Tom Engelhardt – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 11 Sep 2023 02:21:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Our Global Maui Moment: Climate Crisis and a World Afire Mon, 11 Sep 2023 04:02:36 +0000 ( ) – From the earliest kingdoms to late last night, history has been the story not just of the rise of great powers but of their decline and fall. So, normally, there would be nothing particularly out of the ordinary about the aging America of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, a classic imperial power distinctly in decline and threatening to split into pieces.

As it happens, though, there’s something all too new about the twenty-first-century decline and fall of that other great power of the Cold War era — you know, not the Soviet Union. After all, the present downhill slide of this country is happening on a planet that itself is distinctly in trouble in terms of what’s always passed for a decent human life — and that, believe me, is something new under the sun. In fact, in some fashion, the scenario all of us, each in our own fashion, are now living through may be the least known ever.

Think of it, if you will, as the orange-sky scenario. I’m sure you remember when New York City’s skyline went orange thanks to the smoke from hundreds of wildfires then burning across Canada that drifted our way. And though it’s hardly even considered news anymore, as of August 25th, nearly three months later, there were still 1,033 active wildfires scorching that country, 656 of them “out of control.” Consider that and then try to get your mind around a planet capable of producing such a phenomenon!

What’s different today is that, while those particular orange skies may have been over parts of the eastern United States, what lay behind them wasn’t just an all-American but a global story of decline.

Nature’s War of Revenge

Let me imagine for a moment that I was on Maui in early August as that first hint of smoke entered my house (not, of course, that I have a house on that island). What followed was a fire of unprecedented severity, fueled by fierce winds from a relatively distant hurricane and invasive grasses dried by a “severe drought.” That fire then burst into the town of Lahaina and burnt it to the ground, a catastrophe that caused more than 100 known deaths and left hundreds more missing.

I want to say that it was a fire “beyond compare,” especially in Hawaii where, for most of its history, as Elizabeth Kolbert recently reminded us, “fire simply wasn’t part of the islands’ ecology.” But honestly, when it comes to climate disasters, you can’t say “beyond compare” about much of anything anymore. Not on this planet, not now. Yes, climate change — the heat and lack of moisture — had dried out that island’s largely alien greenery, making it ever more combustible. There was also that hurricane, admittedly hundreds of miles away but directing brutal fire-spreading winds Maui’s way. And for context, consider that, since the 1950s, the average temperature of Hawaii has risen by about two degrees and summers have become increasingly brutal in terms of heat.

Still, the fire that destroyed Lahaina — 2,700 structures simply wiped out — was the deadliest in the United States in more than a century. But count on one thing: 100 years from now, if there still is a United States and another terrible fire occurs, no one will be saying that it was the deadliest in “more than a century.” However sad it may be to write, ever more horrific fires are now the definition of our future.

In the end, in fact, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Hawaii or Iran, Algeria or Greece, China or Spain, Phoenix, Arizona, or the island of Sardinia. Across the planet, horrifying “natural” (though under the circumstances, they should be considered distinctly unnatural) fire, flood, and heat records were set this summer. Both June and July were the hottest versions of those months ever and 2023 is clearly rushing toward its own global heat record. So, mourn for Maui now. After all, a decade, no less a century, from now, nothing that happened this summer will be remembered as the planet’s ongoing crisis only breaks yet more records and grows ever more severe. Even today, when it comes to heat, nothing — not even emperor penguins in Antarctica — is unaffected.

And it’s not just on land (or ice) either. Don’t forget the water. As Bill McKibben noted recently, “In the past hundred and fifty years, we’ve made the ocean soak up, on average, the heat equivalent of a Hiroshima-size nuclear bomb every second and a half; in recent years, that’s increased to five or six Hiroshimas a second.” Imagine that! In other words, Hurricane Idalia, the first (and undoubtedly anything but last) hurricane of Florida’s present storm season, crossed startlingly heated waters that had only recently set records, gaining power from them as it hit the state as a category 4 storm.

War? It was once hell on Earth and — see the conflict in the Ukraine, where there are already almost 500,000 casualties with no end in sight — in so many ways it still is. However, in the end, our wars, barring the use of nuclear weapons, could prove to be next to nothing compared to nature’s war of revenge on humanity. And yet, perhaps the most striking thing about us is that, from the Ukraine to Taiwan, we’re proving remarkably unable to focus on what’s truly new and horrific about life on this planet.

I was born 79 years ago on an Earth plunged into a global war, the second of that century. It would conclude just over a year later after my country discovered a way to end it all. I hardly need to tell you that I’m thinking about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, in the decades that followed, the vast atomic arsenals built up by the two superpowers of that era, the Soviet Union and the United States. As it happens, Russia still has a humongous nuclear arsenal and the U.S., with the second largest on the planet, is planning to put up to $2 trillion into “modernizing” it over the next three decades. Meanwhile, nine countries now possess nuclear weapons — with the capacity of doing to the planet what had once been done to those two Japanese cities.

The possibility that such weaponry could actually be used has, of course, become a news topic because of the Ukraine War. But in 1945, when J. Robert Oppenheimer (of movie fame) was preparing the first test of such a weapon in the New Mexican desert, no one knew that humanity had already discovered another way to do the very same thing to itself, even if in slow motion. From the industrial revolution on, by burning fossil fuels and sending ever greater quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’ve been preparing year by year, decade by decade, century by century, for a different kind of apocalypse. Now, we know — or at least should know — that we’re deeply engaged in what could be a world-ending affair (or minimally an ending of the world as we’ve known it all these centuries).

And these days, thanks to that, all of us are potentially living in Lahaina in some fashion.

Fossil-Fuel-Style Osama Bin Ladens

For the last 22 years, the United States has been fighting a global war on terror that, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Pakistan to Niger, has been a disaster of the first order. So many of our taxpayer dollars have gone into that “war” and ever rising Pentagon and national security state budgets. Meanwhile, the true war of all wars on planet Earth — think of it as a global war of terror — has simply worsened without a significant enough mobilization to truly deal with it. It should be no surprise then that, in 2023, the most greenhouse gases ever are entering the atmosphere.

