A Pox on Twenty-First-Century America
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Consider my address book -- and yes, the simple fact that I have one already tells you a good deal about me. All the names, street addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers that matter to me are still on paper, not in a computer or on an iPhone, and it’s not complicated to know what that means: I’m an old guy getting older. Going on 71, though I can hardly believe it. And that little book shows all the signs of where I’m headed. It wasn’t true a few years ago, but if I start flipping through the pages now, I can’t help but notice that the dead, with their addresses and phone numbers still beside them, are creeping up on the living, and that my little address book looks increasingly like a mausoleum.
Age has been on my mind of late, especially when I spend time with you. This year, my father, your great-grandfather, who died in 1983, would have been 109 years old. And somehow, I find that moving. I feel him a part of me in ways I wouldn’t have allowed myself to admit in my youth, and so think of myself as more than a century old. Strangely, this leaves me with a modest, very personal sense of hope. Through my children (and perhaps you, too), someday long after I’m gone, I can imagine myself older still. Don’t misunderstand me: I haven’t a spiritual bone in my body, but I do think that, in some fashion, we continue to live inside each other and so carry each other onward.
As happens with someone of my age, the future seems to be foreshortening and yet it remains the remarkable mystery it’s always been. We can’t help ourselves: we dream about, wonder about, and predict what the future might hold in store for us. It's an urge that, I suspect, is hardwired into us. Yet, curiously enough, we’re regularly wrong in the futures we dream up. Every now and then, though, you peer ahead and see something that proves -- thanks to your perceptiveness or pure dumb luck (there’s no way to know which) -- eerily on target.
The Future Foreseen
Back in 2001, before I even imagined a grandson in my life, I had one of those moments (and wish I hadn’t). It was sometime just after the 9/11 attacks when, nationwide, Americans were still engaged in endless rites in which we repeatedly elevated ourselves to the status of the foremost victims on the planet, the only ones that mattered. In those months, you might say, we made ourselves into Earth’s indispensible or exceptional victims.
In that extended moment of national mourning (combined with fear bordering on hysteria), the Bush administration geared up to launch its revenge-fueled global wars, while money started pouring into the national security state in a historically unprecedented way. It was a time when the previously un-American word “homeland” was being attached to what would become a second defense department, secrecy was descending like a blanket on the government, torture was morphing into the enhancement of the week in the White House, assassination was about to become a focus (later an obsession) of the executive branch -- and surveillance? Don’t even get me started on the massively redundant domestic and global surveillance state that would soon be built on outright illegalities and rubber-stamp legalities of every sort.
In October 2001, I had no way of grasping most of that, but it didn't matter. I peered into the future and just knew -- and what I knew chilled me to the bone. I had mobilized decades earlier as part of the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, which was in its own way a terrible time, but when I looked at where our country seemed to be heading, as the president promised to kick some ass globally and American bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, I had no doubt that this was going to be the worst era of my life.
I wasn’t, of course, thinking about you that October and November. You were then minus 11 years old, so to speak. I was, however, thinking about your mother and your uncle, my children. I was thinking about the world that I and my cohorts and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of that crew were going to leave them.
In a quiet way I had done good work -- so I felt -- since demobilizing (like so many Americans) from the Vietnam era. In my spare time as a non-academic, I had written a very personal history of the Cold War of which I was proud. I had been a book editor for two publishing houses, specializing in bringing into the world works by what I used to call “voices from elsewhere” (even when they came from here), including, to name just two, Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback and Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy.
But when I somehow stumbled into the future in all its grim horror, more of that work didn’t seem like an adequate response to what was coming. I had no sense that I could do much, but I felt an urge that seemed uncomplicated: not to hand your mother and uncle such a degraded country, planet, new century without lifting a finger in opposition, without at least trying. I felt the need to mobilize myself in a new way for the future I’d seen.
At that point, however, my knack, such as it was, for previewing the years to come failed me and I had no sense of what to do until TomDispatch more or less smacked me in the face. (But that’s a story for another day.) This April, more than 13 years after I first began sending missives to the no-name listserv that turned into TomDispatch, it’s clear that, in my own idiosyncratic way, I did manage to mobilize myself to do what I was capable of. Unfortunately, I’d have to add that, all this time later, our world is a far more screwed up, degraded place.
