Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It
I know that even the chronically disaffected readers of The Pain are not immune, on occasion, to a little unironic, sentimental nostalgia. Recent world eventsó the Iranians taking hostages and threatening the stability of the Middle East [sic], the Russians threatening to aim their nuclear missiles at European capitals--have reminded me pleasantly of my own youth, the days of the Carter administration. What can I say? They were good times. Does anyone remember the novelty songs, "Bomb Iran" [to the tune of "Barbara Ann"] and "Ayatollah" [to the tune of "My Shirona"]? "Come to America and DIE-atollah/ Hit you in the face with a PIE-atollah!" Plus think of all the great art and pop culture about Cold War espionage and apocalypse: John Le Carré! James Bond! Dr. Strangelove! Not to mention the very large radioactive monsters we had back in those days. Military nuts and novelists used to fantasize about the totally excellent Third World War we could have with our new generation of kick-ass conventional weapons if only the Soviets would invade Western Europe. But the treacherous bastards never did, and this left our military/industrial complex frustrated as though with a fifty-year case of the blueballs. America still approaches every conflict as though it were that one, the Big One, W.W. Three, "toe-to-toe with the Russkies," sending in aircraft carriers and bringing on the heavy tanks and cruise missiles and radar-invisible bombers by the thousands, even if itís a guerilla insurgency in a small town in the desert.
On a recent flight to Seattle I sat next to a girl who was reading The 9/11 Report, which I could not help but observe was a fairly ballsy thing to be reading on a plane. She said, yeah, she had to read it for a class on postwar American history. It was the first thing theyíd read that wasnít about the Cold War, she griped. I ventured to ask, "So, do you remember the Cold War?" Of course she didnít. She was three years old when they tore down the Berlin Wall. (To be honest, I donít remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, either, but this was for different reasons.) Kids a generation older than me, the Boomers, still remember having to do "duck and cover" drills in school, since in those days the only known protection against the heat and radiation of a thermonuclear blast was the material out of which public school desktops were composed. Writers more eloquent than me have written about the years of nightmares and neuroses that resulted from the terrible new knowledge that at any moment they, their family and friends, and all human life on earth could be instantaneously cremated. "I think we have all tried to deal with the slow escalation of our helplessness and terror in the few ways open to us, from not thinking about it to going crazy from it," wrote Thomas Pynchon in the introduction to his collected stories, Slow Learner. In his own introduction to Einsteinís Monsters, Martin Amis wrote that "in the case of a nuclear war, I shall be obliged (and itís the last thing Iíl feel like doing) to retrace that long mile home, through the firestorm, the remains of the thousand-mile-an-hour winds, the warped atoms, the groveling dead. ThenóGod willing if I still have the strength, and, of course, if they are still aliveóI must find my wife and children and I must kill them." You have to imagine that Amisís wife and kids, after reading this, probably developed their own post-holocaust contingencies--like, If you see Dad after a nuclear attack, shoot first.
By the time I was a kid, theyíd pretty much given up on offering us any pretense of protection (unless you, like Congress and millions of grownup Americans, were scientifically illiterate enough to believe that Reaganís "Star Wars" plan could work) and this sort of shrill panic had been numbed to a more matter-of-fact, back-of-the-mind awareness that, yeah, the world could always blow up any time, but what are you gonna do? Answer: Party like itís 1999! Which is, in a way, sadder.
Young people today, who do not even recall the Soviet menace, may have a hard time believing that these drunken bumbling oafs who assassinate each other like Klingons and resolve hostage situations by killing absolutely everybody involved and canít even rescue a fucking submarine, were once considered the single most sinister and implacable threat to freedom on this planet. (Although actually not as hard a time as youíll have explaining to your own children why we were so terrified of a few thousand scrawny brainwashed losers with box cutters and bombs made out of shoes that we eagerly agreed to forfeit civilized conduct and our birthright as a free people.) Do not underestimate them. You canít take your eye off the Russians, man. Everybody from Napoleon to Hitler found out the hard way: they are stone crazy motherfuckers, tough as nails, and absolutely not to be fucked with, ever, especially not in the winter. And Vladimir Putin is essentially a real-life James Bond supervillain: a former KGB agent and a judo expert who has his rivals and critics shot in the heads, pushed off roofs, and poisoned with radiation, and once kissed a little boy on the belly in public because he knew there wasnít jack shit anybody would do about it.
Itís almost a relief to find ourselves back in a conflict we can understand, with enemies whose motives at least make a crude, Machiavellian sort of sense. The Soviets seemed a worthy nemesis, our equals and opposites, a shadowy rival superpower lurking on the other side of the pole, with their own space program, even, and armed with enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world six times over. Like us, they were an expansionist empire with dangerous delusions of a unique historical destiny. It was a great historical clash between two Western ideologies, Rousseau vs. Marx, Jefferson vs. Leninówell, actually more like Henry Ford vs. Josef Stalin, as it worked out in real life, but you get the idea. Their leaders were always half-dead grey-faced bureaucrats in bad suits, not dewey-eyed, bearded fanatics hiding out in caves. The Russians were like Braniac or Galactus, one of the big guns; Osama bin Laden is more like Mr. Mxyzptlk, or Mysterio--just some jerk. Even the whole world-blowing-up scenario is too big and abstract to seem like a real possibility now; it's almost clean and fun and comforting, like the destruction of Alderaan, compared to the grisly horrors of 9/11.
Believe it or not I drew the first draft of this cartoon years ago, back even before the Bush administration. This was during what looks, in retrospect, like a brief idyll between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, the Clinton years, when the most important issue confronting the nation was that the President of the United States had gotten his cock sucked. I felt like we were perhaps getting too complacent. Everybody acted as though, now that the Cold War was over, we could finally quit worrying about nuclear weapons. Whew! They still seem to believe this, except course for the threat of a "rogue nation" or terrorist group maybe smuggling a couple-few-kiloton device into New York harbor someday. But nuclear weapons arenít going away (and even if we dismantled every last one of the things on the planet we still couldnít do a collective memory wipe on the whole human race) and human nature isnít changing, either. As long as those two things are constant, the existence of the species remains provisional, at least until we get ourselves set up on some other planet, which don't hold your breath. Donít get me wrong--Iím relieved and thankful that the Americans and the Russians somehow managed not to drop the nuclear football for fifty years, but is that supposed to mean we can sound the all-clear now? For how long? For the next hundred years? The next thousand?
Just a little cheerer-upper for those of you not already at the lip of suicide over terrorism and global warming.