In such a context, you might imagine that humanity — all of us — would rally around, if not the flag, then the green banner of an ecologically decent planet. And yet, that money pouring into the Pentagon is going into the development of things like AI-run drones for a future possible war with China over the island of Taiwan. And that focus — China seems no less committed to such a future — only ensures that the historically greatest greenhouse gas emitter (the United States) and the greatest one of the present moment (China) will not ally in any meaningful way to fight the true battle humanity faces. In other words, that global war of terror, the one we’ve sparked (so to speak), will only intensify.

In that sense, in launching his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s greatest crime wasn’t simply against the Ukrainians, but against humanity. It was another way to ensure that the global war of terror would grow fiercer and that the Lahainas of the future would burn more intensely. And that’s not just because any form of warfare puts startling amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (The U.S. military, in fact, emits more carbon dioxide than whole countries and is the world’s largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases.) The war Putin launched, while undoubtedly a major greenhouse gas producer, also has taken our attention off the potentially most devastating war on this planet.

Meanwhile, though China leads the world in creating and installing alternative energy systems, it also greenlights, on average, two new coal-powered plants a week and is building six times more of those plants than the rest of the world combined. And don’t forget the major fossil-fuel companies that continue to ravage the planet in search of present and future profits. In 2022, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, and Shell saw $1 trillion in sales and all four reported record profits.

Yes, you can certainly find evidence of parts of humanity acting to rein in, if not simply eliminate, fossil fuels, even in places like Texas. It’s not that nothing whatsoever is being done. Joe Biden, for instance, oversaw the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is spurring hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in clean energy (even if he also greenlighted the giant ConocoPhillips Willow project that could extract more than 600 million barrels of oil from an overheating Alaska during the next 30 years).

But in such a moment, the other party in the United States, once known as the Republicans, is now filled with outright climate-change deniers and forceful supporters of the further development of fossil fuels. It seems almost beyond imagining and yet, if polling is to be believed, the man who represents so many of them, Donald Trump, has a genuine chance of ending up back in the White House.

While some of those Trumpublicans may be delusional, the CEOs of the giant oil companies undoubtedly aren’t. They know just what their companies are doing to our world. Thanks to its scientists, the top officials of Exxon, in fact, had a remarkably accurate sense of what kind of damage their products could cause back in — yes! — the 1970s and the company’s response, in part, was to put money into think tanks promoting climate-change denial.

Don’t you wonder what any of those fossil-fuel CEOs will say to their grandkids? I do.

Meanwhile, the global war of terror, which only becomes more destructive by the month, has already put September 11th to shame in Lahaina and elsewhere on this increasingly beleaguered planet of ours. And sadly enough, in that war of nature, we humans are the terrorists and those fossil-fuel company CEOs are our very own Osama bin Ladens.

The New Abnormal: Living on an ever More Extreme Planet Fri, 04 Aug 2023 04:02:26 +0000 ( ) – Hey, who knows? It could be the Gulf Stream collapsing or the planet eternally breaking heat records. But whatever the specifics, we’re living it right now, not in the next century, the next decade, or even next year. You couldn’t miss it — at least so you might think — if you were living in the sweltering Southwest; especially in broiling, record-setting Phoenix with 30 straight days of temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit; or in flaming Greece or western China on the day the temperature hit 126 degrees Fahrenheit or sweltering, blazing Algeria when the temperature reached an almost unimaginable 135 (yes, 135!) degrees Fahrenheit; not to speak of broiling Canada with its more than 1,000 fires now burning (a figure that still seems to be rising by the week) and its 29 million acres already flamed out; and don’t forget Italy’s 1,400 fires; or Florida’s hot-tub-style seawater, which recently hit an unheard-of 101-plus degrees Fahrenheit. And though I’m still writing this as the month is ending, July is more or less guaranteed to set the record for the hottest month in history. And don’t assume that “record” will stand for long, either.

Who even remembers that this June was the hottest since records have been kept or that July 6th was the hottest day in recorded history (and July 3rd through 6th, the hottest four days ever)? And don’t be surprised if 2023 ends up setting a record for the hottest year or assume that such a record will last long on a planet where the previous eight years were the warmest ever. And if I’m already boring you, then one thing is guaranteed: you’re going to be bored out of your mind in the years to come.

And with all that’s burning across significant parts of southern Europe, northern Africa, Canada, and elsewhere, yet more carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere, preparing the way for a truly scorching world to come. Just keep in mind, in fact, that, by the time this piece is published, I could undoubtedly produce a startling new paragraph or two of updated, overheated horrors to send your way.

Yes, as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently put it, the era of “global warming” should be considered over, since we’re now clearly living at the beginning of a time of “global boiling.” And as you sit there sweating and reading this, if that doesn’t strike you as extreme, consider something else: fossil-fuel companies are still bringing in staggering profits (even if poor Shell’s second-quarter profits in 2023 were down to a mere $5.1 billion) as they — yes! — continue to expand their oil and natural gas operations globally. And can you blame them? After all, the companies whose executives have long known what their products would do to this planet and even sometimes responded by funding think tanks that promoted climate change denial, have little choice but (if you’ll excuse the phrase) to cover their assets. Meanwhile, last year, China, at the forefront of the alternative energy boom now underway, also granted permits to build, on average, two new coal plants a week (while burning more coal than the rest of the planet combined).

Environmental Extremism

Now, tell me that you’re not sweating at least a little and that we don’t live on an increasingly extreme planet. And just to add a cheery note to that, check out blistering Texas. El Paso has had more than 41 days in a row of temperatures at or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (just short of — yes, Ron! — Miami at 45 while I was writing this). However, Texas’s Republican-controlled legislature is now striving to dramatically curb that state’s remarkable advances in solar and wind power while raising their cost, even as many of its members push for public investment in the construction of new natural gas plants (which, as a recent study indicates, could prove as greenhouse-gas dirty as coal).

Just remind me: What planet are they living on?

If, however, you truly want to see American extremism up close and personal, don’t even bother to check out Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who charmingly enough launched his now-faltering presidential campaign by forswearing the “politicization of the weather.” Under the circumstances, I know you won’t be faintly surprised to learn that he had previously rejected the very idea of climate change as “leftwing stuff.” (Of course, if the left turns out to be our future, then maybe he’ll prove to be… oh, my gosh, so sorry, but what other word can I use than “right”?)

