Tom Engelhardt: Requiem for the American Century – Paragraph by Paragraph

By Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. Originally posted at TomDispatch

First Paragraphs on Turning 70 in the American Century That Was

* Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.”  Luce died in 1967 at age 69.  Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self.  No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s.  Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans.  The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades.  Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.

* The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students.  What he said aged me instantly.  They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War.  For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us.  He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses.  We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy.  And now, it seems, I’m them.

* In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch.  If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future.  On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.

* From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old.  Now, I feel my age.  Still, my life at 70 is a luxury.  Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin.  That’s a crime against humanity.  So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.

* Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born.  From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos.  Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war.  (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.)  Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope — “Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.” — to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears.  So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness.  I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth.  What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories.  And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?

* There are so many futures and so few of them happen.  On the night of October 22, 1962, a college freshman, I listened to John F. Kennedy address the American people and tell us that the Russians were building “a series of offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba and that “the purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”  In other words, the president of the United States was telling us that we might be at the edge of the sort of world-ending, monster-mutating nuclear war that, from Godzilla to Them, had run riot in the popular culture (and the nightmares) of my childhood.  At that moment, I looked directly into the future — and there was none.  We were, I believed, toast.  My family, my friends, all of us, from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Lima, Peru, as the president put it.  Yet here I am 52 years later.  As with so many futures we imagine, somehow it didn’t happen and so many years after I’m still wondering when I’ll be toast.

* If, on that same night, you had returned from the future to tell me (or other Americans) that, nearly half a century hence, the Soviet Union would barely be a memory, that there would be no other great power challenging the United States for supremacy, and that its only serious enemies would be scattered bands of Islamic extremists, largely in countries no American of that era had even heard of, my sense of wonder would have been indescribable.  And I don’t doubt that the godlier among us would have fallen to their knees and given thanks for our deliverance.  It would have gone without saying that, in such a future, the U.S. stood triumphant, the American Century guaranteed to stretch into endless centuries to come.

* If, on September 10, 2001, I had peered into the future (as I undoubtedly did not), whatever world I might have imagined would surely not have included: the 9/11 attacks; or those towers collapsing apocalyptically; or that “generational” struggle launched almost instantly by the Bush administration that some neocons wanted to call “World War IV” (the Cold War being World War III), aka the Global War on Terror; or a “kill list” and drone assassination campaign run proudly out of the White House that would kill thousands in the tribal backlands of the planet; or the pouring of funds into the national security state at levels that would put the Cold War to shame; or the promotion of torture as a necessary part of the American way of life; or the creation of an offshore prison system where anything went; or the launching of a global kidnapping campaign; or our second Afghan War, this time lasting at least 13 years; or a full-scale invasion, garrisoning, and occupation of Iraq lasting eight years; or the utterly improbable possibility that, from all of this, Washington would win nothing whatsoever. Nor, on that September day, still an editor in book publishing, barely online, and reading almost everything on the page, could I have imagined that, at age 70, I would be running a website called TomDispatch, 24/7, driven by the terrible news that would, before that day, have amazed me.

* Once upon a time, if you saw someone talking to himself or herself while walking down the street, you knew you were in the presence of mental illness.  Now, you know that you’re catching a snippet of a mobile or smartphone conversation by someone connected eternally to everyone he or she knows and everything happening online every minute of the day.  Not so long ago, this was material for some far-fetched sci-fi novel, not for life.

* If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that the very way we are connected to each other electronically would encourage the evolution of an American surveillance state of breathtaking proportions and a corporate surveillance sphere of similar proportions, that both would have dreams of collecting, storing, and using the electronic communications of everybody on the planet, and that, in such a brief space of time, both would come remarkably close to succeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you.  Nor would I have been able to absorb the fact that, in doing so, the U.S. national security state would outpace the “bad guys” of the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the ambitiousness of its surveillance dreams.  I would have thought such a development conceptually inconceivable for this country.  And in that, touchingly, I would still be reflecting something of the America I grew up believing in.

* In my youth, I lived in the future.  Riveted by the space operas of Isaac Asimov, among others, I grew up as a space nerd, dreaming of American glory and the colonization of distant planetary systems.  At the same time, without any sense of contradiction, I inhabited future American worlds of wholesale destruction dotted with survivalist colonies in post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with mutants of every sort.

