At first, you might think this post is just about hockey. But it's not. There's a moral to the story about how we can make the mistake of falling in love with our views simply because they have become part of us.
In the mid-1960s, when I was about 14, my father and I drove from Carman into Winnipeg to see the Canadian national hockey team play the Soviet team. Canada had dominated international hockey in the 1950s, but that had begun to change. The Soviets dominated in the 1960s. Sure enough, the night we saw them in Winnipeg, the Soviets won handily. I remember I felt despair and I felt the crowd's despair. One upset fan, noticing that Canadian player Gary Dineen had somehow erred, yelled out, "For crying out loud, Dineen." I don't remember what Dineen had done, but the fan's despairing tone captured that of the crowd and of me perfectly.
But if it had just been about hockey, I wouldn't have despaired. For me, the loss to the Soviets symbolized something much bigger: I feared that in the Cold War, Canada (and the United States) would lose to the USSR. That one hockey game seemed to cement my Cold War views. I thought back that night to Nikita Khrushchev's earlier statement, "I will bury you." When I first heard about that statement (which, it turns out, was a mistranslation), when I was much younger than 14, I got scared. I always pictured this powerful man pounding his fists on his desk at the United Nations. I was scared because the words, along with the image of his pounding, made me think he was literally threatening to kill and bury us. As I've said to audiences in the last few years, when I give talks on foreign policy, "I wish my parents had explained to me that all he meant was that Communism would outcompete the mixed economy. Had I understood that, I would have said, 'Bring it on, Nikita.'" Even in my early years, I had a gut understanding that a government could not plan an economy well.
But, as I said, I thought Khrushchev meant to kill us. That fear fueled my Cold War views for a long time. It wasn't until sometime in my late 20s that I started to reconsider them. And, even then, I went back and forth. I got comfortable with the view that the Soviets, although murderers of their own people and of people on their borders, were not a threat to us. But then, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for a few days my old Cold War fears flared up. I think I was going back, temporarily, to the views I held when I was 14.
Why am I writing about this now? The immediate cause is that I happened to notice that the coach of the victorious Canadian women's Olympic hockey team is a man named Kevin Dineen. Dineen isn't exactly a common name and so I wondered if he was related to the 1960s Canadian player Gary Dineen. It appears that he is not.
But when I started thinking through it, I realized that I had got comfortable with my Cold War views in the 1960s and that everything seemed to confirm them. But in the 1970s, when I actually started thinking, not just emoting, I was able to question those views. It was painful, but it was worth it.
Relatedly, my co-blogger James Schneider, has today challenged my views of one of my erstwhile heroes, Thomas Jefferson. It's painful for me to reconsider whether Jefferson really was a good guy. I'm not saying he was and I'm not saying he wasn't. The moral of the story: truth is hard to get to, with all the emotions we have to go through to get there, but it's worth it.
I've also noticed how many people cling to their preferred interpretation of particular statements and resist being told the full context. Two examples:
(1) The banner saying "Mission Accomplished" on the deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln when George W. Bush landed there. Almost everyone likes to make fun of Bush for that. But there's a back story that I learned from one of my students who happened to be an officer on that ship at the time. The White House had contacted the ship's captain and asked what message they wanted on a banner. The captain opened the decision up to the officers in the ward room and they, wanting to celebrate finally getting back to home port, chose "Mission Accomplished."
(2) Almost everyone makes fun of Bill Clinton for his saying "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." But what he said made perfect sense to me.
I trust that readers who read me often know that I am no fan, to put it mildly, of Clinton or Bush.