No, skip Ron. After all, if you don’t happen to live in Florida, he couldn’t be more skippable. Look instead at Donald Trump. Yes, our much-indicted (or soon to-be-indicted-again) former president and (“Be there, will be wild!”) aspiring autocrat, who shows every sign of once again becoming the “Republican” candidate for president.

Were he indeed to become that and then — also anything but unimaginable — win the 2024 election and end up back in the White House, the extremity of the world we could find ourselves in might be almost beyond imagining. We’re talking about the guy who claimed that, when it comes to climate change, its full effect could be — uh-oh! — that “the ocean will rise by 1/100th of an inch over the next 350 years.” (Actually, if global temperature rise is kept to 2 degrees Celsius, the sea level near Mar-a-Lago would be expected to rise three feet by 2150, a mere 3,500 times the former president’s estimate in half the time — and that’s if we don’t truly turn out to be on a climate-boiling planet.)

Of course, should Donald Trump win not just the Republican nomination but the 2024 election, this sweltering country will have put someone back in the White House who has spent his political career mocking the very idea of global warming and supporting to the hilt the production of fossil fuels. His administration reversed, rolled back, or wiped out nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations, many related to climate change, including “Obama-era limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks.” Meanwhile, he appointed cabinet members who openly dismissed the very idea of global warming.

And, by the way, if you want to measure the mad extremism of Republicans today, try to recall a once-upon-a-time era when they held a hardly less environmental outlook than Democrats. (It’s easy to forget that it was the otherwise lamentable Republican President Richard Nixon whose administration established the Environmental Protection Agency.) If you want to measure the extremism of what can hardly be called the Republican — as opposed to Trumpublican — Party of 2023, check out the positions on climate change of most of its possible presidential candidates.

If, in fact, you want a gauge of how extreme this country has already become in this century, just stop and think for a moment about the fact that, as of now, few polling professionals believe a 2024 Biden-Trump election wouldn’t prove a total nail-biter. That should make you sweat a little more.

Be There, Will Be Wild!

On this sweltering planet of ours, Donald Trump and his Trumpublicans should indeed be considered up-close-and-personal versions of American extremism. Yes, in 2016, Trump won the election by catching the mood of all too many voters with the slogan “make America great again!” or MAGA! (exclamation point included). As I wrote at the time, “With that ‘again,’ Donald Trump crossed a line in American politics that, until his escalator moment, represented a kind of psychological taboo for politicians of any stripe, of either party.” And with his inaugural address, he added another unforgettable slogan: “America First.” (“From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” he insisted.)

But America first? Today, don’t make me laugh. Donald Trump is, of course, running for president as the potential leader of a party that now bears next to no relation to the Republican Party of the not-so-distant past and he’s doing so not on an America First but on a Me-First ticket against a crew of other candidates, most of whom have either rejected outright or simply ignored the very idea that there might be a climate crisis on planet Earth.

In such a state, Trump could become the Me-First candidate of all time and, for him, especially in climate terms, it’s undoubtedly America 19th. Or do I mean 29th or 129th or 1,029th?

Now, I hardly want to claim that President Joe Biden is the perfect anti-climate-broiling candidate. Still, give him credit. He and a Democratic Congress did pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which represented significant climate legislation that, in the years to come, will put hundreds of billions of dollars into reducing American fossil-fuel use and so help cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in significant ways. In addition, unlike the Trumpublicans, he at least seems to worry about Americans living through a heat emergency (though the present Congress will let him do all too little about it).

Still, being the politician he is, despite pledging “no more drilling on federal lands, period, period, period” in his 2020 election campaign, he couldn’t bring himself to say no when it came to the new ConocoPhillips Willow Project on federal land in Arctic Alaska (already among the fastest warming places on Earth). It’s slated to produce — hold your hats! — almost 600 million barrels of oil over the next three decades. Nor could he do so when it came to the completion of Senator Joe Manchin’s baby, the West Virginia Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline that his administration (and only recently the Supreme Court as well) approved in what’s distinctly too much of a Me-First (or at least fossil-fuel-producing companies first) world even without Donald Trump.

But count on one thing, the Donald himself is no longer living on this planet of ours — you know, the one where only recently more than 190 million Americans were under heat advisory alerts and 250 million to 275 million of us faced heat indexes of at least (and do put the emphasis on that “at least”) 90 degrees Fahrenheit. He now exists on one that’s sprung directly from what passes for his imagination. Forget the extremist positions he and so many of his followers (not to speak of his Republican presidential opponents) hold on everything from abortion and what books school libraries can contain to what’s gender acceptable (not much) in this all-American world of ours.

The crucial thing here is that, in the Me-First world that’s him all the way — even one that could, in the end, leave this country in the dust of climate and history — one thing is guaranteed: were he to make it back into the White House, the future would be Me-First all the way to… well, either the bank or the outhouse. And he and his advisors are making no secret of that fact. Thanks to fine reporting by Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage, and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, we already know that, were they to make it back into the White House, they would be intent on instantly enhancing the powers of his presidency by concentrating “far greater authority in his hands,” and altering “the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.” And all of this, they are already openly discussing more than a year before the 2024 election.

In other words, Donald Trump is intent on winning the power to create, at best, a Hungarian version of “democracy” here in America and that, make no mistake, would help add more than three feet of sea-level rise to the area of Florida near Mar-a-Lago. As for the rest of us, if you’re hot now, just wait for the return of the Donald’s Me-First World. Believe me, you don’t know nothin’ yet when it comes to heat. Be there, will be wild!


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The Radiance of a Thousand Suns: Can we dodge Two Torrid Disasters of our own Making? Fri, 14 Jul 2023 04:02:16 +0000 ( ) – In case you hadn’t noticed — and how could you not? — there have been more than 500 (yes, 500-plus!) wildfires burning across the vast reaches of Canada, an unheard-of number, and more than half of them completely out of (human) control in a record-shattering fire season. That’s been true for seemingly endless weeks now with no end in sight. (And, by the way, elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, Siberia is having its own possibly record fire season.) If you didn’t notice any of this, though, I have a possible explanation. Perhaps the vast clouds of smoke from those fires that recently gave the skies of Chicago and Detroit, New York and Washington, D.C., the worst air quality on the planet blurred your vision. 

