Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Day After

Back in the fall of 1983 when I was in eighth grade, on the night of November 20th to be exact, over 100 million Americans tuned into ABC to watch The Day After; a ground-breaking televised film depicting the lives of people in small towns in middle-America set against the horrifying background of a fictional nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union and their Warsaw Pact allies.

I came of age in the 1970's and early 80's, and for those not old enough to remember, the Cold War with the Soviet Union at that time was about as cold as it ever got.

When The Day After premiered on that fall evening, America was three years into President Ronald Reagan's 1st term, and just seven months earlier, during a now infamous speech in front of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, Reagan first used the term "Evil Empire" to describe the Soviet Union.

Watch a brief four-minute excerpt from the speech, particularly the fiery language he uses to frame communism in an almost messianic way - those two words drove a wedge between America and the Soviet Union that would last for years.

The Soviets had been America's ideological, political and military adversary for years when Reagan first used those words in an ideological speech that linked religion, politics and patriotism with war in a way that symbolized his administration's muscular foreign policy - driven in no small part by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979 and concern of Soviet expansion.

But that speech wasn't just about lofty ideals or projecting American strength - Reagan was selling the American people on the biggest military build-up since the Vietnam War.

When Reagan took office in 1981, America's defense budget was about $339.6 billion, by 1987 it would reach a staggering $456.5 billion; and our federal deficit soared as social programs were slashed - remember ketchup being classified as a vegetable as a result of cuts to federal contributions to public school nutrition programs for children?

A healthy portion of American taxpayer's money in Reagan's first term was being spent on upgrading and expanding America's nuclear weapons arsenal, and those were scary times when the threat of nuclear was very real - so the broadcast of the The Day After in 1983 in the third year of Reagan's first term was, in part, a response to the growing public anxiety about a nuclear war; and what the horrifying aftermath would be like.

It was also a reflection of a growing global public opposition to the use of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, even though the anti-nuclear movement actually had it's origins in the 1950's in response to the widespread testing of nuclear weapons.

The accident that took place at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979 brought the reality of the dangers of nuclear power home to people around the world in very real ways.

Not only did Three Mile Island spark hundreds of thousands of people to protest nuclear power in cities around the world in 1979, it began to bring opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, and indeed war, more into the mainstream of global society.

The Day After tapped into those sentiments, and it still holds a record for the largest televised movie audience.

Everyone watched it, adults and children alike. We discussed it in class for months afterwards and it was discussed at the water cooler at work and in bars, it was on magazine covers, television programs - everywhere.

It implanted the reality of the horrors of nuclear war firmly into the American subconscious.

Now as a film buff, I must say that while The Day After had a huge emotional impact on me and my political views, I feel that the British television film that followed in 1984, Threads, was actually the better movie.

The BAFTA-Award winning BBC production followed a very similar storyline, except that it followed the lives of a series of characters based in the industrial town of Sheffield, England before, during and after a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union.

Even though it was fictional, to me Threads had a darker, grittier, almost documentary-style feel to it, and personally I found the characters more compelling.

British survivors try to plant crops 13 
years after nuclear war in Threads
Also by the time The Day After and Threads came out, the scientific community around the globe was devoting more resources to exploring how a nuclear war would affect the environment; in particular, the Nuclear Winter - a horrifying scenario in which the tons of radioactive dust and debris kicked up high into the atmosphere by nuclear explosions would encircle the globe and block out the sun for months or even years.

Threads was the first film to delve deep into what life would be like for those who managed to survive a nuclear winter; it was terrifying to glimpse average people trying to live in those conditions.

Part of what was so terrifying was trying to wrap one's head around all the unknowns of nuclear war.

Would it happen? Where would it happen? What would it be like to survive?

Now I share all that because relating to those anxieties about nuclear war is the best way for me to try and describe how I felt last night after coming to grips with the reality that Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president.

Like many others I've heard call in to public radio today to discuss the election results, I'm aware of this terrifying sense of all the unknowns that lay before America.

As an African-American, I'm dealing with some very genuine anxieties of what a large portion of the populace of the country I live in electing a man who overtly pandered to racism and xenophobia, will mean for me and other racial, ethnic and religious minorities - and members of the LGBTQ community.

As you've probably seen, protests against Trump's election have already broken out in cities around the nation - I've never seen reactions like this after a presidential election.

Anti-Trump protests have already started 
So what happens next?

During his campaign Trump gave virtually no indication of any actual policy objectives; aside from building a wall on the Mexican border and deporting millions of illegal immigrants.

This morning an American citizen from Nigeria called in to The Brian Lehrer Show to say how upset she was that her fifteen-year old daughter woke up and told her (and I'm paraphrasing):

"See, I told you they don't like us because of our skin color."

That breaks my heart, and I'm genuinely scared of where this country is going; and what it means that a man who embraces white nationalism, has never served in office and will appear in court to answer charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl was elected president.

Today, as I begin to try and make some sense of the consequences of the massive seismic shift that took place in our nation with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, I feel a little bit like the stunned survivors in The Day After or Threads emerging from the radioactive rubble to stagger across a landscape that's nearly unrecognizable.

As the tagline on the poster for The Day After reads, "The end of the familiar. The beginning of the end." 

I'm holding on to the hope that the election of this man as the leader of the free world doesn't lead to "the end" - but today is the day after, and it's clear that things can never be the same.

No comments: