It’s only been this year that I don’t feel a Cold War chill when the Evanston air raid sirens go off after snowstorms to alert the community that side street plowing is underway.  I grew up deeply impacted by the societal certainty that the world would end in nuclear conflagration. Polls from the 1960s showed the majority of Americans believed that the world would end in nuclear war.  The Cold War weighed upon my mind and my dreams when I was a child and a young man.  There was no sound more terrifying than the air raid sirens.  Practice on Tuesday mornings always, without exceptions, brought me the chill of terror.

An activist’s showing of Dr. Strangelove this last January was followed by a discussion.  It was taking place in Hyde Park, a few blocks from Obama’s home at the 57th Street Friends Building.  I chose not to watch the film; instead I read in the next room.  When I was young, I saw Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe and On the Beach.  These three films probably politicized me more than any other single event, as I was shifted left by forming an identity with a world I perceived as deeply threatened in a way that I felt deeply threatened.  Watching those movies was a terrifying experience in the 50s and 60s when they came out.  I did not feel a desire to revisit those feelings.

Listening to the movie just outside the door, I scanned academic bibliographies for theory leads.  I was not jolted by what I heard in the next room.  It’s taken almost 50 years, but I no longer feel haunted by the bomb.

I stepped back into the room for the finale of the movie and the discussion.  The discussion was a shock.

Many of the people in the room expressed the experience that the movie now was terrifying for them whereas it had not been when they saw it the first time over 40 years ago.  This confused me.  Then several people expressed the opinion that the world is a far more dangerous place now than it was during the Cold War.  Several people in the room believed that worldwide conflagration is a more certain thing now than then.  No one expressed a different opinion.

I’ve concluded that this has far more to do with stories, the stories we tell ourselves, than with the reality around us.

Just like any other community, the American Left loves its stories.  The American Left, like most other communities, also tells itself the story that what the community believes to be true, is true.  I wouldn’t be an active participant if I didn’t agree as least some of the time.  Still, at events like this discussion of the movie, I am stunned by how powerful our stories are, informing our reality, molding our perception to embrace alternative realities.

From where I sit, there has been a slow, steady stepping back from the nuclear abyss.  Yes, we have a long way to go.  Yes, there is the strong possibility of horror in our future.  But the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation has dramatically diminished.  American bombers are no longer constantly in the air.  We share the space station with the Russians, relying upon them for transport.  We have strong ties with the Chinese.

The Left engages in exaggeration, but more than that, we tell ourselves things that are not true.  Those untrue words serve to focus our attentions and motivate ourselves to accomplish goals.  Telling ourselves and one another stories, our community coheres, making it possible to easily work together.  Sometimes the stories leave out relevant information.

In January, when the Gaza protests were gathering together hundreds of thousands in protest across the world, the story of horrors, the media coverage of those stories and the protests objecting to the conditions that created those stories continued to pry apart the priorities of Israeli West Bank settlers and Americans that sympathized with the Israeli government view that the Jewish nation was threatened by terrorists.  We have a long way to go before the American government stops funding Israel.  Between now and then, the stories Americans tell themselves will have to be based on information different from that which the Israeli Right Wing seeks the American public to see.  Video coverage of the massacres in Gaza told a different story.  On the Left, there was a kind of exultation and vindication that the real story was being told.

There was relief that the word was getting out after the endless Gaza boycott and decades of horrors committed with little coverage.  Activists and nonactivists were propelled into the streets to voice their support for the Palestinians.  The community was strengthened by the telling of the community’s story to the society at large.

Yet, like the missing pieces in the Dr. Strangelove discussion, in the Gaza protests there was no discussion of the fact that it was the horror that was creating news to inspire change.  The innocents were martyrs for the story that needed to be told.  If the original missiles sent into Israel from Gaza could be taken back, Hamas would not do so.  War itself had become a Leftist activist intervention to achieve change.  With new communications technologies, video everywhere, even with the Israeli government shutting down cell bandwidth during the war, information was getting out that supported the Palestinian position.

The story within the story is that the violence feels necessary for the violence to end.  Both sides are colluding to kill vast numbers of an already repressed people to achieve their release from horrible conditions.  The awfulness is compounded by the story of destruction being a story that both sides want to tell.

Growing up, listening to grandmother, I was told the Jews were special.  I was told that Jews suffered more than other peoples.  In my child’s mind, I thought she was saying that Jews were special because we suffered more than other peoples.  I thought the suffering and the special were connected.

Then I somewhere concluded that because I suffered, I was special.  I suffered from feeling terrified.  I was stalked by a nuclear end.  I experienced myself as being unique.

Growing older, withdrawing from suffering, fear lifting, I realize specialness and suffering are unrelated.  Yet, in some strange, twisted way, the Jewish nation is conferring its specialness upon the Palestinian people.  The Jewish people are sharing perhaps their most powerful story, the story that we are unique because we suffer.  They are sharing the story with their “enemy.”  The horrors inflicted upon the Palestinians by the Jewish nation feel like the kind of deep abuse that one family member inflicts upon another.  There is a sickness to it that transcends a normal war.

In the end, there will be peace.  It will take time.  And, perhaps in the end, the need to make suffering part of the story will not be necessary anymore.


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