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<   No. 2085   2008-10-11   >

Comic #2085

1 {scene: On a launch pad at the Kenndy Space Centre, just outside a launch vehicle}
1 Ishmael: So here we are, about to launch further into space than any human has ever been.
2 Loren: Okay then. In we go.
2 Ishmael: In fact... where no man has gone before...
3 Ishmael: I have a really bad feeling about this.
4 Loren: Hmmm?
4 Ishmael: Can I change the red shirt I have on under this suit?

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Many people reading this won't remember what the collective world zeitgeist was like in the 1980s. Either because you were too young at the time, or perhaps because you weren't even born.

The 1980s was when I grew up. It was a frightening time to be a kid, going to high school, starting to understand something of the issues that were shaping the world.

AIDS first became known in the 1980s. At first nobody knew much about it. All we knew was that nobody knew where it had come from, exactly how it was transmitted, or had any idea how to treat it. And it was horribly, nastily fatal. And it was spreading. The government here in Australia produced a public awareness campaign based on the image of a Grim Reaper mowing people down with a giant bowling ball. This disease would kill you. You had to avoid it at all costs. You can perhaps imagine the sort of effect this had on populations of high school kids who didn't know much else about AIDS except that gay people seemed to be most susceptible to it.

We were terrified of catching AIDs off toilet seats. Off stair hand-rails. From someone spitting at us. From getting too close to someone who might be carrying it.

Yeah.

But that's not all that was on our minds. The 1980s was dominated by the last phases of the Cold War. If we were terrified of AIDS, there are simply no words to describe how paralysed and utterly, completely powerless we felt about the prospect of nuclear war.

Many people today are worried about global warming; some people are extremely worried about it. But global warming is something that will most seriously affect our children and our grandchildren. We certainly should be concerned about problems we may be leaving for them. But in the 1980s, we were worried about something that would affect us.

That would kill us.

At any time.

With little or no warning.

Live with that for any amount of time, and you do become somewhat inured to it. Life must go on, after all. We went to school, we learnt our schoolwork. It was no good arguing to the teacher that we may all die tomorrow - you just had to knuckle down and do the work. But in the back of our minds, we knew that we might die tomorrow. We always knew that. It never went away.

This was brought home to me recently by a comment someone made on the forums for this comic, in a discussion of events that had a powerful effect on world history. Someone supported the use of atomic bombs in World War II as their pick, based on a revelation they had while going through their old music collection. In 1985 Sting released the song Russians:

How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer's deadly toy?
There is no monopoly of common sense
On either side of the political fence.

We share the same biology,
Regardless of ideology;
Believe me when I say to you:
I hope the Russians love their children too.
This person considered that song and remembered that in the '80s, the pop songs were about nuclear war. This is far from the only example. There are dozens, nay, hundreds of 1980s pop songs featuring the themes of the cold war, nuclear war, and war in general. Perhaps even a few songs that younger people know without realising what they're really about.

We had to push nuclear war to the back of our minds to live without going crazy. But we always knew it was there. And there were songs to remind us - because the song writers and performers were worried too, and wanted to say something about how they felt. So we thought about it consciously sometimes. And discussed it with our friends and admitted to one another how terrified we were. And we didn't even live in America, or Europe. We didn't know if the Russians would target Australia with some of their weapons, or if they were all aimed at targets in the northern hemisphere. It was a time of uncertainty and sheer, raw fear. Somehow we had to live through it.

When the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989, it really was the end of something. Something that messed with the heads of a generation of kids. That event was a release of a decade of bottled pressure. It was like exhaling after holding your breath for 10 years, expecting to die horribly at any second the whole time.

I don't have any point to make. I just think that if you missed this, if you didn't know about it, if you never really understood what it was like to grow up in the 1980s, then it might be something you should learn a little bit about.

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Last Modified: Saturday, 11 October 2008; 03:11:01 PST.
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