* I‘m no neuroscientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we, as a species, are hardwired for prediction.  Preparing eternally for whatever danger might be just around the corner seems like such a useful trait, the sort of thing that keeps a species on its toes (once it has them).  As far as I can tell, the brain just can’t help itself.  The only problem is that we’re terrible at it.  The famed fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of the future or, as I’ve often said, I’d be regularly riding my jetpack in traffic through the spired city of New York, as I was promised in my childhood.  Our urge to predict the future is unsurpassed.  Our ability to see it as it will be: next to nil.

Middle Paragraphs for a Missing American Century

* It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington.  Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse.  Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned…?  Yep, you guessed it: that, in a crisis, it’s up to us to plunge in again, as in Iraq today where the Obama administration is sending back troops, drones, and helicopters, plotting to support certain government figures, deep-six others, and somehow fragment various Sunni insurgent and extremist groups.  And don’t forget the endless advice administration officials have on offer, the bureaucratic assessments of the situation they continue to generate, and the weaponry they are eager to dispatch to a thoroughly destabilized land — even as they rush to “broker” a destabilizing Afghan election, a situation in which the long-term results once again aren’t likely to be positive for Washington.  Consider this curious conundrum: the future is largely a mystery, except when it comes to Washington’s actions and their predictably dismal outcomes.

* Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it?  Fierce as the internal disagreements in that capital city may be, seldom has a ruling group collectively been quite so incapable of putting itself in the shoes of anyone else or so tone deaf when it comes to the effects of its own acts.  Take Germany where, starting with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the public response to reports of massive American surveillance of the communications of ordinary Germans and their leaders wasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm.  Now it turns out that the NSA wasn’t the only U.S. “intelligence” agency at work in that country.  The CIA and possibly other agencies were recruiting spies inside German intelligence and its defense ministry.  Polls show that public opinion there has been turning against the U.S. in striking ways, but Washington just can’t take it in.  A little noted truth of this level of spying and surveillance is: it’s addictive.  Washington can’t imagine not doing it, no matter the damage.  If you keep an eye on this situation, you’ll see how the U.S. national security system has become a self-inflicted-wound machine.

* Here’s a question for our American moment: Why, in its foreign policy, can’t the Obama administration get a break?  You’d think that, just by pure, dumb luck, there would be a few small victories somewhere for the greatest power on the planet, but no such thing.  So for the post-American Century news jockeys among you, here’s a tip: to follow the waning fortunes of that century in real time, just keep an eye on Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless travels.  He’s the Jonah of the Obama administration.  Wherever he goes, disaster, large or small, trails behind him, even when, as in Afghanistan recently, his intervention is initially billed as some sort of modest triumph.  Consider him the waning American Century personified.

* Think of the drone as a barometer of the American Century in decline.  It’s the latest “perfect weapon” to arrive on the global scene with five-star reviews and promises of victory.  Like the A-bomb before it, by the time its claims proved false advertising, it was already lodged deeply in our world and replicating.  The drone is the John Kerry of advanced weaponry.  Everywhere it goes, it brings a kind of robotic precision to killing, the problem being that its distant human trigger fingers rely on the usual improbable information about what’s actually on the ground to be killed.  This means that the innocent are dying along with all those proclaimed “militants,” “high-value targets,” and al-Qaeda(-ish) leaders and “lieutenants.”  Wherever the drone goes, it has been the equivalent of a recruiting poster for Islamic militants and terror groups.  It brings instability and disaster in its wake.  It constantly kills bad guys — and constantly creates more of them.  And even as the negative reports about it come in, an addicted Washington can’t stop using it.

Last Paragraphs on Turning 70 (a Requiem for the American Century)

* The true legacy of the foreshortened American Century, those years when Washington as top dog actually organized much of the world, may prove apocalyptic.  Nuclear weapons ushered that century in with the news that humanity could now annihilate itself.  Global warming is ushering it out with the news that nature may instead be the weapon of choice.  In 1990, when the Soviet system collapsed and disappeared, along with its sclerotic state-run economy, capitalism and liberal democracy were hailed in a triumphalist fashion and the moment proclaimed “the end of history.”  In the 1990s, that seemed like a flattering description.  Now, with 1% elections, an unmitigated drive for profits amid growing inequality, and constant global temperature records, the end of history might turn out to have a grimmer meaning.

* Global warming (like nuclear war and nuclear winter) is history’s deal-breaker.  Otherwise, the worst humanity can do, it’s done in some fashion before.  Empires rise and fall.  They always have.  People are desperately oppressed.  It’s an old story.  Humans bravely protest the conditions of their lives.  Rebellions and revolutions follow and the unexpected or disappointing is often the result.  You know the tale.  Hope and despair, the worst and the best — it’s us.  But global warming, the potential destruction of the habitat that’s made everything possible for us, that’s something new under the sun.  Yes, it’s happened before, thanks to natural causes ranging from vast volcanic eruptions to plummeting asteroids, but there’s something unique about us torpedoing our own environment.  This, above all, looks to be the event the American Century has overseen and that the drive for fossil-fuel profits has made a reality.  Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet.  Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine.  But us?  Honestly, who knows what we can pull out of a hat on this score.

* Let me put my cards on the table.  I’m the guy who started two of his book titles with the phrases “the end of” and “the last days of,” so think of me as apocalyptic by nature.  I don’t believe in God or gods, or for that matter an afterlife.  In all these years, I’ve never discovered a spiritual bone in my body.  Still, I do care in some way that I can’t begin to understand what happens to us after I’m dead, what in particular happens to my children and my grandson, and his children and theirs, too.  Go figure.

* My father’s closest friend, the last person of his generation who knew him intimately, died recently at 99.  To my regret, I was no longer in touch.  It nonetheless felt like an archive closing.  The fog of the past now envelops much of his life.  There is nobody left to tell me what I don’t know about all those years before my birth.  Not a soul.  And yet I can at least recognize some of the people in his old photos and tell stories about them.  My mother’s childhood album is another matter.  Her brother aside, there’s no one I recognize, not a single soul, or a single story I can tell.  It’s all fog.  We don’t like to think of ourselves that way; we don’t like to imagine that we, in the present, will disappear into that fog with all our stories, all our experiences, all our memories.

* Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment?  I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see.  So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?

* Here’s the upbeat takeaway from this requiem for a foreshortened American Century: history is undoubtedly filled with seers, Cassandras, and gurus of every sort exactly because the future is such a mystery to us.  Mystery, however, means surprise, which is an eternal part of every tomorrow.  And surprise means, even under the worst conditions, a kind of hope.  Who knows just what July 20, 2015, or 2025, or 2035 will usher on stage?  And who knows when I won’t be there to find out.  Not I.

* By the way, I have the urge to offer you five predictions about the world of 2050, but what’s the point? I’d just have to advise you to ignore them all.

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  1. windsock

    What a wonderful piece of writing. It has made me tearful (not a feat easily achieved by writing).,, and I’m not even American or living in the USA.

    1. gardener1

      Same here, I read that essay this morning. He is me.

      And soon enough I will be gone too. Somehow even though I have gotten old I don’t really feel that I have become as wise as those who came before me, and were keepers of the history. I feel that I somehow I am unqualified to pass any kind of legacy on.

      Perhaps being an American of the second half of the 20th century makes one a person in perpetual transition, someone who doesn’t know where they came from and never knows where anything is going. We were just a long for the ride.

  2. Keith Ackermann

    Thank you very much for sharing this poignant essay. You are not alone, but you do articulate better than (me) many.

    Somehow, some way, we have made it this far. Not sure why but it does seem cooler heads ultimately prevail when it’s all on the line. At least I hope so.

    It’s certainly does seem to be that we are in decline. After all, when was the last time The USA did something great, something we can all be proud of and the rest of the world admire. For me, it was 33 years ago with the launching of the Space Shuttle. We used to do great things often.

    I used to think we would do the right thing when the chips were down, but then 9/11 happened. That day was a tragedy, but what followed was a disaster. It was pretty close to actual fascism. 9/11 is either going to serve as a lesson in the dangers for us, of a blueprint for a coup the next tragedy.

    The level of complacency to the NSA revelations is extremely scary. It’s almost as if people have forgotten that Richard Nixon broke into the DNC headquarters to bring down his political opponents. With today’s NSA’s total information awareness, virtually all strategic and tactical plans of organized political opposition can be learned and countered by a determined president, VP, and probably a general or two. We act based on the information we have. Soon, that information might be so asymmetrical that it would be better not to listen to anything at all. Better to be ignorant than to believe in lies.

    As for global warming, people get mad at this, but I think we need more data. I absolutely know the science as we know it today, and it points to us as contributing to a potential calamity, What we need more data on is possible hysteresis mechanisms. Does the atmosphere expand with an average temperature rise, and if so, does the extra surface area allow more heat to escape into space? We need much more research into everything. It doesn’t look good right now, but it sure would be nice to find some self-regulating mechanism. Nature has shown a propensity for these.

    Thanks again for the fine essay. I really enjoyed it.

    1. James Levy

      I haven’t been the same since I called the national HQ of the ACLU maybe 8 months after 9/11 to ask what had happened to the 1500 or so people I had heard had been rounded up for “questioning” after the event. We heard that some had been deported and some released, but I wanted to know if they had any details. They said they didn’t know and had lost track of the problem. Well, if the ACLU was unable to track the problem, what chance did I have? Or anyone else, for that matter. People had been rounded up, effectively for preventative detention, and nobody I could find had been willing and able to see what had happened to them. I’ve been a little afraid ever since.

  3. abynormal

    ” Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet. Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine. But us?”

    to surviive this exponential mess… we’re going to need the most out of what we value least today

    “He didn’t know what was defeating him, but he sensed it was something he could not cope with, something that was far beyond his power to control or even at this point in time comprehend.” Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream

  4. Massinissa

    “Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment? I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see. So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?”

    Some of us, like myself at 22, are going to be forced to stick around and find out. And im not giddy about anticipating a positive or cheerful answer to the question. Im afraid my life will not be as comfortable as my parents or even my poor grandparents.

    1. tim s

      Comfort is overrated – it leads to dulling of the mind and body, which in itself leads to decline in family and society, which then leads us to where we are now in the west. I remember thinking back in the 90’s that the “success” of America at that point was nearly the worst that could happen to us, and look where we are now…. This could not happen to a people who were not collectively dull in mind and weak in spirit, not to mention short on critical thinking skills (also caused by not needing to think about much in a life of ease)

      struggle brings good people closer together and crises focus the mind, so you can look forward to that. You are still quite young and life rewards strength of mind and body in ways that are not immediately obvious – so all I can say is enjoy good moments when they come, which they will no matter what else is going on. There will be pain that comes with transitioning from a weaker to a stronger condition, but this is a worthy pain that will result in a good feeling once you have passed through and stand on a higher plateau.

      Good luck, you have the chance to be a hero. Somebody invariably will be – not everyone has to be cannon fodder.

      1. abynormal

        solid words Tim S…taking this with me.
        (worth making copies to hand off to the younger folks)

      2. Lord Koos

        In addition, affluence tends to separate people, while poverty or need brings them together.

        1. hunkerdown

          Arthur Young thought so, too. Let’s not be too quick to put the mask of character-building on our innate sadism.

  5. Ulysses

    Thanks for this moving essay! We recently celebrated my father’s 82nd birthday, and the occasion triggered some interesting reflections on his part– he too is alarmed at many of the same things highlighted in the piece. Yet the willingness of his children and grandchildren, to sacrifice material comforts in order to fight back against the vampire squid of kleptocracy destroying our planet, gives him at least some hope for the future.

    My own daughter will turn 18 in a few weeks, and it grieves me that she is coming of age into such a messed-up world. At least I know that she will use her creative talents, and capacity for learning to bring people joy and help them endure their struggles.

    The one good thing that came out of Pandora’s box was hope. No matter how feeble its flame, we cannot afford to let the light of hope be extinguished in our minds and hearts. Mary Anne Grady Flores, herself a grandmother, has set a beautiful example for my daughter’s generation. A year in prison won’t stop her speaking out against injustice, and the repressive machinery of the state shouldn’t deter us either from speaking truth!

  6. Jim Shannon

    “Look at me Daddy, look at me”!
    We ALL want to think we are soooo special, but when death comes we are all the same!
    The last 70 are just a continuation the a previous 4,000!
    Humans has no value, and only GOLD matters!

    1. Jim Haygood

      Your last wishes might include having that solemn old standard, Nearer My Gold To Thee, played during your funeral.

  7. Banger

    Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it?

    I have a soft spot in my heart for Engelhardt–he is a decent guy like many decent guys and a good and sensitive writer but like many American liberals he doesn’t get it and I really don’t mind, I really just have to throw up my hands and say, whatever, man–I love you anyway. Who wants to face the brutal and inescapable facts that surround our political culture? Who really wants to face the idea that the democracy we thought we were living in no longer exists?