Anyway, if you were to look back, say, a decade or two ago, I have no doubt you would be struck by how few commentators even faintly imagined the planet we’re living on at this very moment — and not, as predicted, 2033 or 2043 or 2053, if ever.  Few imagined that the oceans would heat so quickly; that Texas and parts of the southern U.S. would be experiencing the sorts of fever-dream temperatures this summer that once might, at worst, have been associated with northern India; that Europe would, in recent years, have recorded heat and drought of a sort not seen in half a millennium; that China would break heat, fire, and flood records, while Antarctica’s sea ice hit record lows.

Last season, when fires fiercely scorched northern Canada, who would have predicted that this year far more acreage would burn nationwide long before the fire season was faintly near an end, sending yet more carbon into the atmosphere to make future seasons even worse? Oh, and just recently, the planet experienced its hottest day ever, in all of human history — or at least during the last 125,000 years. But count on one thing: it won’t be the hottest day ever for long. (Oh, wait! The very next day, July 4th, proved in true patriotic fashion to be even hotter and the following day tied it for the record with, by the way, 57 million Americans under an extreme heat watch!) In the weeks to come, we may even pass the 1.5°C temperature limit set just eight years ago as part of the Paris climate agreement. And the saddest thing of all is that I could go on and on… and yes, on.   

Hey, I don’t blame you if you’re shocked. Honestly, who knew? I didn’t and I suspect I was typical. Early in this century, I certainly grasped something of the possible grim future reality of climate change, but I didn’t personally expect to live through it in any major way. Though I already imagined it as a potential nightmare for future life on this planet — even possibly the nightmare of all times — the emphasis was on that “future.” I imagined my children (or possibly, though they didn’t exist yet, my grandchildren) having to face such a potential horror, but not me, not in a major way in my own lifetime and in that inability to truly grasp what was coming I was in the company of many climate scientists. 

And yet I now find myself, like you, like all of us, experiencing the idea of future global warming being transformed before my very eyes into a climate emergency of the first order.

Nuking Planet Earth

Still, despite all the climate surprises in store for me and my generation, there were certain things that we already knew. For instance, just to change the subject for a moment — and I think you’ll see why soon enough — who today doesn’t know that, in the midst of World War II, scientists working for the American government invented (and yes, that word works as well for what they did as for Edison and the telephone) atomic weaponry — that is, a way to destroy not just two Japanese cities to end World War II in the Pacific but, as it turned out, humanity itself, lock, stock and barrel! 

If you don’t believe me, just check out what a relatively moderate atomic war on this planet might mean in terms of what’s come to be known as “nuclear winter.” In the wake of such a conflict, it’s expected that billions of us would all too literally starve to death. (And as with climate change, count on one thing: the reality is likely to be worse than the predictions.)

Admittedly, from the beginning, the idea of such weaponry made at least a few of the scientists who created it, not to speak of the president of the United States, anxious. As President Harry Truman scrawled in his diary: “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.”

One of the leading atomic scientists, J. Robert Oppenheimer, later recalled the experience this way:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Still, when two atomic bombs took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who could have imagined what the fallout of every sort from such weaponry, if enough of them were used in some future war, could potentially do to humanity (and much of the rest of life on this planet as well)? And once the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, who could have imagined that, in 2023, a Russian leader named Vladimir Putin, would rule over a country with more nuclear weapons than any other on the planet and would once again be threatening to use what are now called “tactical nuclear weapons” (even though many of them are far more powerful than the two that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in — yes! — Europe (okay, officially, Ukraine) to save himself from the hellish war he launched? 

Or for that matter, who in 1991 could have guessed that, more than three decades later, the U.S. and China would be locked in what has come to be known as a “new cold war” with the issue of the island of Taiwan at its heart and Americans gaining an ever more cold-war-style mentality? In that context, who would have guessed that, in 2023, China would be rushing to massively upgrade its nuclear arsenal, while, in the coming decades (if they were to come, of course), the U.S. was planning to invest another $2 trillion in the so-called modernization (a concept that doesn’t go very well with the potential ultimate destruction of Planet Earth) of its own vast arsenal. Or who could have guessed that, by 2023, nine countries would be nuclear-armed, including India and Pakistan (gulp!), Israel, and — yikes! — North Korea.

Admittedly, since August 9, 1945, though many nuclear weapons have been “tested,” most recently by the North Koreans, none have yet been used in war. Still, don’t faintly think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility, starting in Ukraine. 

Another Kind of Fallout

But here’s the tricky thing. While some of the atomic scientists who helped create the first nuclear weapons quickly grasped that they would have the potential to destroy humanity, none of them imagined that humanity had already invented a means to do so all too “peacefully” by burning fossil fuels. None of them knew that putting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere might, in the end, fry the planet in something like slow motion rather than in an atomic instant. In other words, humanity had, however unknowingly as part of the industrial revolution, created another sort of “weaponry” that could again — not in a brief set of warring moments but over endless decades — do this planet in. That “bomb” couldn’t, in a sense, have been more peaceful. 

Think of it this way: humanity had — once knowingly and once without realizing it — created systems with the sort of devastating fallout that could, in the end, do us all in and that represents a unique accomplishment of sorts. Of course, had more of us been paying attention, we would have realized this far sooner when it came to climate change. After all, in 1965, a science advisory committee provided President Lyndon Johnson with a report on the phenomenon that predicted what the carbonization of the atmosphere might do to this planet early in the next century with remarkable accuracy. So it wasn’t that we weren’t (or shouldn’t have been) warned. Johnson himself, of course, was so wrapped up in a disastrous war in Vietnam that he (and his advisers) seem to have paid no attention whatsoever.

The other crew who knew all too much about the heating of this planet early were the guys who, in the previous century, ran the giant fossil-fuel companies. From the 1970s on, Exxon’s scientists, for instance, kept that company’s executives all too up to date on the future fallout from the burning of the fossil fuels they were making their fortunes off of and those CEOs often responded — surprise! surprise! — remarkably decisively by ignoring the news, denying it, or even supporting organizations deeply involved in climate-denialism. 

Ground Zeros

Give us — that is, humanity — credit. No other species could possibly have discovered two different ways to destroy itself, not to speak of most of the other creatures on Planet Earth. And in 2023, living in an ever more extreme country on an ever more extreme planet at a moment when both of those ways of ultimate devastation are once again distinctly in play, we shouldn’t underestimate who we are. In fact, the question of whether there is a third way is now up for grabs.

In other words, whatever you do, don’t sell us short!  In the end (and I use that phrase advisedly), we may prove even more remarkable than we imagined and the fallout from the human brain almost beyond conception. In other words, don’t for a second think that humanity is restricted to just two versions of end-time. After all, as in 1945 with the atomic scientists, so today, some of the scientific figures who created artificial intelligence (AI) are beginning to warn us that it might ultimately (in every sense of the term) do us in.

Among them is the man known as “the godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, who quit his job at Google to express his fears about where we might indeed be heading, artificially speaking. “The idea that this stuff could actually get smarter than people,” he said, “a few people believed that, but most people thought it was way off. And I thought it was way off. I thought it was 30 to 50 years or even longer away. Obviously, I no longer think that.” Now, he fears not just killer robots beyond human control but “the risk of super intelligent AI taking over control from people…It’s a threat for the Chinese and for the Americans and for the Europeans, just like a global nuclear war was.”

And keep in mind that we’re just in the earliest moments of AI’s development. Who knows, as Michael Klare recently warned us, what future global militaries run by “robot generals” with potential access to our nuclear arsenals could do to us. 

The “fallout” from AI is still hard to begin to assess, even as militaries around the globe double their efforts to adapt it for uses of all sorts. And keep in mind, lest we underestimate humanity’s remarkably inventive powers yet again, that while AI might prove to be the third way we’ve created to potentially do ourselves in, even it might not be the last, not given who we are.

Whether another nuclear weapon is ever used or not (don’t do it Vlad!), in the heat of this record-breaking summer, this planet and everything on it are already suffering more and faster than just about anyone expected from one version of humanity’s fallout. 

There was a phrase used with the atomic bombs that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reused after September 11, 2001, for the site in New York where al-Qaeda hijackers took down the World Trade Center: “Ground Zero.”  Increasingly, with the never-ending burning of fossil fuels, Ground Zero is no longer a single city of any sort, but this planet itself and, whether we’ve already found a third way to destroy ourselves (and so much else) or not, there is something awesomely ominous about our urge to destroy so much with our multiplying versions of fallout. 


9/11, Climate Change Style: How burning Fossil Fuels is making our own Planet Alien to Us Fri, 16 Jun 2023 04:02:43 +0000 ( ) – As it turns out, it’s never too late. I mention that only because last week, at nearly 79, I managed to visit Mars for the first time. You know, the red planet, or rather — so it seemed to me — the orange planet. And take my word for it, it was eerie as hell. There was no sun, just a strange orange haze of a kind I had never seen before as I walked the streets of that world (well-masked) on my way to a doctor’s appointment.

Oh, wait, maybe I’m a little mixed up. Maybe I wasn’t on Mars. The strangeness of it all (and perhaps my age) might have left me just a bit confused. My best hunch now, as I try to put recent events in perspective, is that I wasn’t in life as I’d previously known it. Somehow — just a guess — that afternoon I might have become a character in a science-fiction novel. As a matter of fact, I had only recently finished rereading Walter M. Miller,Jr.’s sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, last visited in 1961 at age 17. It’s about a world ravaged by humanity (using nukes, as a matter of fact) and, so many years later, still barely in recovery mode.

I must admit that the streets I was traversing certainly looked like they existed on just such a planet. After all, the ambience had a distinctly end-of-the-world (at least as I’d known it) feel to it.

Oh, wait! I checked the news online and it turns out that it was neither Mars, nor a sci-fi novel. It was simply my very own city, New York, engulfed in smoke you could smell, taste, and see, vast clouds of it blown south from Canada where more than 400 wildfires were then burning in an utterly out of control, historically unprecedented fashion across much of that country — as, in fact, all too many of them still are. That massive cloud of smoke swamped my city’s streets and enveloped its most famous buildings, bridges, and statues in a horrifying mist.

That day, New York, where I was born and have lived much of my life, reportedly had the worst, most polluted air of any major city on the planet — Philadelphia would take our place the very next day — including an air quality index that hit a previously unimaginable 484. That day, my city was headline-making in a way not seen since September 11, 2001. In fact, you might think of that Wednesday as the climate-change version of 9/11, a terror (or at least terrorizing) attack of the first order.

Put another way, it should have been a signal to us all that we — New Yorkers included — now live on a new, significantly more dangerous planet, and that June 7th may someday be remembered locally as a preview of a horror show for the ages. Unfortunately, you can count on one thing: it’s barely the beginning. On an overheating planet where humanity has yet to bring its release of greenhouse gasses from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas under any sort of reasonable control, where summer sea ice is almost certain to be a thing of the past in a fast-heating Arctic, where sea levels are rising ominously and fires, storms, and droughts are growing more severe by the year, there’s so much worse to come.

In my youth, of course, a Canada that hadn’t even made it to summer when the heat hit record levels and fires began burning out of control from Alberta in the west to Nova Scotia and Quebec in the east would have been unimaginable. I doubt even Walter M. Miller, Jr., could have dreamed up such a future, no less that, as of a week ago, 1,400% of the normal acreage of that country, or more than 8.7 million acres, had already burned (with so much more undoubtedly still to come); nor that Canada, seemingly caught unprepared, without faintly enough firefighters, despite recent all-too-flammable summers — having, in fact, to import them from around the world to help bring those blazes under some sort of control — would be in flames. And yet, for that country, experiencing its fiercest fire season ever, one thing seems guaranteed: that’s only the beginning. After all, United Nations climate experts are now suggesting that, by the end of this century, if climate change isn’t brought under control, the intensity of global wildfires could rise by another 57%. So, be prepared, New Yorkers, orange is undoubtedly the color of our future and we haven’t seen anything like the last of such smoke bombs.

