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Mon, 07 Jun 2004

This dog is going to haunt my dreams tonight

Chow from hell

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posted at: 22:09 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

So, one down, one to go

Ronald Reagan's body is finally dead.

This isn't unexpected -- he was, after all, very old and had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for at least ten (and more likely twenty) years. And I find myself contemplating the situation with mixed feelings. I hate to think of myself as the kind of person who'd rejoice in anyone's death, but in this case my visceral reaction to the news could only be described as relief.

That man tried to kill me. And I take that personally, even though he neither knew nor cared that I existed.

Back in the years of his first presidential term, Ronald Reagan -- an actor as well as a politician, and a consumate sculptor of public opinion -- engaged in rhetoric so blood-chilling that he convinced the elderly, beleaguered, and somewhat paranoid incumbents of the politburo that he was actually willing to start a nuclear war. Their response, Operation RYAN, almost led to the outbreak of such a war during the Able Archer 83 exercises, when the Soviet planners became convinced that a NATO invasion of eastern Europe was in train. It was a major war scare, perhaps the closest the world has ever come to a strategic nuclear exchange, and it occured almost entirely as a consequence of Reagan's bloodthirsty rhetoric, typified by his speech about the evil empire.

Lest we forget, in 1981-83 the Soviet Union had achieved rough nuclear parity with the USA. Over ten thousand tactical nuclear weapons were in place in Europe. The UK, as one of the most heavily armed NATO members and the site of numerous ports, airports, munition factories and supply depots, was targeted by several hundred thermonuclear devices. Even the more optimistic government estimates predicted a mortality rate of 50-65% in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange; more realistic estimates were 60-70% dead within the first day, and 90-95% of the population dead within six months.

The cold war blighted the dreams, expectations, and lives of a generation that grew up in the UK between 1960 and 1986. We had nightmares; we didn't expect to survive to adulthood: the apocalypse loomed large, and every mindlessly jingoistic speech by this amiable sock-puppet of corporatism seemed to bring it closer. Never mind that the Soviet empire was undoubtedly a gray, unpleasant place, and the threat of Bolshevik expansionism very real in the wake of the Prague Spring and the Afghan invasion -- the phrase "better dead than red" posed a very real and immediate, not to say unpalatable, dilemma. It's very easy to trot out such a platitude when you do not face personal, painful extinction as a result of it. But it sticks in the throat when you contemplate its' immediate personal relevance to your own life, and that of everyone you hold dear.

It's true that Reagan moderated his tone sharply after the Able Archer incident, apparently genuinely shaken when he learned how close to the brink he'd stumbled. I don't believe he genuinely wanted to start a nuclear holocaust. But through his actions he demonstrated a remarkable blindness to the mirror-image concerns of his cold war rivals, a chilling lack of empathy that highlighted the emptiness behind the folksy mask. And, as Juan Cole notes, in his reckless pursuit of his goals Reagan was instrumental in the emergence of the Taliban and Al Qaida and in sponsoring fascist dictatorships throughout Latin America -- dictatorships which for the most part expired, once deprived of US support after the cold war ended.

So it's with relief rather than regret that I note Ronald Reagan's death. It closes a chapter and draws a line under the unpleasant nightmares of the eighties. But it is with some chagrin that I am forced to concede that he wasn't the worst president: as Patrick Farley put it, I now know what it's like to have a genuine moron in the White House.

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posted at: 19:57 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
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