Our guide is a self-described "spook," a now-retired (also now-bald and now-pudgy) naval special-operations submariner. The wood he's referring to is the wood of the officers' mess table aboard the Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine Cobra, decommissioned in 1994 and currently docked at Pier 48. "I mean," he continues as we make our way to the bridge, "wood burns."
The wood, which would have been plastic laminate on a comparable American sub, is well worn but completely free of graffiti and other carvings. There are no initials, no knife marks, no hearts, no dates, no counting of the days. There's unpainted wood everywhere--wood paneling, wood moldings, wood tables--and all of it with a smoothed, bare, unfinished patina from a thousand sweaty hands--a few dings and chips here and there, but no intentional defacement. This wood was important to the people who touched it every day, and it gives the otherwise reptilian cold metal environment of the sub a bit of mammalian warmth.
There's no plastic anywhere in this sub. There are no computer screens, no digital readouts. There are brass gauges and dials, tubes and cranks, but no lit buttons, no video screens, no switches, and no flashing lights. It's all kind of quaint, in a communist kind of way.
I do see some Starbucks cups on bulkheads, and random pieces of Boeing Surplus electronica in the navigation room, arranged like stage props where the Soviet hardware once sat. But the boat still manages to maintain some of her Cold Warrior respectability. The Russian engraving on brass plaques on the engine-room equipment, the elegance of the steering controls, and the simple austerity of the metal handles that fired her torpedoes give the sub a sense of dignity despite its current role as a local tourist trap.
There are, by my count, at least 11 former Soviet submarines operating around the world as museums, all owned and operated by various private companies. Paul Allen even picked one up on the open market for what are rumored to be fantastic underwater parties. To the victor go the spoils, and 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union the western world is still parading the corpse of communism. The ship is overrun with victorious Cold Warriors, from the spooks inside to the capitalist retailers outside: In the submarine's gift shop they're hawking authentic soviet uniforms, plastic submarine models, patches, watches, T-shirts, and hats in a glorious and glamorous celebration of capitalism's victory over the world economy.
At the same time, the very foundations of that victory, the American multinational corporation, the American accounting system, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the World Trade Center, and the American judicial system, are all swirling down the toilet. We are now on the slippery slope of the moral, ethical, and infrastructural decline of the American Corporate Empire--a decline that may take 500 years to play out into actual political collapse (not bad for an empire built in a mere 225 years), but a decline that will be total and will dwarf the Soviet collapse.
America claimed the moral high ground during the Cold War based on the social, religious, and political freedoms we provided relative to the Soviets. American Cold War propaganda hammered home the idea that the Evil Empire provided its citizens with few or no judicial protections, that its economic system was teetering on the brink of collapse, that its leaders were corrupt and its political infrastructure unsound.
America is now consciously and intentionally stepping off that moral high ground. The War on Terrorism has provided us with the opportunity to dismantle many of the freedoms and rights we championed during the Cold War. In Washington, D.C., John Ashcroft was on Capitol Hill just weeks ago exhorting postal employees and normal citizens to spy on their neighbors and report them to Tom Ridge's Homeland Security Council, the newly consolidated intelligence behemoth comprising 22 once-separate government agencies. In the interest of domestic-intelligence collection we're ready to become more like our former Cold War enemy than perhaps we'd wish. Last week, President Bush argued that he needs "the ability to move money and resources quickly in response to new threats, without all kinds of bureaucratic rules and obstacles." But many of those rules and obstacles are there to protect our much-celebrated American civil rights.
Of course there's a plan to restore our forfeited freedoms once the war is over. There's just no plan for the war to ever be over. The suspension of freedoms in the name of Wartime Security is most terrifying because the War on Terrorism, like the War on Drugs, doesn't ever end.
Meanwhile, the free-market capitalism that for 75 years got to play Dudley Do-Right to Soviet communism's Snidely Whiplash is now looking more like the villain than the hero. This week, Qwest Communications International joined Enron, WorldCom, Merrill Lynch, Arthur Anderson, Adelphia Communications, and Global Crossing in admitting to internal knowledge of multibillion-dollar accounting "indiscretions." In the weeks following the disgraceful collapses of Enron and WorldCom, the larges bankruptcies in the history of bankruptcies, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 250 points more than its post-9/11 low. Allegations have been made of securities improprieties by the president, the vice president, and more than a dozen Fortune 100 CEOs.
Four months ago, the sun never set on the WorldCom empire. Now WorldCom is nothing but a bankrupt corporate reorganization shell, de-listed from the NASDAQ. We won the Cold War because, we were told, the capitalist system proved stronger than communism in the end. The Soviets simply ran out of money and resources fighting us, while our system grew stronger and richer. What we're finding out now is that the pillars of our corporate capitalist system collapsed at roughly the same time. It was only thanks to those "accounting irregularities" that we were able to stumble on for 10 more years. Turns out we may have bluffed our way out of the Cold War.
Coincidentally, Russian corporations, which flourished under Boris Yeltsin's open-armed approach to western capitalism, have also been riddled with allegations of corporate wrongdoing in the last several months. But unlike the genteel image of Kenneth Lay asserting his Fifth Amendment rights on national television, the Russians' response to the problem has been quick and straightforward: According to the New York Times, uniformed groups of police officers in ski masks storm into a corporation's offices, round up office workers, search files, and march the alleged wrongdoers away under armed guard. Turns out that many of these masked officers are actually doing these raids on their off time, contracting with rival corporations who are looking to have the natural law of capitalism, if not the codified law of the land, enforced.
Go tour the submarine. It's a blast; it's like going to a decade-late victory party for capitalism and the American Way. Give Submarine Attractions Incorporated 10 bucks, take a tour of the ship with a few retired Cold Warriors, then give Submarine Attractions another $20 for an authentic Russian military-issue sailor's sweater. The sweaters even come with the original Russian sizing tags still on them. Turns out I wear a Russian size 54. The sweater, by the way, is made of 100 percent kholpok, or cotton. American submariner uniforms, according to the public-relations officer at Bremerton Naval Base, are 100 percent polyester, or poliyefir. Apparently cotton, while providing far better breathability, cooling, softness, comfort, and a real sense of mammalian warmth, burns too.
Matthew Richter is a former performance editor of The Stranger. Currently he is the executive director of Consolidated Works, a contemporary arts center in Seattle.