A Fragmenting Reality
Stretch anything far enough and it’ll begin to tear, fragment, break apart. That, I suspect, may be a reasonable summary of what’s been happening in our twenty-first-century world. Under stress, things are beginning to crack open. Here in the U.S., people sometimes speak about being in a Second Gilded Age, a new era of plutocracy, while our politics, increasingly the arena of billionaires, seem to second that possibility. Looked at another way, however, “our” Second Gilded Age is really a global phenomenon in the sense that ever fewer people own ever more. By 2016, it is estimated that 1% of the people on this planet will control more than 50% of global wealth and own more than the other 99% combined. In 2013, the 85 richest people had as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion, while in certain regions inequality seems to be on the rise. (Whether China and India are major exceptions to this is an open question.) Dark money is rampant not just here, but globally.
Though you don’t know it yet, you’re already living in an increasingly lopsided world whose stresses only seem to be multiplying. Among other things, there is the literal fragmentation going on -- the collapse of social order, of long established national units, even potentially of whole groupings of states. Astonishingly enough, from Ukraine to Greece, Spain to France, that mood of fragmentation even seems to be reaching into Europe. Across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, fragmentation has, of course, been the story of our moment, with nations collapsing, wars endemic, extremism of every sort on the rise, and whole populations uprooted, in exile, under almost inconceivable pressures -- and for much of this, I’m sad to say, our country bears a painful responsibility.
In these years, I wrote repeatedly (not to say repetitiously) on the subject; about, that is, a group of mad American visionaries who had dreams of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East by force of arms and then lording it over the world for generations to come. In the name of freedom and democracy and with a fundamentalist belief in the transformational power of the U.S. military, they blithely invaded Iraq and blew a hole in the heart of the Middle East, from which the fallout is now horrifically apparent in the Islamic State and its “caliphate.”
And then, of course, there was our country’s endless string of failed wars, interventions, raids, assassination campaigns, and the like; there was, in short, the “global war on terror” that George W. Bush launched to scourge the planet of “terrorists,” to (as they then liked to say) “drain the swamp” in 80 countries. It was a “war” that, with all its excesses, quickly morphed into a recruiting poster for the spread of extremist outfits. By now, it has become so institutionalized that it wouldn’t surprise me if, in your adulthood, Washington were still pursuing it no less relentlessly or unsuccessfully.
In the process, the president became first a torturer-in-chief and then an assassin-in-chief and, I’m sorry to tell you, few here even blinked. It’s been a nightmare of -- to haul out some words you’re not likely to learn for a while -- hubris and madness, profits and horrors, inflated dreams of glory and the return, as if from an earlier century, of the warrior corporation and for-profit warfare on a staggering scale.
All of this happened in a country that still bills itself as the wealthiest and most powerful on the planet (though that power and wealth have proven ever harder to apply effectively) and all of it happened, despite obvious and honorable exceptions, without much opposition. If this is a Second Gilded Age -- .01% of Americans, 16,000 families, control 11% of all wealth (as they last did in 1916) and 22% of all household wealth (up from 7% three decades ago) -- it is also, in the words of historian Steve Fraser, an “age of acquiescence.”
This has been true for the return of plutocracy, as well as for the growth of a national security state that has, like those billionaire plutocrats, gained power as the American people lost it. If that state within a state has a motto, it might be this singularly undemocratic one: Americans are safest and most secure when they are most ignorant of what their government is doing. In other words, in twenty-first-century America, “we the people” (a phrase that I hope lasts into your time) are only to know what their government does in their name to the degree that the government cares to reveal it.
That shadow government could never have gained such power if it hadn’t been for the trauma of 9/11, the shock of experiencing for one day a kind of violence and destruction that was common enough elsewhere on the planet, and the threat posed by a single phenomenon we call “terrorism.” The Islamic extremist groups that come under that rubric do indeed represent a threat to actual human beings from Syria to Pakistan, Somalia to Libya, but they represent next to no threat to what’s now called the American “homeland.”
Of course, some whacked-out guy could always pick up a gun and, inspired by a bizarre propaganda video, in the name of one extreme organization or another, kill some people here. But mass killings by those with no ideological animus are already, like death-by-toddler, commonplace in this country, and no one thinks to organize trillion dollar “security” systems to prevent them.
