The New Russia: Book Review

By David Michael Newstead.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s book, The New Russia, offers a glimpse at history from a decidedly rare point of view. Few Russian leaders have lived for so long after their time in office. So then, few others could ever provide the kind of perspective that Gorbachev gives as he reflects on the end of Communism and his last day in the Kremlin to the tumultuous years that followed and events right up to the present. Of those first years after Communism, he lists off a string of crises that plagued the nation as it transitioned to a new form of government.

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union; the rolling back of democracy in almost all the republics; chaos in the economy, exploited by the greediest and most unscrupulous, who succeeded in plunging almost everyone else into poverty; ethnic conflicts and bloodshed in Russia and other republics; and, finally, the shelling of the Supreme Soviet of Russia in October 1993.

The book is filled with letters, speeches, photographs, and interview excerpts from throughout these years. But in all, it shows a man trying to defend the decisions he made and watching from the sidelines at the people who came to power after him, for better or worse. He explores the war in Chechnya, the economic turmoil throughout the 1990s, the eventual rise of Vladimir Putin, NATO expansion, the rollback of democratic reforms, the war with Georgia, Ukraine, and more. As Gorbachev thought about the past as well as the present, two passages stuck out at me.

  • Already I was aware of just how deeply rooted the legacy of totalitarianism was, in our traditions, in people’s mindset and morality. It had seeped into almost every pore of the social organism. That deeply troubled me in those days and, more than 20 years later, still does.
  • We are living in the twenty-first century, a century of new technologies and new challenges. Conservative ideology has no answer to these. Traditional, conservative values do, along with others, have their place in society. But where have conservative policies taken us in the history of Russia? They have led, as a rule, to stagnation followed by upheaval. Sometimes the years of stagnation have been relatively prosperous, living off reforms carried through earlier and favorable external factors. Sooner or later, however, that energy runs out, the external factors change.

How Social Media Became Forbidden Planet

By David Michael Newstead.

What if a machine could manifest people’s thoughts? In the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (and the Crichton novel Sphere), scientists stumble onto a device like this. It’s of alien origins and it materializes thoughts into reality. Powerful and with limitless potential, the machine could make the world a better place. But instead of this device leading to a new and enlightened chapter in history, it just amplifies the worst parts of people’s psyche: fear, anger, paranoia. In the story, violence and chaos quickly ensue as the characters’ unconscious runs amok.

Unfortunately, the social media landscape is starting to look a lot like Forbidden Planet, more dangerous than it is enlightening. But when platforms like Twitter and Facebook first launched, the idea that they would one day be overrun with rabid misogynists, white supremacists, stalkers, personalized threats, and propaganda would have seemed far-fetched. We have this notion, after all, that technology always makes things better. In this case though, it’s like social media removed the polite veneer that masks everything under the surface of our culture: swallow materialism, intense insecurity, sexism, and racism. The problem didn’t start overnight, of course. No one joined Twitter thinking they were going to get doxed. But like a tidal wave, problems began moving from the comment section into the real world. And vice versa. Now, the carefree early days of social networking seem wildly naïve. And our optimistic vision of an interconnected world may be the biggest piece of science fiction of them all.

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Good Night and Good Luck

By David Michael Newstead.

Good Night and Good Luck is about 1950s America and the famous clash between pioneering journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Made during the Bush administration, the movie was always political and highlights journalism’s role in confronting abuses of power especially in a climate of fear and intimidation. Now, twelve years after it was made, Good Night and Good Luck is worth re-watching for several reasons. For one, good journalism is more important than ever and confronting abuses of power sustains our democracy. Yet, there’s another reason to watch the movie. Surprising as it is to realize, there’s a direct link tying our political past to the present: the disreputable lawyer Roy Cohn. Cohn was McCarthy’s top aide during the dark days we now call McCarthyism. Also involved in the infamous Rosenberg execution, Cohn would later in his career represent and mentor Donald Trump before being disbarred for unethical conduct. Having more than a few historical parallels, the film should be required viewing in the Trump era. The only thing that remains to be seen is if someone of Edward R. Murrow’s stature could even exist in our now fractured media landscape.