The Past is Prologue


by Roxanne Tellier

… while those of us who DO remember the past, are doomed to watch those who DO NOT, make the same mistakes, over and over again….

One of the few benefits of getting older is having not only a lot of past to remember, but for some, the time to do so in a leisurely fashion, and with a philosophical bent. If we are lucky, and if we look back with clear eyes, we may actually begin to see where we’ve been, and maybe even to see how our past has impacted upon our present.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering how and why so much of the civilized world, and North America in particular, has been working very hard to turn back time and progress.  

if you grew up in the fifties and sixties, you remember fighting for civil rights, equal rights for women, abortion rights, and so much more. My generation had an enormous impact on society.

So what went wrong? How is it that the despots of today are being allowed to turn back the clock to the ugly world of before?

I guess it could be argued that not every one was happy with the advances we made – that in fact, there were misogynists, xenophobes, bigots and racists that weren’t very happy at all with those advances.

Are those the people hell-bent on returning us to those days?

Children of the fifties and sixties were shaped by the dramatic events of our time. Since we’d never known any other kind of world, it felt relatively normal to us. But it was the most explosive, impactful, and eventful time in modern history.

Bear with me now – cast your mind back.

In the United States, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy was shepherding a form of terror by government into place from the late 1940s through the 1950s, as ordinary citizens were accused of subversion or treason without any regard for evidence.  

70 years on we have replaced McCarthy with Attorney General William Barr, who has been stealthily ‘investigating the investigators’ of the Mueller Report, despite no evidence of impropriety.

Just a month after the United States tested the first atomic bomb, in July 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico, it used that same technology to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A lot of us boomers had parents who’d been in WWII, or in Korea, and many of those parents brought back photographic images of the horrors on view in the destruction of occupied Europe and Japan. By 1949, the USSR had exploded it’s own atomic bomb, raising those stakes even higher.  It was only by a series of high level discussions, and the implementation of the  Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of military strategy and national security policy that we brought to an end a nuclear escalation that could have  caused the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender in a nuclear war.   

Today, many countries are moving towards nuclear armament, including North Korea, where a very miffed Kim Jong Un has been testing his arsenal of approximately 20 to 30 nuclear weapons, now deemed capable of reaching Washington, DC.

Back in the fifties and sixties, we were being flooded with a new wave of science fiction movies and magazines tasked with the job of distracting North Americans, and soon we were looking ahead to driverless, flying cars.

Remember Them! (giant irradiated ants, ) X The Unknown (radiation run amuck in Scotland,) and a host of other films in which radiation and/or atomic fallout caused the ordinary to radically change into mutant monsters?

“Some of these films envisioned a terrestrial holocaust destroying or threatening humanity as a result of nuclear testing or war [World Without End (1956), On the Beach (1959), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Crack in the World (1965)]. Nearly all of the atomic films centered on the strange powers of radiation.

This kind of radiation causes Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s duck to lay uranium eggs in Val Guests’s Mr. Drake’s Duck (1950), makes Mickey Rooney glow in The Atomic Kid, puts Peter Arne seven and a half seconds into the future in Timeslip, creates geniuses or zombies in John Gillings’s The Gamma People (1956), shrinks Grant Williams in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), grows Glenn Langan in Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man, revives a murderous native as a walking tree in Dan Milner’s From Hell It Came (1957), makes Japanese gangsters sentient slime in Ishiro Honda’s Bijo to Ekatai Ningen, turns Ron Randell to steel in Allan Dwan’s The Most Dangerous Man Alive and makes Tor Johnson into Coleman Francis’s The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961).” 

(read more here https://www.tru.ca/canfilm/essays/gargantuan_bugs.htm)

While titillating, these films really sought to make the impossible and the unreal – radiation, invisible yet deadly, that could change nor only our very own bodies, but the DNA of our flora and fauna; aliens, and future technology – into something we could accept as normal and even possible. 

These films turned what were real dangers – like radiation and the destruction of war – into the mundane, and therefore something that the average human could, with a little forethought and planning, survive. These movies didn’t challenge what was wrong with the politics of the countries that blithely obliterated millions of living creatures and their habitats, they instead focused our native paranoia and fear of otherness, by dehumanizing people and creatures unlike ourselves.

Or, as Susan Sontag wrote in 1964,  “Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated-by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”  

Sound familiar? You’ve been soaking in entertainment that attempts to prepare you for your future in exactly the same way. The tsunami of zombie films are a representation of immigrants and refugees, displaced through war or climate change, who the fearful imagine as innumerable, insatiable, and unstoppable creatures that are coming for your land and your food.

All of the Sharknado films, Geostorm,  WaterWorld, The Day After Tomorrow ….those films present a world in which climate change is a survival issue. Luckily for you, Hollywood’s obsession with global warming has conscripted top movie stars to show you how these problems can be handled without messing your hair.  

And the Mad Max films, along with so many others that envision life after an apocalyptic event, are all meant to lull you into a false security about an uncertain future. All you’ll need is enough ammo to bully yourself into power, right?

But in truth, the sci fi films of my day, many of which focused on monsters actually CREATED by that fall out and radiation, did little to prepare us for October 1962, and the days of the Cuban Crisis. Even if you’d only seen posters of those films, or heard parents or older siblings talking about them, it was stretching credibility for those of us who were school aged at the time to believe that our little wooden desks would protect us from bombs and nuclear fall out.

And in all of the films – either of the past or today – that are subtly meant to prepare this generation for climate change, floods of displaced people, possible nuclear attacks by foreign entities, or a civil war in which families battle each other .. not a single one of those films points to what will actually be the salvation of those remaining, or the rebuilding of society.

It’s not sexy – real life rarely is – but the only sort of society that will allow mankind to crawl out of whatever viper pit they’ve managed to fall into in a dystopic apocalypse is going to rely on only a few things.

And weapons aren’t high on that list.  After all, if you’ve just lost a large portion of humanity, every soul will be as precious as those fetuses the religious radicals revere.  Only this will be for real, not for show.

What will save humanity will be empathy, respect and regard for every person. Whomever can work compassionately and equitably with others will be a leader.

That leader will need the sense to scavenge not just the physical things needed, but the information held by elders, and in libraries. You’ll need to redevelop agriculture, and, without those tools farmers use today, you’ll have little time to do much else than farm.

You’ll need to reconstruct the calendar, in order to prepare for the seasons and survival, and to be able to predict best times for sowing and harvesting. In time you will also need to figure out how to make soap, windmills, steam engines, and all the myriad necessities we take for granted today.

And then, dear reader, you will look back to today, and call these times the good ol’ days …

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