That the fear of this one modest danger transformed the national security state into a remarkable center of power, profits, and impunity with hardly a peep from "we the people" has been a kind of bleak miracle of our times. What were we thinking when we let them spend something like a trillion dollars a year on what was called “national security” in order to leave us in a world that may have little security at all? What did we have in mind when we let them fund their blue-skies thinking on the weaponry of 2047, instead of on the schools, energy sources, or infrastructure of that same year? I could pile up such questions endlessly, but if what we ceded to them is still of interest to you 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, and you have the luxury of looking back on our times, on the origins of your troubles, I’m sure you’ll find a clearer view of all this in the histories of your moment.
I have no way of imagining what the United States will be like in your adulthood and yet I can sense that this country is changing in unsettling ways. It’s being transformed into something that your great-grandfather would have found unrecognizably un-American. If we can’t yet speak of “fragmentation” here, phrases like “political polarization” and “gridlock” are already part and parcel of our new billionaire way of life. What exactly all this is leading to, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t look either familiar or good to me. It certainly doesn’t look like the American world I’d want to turn over to you.
America on the Couch
You haven’t set foot in school, barely know how to use one of those ubiquitous silver scooters, and can still embrace the magical thinking of childhood -- of announcing, for instance, that you’re “hiding,” even in plain sight, and then assuming that you can’t be seen. So I know that it’s a little early to bring up the seemingly unhinged nature of the affairs of grown-ups.
Still, if this country of mine, and someday yours, could be put on the couch, I suspect it would, in layman’s terms, be diagnosed as “disturbed” (on an increasingly disturbed planet). Worst of all, we can evidently no longer see what actually threatens us most, which isn’t a bunch of jihadis, but what we are doing to our ourselves and our world.
Put another way, if we’re not significantly threatened by what we’ve dumped all our money and energy into, that hardly means there are no threats to American life. In fact, I haven’t even mentioned what worries me most when I think about your future: the increasing stress under which life here and elsewhere is being placed by the exploitation and burning of fossil fuels.
In any case, I had the urge to put all this “on the record,” though I have no way of knowing whether that record has any permanence, whether in the world of 2047 you’ll even be able to access what I’ve written. In other words, I have no idea whether you’ll ever read this. I do fear, however, that if you do, it will be from a more fragmented, unhinged, stressed-out version of the planet we’re both on today, and I’m aware that our responsibility was to provide you and all other children with what you minimally deserve -- a decent place to grow up.
For that record, then, I want to say that, despite my own best (if modest) efforts, I feel I owe you an apology. In ways I find hard to express, I’m sorry for what is and what may be. It’s not the country I imagined for you. It’s not the world I wanted to leave you. It’s not what you deserve.
Nonetheless, I still have hopes for you and your moment. As a wonderful writer of my time once pointed out, the darkness of the future is a kind of blessing. It always leaves open the possibility that, against the madness of the moment, the genuine decency, the lovability I see in you, that anyone can see in just about any child, has a shot-in-the-dark chance of making a difference on our planet.
And more specifically, however much this may be an “age of acquiescence” when it comes to wealth and war, it hasn’t proved so on the subject that matters most: climate change. Against the forces of genuine criminality and wealth, despite a tenacious denial of reality funded by companies that have profited in historic ways from fossil fuels, a movement has been forming in this country and globally to save humanity from scouring itself off the planet. From pipelines to divestment, its strength has been rising at the very moment when the price of alternative energy systems is falling rapidly. It’s a combination that offers at least a modicum of hope against the worst pressures to fragment and, in the end, simply destroy this planet as a welcoming place for you and your children and their children.
So let me just end this way: someday in the distant future, I hope you’ll read this letter and that, given the ingenuity of our species, given the grit to resist madness, given whatever surprises the future holds, you’ll smile indulgently at my worst fears. You’ll assure me -- or at least whatever trace of me is left in you -- that I had a typically human inability to imagine the unpredictable future, and that in the end things never measured up to my worst fears. I hope, despite what we didn’t do, that you have the opportunity for a life of wonders, the kind that everyone on this planet deserves.
Your loving grandpa,
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
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