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Tomgram: Ira Chernus, What Ever Happened to Plain Old Apocalypse?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

For those of us of a certain age, it seems as if the world has always been ending.  It's easy now to forget just how deep fears and fantasies about a nuclear apocalypse went in the "golden" 1950s.  And I'm not just thinking about kids like me "ducking and covering" at the advice of Bert the Turtle, while sirens screamed in the big city and the emergency warning system Conelrad blared from a radio on our teacher's desk.  Here, from Spencer Weart's book Nuclear Fear, is a typical enough description of everyday life in that nuclearized America.  "Operation Alert" was a set of exercises that started in 1954 and were meant to prepare the populace for imminent attack.  As Russian nuclear-armed bombers "supposedly approached," writes Weart, "citizens in scores of cities obeyed the howl of sirens and sought shelter, leaving the streets deserted.  Afterward, photographs of the empty streets offered an eerie vision of a world without people.  The press reported with ghoulish precision how many millions of Americans "died' in each mock attack."

No one was immune from such experiences and fears.  In June 1953, for instance, President Dwight Eisenhower screened Operation IVY, a top-secret film about the first successful full-scale test of an H-bomb at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  That bomb was not just a city-killer, but also a potential civilization destroyer.  The screening took place at the White House with the full cabinet and the Joint Chiefs in attendance.  The president was evidently deeply disturbed by the image of an "entire atoll" vanishing "into a crater" and, adds Weart, by "the fireball with a dwarfed New York City skyline printed across it in black silhouette."  In 1956, Democratic presidential candidate Estes Kefauver announced that H-bombs could "right now blow the earth off its axis by 16 degrees."  Talk about waking nightmares.

In the same years, if you happened to be young and at the movies, nuclearized America was taking vivid shape.  In the Arctic, the first radioactivated monster, Ray Bradbury's Rhedosaurus, awakened in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to begin its long slouch toward New York City; in the Southwestern desert, near the Trinity testing grounds for the first atomic bomb, a giant mutated queen ant in Them! prepared for her long flight to the sewers of Los Angeles to spawn; in space, the planet Metaluna displayed "the consequences of a weak defense system" by being incinerated in This Island Earth.  And don't forget the return of the irrepressible, the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1954, Godzilla, that reptilian nightmare "awakened" by atomic tests, stomped out of Japan's Toho studios to barnstorm through American theaters.

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No wonder that, of all my thousands of dreams from those years, no matter how vivid or fantastic, the only ones I remember are those in which I seemed to experience "the Bomb" going off, saw the mushroom cloud rising, or found myself crawling through the rubble of atomically obliterated cities.  In this, I suspect, I'm not alone in my generation.  In fact, I've always had the desire to conduct a little informal survey, collecting the atomic dreamscapes of my peers from that era.  If I had another life, I undoubtedly would.

From the actual nuclear destruction of 1945 to the prospective nuclear destruction that, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, seemed briefly to reach the edge of a world-ending boil, to the possibility today of a global "nuclear winter" set off by a regional war between India and Pakistan, who knows just how the fear of a nuclear apocalypse has embedded itself in consciousness.  All we can know is that it has, and that a climate-change version of the same, perhaps even harder to grasp and absorb, has been creeping into our imaginations and dreamscapes in recent years.  Today, religious scholar, historian, and TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus takes the deep plunge into the modern version of the apocalyptic imagination, wondering whether the crater the first H-bomb left in Eniwetok Atoll is where hope lies buried. Tom

Apocalypses Everywhere 
Is There Any Hope in an Era Filled with Gloom and Doom? 
By Ira Chernus

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Wherever we Americans look, the threat of apocalypse stares back at us.

Two clouds of genuine doom still darken our world: nuclear extermination and environmental extinction. If they got the urgent action they deserve, they would be at the top of our political priority list.

But they have a hard time holding our attention, crowded out as they are by a host of new perils also labeled "apocalyptic": mounting federal debt, the government's plan to take away our guns, corporate control of the Internet, the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing's pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, not to speak of earthquakes and plagues. The list of topics, thrown at us with abandon from the political right, left, and center, just keeps growing.

Then there's the world of arts and entertainment where selling the apocalypse turns out to be a rewarding enterprise. Check out the website "Romantically Apocalyptic," Slash's album "Apocalyptic Love," or the history-lite documentary "Viking Apocalypse" for starters. These days, mathematicians even have an "apocalyptic number."

Yes, the A-word is now everywhere, and most of the time it no longer means "the end of everything," but "the end of anything." Living a life so saturated with apocalypses undoubtedly takes a toll, though it's a subject we seldom talk about.

So let's lift the lid off the A-word, take a peek inside, and examine how it affects our everyday lives. Since it's not exactly a pretty sight, it's easy enough to forget that the idea of the apocalypse has been a container for hope as well as fear. Maybe even now we'll find some hope inside if we look hard enough.

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A Brief History of Apocalypse

Apocalyptic stories have been around at least since biblical times, if not earlier. They show up in many religions, always with the same basic plot: the end is at hand; the cosmic struggle between good and evil (or God and the Devil, as the New Testament has it) is about to culminate in catastrophic chaos, mass extermination, and the end of the world as we know it. 

That, however, is only Act I, wherein we wipe out the past and leave a blank cosmic slate in preparation for Act II: a new, infinitely better, perhaps even perfect world that will arise from the ashes of our present one. It's often forgotten that religious apocalypses, for all their scenes of destruction, are ultimately stories of hope; and indeed, they have brought it to millions who had to believe in a better world a-comin', because they could see nothing hopeful in this world of pain and sorrow.     

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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