the past in pop culture

Tag: Edward Snowden

Free Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's Prison Cell

Nelson Mandela’s Prison Cell (Photo credit: Mark H)

Twenty one years in captivity / Are you so blind that you cannot see? / Are you so deaf that you cannot hear? / Are you so dumb that you cannot speak? / I’m begging you to free Nelson Mandela.

When The Specials recorded that song back in 1983, Mandela still had seven more years of imprisonment to go. It was a good thing that unlike many political protest songs, it had a beat you could dance to because its cause wasn’t going to be resolved any time soon.

In cosmic terms, all lives are but a blink of an eye. In human terms, Mandela has had a particularly long life. He was born in 1918, the year the Great War ended. He became an activist in the African National Congress during the middle of World War II. His anti-apartheid activism and increasing militancy led to his arrest and trial in South Africa in 1962 on charges of sabotage and conspiracy. At the age of 44, he went to prison. For the next 20 years on Robben Island, and for seven more at two other prisons, Mandela devoted himself to transcending the divisive struggle over apartheid. Ultimately, he imagined and then led the way to a multi-racial government of which he became the first president at age 76 in 1994.

However dramatic the outcomes, the long arc of Mandela’s political activism and organization that brought apartheid to an end took place remarkably slowly. Try to imagine being a reporter assigned the Mandela beat in 1962 when he was allowed just one visitor and one letter every six months. And for twenty years, not a single photograph of Mandela appeared in the press. What a sad Instagram page that would be.

We like to watch events in real time these days and expect constant updates. From the hunt for the Boston bombers to the asylum seeking NSA leaker, the drama of the day requires refreshing the webpage minute by minute. It’s not just us. The New York Times recently reported that one of the things that drove Snowden to flee for Russia was the realization that he would be deprived of a computer if jailed by the Hong Kong authorities. Waiting for new news ain’t easy. At the time of this writing, the where’s Snowden watchers are already beginning to despair as they start another week spent trapped in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. They have likened Snowden’s overly long layover to Tom Hanks’s stateless refugee character in The Terminal and their own fate to Waiting for Godot. Existential crisis? Hardly.

We will know the time of Mandela’s death almost to the minute. Before posting this, that will be the last fact checked. Whenever it comes, it will be the final fact of a long trajectory, notable not for its instantaneity but its profundity.

Back in the USSR

Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Banders...

Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Bandersnatch (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

Edward Snowden was just six when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and with it, more than three long decades of a Cold War. But he’s managed to revive the good old fashioned game of Kremlinology. Unnamed sources trade in rumors of lights going off or on the upper floors of embassies, the police cordon off a plane carrying no one special, and politicians split hairs over double speak. Any wonder that ever since Snowden George Orwell’s 1984 is selling like hotcakes on Amazon?

Vast shadowy networks of surveillance, espionage and double crosses—whether or not what Snowden uncovered merits the word Orwellian, his story sure reads like a novel, although maybe John le Carré should get the nod on that one. His most famous character, British spy Alec Leamas, could have told Snowden a thing or two about “the expediency of temporary alliances.” And as The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Leamas might have posed the rhetorical question, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs?”

As much as Cold War nostalgia lurks in the shadows of the Snowden story, back in the day no one took comfort in what now look like the ideological certainties and clearly drawn lines of the US:USSR faceoff. Sure, songs like 99 Luftballoons and Russians (in which Sting hoped the Russians loved their children, too) still sound sweet but the existential fear that the world might end via mutually assured destruction was anything but. Those songs were hits right around the time Snowden was born. Back then Ronald Reagan was in full swing and a guy by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev was just about to become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev introduced a little policy known as glasnost, defined in English as “openness.” At the time it meant that the Soviets would allow open discussion of political issues, freer dissemination of information, and more government transparency. This new openness ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union although it’s debatable how much this reduced corruption and repression in Russia. Now, the word has been re-purposed. It’s currently used as the name of a computer diagnostic about the effects of an ISP on traffic flow (a “glasnost test”). It also survives as Glasnost: The Game in which the goal of each player is to disarm as many countries as possible. The most disarmament wins.

Can openness save the world or is the glasnost of Snowden and Assange just another game of mirrors? In short, are we back in the USSR? Paul McCartney first wrote that song in 1968 for the Beatles’ White Album but he remained persona non grata in the Soviet Union all the way until the end. He finally got to sing it in Moscow’s Red Square in 2003. The crowd loved it. This week, it sounds remarkably fresh.

Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC
Didn’t get to bed last night
On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man, I had a dreadful flight
I’m back in the USSR
You don’t know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the USSR, yeah
Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it’s good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey disconnect the phone

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