    Washington, btw, gets it–it is the seat of great political power. The Wars “we” fight have nothing to do with traditional wars they are neo-Orewellian wars fought to both keep people in line and make a lot of money for cronies of high-officials. As I’ve said many times, just look into the way the Iraq War was fought in detail if you dare–incredible and utterly unregulated corruption was its hallmark.

    Liberals cannot tolerate deep politics which is just a view of politics unfiltered by the strange cult of American Exceptionalism. Washington doesn’t misrule because the pols are stupid–they aren’t–you have to be pretty clever and resourceful to get into office and to stay in the mix if you’re a political operator–you have to be as skilled at the game of power as an NBA star is skilled at basketball. Washington is the Big Leagues and people play-big-time power games. The stakes are very, very high there and I don’t think most people, particularly traditional liberals and progressives grasp that and, moreover, don’t want to grasp it.

    If there’s anything really singular about American society for me is that it is dominated by a culture of denial–Hedges calls it “illusion” but I think denial is more apt. You can present a clear unambiguous fact to many Americans and if it violates their conceptual framework they will deny it and say things like “even if it what you say is true, I won’t believe it.” It’s a stunning thing to deal with–what can you say to that?

    1. McMike

      Pretty much my take. They get it just fine in DC.

      (One caveat; there is a certain breed of crafty survivor style in politics that is in fact dumb as a box of rocks – they are just smart enough to say exactly what they are told to say. They are very good at fitting in, and their lack of soul or independent intelligence allows their ambition to run the show.)

      Englehardt seems genuinely hurt and a little bit confused as to why our leaders keep spending our political capital, other people’s lives, and other peoples’ money on losing wars. This shows his ingrained trust in leaders and their intentions. He’s like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football. Despite all his learning and writing, he can’t quite bring himself to take the leap: everything really is broken, our nation really is run by sociopaths in all the ways that matter.

      Michael Parenti calls the skill we need a “radical analysis.” Step back and unlearn your frames. Instead of asking over and over again, “why do these people keep failing so spectacularly?” ask yourself: “how can we evaluate this to figure out who is getting exactly what they want?” People toss around the idea of Cui Bono, but I am not convinced they are able to make it a habit of mind to continuously stop granting politicians and elite a generousness of intention and sincerity – reflexively assuming they mean what they say, and do what they say they want to do, and have our best interests at heart. It’s a hard habit to break.

      It’s a favorite pet peeve of Dean Baker: the media’s insistence on regurgitating what politicians say they care about and analyzing what politicians allegedly think or believe, rather than reporting on what they actually do.

      (2nd caveat. I don’t mean getting “exactly” what they want. I mean more like fishing with hand grenades: you toss a bomb in the pond and then see what goodies float to the surface. aka Shock Doctrine Capitalism.)

      1. Lambert Strether

        Yes. “Opportunistic infection” would be another good metaphor. Stress the body, see what moves in, take advantage of the opportunity. Rather like ObamaCare.

      2. different clue

        Jeff Wells over at Rigorous Intuition 2.0 has written many blogposts about “what they want” and “what they are” based on what they do and keep doing.

    2. beans

      Great comment as usual, Banger. I’d add that living in the culture of denial is far easier than living with an awareness of the facts you have presented. Call it a political coming of age. Perhaps many Americans hang on to their cultural framework with all their might because intuitively they know that acknowledging reality is painful. Given the option of blissfully waving the flag or living with the broken heart, why would anyone want to seek a truth that blows apart the fairytale they have fully embraced?

      1. Banger

        It is up to those of us who want to see things as they are to create a welcoming community. Sadly, TINA is always the by-word and it is, indeed, ever so hard to actually live outside the box both psychologically and physically–but we need lots of vanguards to do so. Eventually people will realize that the contemporary values that are encouraged by the mainstream are empty and stupid and there will be some beginnings of an alternative(s). There are worse things than pain.

        1. Ulysses

          You are absolutely right we need to be welcoming to people who are suffering from having their illusions shattered. I’ve had more success waking people up gradually–allowing them to abandon illusions one at a time, and not demanding from them an immediate break from everything they’ve been taught to believe.

    3. Synopticist

      The question about how much Washington insiders get it is interesting. I would argue that a person can only truly understand so much, and Washington is VAST, with such a degree of multi-layered landscaping of power, so many fields and vistas of influence, such diverse nuclei and clusters of power and position, real or potential, shifting dynamically, changing and staying the same. The sheer quantity of brain input to keep abreast of it is phenominal. There’s almost too much to take in.