Oh, and that June evening, once I was home again, I turned on the NBC nightly news, which not surprisingly led with the Canadian fires and the smoke disaster in New York in a big-time way — and, hey, in their reporting, no one even bothered to mention climate change. The words went unused. My best guess: maybe they were all on Mars.

Been There, Done That

In fact, you could indeed think of that June 7th smoke-out as the 2023 climate-change equivalent of September 11, 2001. Whoops! Maybe that’s a far too ominous comparison and I’ll tell you why.

On September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and aboard four hijacked jets, almost 3,000 people died. That was indeed a first-class nightmare, possibly the worst terrorist attack in history. And the U.S. responded by launching a set of invasions, occupations, and conflicts that came to be known as “the global war on terror.” In every sense, however, it actually turned out to be a global war of terror, a 20-plus-year disaster of losing conflicts that involved the killing of staggering numbers of people. The latest estimate from the invaluable Costs of War Project is: almost a million direct deaths and possibly 3.7 million indirect ones.

Take that in for a moment. And think about this: in the United States, there hasn’t been the slightest penalty for any of that. Just ask yourself: Was the president who so disastrously invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, while he and his top officials lied through their teeth to the American people, penalized in any way? Yes, I do mean that fellow out in Texas who’s become known for his portrait painting in his old age and who, relatively recently, confused his decision to invade Iraq with Vladimir Putin’s to invade Ukraine.

Or, for that matter, has the U.S. military suffered any penalties for its record in response to 9/11? Just consider this for starters: the last time that military actually won a war was in 1991. I’m thinking of the first Gulf War and that “win” would prove nothing but a prelude to the Iraq disaster to come in this century. Explain this to me then: Why does the military that’s proven incapable of winning a war since that 9/11 terror attack still get more money from Congress than the next — your choice — 9 or 10 militaries on this planet combined, and why, no matter who’s in charge in Washington, including cost-cutting Republicans, does the Pentagon never — no, absolutely never — see a cut in its funding, only yet more taxpayer dollars? (And mind you, this is true on a planet where the real battles of the future are likely to involve fire and smoke.)

There may indeed be a “debt ceiling” in this country, but there seems to be no ceiling at all when it comes to funding that military. In fact, Republican hawks in the Senate only recently demanded yet more money for the Pentagon in the debt-ceiling debate (despite the fact that, amid other cuts, its funding was already guaranteed to rise by 3% or $388 billion). As Senator Lindsey Graham so classically put it about that (to him) pitiful rise, “This budget is a win for China.”

Now, I don’t mean to say that there’s been no pain anywhere. Quite the opposite. American troops sent to Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other countries came home suffering everything from literal wounds to severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. (In these years, in fact, the suicide rate among veterans has been unnervingly high.)

And did the American people pay? You bet. Through the teeth, in fact, in a moment when inequality in this country was already going through the roof — or, if you’re not one of the ever-greater numbers of billionaires, perhaps the floor would be the more appropriate image. And has the Pentagon paid a cent? No, not for a thing it’s done (and, in too many cases, is still doing).

Consider this the definition of decline in a country that, as Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis continue to make desperately clear, could be heading for a place too strange and disturbing for words, a place both as old as the present president of the United States (should he win again) and as new as anyone can imagine.

Will the Climate Version of 9/11 Become Daily Life?

Throughout history, it’s true that great imperial powers have risen and fallen, but lest you think this is just another typical imperial moment when, as the U.S. declines, China will rise, take a breath — oops, sorry, watch out for that smoke! — and think again. As those Canadian wildfires suggest, we’re no longer on the planet we humans have inhabited these last many thousand years. We’re now living in a new, not terribly recognizable, ever more perilous world. It’s not just this country that’s in decline but Planet Earth itself as a livable place for humanity and for so many other species. Climate change, in other words, is quickly becoming the climate emergency.

And as the reaction to 9/11 shows, faced with a moment of true terror, don’t count on the response of either the United States or the rest of humanity being on target. After all, as that smoke bomb in New York suggests, these days, too many of those of us who matter — whether we’re talking about the climate-change-denying Trumpublican Party or the leaders of the Pentagon — are fighting the wrong wars, while the major companies responsible for so much of the terror to come, the giant fossil-fuel outfits, continue to pull in blockbuster — no, record! — profits for destroying our future. And that simply couldn’t be more dystopian or, potentially, a more dangerously smoky concoction. Consider that a form of terrorism even al-Qaeda couldn’t have imagined. Consider all of that, in fact, a preview of a world in which a horrific version of 9/11 could become daily life.

So, if there is a war to be fought, the Pentagon won’t be able to fight it. After all, it’s not prepared for increasing numbers of smoke bombs, scorching megadroughts, ever more powerful and horrific storms, melting ice, rising sea levels, broiling temperatures, and so much more. And yet, whether you’re American or Chinese, that’s likely to sum up our true enemy in the decades to come. And worse yet, if the Pentagon and its Chinese equivalent find themselves in a war, Ukraine-style or otherwise, over the island of Taiwan, you might as well kiss it all goodbye.

It should be obvious that the two greatest greenhouse gas producers, China and the United States, will rise or fall (as will the rest of us) on the basis of how well (or desperately poorly) they cooperate in the future when it comes to the overheating of this planet. The question is: Can this country, or for that matter the world, respond in some reasonable fashion to what’s clearly going to be climate terror attack after terror attack potentially leading to dystopian vistas that could stretch into the distant future?

Will humanity react to the climate emergency as ineptly as this country did to 9/11? Is there any hope that we’ll act effectively before we find ourselves on a version of Mars or, as Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and others like them clearly wish, fossil-fuelize ourselves to hell and back? In other words, are we truly fated to live on a smoke bomb of a planet?


Who will Inherit the Earth? The Rise of AI and the Human Future (?) Fri, 12 May 2023 04:02:16 +0000 ( ) – After almost 79 years on this beleaguered planet, let me say one thing: this can’t end well. Really, it can’t. And no, I’m not talking about the most obvious issues ranging from the war in Ukraine to the climate disaster. What I have in mind is that latest, greatest human invention: artificial intelligence.

