The night Ferguson blew up, I happened to find myself having dinner with two old friends from Moscow. Dinner ground to a halt as we became transfixed by our Twitter feeds, showing each other photographs of figures engulfed by thunderclouds of tear gas, shaking our heads in disbelief: This was America, 2014.
We had been on the front lines together, covering the race riots in Moscow in December 2010 and the pro-democracy protests of 2011-2012. Clouds of tear gas lit up by flares and Molotov cocktails in the case of the former; in the case of the latter, police truncheons slicing down on unarmed protesters, dragging young men and women away, throwing cowering retirees into the churning mass of fists and stones and billy clubs.
At the time, the violence we saw in the streets of Moscow was easy to understand: This is the violence of an authoritarian state dealing with disagreement, whether it came from neo-Nazis or white collar office workers asking for fair elections. Our Russian friends turned to us, the Americans, for answers. This would never happen in America, would it? They asked.
No, of course not, we told them.
The America we pitched them, acting unwittingly in our homesickness as the best P.R. agents this country ever had, was a place of reason and measure, a place where there was dialogue even about the most difficult and thorny subjects. “Every system makes mistakes,” we told them. “It’s how the system addresses them.” The idea was that America fixed its mistakes, and actively, brightly fought the long shadows of slavery and the fact that there are still people around who are not very old who had to drink at different water fountains than other people. We dealt with these things, we told our Russian friends, empathizing with them, stuck as they were with a corrupt and cynical government. And we believed it.
We were not original in this. In the 1950s and 60s, the White House was painfully conscious that the civil rights movement was going to either be a boon or a thorn for their foreign policy when it came to grappling with the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R, after all, was about equality, at least on paper. The now sacred Russian tactic of “whataboutism” started with civil rights: Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. “Well, you,” they said, “lynch Negros.”
And they had a point.
And it made a difference. When the Voting Rights Act was gutted last summer, Louis Menand wrote about the role of civil rights in an America made self-conscious in its fight with the Soviet Union.
Southern mayors and governors were playing to their electoral bases. But American Presidents were trying to run a Cold War. They could live with Jim Crow when it was an invisible regional peculiarity, but once conditions were broadcast around the world they experienced an urgent need to make the problem go away.
The pressure of world opinion was crucial to the speed with which civil-rights gains were made after 1954. It forced American Presidents to do something Presidents rarely do, which was to get out ahead of domestic opinion on the subject of race. When a bus carrying Freedom Riders was firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama, on Mother’s Day, 1961, and a photograph appeared the next day on the front page of the New York Times, John F. Kennedy was horrified. He had never heard of the Freedom Riders and had no idea what they were doing in Alabama. (They were testing the integration of interstate bus terminals pursuant to a recent Supreme Court decision. They were obliged to conclude that the decision had had little impact.
Kennedy called the one person in the White House with a civil-rights brief, Harris Wofford. “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses?” he said. “Stop them.” Sixty-three per cent of the American public disapproved of the Freedom Riders, but American public opinion was not Kennedy’s concern. His first summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev was scheduled to take place in Vienna in three weeks, and he could see Khrushchev waving the Times in his face.
As Mary Dudziak explains in her important book “Cold War Civil Rights” (2000), the trick was to turn a failure of government into something that looked like a triumph of government. Civil rights had to become a story about how American democracy confronted an injustice and eradicated it. The nation that had liberated Europe from racist domination had gone to the rescue of another captive people. It was important to do this heroically, not apologetically. No elected official relishes having to deal with a charismatic popular leader; the usual forms of leverage are not effective. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did not especially like dealing with King. But they needed him, because they needed a hero whose vision the democratic system could realize. The triumphalist narrative demanded it.
Unwittingly, we carried on that triumphalist narrative, long after the Cold War was won, as was, we were told, the fight over civil rights. Bush was gone, Obama was the president, and we could once again represent a just and luminous America. It was so much easier for everyone that way, both for our Russian friends who felt imprisoned by a deeply unjust system, ready to annihilate them at a moment’s notice, and for us, living swaddled in that society. We liked to think we had a just a lovely place to go to home to, and that these few just and lovely Russians could escape there with us.
Watching the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s hard not to wince looking back at that, at our foolish idea of our country. Russian police arrested journalists at protests, not American cops. And, even if the chances are higher that heads will roll here for something like this than in Russia, it’s hard not to notice one thing: Even at the height of the race riots in Moscow, at the height of the crackdown on the opposition, even the Russian police did not use rubber bullets.
And, like it or not, this is what the world is seeing, the world to which we strive to be an example.