A friend sent me a link to three pro-nuclear energy propaganda shorts featured on MoveOn.org and Mother Jones. The first was created, it would seem, in Japan as a response to the current disaster at Fukushima. They equate potentially lethal levels of radiation from the reactor leak there to a cartoon character named Nuclear Boy, who has diarrhea. The video is bizarre, perhaps owning to my Western sensibilities, or maybe because it is wrong in any language. Even the team behind South Park might think twice about turning a nuclear disaster into one giant fart joke (emphasis on might).
Most disturbing is the treatment of the brave plant workers hailed by other media as the Fukushima 50. Their sacrifice, with death almost certain and likely painful, is reduced to a group of anonymous doctors who are trying to help cure the sickness of the plant. The narration cops to the dangerous nature of this healing work, and solicits gratitude, but it remains sanitized in the telling, free from the toxic poo and the stench of real death. Of course, to deliver a frank treatment might cause panic, and the point of the short is to ease the fear of the public. Yet this very motive is dangerous when it holds no connection to reality. Cultural differences or no, glossing over a real threat with ill-timed humor is unacceptable.
In 1952, General Electric produced the second short featured on the link. It is ostensibly about nuclear energy production, and its benefits. I admit to a certain culturally specific seduction with the beautiful (to my eyes) hand-drawn and now nostalgia laden animation, the soothing, authoritative, and familiar voice of the narrator, and the easily digestible science. In fact, the explanations about the way atoms and nuclear fission work seemed more effective than my high school Chemistry textbook¹. Yet the propaganda has some insidious work at play:
- Like the Japanese video, it tries to infantilize an extremely complex subject, rendering it meek, without fangs. Radiation is characterized by a dancing fool with an atom for a head, not a dragon, a bulldog, or even a boy with the runs.
- For essentially the same purpose, it uses ancient myths, but with a modern twist that dispenses with pesky hubris, i.e. the main point of Greek tragedy. No, in this animated adventure atomic energy is personified by various muscular giants (read Gods): the warrior, the healer, etc. All represent the wonderful potential of nuclear energy, and as the narration makes clear, all these giants are under the thumb of mankind. The only reference to the dangers of nuclear energy come around minute 11:00, and pass quickly to an exciting array of applications to make our lives easier.
- This brings us to the wonder of bringing good things to life! The old GE advertising tagline is apt here. The short makes no mention of the company’s role in making all sorts of products from bombs to electric juicers to propaganda films. It strikes me as a super stealthy way to promote a new Cold War rhetoric. We use nuclear energy to power the stuff you want to buy, and conveniently keep the Russians subordinate to the power of some specific men.
The third short (linked above) is more overtly branded, a clear sign that we are dealing with another contemporary project. The Simpsons and Fox Television lend their talents to create Smilin’ Joe Fission, a wild-west alien character on a mission to tame jumping bars of radiation. The considerable educational merit of the GE short is lost, replaced with a bunch of yuks, including Joe’s attempt to hide that pesky nuclear waste under a carpet. My assumption, given many hours of Simpson watching, is that this moment is satiric, a wink to the audience that the gremlins of nuclear energy are persistent. However, the overall effect invites the viewer to buy another Bart toy, and allow the nuclear gun slingin’ to continue unabated, albeit with a yellow hue.
¹Of course, back in high school I was too busy singing musical numbers and writing radio commercials about scented tampons for my English class to really pay attention to the periodic table. The spot ended with the sound of a maxi-pad ripping off underwear. My teachers had a love/hate relationship with me. I like to push the envelope (what does that even mean?), but my chuckles end at nuclear radiation.