It doesn’t seem that complicated to me. As a once-upon-a-time historian, I’ve long thought about what, in these centuries, unartificial and — all too often — unartful intelligence has “accomplished” (and yes, I’d prefer to put that in quotation marks). But the minute I try to imagine what that seemingly ultimate creation AI, already a living abbreviation of itself, might do, it makes me shiver. Brrr…

Let me start with honesty, which isn’t an artificial feeling at all. What I know about AI you could put in a trash bag and throw out with the garbage. Yes, I’ve recently read whatever I could in the media about it and friends of mine have already fiddled with it. TomDispatch regular William Astore, for instance, got ChatGPT to write a perfectly passable “critical essay” on the military-industrial complex for his Bracing Views newsletter — and that, I must admit, was kind of amazing.

Still, it’s not for me. Never me. I hate to say never because we humans truly don’t know what we’ll do in the future. Still, consider it my best guess that I won’t have anything actively to do with AI. (Although my admittedly less than artificially intelligent spellcheck system promptly changed “chatbox” to “hatbox” when I was emailing Astore to ask him for the URL to that piece of his.)

But let’s stop here a minute. Before we even get to AI, let’s think a little about LTAI (Less Than Artificial Intelligence, just in case you don’t know the acronym) on this planet. Who could deny that it’s had some remarkable successes? It created the Mona Lisa, Starry Night, and Diego and I. Need I say more? It’s figured out how to move us around this world in style and even into outer space. It’s built vast cities and great monuments, while creating cuisines beyond compare. I could, of course, go on. Who couldn’t? In certain ways, the creations of human intelligence should take anyone’s breath away. Sometimes, they even seem to give “miracle” a genuine meaning.

And yet, from the dawn of time, that same LTAI went in far grimmer directions, too. It invented weaponry of every kind, from the spear and the bow and arrow to artillery and jet fighter planes. It created the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, now largely responsible (along with so many disturbed individual LTAIs) for our seemingly never-ending mass killings, a singular phenomenon in this “peacetime” country of ours.

And we’re talking, of course, about the same Less Than Artificial Intelligence that created the Holocaust, Joseph Stalin’s Russian gulag, segregation and lynch mobs in the United States., and so many other monstrosities of (in)human history. Above all, we’re talking about the LTAI that turned much of our history into a tale of war and slaughter beyond compare, something that, no matter how “advanced” we became, has never — as the brutal, deeply destructive conflict in Ukraine suggests — shown the slightest sign of cessation. Although I haven’t seen figures on the subject, I suspect that there has hardly been a moment in our history when, somewhere on this planet (and often that somewhere would have to be pluralized), we humans weren’t killing each other in significant numbers.

And keep in mind that in none of the above have I even mentioned the horrors of societies regularly divided between and organized around the staggeringly wealthy and the all too poor. But enough, right? You get the idea.

Oops, I left one thing out in judging the creatures that have now created AI. In the last century or two, the “intelligence” that did all of the above also managed to come up with two different ways of potentially destroying this planet and more or less everything living on it. The first of them it created largely unknowingly. After all, the massive, never-ending burning of fossil fuels that began with the nineteenth-century industrialization of much of the planet was what led to an increasingly climate-changed Earth. Though we’ve now known what we were doing for decades (the scientists of one of the giant fossil-fuel companies first grasped what was happening in the 1970s), that hasn’t stopped us. Not by a long shot. Not yet anyway.

Over the decades to come, if not taken in hand, the climate emergency could devastate this planet that houses humanity and so many other creatures. It’s a potentially world-ending phenomenon (at least for a habitable planet as we’ve known it). And yet, at this very moment, the two greatest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States and China (that country now being in the lead, but the U.S. remaining historically number one), have proven incapable of developing a cooperative relationship to save us from an all-too-literal hell on Earth. Instead, they’ve continued to arm themselves to the teeth and face off in a threatening fashion while their leaders are now not exchanging a word, no less consulting on the overheating of the planet.

The second path to hell created by humanity was, of course, nuclear weaponry, used only twice to devastating effect in August 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, even relatively small numbers of weapons from the vast nuclear arsenals now housed on Planet Earth would be capable of creating a nuclear winter that could potentially wipe out much of humanity.

And mind you, knowing that, LTAI beings continue to create ever larger stockpiles of just such weaponry as ever more countries — the latest being North Korea — come to possess them. Under the circumstances and given the threat that the Ukraine War could go nuclear, it’s hard not to think that it might just be a matter of time. In the decades to come, the government of my own country is, not atypically, planning to put another $2 trillion into ever more advanced forms of such weaponry and ways of delivering them.

Entering the AI Era

Given such a history, you’d be forgiven for imagining that it might be a glorious thing for artificial intelligence to begin taking over from the intelligence responsible for so many dangers, some of them of the ultimate variety. And I have no doubt that, like its ancestor (us), AI will indeed prove anything but one-sided. It will undoubtedly produce wonders in forms that may as yet be unimaginable.

Still, let’s not forget that AI was created by those of us with LTAI. If now left to its own devices (with, of course, a helping hand from the powers that be), it seems reasonable to assume that it will, in some way, essentially repeat the human experience. In fact, consider that a guarantee of sorts. That means it will create beauty and wonder and — yes! — horror beyond compare (and perhaps even more efficiently so). Lest you doubt that, just consider which part of humanity already seems the most intent on pushing artificial intelligence to its limits.

Yes, across the planet, departments of “defense” are pouring money into AI research and development, especially the creation of unmanned autonomous vehicles (think: killer robots) and weapons systems of various kinds, as Michael Klare pointed out recently at TomDispatch when it comes to the Pentagon. In fact, it shouldn’t shock you to know that five years ago (yes, five whole years!), the Pentagon was significantly ahead of the game in creating a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to, as the New York Times put it, “explore the use of artificial intelligence in combat.” There, it might, in the end — and “end” is certainly an operative word here — speed up battlefield action in such a way that we could truly be entering unknown territory. We could, in fact, be entering a realm in which human intelligence in wartime decision-making becomes, at best, a sideline activity.

Only recently, AI creators, tech leaders, and key potential users, more than 1,000 of them, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and billionaire Elon Musk, had grown anxious enough about what such a thing — such a brain, you might say — let loose on this planet might do that they called for a six-month moratorium on its development. They feared “profound risks to society and humanity” from AI and wondered whether we should even be developing “nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete, and replace us.”

