In Which the Scribbler Says the Only Thing to Fear is…Well, You Know the Rest

One of the vivid memories from my childhood is the Presidential election of 1980. I was ten years old. We’d had the scholastic mock election in our class, and Jimmy Carter had won that one, but as it turned out Ronald Reagan won in the real world (I’d voted for John Anderson, because, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing, I tend to root for the dark horses and underdogs in the world). Reagan won 489 electoral votes (and 51 percent of the popular vote), and swept into office convincingly.

I spent several hours that night watching, with my parents, the returns. Then I went to bed and spent the next several hours being terrified. I cried, silently. You see, I’d seen some of the campaign ads, I’d heard adults talking about how warlike and belligerent Reagan was, and I knew that, somewhere across the oceans and continents, the Soviets were just as warlike and belligerent. I couldn’t, in my ten-year-old mind, imagine any future in which this situation wouldn’t end badly. It would be another three years before THE DAY AFTER showed up on television

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but I’d already watched the thing in my head, over and over again. I’d seen Portland blasted into oblivion, a mushroom cloud rising over the western horizon, a shock wave racing toward me like one of the four horsemen, a death’s-head grin riding the shimmer of flame and radiation and doom. Keep in mind–it had only been six months since Portland had dealt with fire to the north, smoke clouds pluming into the upper atmosphere, ash falling like the rain in Purgatory, clogging drains, killing fish, destroying paint jobs, making American citizens walk around cautiously, wearing surgical masks, scuffing powder off the sidewalk like it was snow.

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Fear is fear, of course. The fear of, say, sharks, is perfectly healthy and provides an evolutionary advantage. The fear of falling, an atavistic holdover from our time spent evolving in trees, is perfectly logical. But we humans have fears other animals don’t. I can’t remember ever actually being terrified of the prospect of Hell, but, then, I don’t actually ever remember BELIEVING in Hell (in spite of all the creepy, CARRIE-ish stuff scattered around my family’s houses–the pictures of the bleeding heart of Jesus were the creepiest). I’m sure I did, just as I’m sure I believed in Santa Claus at some point, but I don’t REMEMBER believing in all that stuff. The Tooth Fairy, the monster under the bed, Bigfoot, whatever. I was a hardheaded little bambino when it came to that stuff.

But I believed in nuclear war. Hoo boy, did I believe in nuclear war.

As it turns out, Reagan wasn’t all that bad. There were the usual circuses during his administration–anyone remember James Watt? or Oliver North? or Joan Quigley?–but on the whole he kept the ship heading straight. America went through a fairly conservative time

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but that’s not a bad thing. We go in cycles, we Americans. We’re going through a fairly liberal time right now, what with gay marriage and legal pot and pulling soldiers out of southern Asia. America swings like a pendulum do (apologies to Roger Miller), and that’s part of what makes this a wonderful country. And after Reagan, and Bush, there was Clinton. After Clinton, there was Bush II. After him, there was (and is) Obama. I’m guessing after Obama will come Clinton II, but after that, who knows?

Let’s get back to that ten-year-old boy crying in his bed. His younger brother is asleep in the bunk above him; tomorrow’s a school day, and John should be sleeping, too, but those fireballs and mushroom clouds in his head are making it tough. Matter of fact, he kind of feels like slipping out from under the blankets and cowering under the bed itself, like he used to do when he was a LITTLE kid. Not that a mattress is going to be much protection against megatons and isotopes and nuclear winter and the monster Soviets (even though our boys had showed them a taste of our gumption nine months earlier

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but that was on our home ice. Nuclear war, when it happened, wasn’t going to have home-field advantage. It was going to happen EVERYWHERE), but eventually he got to sleep.

There’s a scene in ANIMAL HOUSE where Dean Wormer…well, you all remember it.

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life. Neither is worried, nervous, and terrified.

Which brings us, of course, to Ebola.

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Wherever else I go with this blog post, no matter what I say, believe me that I am NOT conflating Ebola with Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. It’s a deadly thing. It kills people in horrible, loathsome fashion. It’s as real as…well, as nuclear weapons. And at least those people in Hiroshima didn’t know what was coming; you contract Ebola, you get to feel it all as your organs liquefy and your body falls apart while you die in agony.

That said, I’ve come a long way from that kid weeping quietly in his bunk. There are other scares in one’s life, and I’ve experienced some of them, some of them very recently. There’s the fear of footsteps behind you on an early-morning, dark sidewalk; I’ve been mugged and shot, and I’m now hyper-aware of what’s going on around me at all times (monkey brain, augmented by painful experience). There’s the fear of loss; I’ve lost pets, friends, wallets, family members, I’ve had moments where I’ve feared the loss of my memories and my mind. Fear of pain, fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, of loss of sexual potency, of being TOO potent (if you’ve ever had a condom break, THAT’S a fun little fear for the next couple weeks of your life), of insolvency, of inadequacy.

