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There was the following sentence in the Time Magazine article (Mar. 25, 2011) titled “The Real Cost of U.S. Nuclear Power.”:

“When Karl Marx wrote that history unfolds first as tragedy, then as farce, he got U.S. nuclear history backward. America’s initial experiment was a cartoonish disaster, with construction timelines doubling and costs increasing as much as 1,000% even before the Three Mile Island meltdown. In the 1980’s, the industry required bailout before bailouts were cool. But the U.S. industry has matured and learned from its mistakes.”

I interpreted “American initial experiment (requiring doubled timeline and 10 times as much cost even before the Three Mile meltdown)” as meaning a farce, and “the industry bailouts in ‘80s” as meaning tragedy, in the above Karl Marx allegory.

My friend said, “No, no, the serious accident like Three Mile Island meltdown can never be described as a “cartoonish” disaster. “The initial experiment with construction timelines doubling and costs increasing as much as 1,000% is liken as a farce, and the Three Mile Island meltdown is a sheer tragedy. The sentence “In the 1980’s” and thereafter is the separate line from “farce / tragedy rhetoric.”

Is my interpretation wrong? Is it very clear at a glance which is tragedy and which is farce in the above sentence to you, native English speakers?

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Your friend is correct, and I understood the article on my first read.

The first sentence:

"When Karl Marx wrote that history unfolds first as tragedy, then as farce, he got U.S. nuclear history backward."

tells us that the order of things stated will start with the farce, and move on to the tragedy. It goes on to tell us that the initial experiment was "cartoonish," which implies a sense of silliness and comedy. Those familiar with recent US history will remember the Three Mile Island disaster and will likely consider it a tragedy. "... even before ..." tells us that we've switched over from the farce, and, in context, are now in tragedy.

The article points out that there were massive price jumps and the industry was seemingly dying before the massive disaster which one would have expected to bring these things around.

From there on, "In the 1980's..." is separate.

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Well said. When timelines and plans go horribly awry, (1,000% overbudget, more than double the initial schedule), that bespeaks of bumbling ineptitude, which is often related to comedic farce: "These people don't even know what they're doing!" –  J.R. Apr 16 '12 at 9:44
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