      The cognitive ability of anyone is limited, and if you can get a mental grip on the realities of power in Washington, you are, by definition, going to have a lowered capacity to understand the rest of the world.

      I’m constantly reminded of the un-named neo-con (probably Karl Rove) who made the famously insane statement about others being in the “reality based community”, while his guys got on with creating an empire. (or words to that effect). You can only think like that if your life revolves around controlling the hurly burly of Washington politics, where you can change “reality” for your purposes, you can gerrymander districts, shift the overton window, create new electoral coalitions.

      By the same token then, they think they can do things like make centuries old sectarian divides disappear, retain middle class jobs while favouring off-sourcing, or lower the price of oil permanently while supplies shrink. They mistake their mastery over the shifting, controlled chaos of Washington, for power over the sort of CONCRETE, real world realities, which a political triumph in Washington will have no effect over.

    4. OIFVet

      “Who really wants to face the idea that the democracy we thought we were living in no longer exists?” Did it ever exist? The way I look at it the US was and is basically a more sophisticated version of the former Soviet Block: it has better packaging, better capability to exert soft control over its “citizens” (think manufacturing consent and TV streaming of the Kardashians and gladiatorial events to distract the masses), and if all else fails, militarized police force to nip any disturbance in the force at the bud. Underneath the packaging though it is just as repressive as the former Soviet Block was, and its tools for repression have only gotten better and more ruthless. The difference is that the Deep State you refer to no longer sees the need to exert effort to hide the ugly stuff behind the propaganda, so it is beginning to trickle to the surface bit by bit. After all we have been sufficiently conditioned by now to avoid cognitive dissonance, and there is no longer an alternative anyway so why expend too much effort to hide the reality? Though I am convinced that they are seriously mistaken about the lack of alternative.

    5. H. Alexander Ivey

      What do I say?!? I say “Damn Banger, damn straight!”

      As for Mr. Engelhardt, I’m 62 and the I’m-just-facing-the-review-of-my-life stuff is nice, older brother, but save it for the real younger guys, the ones who either are like Banger’s group – won’t believe it even if they are living it, or the ones who lack the experience of knowing where Engelhardt misses the deeper and more pertinent points. For example, his musing on the lack of letter writing (paper and pen stuff). He doesn’t talk about how his generation is part of this “problem” – how many letters did he write to his son? And he ignores the dark facts of digital correspondence – it is too easy to forge, it is too hard to audit, it is too easy to become unreadable. Remember EBCIDIC, you IBMers? Paper and pen/pencil exists for centuries, bytes and bits on iron oxide, not so long. These are the real issues my and later generations should be addressing, not the “lack” of musty old envelopes, cancelled stamps, and yellowed pieces of stationery.

  8. Ken Nari

    Yes, it brought tears to my eyes too. It always happens when I read the kind, gentle, decent words of the Established Left, those like Engelhardt and Chomsky who benignly focus on misdemeanors and carefully overlook the felonies.

    It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington. Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse. Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned…?

    I hate to go against the current of comments here, but what Engelhardt is saying is that there’s really no evil intended, and all the horrors we are currently living through are simply because those in Washington have a learning disability.

    If you follow Engelhardt’s links you’ll see they go to the usual mainstream media sources or else to his own writings. He doesn’t seem to know volumes have been written on the mountains of evidence that put the lie to this mythical world created by the NYT or Washington Post.

    Or sure, it would be better if we didn’t do drones, and maybe a few spy types have gone overboard on collecting private info, but that’s about as brave as Engelhardt’s dissent gets. It’s okay to be Liberal, but let’s not piss anyone off.

    Go back and read the ending again. Isn’t Engelhardt saying history is full of happy surprises and we don’t have to do a thing other than let history run its natural course. Dear old charmer Engelhardt is, you can be sure he hasn’t read much history.

  9. susan the other

    Dog days of summer. I was feeling the same way yesterday. Feeling old and foggy. I’m happy to know Tom is feeling this way too. Kind of a relief tho’ because feeling this way is better than irrational optimism. When WW2 ended (I remember my aunts and uncles sharing an almost giddy can-do attitude) the capitalist world began pumping and churning modern profit-making business almost immediately. We Marshal-Planned Europe with such dedication that 20 years later you could hardly tell there had been a war across that continent, unless you happened to go to Berlin. There was still austerity in Europe in 1965, but things were constantly getting “better.” It was such hubris. Looking back I always wonder, how did we think this crazy pointless plan could be maintained? By putting out all the fires all the time. By the world’s most stupid adventure into Southeast Asia? Or now the Middle East? I don’t think my sadness will be lifted by responsible decisions going forward. My sadness is a form of regret that we were so stupid and wasteful that we squandered resources, killed good socialists, and trashed the planet. All for nothing.

