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Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Reacting to "Chernobyl"

I finished watching HBO's wonderful mini-series Chernobyl. It is interesting to see the distinct messages drawn from opposing political sides--the same show being watched in different universes.

For many conservatives, the message is "Soviet Union/Communism/Socialism is bad." The insight of the series is how bad things are when the state owns things like nuclear power plants, as well as the scientific institutes that investigate accidents. The current relevance is how much better we are because there is no Soviet Union and how bad it would be if one of those socialists became President.

For many liberals (and for the producers of the series), the message is "the cost of lies," the line with which the lead scientists begins and ends the series. The insight is the lies (or false denials) surrounding the fact and severity of the accident and the lies surrounding the cause of the accident. The current relevance is that we have similar problems of governmental lies and secrecy and willingness of people to lie to protect the government or its leaders. People will lie on behalf of many leaders, not only a communist state.

For what it is worth, showrunner Craig Mazin says it is both: "It’s anti­–Soviet government, and it is anti-lie, and it is pro–human being."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 4, 2019 at 02:51 PM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics, Television | Permalink


I am surprised not to have seen references anywhere to Frederik Pohl's novel, Chernobyl, written in 1987. https://www.amazon.com/Chernobyl-Novel-Frederik-Pohl/dp/0765375966. As I recall, it was fascinating and he predicted the demise of the Soviet Union a couple years before it happened.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 7, 2019 7:31:57 AM

Someone didn't like the show: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/what-hbos-chernobyl-got-right-and-what-it-got-terribly-wrong

James: The term "showrunner" captures more than producer. It's the headwriter and first-among-equals exec producer, plus maybe producer (I think that involves money). So I think the term developed to capture a position that is a combination of others.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 6, 2019 9:16:32 PM

This off-topic but I have long been puzzled how "producer" morphed in the much more terrible "showrunner". When did movie making become an athletic competition?

I'm mot a violent person but every time I hear that term I feel like Mike Tyson when he said, "everybody has a plan until I punch them in the face."

Posted by: James | Jun 6, 2019 8:26:24 PM

Thanks, Howard, will do.

Posted by: Chris Lund | Jun 6, 2019 7:54:43 AM

Listen to the podcast that Mazin has been doing with Peter Sagal, dropping after each episode. Mazin breaks down each episode, discussing what is accurate, what is accurate-but-dramatized, and what is pure speculation.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 5, 2019 11:59:52 PM

You are great, Howard. But this post makes me sad. I can think of nothing more boring, obvious, and confining than to take in everything that happens through the lens of, and push it for the advancement of, whatever the current parochial political narratives happen to be.

So other things to like about Chernobyl: The emphasis on how emergencies are so terrifyingly difficult to handle, how they evoke heroism and sacrifice in places (the Tula miners, the water volunteers) and fear and concomitant blindness in others (Dyaltov, party leadership). I also found myself lingering on the fact that the physical human body has no way of directly perceiving radiation. Human beings are used to being able to see or hear the things that threaten them. We see a volcano; we avoid the volcano. But a volcano of radiation we will walk right into and die without having yet realized it. Combine this with the insanely mysterious nature of nuclear physics and the insanely complicated build of nuclear reactors, I understand better why we were are so creeped out by nuclear power. Coal's casualties may be just as real (see, e.g., the Tula miners again), but there's less fear of the unknown.

And now my pet peeve: Chernobyl blends the real with the real-ish. Valery Legasov was a real person. Ulana Khomyuk was not. I know now a lot more about Chernobyl than I did before, but some of what I know is not actually true. This bothers me.

Posted by: Chris Lund | Jun 5, 2019 4:02:39 PM

Arguments about the "lessons" of HBO miniserieses seem dumb to me, sort of like thinkpieces generally or the existence of Slate (I'm more ambivalent about HBO miniserieses themselves, though there are undoubtedly thousands of great films that one should watch with the limited amount of time one has on this earth before spending time on a single HBO miniseries), but I have a tough time seeing a through line from state ownership of nuclear power plants to greater safety risks vis-a-vis private ownership of nuclear power plants. You can theoreticaly, I guess, regulate in such a way that private industry has a greater financial incentive to minimize risks than government has a political incentive to do so, but pulling that off isn't easy.

Something that isn't a lesson of Chernobyl but is topical is the unfortunate disinterest of policymakers who are worried about climate change in nuclear power. It does seem quite a bit harder to cut down on fossil fuels with the sorts of alternative fuels that are politically palatable on the left.

Posted by: Asher | Jun 4, 2019 9:30:11 PM

Important, but what is really relevant, is that lies and frauds are constantly all around us. What counts or makes difference, is transparency and accountability. How efficiently you can trace it, treat it, and fix it. In totalitarian regimes, it is very bad indeed. In democracies, one can quickly (relatively) trace it and fix it, all thanks to better transparency and accountability.

Just two sober reminders:

Drug companies accused of conspiracy to raise prices


And here, he who has forgotten, the recent great economic crisis ( subprime crisis ) and its huge consequences, just due to greed of people:



Posted by: El roam | Jun 4, 2019 3:55:52 PM

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