As the world descends into chaos, America’s “bunker fantasy” lingers

By David L. Pike 5 minutes Read

At the end of the Oscar-nominated film Don’t look upAs a meteor hurtles toward Earth, the film’s three scientist protagonists gather with family and friends for a final dinner at a dining table in central Michigan.

When their energy is exhausted, they eat the food they have prepared and bought, give thanks and pray before they “die neighborly” – to use a phrase Coined by poet and writer Langston Hughes in 1965.

“To die next door” was something of a common refrain in the few stories told in the 1960s and 1980s by writers and artists who recognized the dangers of nuclear war but were unwilling or unable to accept it the only measure recommended by the government: buy or build your own shelter and pretend to survive.

These stories didn’t get as much attention or acclaim as Don’t Look Up. But they continue to influence how the climate emergency or nuclear war is portrayed in books and films today.

refuge or die?

Faced with a Congress unwilling to fund large-scale housing operations that Kennedy administration ruled instead to promote and establish the private development of the individual animal shelter industry dedicated spaces within existing public structures.

[Photo: 400tmax/Getty Images]

Although huge public shelters have been built in Europe and elsewhere, the communal air raid shelter was rejected as communist almost everywhere in the US. As a result, housing became available primarily to the military, government officials, and those who could afford it. The practicality and morality of private accommodation has been publicly debated. The morale or survivability of a nuclear war itself has rarely been.

Hughes’ phrase is from “air-raid shelter‘, one of his ‘Simple Stories’. These were short and humorous vignettes of the serious problems faced by Jess and Joyce Semple, a fictional working-class black couple living in Harlem. In this story, Jess tries in vain to fit in the government’s basement and backyard bomb shelter initiative in its cramped urban neighborhood.

With so many people living in each dorm, “Even if the law requires it, how could landlords build enough housing for every room occupant?” he wonders. “And if Roomers built their own shelters — me and Joyce, for example, living in a kitchenette. …How would we keep the other roommates away in the event of a raid?”

Jess then imagines Joyce’s reaction after an air raid test: “Thank god you’re saved Jess Semple! But let’s demolish the shelter tomorrow. I couldn’t go in and leave the kids and grandma outside. … When the bomb comes, let’s all just die neighborly.”

It was the opposite of dying next door mainstream debate about the right to shoot someone you didn’t want invading your private safe house.

This debate was dramatized an episode from 1961 from The Twilight Zone, in which desperate neighbors storm the entrance to the basement shelter of the only suburban family with the foresight to build one.

But as Musician Bob Dylan he recalled in the predominantly working-class Minnesota region where he grew up, no one was very interested in building housing because “it might pit neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend.”

[Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

resignation and withdrawal

The Cold War binary equation of “settle or die” meant that the only story that effectively expressed resistance to the premise of nuclear weapons was to die with dignity according to one’s values.

And it meant that stories of resistance were almost always elegiac throwbacks to traditional values ​​of community, religion, or family, mirroring the dinner table hodgepodge in Don’t Look Up.

In Lynne Littman’s low-budget 1983 drama “testament‘ the citizens of an isolated Northern California community cling to their liberal, small-town values ​​until they succumb to the nuclear consequences of a war viewers never see. Towards the end of the film, the surviving and adopted members of the Wetherly family make their last meager supper a testament to what they have already lost.

In Helen Clarkson’s 1959 novel “The last day‘, members of an island community in Massachusetts pool their resources, taking in urban refugees and even tolerating dissenting voices as they die peacefully one by one from nuclear effects.

“We have already survived an apocalypse”

Stories of active resistance, radical political propositions and advocacy for change really had to be told during the Cold Warand they certainly are there today.

But most stories told, and especially on the largest platforms, are still shaped by the shelter or death scenario. This limits the way changes are presented.

Whether it’s a meteorite impact, climate catastrophe or nuclear war, the end has almost always been told the same way for over 60 years: abrupt, hopeless and final. Any solutions are limited to short-term reactions or speculative technological quick fixes that we see in Don’t Look Up, rather than long-term changes or human-centric initiatives.

Until the culture finds effective ways to tell stories other than the ones IBunker FantasyIt will be difficult to sustain effective action in response to the climate crisis or the ongoing threat of nuclear war.

That’s not to say the bunker fantasy story is useless as a tool for activism or change. As the popularity demonstrated by “Don’t Look Up” can electrify and focus the specter of an instant apocalypse on a large scale. And in the right hands, its shape can be aligned with messages other than “protection or death.”

But we can better use the bunker fantasy today to show how partisan a story really is. The more storytellers can learn to recognize the limitations of certain forms, the more open readers and viewers can be to imagine what the end of the world means.

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I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the examples I’ve found of “dying next door” all come from marginalized perspectives: African Americans in Harlem; rural working-class communities in the Upper Midwest; female writers. In many ways, these people — as Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo speculative novelist Rebecca Roanhorse notes — “already survived an apocalypse.”

In other words, if you’ve experienced genocide, slavery, colonization, patriarchy, or the explosion of an atomic bomb, you don’t need the specter of impending destruction to draw your attention. They know only too well that the apocalypse is not the end of human history. It has always been part of it.

If survival is something you think about every day of your life, the apocalypse isn’t an emerging threat, it’s an ongoing existential condition. And perhaps the best way to learn how to survive the cataclysm while remaining human is to hear the stories of those who have been doing so for centuries.

David L. Hechtprofessor of literature, American University

This article is republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article. As the world descends into chaos, America’s “bunker fantasy” lingers


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