Trivializing History Is a Dangerous Assignment

Well, I have always been somewhat of a ham, even though my own life has remained the only long-running drama in which I have had the good fortune to play a sizable part. Yesterday, the cured meat was of the smoked variety. I spent the weekend, it having been a sufficiently dry one, at last, watching our gargantuan compost heap go up in flames (or smolder, at any rate). As the plumes wafted over the fields, I was reminded of the invisible cloud that, back in April 1986, made its way westward across Europe. I am referring, of course, to the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power station, the fallout and immediate aftermath of which I well remember as I saw polluted playgrounds being closed in Germany, pharmacists profit from outbreaks of hysteria, and toxic milk vanish from supermarket shelves (to be shipped, in powered form, to apparently immune consumers in the Middle East). It was a disconcerting experience worth recalling today, as oil prices in the West are rising nearly as fast as concerns about emerging nuclear powers in the East.

Is there any drama equal to the times in which we live? Is it in need of fictionalization? Can—and should—our fears—as far as they are felt by those who prefer to numb their pain or ignore its sources—be melodramatized and acted out for us in order to bring distant terror home and to render vague anxieties concrete?

During World War II, the mass media of radio and film tried to do just that—letting the home front see and vicariously experience what was at stake overseas. Such blatant propaganda would hardly be Hollywood-endorsed or swallowed whole today, be the objective ever so unobjectionable to the many.

I thought about this again last night, when I caught the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce thriller Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), which was shown on the British cable channel UK Drama. In it, the wireless becomes a tool used by the enemy—my ancestors from Germany—to instill fear and doubt in the British people. The air is contaminated by the less than subtle influences of a demoralizing force not unlike that exerted by the infamous Lord Haw Haw.

The thriller sought to counter this terrifying voice by giving the speaker a face, by turning fascism into a concrete figure—and a single one at that. As ideas become flesh, they not only seem more readily conquerable, they very nearly vanish altogether behind the mask created for the purpose of propaganda. Melodrama operates by processing the abstract—the tangled roots of a problem—into a visible, tangible entity. What makes melodrama unlike life is not that it offers a happy ending—not all melodramas end happily, no matter how strongly our viewpoint might be enforced—but that it embodies and thereby obscures what is most potent and problematic in its disembodiment: the war of ideas.

Melodrama does not encourage its audience to perceive the ideological bases of any problem. It deals in specifics, thereby encouraging us to believe a problem to be solvable if only its manifestations can be overcome. Instead of making us question the sources of our fears—which may well be our own ignorance—melodrama provides more or less ready answers, for which reason it is the idiom of propaganda, used by politicians the world over with considerable success.

What has this to do with Chernobyl, you might ask. Well, the atomic age got under way by creating the illusion that nuclear power is safe as long as it is in the right hands—which means, of course, our own. It was a belief instilled in western minds ever since the dropping of the bomb that ended World War II. Popular storytelling, whether overtly propagandist or not, has assisted in selling atomic power as a safe source of energy and in justifying the nuclear arms race of the cold war.

On this day, 24 April, in 1950, for instance, Steve Mitchell (portrayed by Brian Donlevy) went on another Dangerous Assignment (in a US series of episodic radio thrillers so titled), this time in search of a missing nuclear physicist. A few weeks earlier, Mitchell (pictured above, in one of his TV adventures) had been sent to the Middle East to prevent a uranium-enriched sheik from creating an atomic bomb. The peril, such fictions insisted, lay not in the substance, but in its possessor.

As I shall explore in subsequent essays, the airwaves carried a great deal of such propagandist fiction into US homes during decade following the end of the Second World War; some of these stories trivialized uranium in everyday American life while most others demonized foreigners with a hankering after atomic might.

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