In 1980, it was the first time I’d ever actually feared death. Mortality. It hit me there, in my stupid Star Wars blankets, that I was going to cease to be–“then on the shore/ of the wide world I stand alone, and think,/ till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

And there are ten-year-olds out there tonight lying in their beds terrified that they’re going to die of Ebola. That there’s going to be a pandemic, and that the world is going to end not in fire, nor ice, but in the wildfire spread of something that makes nuclear fire seem kind and cleansing.

It’s right to be worried about disease. It’s NOT right that adults, ostensibly responsible and mature adults, are fanning these flames. It’s NOT right that Rep. Peter King says “It’s time for the doctors to realize that they were wrong and figure out why they were wrong. Maybe this is a mutated form of the virus.” It’s NOT right that Sen. Rand Paul says “This is a disease that can be transmitted when you’re wearing gowns, masks and gloves. It’s incredibly transmissible and it’s a mistake for the government to say don’t worry, it’s like AIDS. AIDS is difficult to catch. If someone is sitting next to you with Ebola and coughs, you can catch it.” And it’s definitely not right when this genius (Dr. Oz, who actually has the honorific in front of his name, like Sen. Paul but not Rep. King) — went on television to pronounce that the epidemic could alter the world “as much as any plague in history.”

Yeah. So could Kirk Cameron. But I’m not betting on it.

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Remember this guy? The Red Scare? Communists under our beds, behind our shrubbery, making policy in the State Department?

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Or how about this? James Moorman, counsel to the Environmental Defense Fund, predicted that “disastrous massive oil spills along literally thousands of miles of the Pacific Coast” were “inevitable.” That’s the Trans-Alaska Pipeline he’s talking about.

And then there’s THIS blotch on humanity:

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Enough. There’s always someone trying to terrify us, whether the threat is ISIS sneaking through the southern border (using Central American kids as human shields, probably), or Vladimir Putin sending his thousands of tanks across Eastern Europe on his way to Paris and London, or the unfathomable threat of trying terrorists in actual American courtrooms (as opposed to trying them in secret, in military tribunals, probably with the judges wearing black masks, like God intended). The Gulf of Mexico didn’t fill with crude oil. There are no black helicopters taking people off to Re-education Centers. President Obama is not a secret Muslim, a secret Kenyan, a secret anti-colonialist, any more than President Bush was an idiot, a Trilateralist, a warmongering stooge for his capitalist buddies. They’re both good men, they both did (and are doing) what they think best for this country. I’m not saying all politicians are good people, but for the most part they’re SINCERE people.

And no one wants Ebola to run rampant in this country. No one of normal human decency, or with normal human feelings. I suppose some of the extremists want a Katrina for President Obama, and I can understand that, but it’s not going to happen. This is going to be like every other disaster we’ve faced in our history–we’ll take the measure of the threat, we’ll try options to contain it, and we’ll finally figure out the one that works. There are conservative Republican doctors and nurses and interns out there right now working their asses off to contain the damage, to come up with vaccines, to fix the fucking problem. And they’re not conservative Republicans while they’re doing it. They’re Americans first–no, no. They’re HUMANS first. As are we all.

Stop being scared. You’re Americans. Act like it. We got through the Civil War and somehow, miraculously, rebuilt. We fought off acid rain, we fought off the flu epidemics, we fought off the Depression, the Dust Bowl, we took on foes ranging from the British to the Spanish to the Taliban to the Nazis, and we got through those fights.

We’ll get through this one as well.

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2 comments

  1. Good points, all. Sometimes I think of the Paul Simon song, “American Tune”.

    We come on the ship that sailed the moon
    We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
    And sing an American tune
    Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
    It’s all right, it’s all right
    You can’t be forever blessed

    We tend to compare the present to an idealized past, forgetting that the past is rarely ideal.

  2. I think the fear of nuclear war was always present to some degree in everyone until the fall of the Soviet Union. I was 26 in 1980 when Reagan was elected. By then Carter had already moved so far to the right that the fear of Reagan as the guy who would start a nuclear war wasn’t so persuasive for a lot of voters. It was depressing however. I moved from Berkeley to Minnesota in 1981 and had never experienced a real thunderstorm in California. One morning there was a crash/explosion so loud that I was sure it was a nuclear bomb, and our life as we knew it was over. I waited for the flash of light, forgetting it should have arrived first. There was another crash, but the power stayed on and tv channels were still fine. No one was concerned. Just a midwest thunderstorm. Of course Reagan brought us the MIRVed missiles, the Star Wars programs, the 500 ship navy, the huge build up in military spending. And we can blame his appointments for the savings and loan scandals, support and training of the Contra and Central American death squads, the failure to combat AIDS, and thousands of small steps back through veto after veto, but some steps forward. It was clear by the end of his presidency that he was not mentally all there. With hindsight Reagan’s presidency falls within the safe oscillations we can expect in American society, even for those of us who oppose almost everything he did.

    I share with you the idea that us Americans can handle and solve the potential disasters that may occur. Ebola, the bankruptcy of Social Security or the US government, the collapse of the economic system, destruction from global warming, terrorists. Telling people, especially children, they are all going to die/starve/lose everything is the worst sort of behavior. Disasters do hit from time to time, but we should believe we can prepare and overcome them. So far it has worked.

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