Quote of the day: grab your ankles and kiss your ass goodbye (but it'll all be okay so fear not) edition

>> Thursday, February 21, 2013

"I hate to hear people say that they would prefer to die in a nuclear attack rather than face the horrors of survival.  This nation was built by people who left Europe to face the unknown hazards of a wilderness continent. Do we no longer have the courage to face an unknown challenge?"
- Steuart Pittman, 1961.
(As quoted by Paul Vitello,
The New York Times, February 18th, 2013.

Yeah, I don't know: I think I can find those scenarios vaguely distinguishable.  For instance, we don't generally think of the people who "left Europe to face the unknown hazards of a wilderness continent" as leaving behind all of their dead family members, friends, neighbors, associates, FOAFs, vague acquaintances, people they've heard mentioned by name, people whose name they never got around to learning but they always saw them down at the grocery store and kept meaning to say hello, etc., etc., etc.  It's quite true that there were Europeans who came and built this nation who left behind scads of dead relations--the Irish in the 1850s and German and Central European Jews in the 1930s and '40s come right to mind--but they were coming to a nation-in-progress, as opposed to fleeing from one burning mound of corpses to another, completely different burning mound of corpses, or cave, or assless-chaps desert autorama, or whatever.

Then there's also the matter that I don't seem to recall the Puritans slowly dying en masse from leukemia, organ failure, massive hematomas followed in some cases by external bleeding out, etc.  Though I'll also concede some of the symptoms of acute radiation syndrome are at least superficially similar to some of the symptoms of late-stage scurvy, which some of those early settlers may well have suffered from.  So, y'know, six-of-one, half-dozen-the-other and all that.

Mr. Pittman just passed away, a circumstance Brother Nathan alerted me to on the book-of-face today.  He managed to outlive his quote and the worst fears of a full-on nuclear war and the ostensible need for a bomb shelter in every American backyard; I guess that counts as a "win".  I'm not exactly trying to mock Pittman--he sounds like a good guy and a dedicated civil servant who was handled an utterly impossible task with some grace and aplomb--but I don't think you can look at the most prominent part he played in American history without seeing his career as a kind of weird, amusing, and disturbing thing (I'm not sure if I want to call it a "relic" or an "artifact" or an "instant" or "moment" or something else).  There was this era in American history where we sort of schizophrenically believed the country could pull through the End Of All Civilization and dust ourselves off; when something like a backyard bomb shelter simultaneously seemed like a really practical idea and an absurd waste of time and money, something to be mocked in famous Twilight Zone episodes even as some people were actually digging holes in their backyards and pouring cement.

Within a decade, fifteen years maybe, the idea of everyone having a shelter would just seem completely ridiculous.  We'd be well past the "Duck And Cover" Epoch and into the "No, Really You're Just Totally Fucked" Age.  By the time I was a kid, the apocalypse was on prime time; that was fun, everyone kind of knew they soft-pedaled it because it wasn't like ABC had the budget or FCC clearance to show third-degree burns like these, much less Jason Robards vomiting while his ass bleeds out because his entire stomach lining is sloughing.  But whatever.

I mean, not quite that fast; there were all these other members of the nukes club, questions about who was going to control the former Soviet arsenal, still the possibility of accidental launch (people don't much appreciate it, but accidental nuclear war is still possible)--but the probability and, more significantly, the ubiquity, of the threat, just mostly evaporated so quickly I don't think many people even appreciate it was ever there at all.

I don't have much idea what kids these days are afraid of.  I remember going to a couple of SANE meetings in junior high school, I don't know what these kids do today.  Are they afraid of terrorists?  Of other students?  Of off-campus strangers with rifles?  If it's any of those, it's not anything as irrevocably and actually all-consuming as the things their parents and grandparents worried about, things their great-grandparents got to go through the first halves of their lives without even imagining.  I'm not trying to disparage these kids' fears--fear, like pain, is a personal thing, and the fact a child perhaps only has to be afraid of being shot instead of being afraid the whole human race will go up in flames is no consolation whatsoever.  ("You think you know what fear is, kiddo?"  Well of course you do: it's yours and always was and shall be.)

But there was Pittman, anyway, and people like him, who basically were saying for a time there you should be afraid but didn't have to be: yes, the damned Russians had bombs and hated us (the Russians, natch, said the same thing about us), but if you dug out a lead-and-cement-lined tomb in your yard you could emerge triumphant into the New American Wilderness like some pioneer triumphant to reclaim this remade land.  What a crock of shit.  I can only think Pittman meant well by it and was doing what he had to because he must.  But what a crock of shit.


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