggests that all the salient dimensions of the Cold War have returned in parallel. But that is conflationary nonsense.
It is nonsense for three basic reasons.1 First, the Soviet Union was larger, wealthier, and far more powerful militarily than is Russia today. It was considered a true peer competitor to the United States in most if not all dimensions of national power. Russia is not a peer competitor of the United States in any dimension of national power now except, possibly, nuclear weapons—which no one anymore thinks have any significant political, let alone literal rational uses. President Obama once called Russia merely “a regional power.” That was a stupid thing to do, not because it was inaccurate—it wasn’t—but because its accuracy constituted a gratuitous injury to Russian pride, and thus constituted an unforced diplomatic error. But it was and remains accurate.
Second, the Cold War featured an unmistakable ideological dimension. It was not just “for show,” hiding baser “real” motives. Key leaders on both sides really believed that the stakes of the competition were philosophical, if not theological, at the highest level. The Cold War was never just ideological, of course, and sometimes the ideological aspects got exaggerated for purposes of “selling” the costs and sacrifices of the struggle to dubious populations, especially in the West. But the ideological dimension was real all the same even for having been occasionally hyped.
There is no such dimension to the present U.S.-Russian rivalry. The most one can say is that there is a difference between preferences for democratic and autocratic styles of leadership, and that these preferences do reverberate out at cross frequencies in the world at large, at least to some extent. But there is no active ambition on either side to “convert” the world at large to one form of supposedly superior socio-economic organization over another, as if the outcome had cosmic creedal overtones. Anyone who claims otherwise is either very young or has a poor memory.
And third, owing to both the globe-spanning competitive ideological aspect of the Cold War and the peer-competitor circumstances in which it was waged, the geopolitical shape of the competition took the form of blocs, not just two superpowers. This mattered enormously for several reasons: One power could advance in the competition by adding to its own bloc or by peeling off a member of the opposing bloc, so that peripheral strategies were both possible and seemed somewhat “safer” than direct ones—Moscow and Washington could “play” the competition without betting the entire pot on every hand. Bloc maintenance therefore became a core policy concern of both sides, which also sucked energy and quality leadership time from direct contention, and different levels of military and diplomatic integration within the blocs, as well as different political motives for joining one or staying shy of both, gave the Cold War a dimensional fluidity on a global scale that was possible to conceptualize as a global system.
These conditions do not characterize the current state of U.S.-Russian relations except to a pale degree, and the main reason is that there is no Russian “bloc” anymore. Russia lost all the Warsaw Pact countries as bloc members, as well as the USSR’s former fake constituent republics that now constitute the so-called Near Abroad. Its only state allies today are Syria and, to much lesser and quite mixed degrees, Iran and North Korea. Syria provides naval and air bases, which the Russian leadership values highly, but is otherwise a sink for Russian resources—and Moscow cannot even reliably control what the Syrian regime does despite its seemingly heavy dependence on Russian support. Some bloc.
Largely as a result of the decline and fall of the Soviet Cold War-era bloc, U.S. allied relationships have attenuated on every level. One might think that the recrudescence of a perceived Russian threat would reestablish the coherence of the U.S. bloc, but for three reasons that hasn’t come about in a robust fashion: new and sometimes different divisions within the West over other matters, economic and ideological; and now two consecutive U.S. administrations that have shown little to no interest in building or even maintaining tight alliance relationships. There is also the fact that threat perceptions now increasingly include China on the Asian littoral to an extent that was not the case in Maoist days, and it is intrinsically more difficult to build bloc-like coalitions when the target is not singular.
This—all this—is why whenever I encounter the phrase “new Cold War,” I flip, raise my right hip to pivot around, and begin uncontrollably to threaten no one in particular, depending on who happens to be within earshot at the moment: “Slowly I turned, inch by inch, step by step….”
An example: Just the other day someone—who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty and who certainly ought to have known better—submitted a short piece to TAI that included the following, at the beginning of a paragraph no less: “The Cold War is playing to sell-out crowds again. Putin’s audacious campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was just the trailer.” Slowly I turned, inch by inch, step by step…. I rejected the submission.
Just a day before, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta used the phrase in a CNBC interview. He certainly should know better. Slowly I turned, inch by inch, step by step….
There is even a Wikipedia entry now for “new Cold War,” a very bad sign. Worse, a highly unsystematic internet search reveals not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of references! Slowly I turned…. And by now there are enough inches to add up to miles, and enough steps to wear out my shoes.
I know what this means from experience: If people cannot manage to use language precisely in understanding and discussing such matters, it means they cannot, or at any rate are not, thinking straight about them. If there is any telltale indicator of intellectual probity it is that discernment and knowledge distinguish, but ignorance and laziness conflate. I think you can make your way to my conclusion on your own.
As to why American intellectual life has become so disturbingly flabber-headed, manifested with particular dullness in our political class, well, that’s another story. So stay turned for Niagara Falls Moment #2, coming soon to a TAI subscription that could be—and really should be—yours.