The 1980s were a formative decade for most of us bloggers and politics aficionados. We listened to the sounds of the New Romantics, and Electro-Pop, watched the movies of Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald and the tried to solve the conundrums of the Rubiks Cube and Snake. So far, so good. But it was also a time when we all grew up under the terrifying threat of Nuclear War; and it wasn’t that long ago. This writer was reminded of the era recently after viewing a programme that is hardly talked about at all now but still has the power to shock.
Stick the word ‘Threads’ into a search engine and you’ll be referred to BBC TV play of the same name made in 1984. It’s an early example of a docu-drama and is set in Sheffield, Northern England, an old steel town going through recession. The programme title refers to both the threads that bind us together as a society and the thread-like smoke trails that are part of a nuclear mushroom cloud. The plot revolves around the lives of ordinary people set against the backdrop of, wait for it, a super-power confrontation in Iran. The escalation of this conflict in the Middle East (!) is frighteningly credible, the scripting is superb and the acting and special effects are absolutely realistic. We see how society reverts to a quasi-medieval state in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. Cheery it is not – this is possibly the most frightening television programme ever made.
And ‘Threads’ reminds us all of how much background anxiety and fear we all lived under in that decade. Okay, détente and negotiation escalated in Gorbachev’s time till the collapse of the Soviet Union. But up until 1985, many of us thought we’d be lucky to see the next ten years, yet alone the next twenty. Thinking kids and teenagers always were aware of the hellish background noise of Mutually Assured Destruction. It is such a difficult concept for modern teenagers to comprehend; that in theory we were always only days away from holocaust.
There are still Nuclear hot-spots; India and Pakistan came close to the brink in 2000, China may be stable but its not a democracy and has that capacity to destroy a large part of Japan if required. Then there’s Israel and Iran or future flashpoints in the region. There will always be unforeseen events and crises where nuclear weapons will provide sinister shadows in the background.
Karl Sagan classed the Arms Race as “two sworn enemies standing waist-deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” This quote captures how much of a gamble the nuclear strategy was and is. We can’t un-invent nuclear technology but we can reduce nuclear weapons drastically again and police the world to prevent further proliferation. We owe it to future generations.
What is it about the Olympics and Totalitarianism that go so well together? Is it the promotion of elite athletes at the expense of the common good? The disregard of democratic values to satiate commercial interests? The advancement of chauvinistic nationalism over internationalism? Whatever it is, the Olympics, be it in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia or now China, has always provided respectability to distinctly unlovely regimes. China is an autocratic tyranny where even to call for democracy can land you in jail or primed for re-education. And the Olympic movement by awarding Beijing the games, has conferred a spurious respectability on the Communist regime.
Chinese Communism has always had a particularly vicious streak. Be it Mao, the Cultural Revolution, suppression and slaughter of the student protestors in 1989, brutal rule in Tibet and even the language the government uses to condemn their enemies, the Chinese Communist party does not believe in half-measures. Tibetans in China are killed, tortured or imprisoned. The indigenous Chinese are denied access to a free media by Orwellian censorship. Chinese people are as friendly, fair-minded and compassionate as any other nationality; their government certainly isn’t. The occupiers of Tibet ‘will not be merciful’ to any protestors – we have been warned.
We could go even further and suggest that the US made a strategic blunder of enormous historical consequences by recognising Red China in the 1970’s. Of course this action was encouraged by the liberal intelligentsia – it was seen as absurd that America would treat with Taiwan/Formosa as the true representatives of the Chinese people. Yet which of the two nations has developed as a democratic state? Not China – China has benefited hugely from international recognition since Nixon and Kissinger’s Great Game diplomacy yet democratic reform has not occurred. To expect the Olympics to encourage the Communist Party to reform itself is hopeless naivety. They may launch a public relations exercise and pretend to engage the Tibetans. However, China will continue to trade with impunity and ignore protests from the international community as long as our governments evade their responsibilities.
The farcical progress of the Olympic Flame has symbolically highlighted how China interacts with the world. Chinese security men, behaving like extras from ‘24’, seem to have no respect for the sensibilities of local policing or cultural diversity. The flame must be protected at all costs. Well, we as citizens can respond by not watching the Olympics, having our elected leaders re-butt all attempts to normalise the abhorrent treatment of the Tibetan people and remember that democracy is a privilege that was hard fought for and must be encouraged wherever tyranny reigns.