    1. Massinissa

      “I don’t think my sadness will be lifted by responsible decisions going forward”

      Good, because if the last 50 years have taught us anything, its that there wont be any, and it only gets worse from here

  10. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Some people predict big chunks of the future pretty accurately- Aldous Huxley, Philip K Dick, Jules Verne and George Orwell all managed pretty well.

    1. Lord Koos

      And all were writers of “fiction” — but by being creative and imaginative people they were better able to see outside the box than the “official” political and scientific soothsayers.

  11. impermanence

    “Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it?”

    I believe that one of the most common mistakes people make is aptly demonstrated in the above comment.

    99.9% of the time, things happen because they are designed to happen that way. People have this tendency to dismiss reality and substitute their personal version so that they may continue to harbor whatever intellectual non-sense is rumblings around in their heads.

    Washington gets it alright…

    … as, “make hay while the sun shines,” will always be their credo.

  12. Worker-Owner

    I read much of Englehart’s stuff … sometimes only his introductions to otherwise predictable material. Like Yves, the Forewards are worth the price of entry. When he does a piece for himself, it is usually very good.
    This more pithy form was interesting. It is a departure from his usually well-constructed longer pieces even though it still has his overall coherency. It has been interesting that Karl Polanyi has been mentioned more in the past week or two on the Webisphere more than the past few years. The Great Transformation is a very different view of the evolution of what we call Capitalism and several thoughtful folks have suggested that Polanyi’s views might be more constructive than that of the main-stream echo-chamber. I agree (obviously). So, apparently, does Tom. We are well down the line of the “project” started centuries ago during what Marx called Primitive Accumulation. Things are working out fine for the rich and their courtiers.

  13. toldjaso

    The “American Century” of the elite Mr. Luce is the Mystery of the CityZionist Century wrapped in the Enigma of American Consumer Militarism. Think about it, long and hard. “Americans” have been had: we traded our birthright for a mess of potage, and “They don’t care” about us “at all, at ALL, at all.” (George Carlin).

    The brilliant piece by James Petras today at shows the People beneath The Iron Heel.
    “Foundations of the American Empire: Strategic Alliances and ‘Axes of Evil'” by James Petras.

    Let’s not go all sentimental about what we “lost” as a nation. We were deceived, used, destroyed, by enemies foreign and domestic, taught to lick the fingers force-feeding us lies, getting us to do their dirty work.

    Rise up, People! Cry TREASON! and claim your rights. No more Mr. Nice Masochist.

  14. craazyman

    This Sort of Thing Happens Every Day but I Don’t Know Why

    this post is so depressing it should come with a warning label. it makes me wanna reach for Xanax but I’m out of Xanax. It’s Kava from the healthfood store, for the time being. Kava is to Xanax as the a.m. radio is to Carnegie Hall. Or pornography to True Love. That’s how inadequate kava is. Valerian is another option. I wonder how that works with Kava. Maybe they can brew into a cocktail that makes it all go away, so it’s just a big “so what”. That’s ultimately what you want. That with Youtube and almost any problem is manageable. Almost.

    An uplifting thought occurred to me last week or the week before. I forgot when it was. but I wondered why everybody hand-wrings over misery, death, injustice and destruction. Why should it matter? what happens someplace where thugs and death lord their hell over the innocent? I asked that question once here in the gallery and nobody even responded. Why do you care? What difference does it make.

    And then it occurred to me, the way things do when you’re not paying attention. It was there in my mind accidently, the way you knock a book off a table with your elbow when yer reaching for the Xanax and the red wine. And it falls on the floor and you jump.

    What is the thing that sends the signal that your brain picks up like a signal from a radio and thinks it comes from itself, that makes you flinch and wince at injustice and oppression and violence and chaos. What signal makes you think you should care? And then I realized — the thoughts of the dead. It’s the thoughts of all the souls that have died projected into this reality like a hidden sun. That’s what it is. The regret and the truth. That should cheer you up, because whatever you think about time, it’s never over.

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