Planet Waves | A Beautiful Time? by Eric Francis


 A Beautiful Time?

Planet Waves | by Eric Francis

Left, the ultmate crash test dummies: mannequins at the dinner table in Nevada, in place for the Apple Nuclear Test, March 1955

ENOUGH PEOPLE SUGGESTED, without further comment, that I get my rump to A Beautiful Mind that I actually took a minor risk on Hollywood. Even if you can't overlook the sanitizing of the purported bisexuality, divorce and unsavory racial theories of its lead character, Princeton University mathematician John Nash, it's still an interesting and worthwhile film. I say this mainly because it speaks clearly about our current situation, our still-unfolding dilemma surrounding the difference between madness and sanity in a world where potential nuclear annihilation is a significant problem.

And we also face possibilities that were more like jokes during the peak of the Cold War -- a missing suitcase bomb, for example, finding its way to some major city at the hands of someone with an agenda. (This was the approximate subject of a rather hilarious 1959 Peter Sellers film called The Mouse That Roared, which predates the indispensable Dr. Strangelove, 1964.)

We don't think about these things much any more, and we don't like to. As individuals, we can no more stop a stray Russian nuke from popping off Wall Street than we can stop Flight 11. And if you're obsessed with the end of the world, you probably need more sex, Prozac, or shock therapy. Right? But whether we can do anything about it or not, if we think about it, we have to take it personally. It is personal. I don't care who's fault it is; radioactive fallout is bad for my health.

For the first time since the Cold War era, with its duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters and horrifying newsreels warning us of the advancing Russian threat, our National Fathers have sounded the alarms of a general fear of everything.

A Beautiful Mind is the story of a brilliant Cold War-era math professor who was simultaneously working for the Department of Defense at MIT. He teaches classes, but his real job is serving the defense establishment, sharing in the many boring tasks of the fast-bloating military-industrial bureaucracy. But while he's doing this, he gets drafted to use his talents for a special mission: to decode the messages of Russian spies that are encrypted in the text and advertising of newspapers and magazines. We know enough about what happened during these dark, frantic years, when there was basically a race for who could destroy the world worst and fastest, to feel that his assignment is perfectly plausible.

The theme here is that Nash, like most people, is very concerned about the nuclear threat, but unlike most people, he gets to help prevent it. But questions arise about how much of what he's experiencing is real, and how much is based on paranoia and mental illness. And this is an enormously relevant question today because we are all faced with it. For the first time since the Cold War era, with its duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters and horrifying newsreels warning us of the advancing Russian threat, our National Fathers have sounded the alarms of a general fear of everything: fear of the mail, fear of potential disasters in shopping malls, at ball games, while travelling to see loved ones, and so on. Fear of email, fear of who we send faxes to, fear of all Arabs. We hear warnings about the vulnerability of the food and water supplies, of smallpox, and of course, major military incidents in our urban centers.

But while we're all supposed to be vigilant of anyone who looks suspicious, or of a stray paper bag left behind on a ferry boat crossing Puget Sound (where "all vehicles are subject to possible search"), or of letters with too much postage or written in sloppy handwriting, we are supposed to remain perfectly calm and content.

Everyone knows (right?) that if you tune into that stuff, you make it real. So just ignore it and everything will be fine. Right? Everyone else knows that nobody has time to think about that. We have to go shopping and sit in traffic, after all. We must also have compassion for people whose nerves are so frail that they can't handle this at all, not the meekest thought of it, save for a glance at the headlines. We must also remember that it's "all in God's hands" anyway, that the fate of the Earth is not our responsibility. Am I right? We must pray. And don't touch that joint! Drugs are part of the scourge of terrorism. You must mellow out naturally, on Zanax.

Meanwhile, we also know this is one of the greatest times in human history. We have such unparalleled opportunities for freedom, for happiness, for creative potential, for living well, for eating well -- as long as we have three jobs that pay more than $5.15 an hour, and can survive being constantly terrorized, and can endure hanging out with people most of whom respond to these threats, for the most part, by shutting down mentally and emotionally. In one sense, apathy really is the answer in these great days. But unless one is rather talented at the art of living, and can consciously devote one's life to being awake in other ways, and has friends who are capable of the same, apathy (which means the inability to feel pain, or pathos) comes with a price: mainly, joining the living dead.


T-Minus Seven Minutes

I noticed the synchronicity of two recent news items, only because, as a journalist, I am rigorously trained to remember things for longer than ten seconds. Here is a quote from the Feb. 27 press release that lead to the first of them:

"Growing concern about the security of nuclear weapons materials stockpiled around the world and a lack of U.S. support for several global disarmament pacts today prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the minute hand of the 'Doomsday Clock' forward two minutes -- to seven minutes to midnight -- the same position as when the clock made its debut in 1947.

"'Despite a campaign promise to re-think nuclear policy, the Bush administration has taken no significant steps to alter nuclear targeting policies or reduce the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces', said George A. Lopez, Chairman of the Bulletin's Board of Directors, who made the announcement. 'Meanwhile, domestic weapons laboratories continue working to refine existing warheads and design new weapons, with an emphasis on the ability to destroy deeply buried targets'."

About five weeks later, on March 9, we learned that Dubya actually did make good on his promise to rethink nuclear policy after all. This is from the March 9 Los Angeles Times:

"WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries and to build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations, according to a classified Pentagon report obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

"The secret report, which was provided to Congress on Jan. 8, says the Pentagon needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria. It says the weapons could be used in three types of situations: against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or 'in the event of surprising military developments'."

In other words, nuclear bombs are no longer this thing to be avoided at all costs, or used as our last resort in a struggle for national survival, or something to be associated with the end of the world (we survive nationally, but the world ends: nuclear logic). Rather, they are now part of policy-as-usual in a world where war is peace. And I wonder: if it was seven minutes to midnight before this report was discovered, what time is it now? Must we install a second hand on the Doomsday Clock, and tune up for Auld Lang Sine?

And hey -- just last week, Russia and China were our best friends. Most Favored Trading Partners or something like that. Was this in retaliation for Russia refusing to buy tons of substandard chickens from US "farmers"? And what about China? I swear, they had just signed onto being against terrorism. I just found it, in an Oct. 19, 2001 article, which was written more than 10 seconds ago, but which I still remember:

"SHANGHAI, China (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says he has won a 'firm commitment' of support from Chinese President Jiang Zemin for the war Washington is waging against terrorism.

"Bush described their first face-to-face meeting as "very good," and told reporters there was 'no hesitation, no doubt that they would stand with the United States and our people during this terrible time'."

For their unswerving fealty, we put them on the Nuke List.

I tellya. I can live with the fact that the world is wired for self-destruction and a nuclear fanatic is president and that it's not the sixties any more, or the seventies, and can look back longingly on the activism of the eighties. I can live with the fact that the clock of values and political scenarios is rolling backward to the fifties and even the forties as the Doomsday Clock advances toward midnight. What chills my bones is that so many children believe the lies, that there are not people dancing in the streets, or drumming in the streets, not only refusing to believe that these threats are real, but also refusing to live like they are.++

 Search | Horoscopes | What's New | Index | Consultations

Space graphic above from the Rosette Nebula in Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Sulfur.
Credit: T. A. Rector, B. Wolpa, M. Hanna. Planet Waves logo by Eric, and Via Keller.