The Pentagon, however, instantly responded to that call this way, as David Sanger reported in the New York Times: “Pentagon officials, speaking at technology forums, said they thought the idea of a six-month pause in developing the next generations of ChatGPT and similar software was a bad idea: The Chinese won’t wait, and neither will the Russians.” So, full-speed ahead and skip any international attempts to slow down or control the development of the most devastating aspects of AI!

And I haven’t even bothered to mention how, in a world already seemingly filled to the brim with mis- and disinformation and wild conspiracy theories, AI is likely to be used to create yet more of the same of every imaginable sort, a staggering variety of “hallucinations,” not to speak of churning out everything from remarkable new versions of art to student test papers. I mean, do I really need to mention anything more than those recent all-too-realistic-looking “photos of Donald Trump being aggressively arrested by the NYPD and Pope Francis sporting a luxurious Balenciaga puffy coat circulating widely online”?

I doubt it. After all, image-based AI technology, including striking fake art, is on the rise in a significant fashion and, soon enough, you may not be able to detect whether the images you see are “real” or “fake.” The only way you’ll know, as Meghan Bartels reports in Scientific American, could be thanks to AI systems trained to detect — yes! — artificial images. In the process, of course, all of us will, in some fashion, be left out of the picture.

On the Future, Artificially Speaking

And of course, that’s almost the good news when, with our present all-too-Trumpian world in mind, you begin to think about how Artificial Intelligence might make political and social fools of us all. Given that I’m anything but one of the better-informed people when it comes to AI (though on Less Than Artificial Intelligence I would claim to know a fair amount more), I’m relieved not to be alone in my fears.

In fact, among those who have spoken out fearfully on the subject is the man known as “the godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. He only recently quit his job at Google to express his fears about where we might indeed be heading, artificially speaking. As he told the New York Times recently, “The idea that this stuff could actually get smarter than people — a few people believed that, but most people thought it was way off. And I thought it was way off. I thought it was 30 to 50 years or even longer away. Obviously, I no longer think that.”

Now, he fears not just the coming of killer robots beyond human control but, as he told Geoff Bennett of the PBS NewsHour, “the risk of super intelligent AI taking over control from people… I think it’s an area in which we can actually have international collaboration, because the machines taking over is a threat for everybody. It’s a threat for the Chinese and for the Americans and for the Europeans, just like a global nuclear war was.”

And that, indeed, is a hopeful thought, just not one that fits our present world of hot war in Europe, cold war in the Pacific, and division globally.

I, of course, have no way of knowing whether Less Than Artificial Intelligence of the sort I’ve lived with all my life will indeed be sunk by the AI carrier fleet or whether, for that matter, humanity will leave AI in the dust by, in some fashion, devastating this planet all on our own. But I must admit that AI, whatever its positives, looks like anything but what the world needs right now to save us from a hell on earth. I hope for the best and fear the worst as I prepare to make my way into a future that I have no doubt is beyond my imagining.


The Era of Great Power Victory in Wars ended in 1945 and a Wise Power would Avoid them Mon, 24 Apr 2023 04:02:01 +0000 ( – I was born on July 20, 1944, amid a vast global conflict already known as World War II.  Though it ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 before I could say much more than “Mama” or “Dada,” in some strange fashion, I grew up at war. 

Living in New York City, I was near no conflict in those years or in any since. My dad, however, had volunteered for the Army Air Corps at age 35 on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in Burma, was painfully silent about his wartime experiences, and died on Pearl Harbor Day in 1983. He was the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos and his war, in some strange sense, came home with him. 

Like so many vets, then and now, he was never willing to talk to his son about what he had experienced, though in my early years he still liked his friends to call him “Major,” his rank on leaving the military.  When his war did come up in our house, it was usually in the form of anger — because my mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been “war profiteers” while he was overseas, or because my first car, shared with a friend, was a used Volkswagen (German!), or my mom was curious to go — god save us! — to a Japanese restaurant! 

The strange thing, though, was that, in those same years, for reasons we never discussed, he allowed me briefly to have a Japanese pen pal and, though my dad and I never talked about the letters that boy and I exchanged, we did soak the stamps off the envelopes he sent and paste them into our latest Scott stamp album. 

As for evidence of my father’s wartime experience, I had two sources.  In the guest room closet in our apartment, he had an old green duffle bag, which he’d go through now and then. It was filled to the brim with everything from Army Air Corps documents to his portable mess kit and even — though I didn’t know it then — his pistol and bullets from the war. (I would turn them over to the police upon his death a quarter-century later.) 

Though he wouldn’t talk with me about his wartime experience, I lived it in a very specific way (or at least so it felt to me then). After all, he regularly took me to the movies where I saw seemingly endless versions of war, American-style, from the Indian wars through World War II.  And when we watched movies of his own conflict (or, in my early years, replays of Victory at Sea on our TV at home) and he said nothing, that only seemed to confirm that I was seeing his experience in all its glory, as the Marines inevitably advanced at film’s end and the “Japs” died in a spectacle of slaughter without a comment from him. 

From those Indian wars on, as I wrote long ago in my book The End of Victory Culture, war was always a tale of their savagery and our goodness, one in which, in the end, there would be an expectable “spectacle of slaughter” as we advanced and “they” went down.  From the placement of the camera flowed the pleasure of watching the killing of tens or hundreds of nonwhites in a scene that normally preceded the positive resolution of relationships among the whites.  It was a way of ordering a wilderness of human horrors into a celebratory tale of progress through devastation, a victory culture that, sooner or later, became more complicated to portray because World War II ended with the atomic devastation of those two Japanese cities and, in the 1950s and 1960s, the growing possibility of a future global Armageddon.

If war was hell, in my childhood at the movies, killing them wasn’t, whether it was the Indians of the American West or the Japanese in World War II.

So, yes, I grew up in a culture of victory, one I played out again and again on the floor of my room.  In the 1950s, boys (and some girls) spent hours acting out tales of American battle triumph with generic fighting figures: a crew of cowboys to defeat the Indians and win the West, a bag or two of olive-green Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima.

If ours was a sanguinary tale of warfare against savages in which pleasure came out of the barrel of a gun, on floors nationwide we kids were left alone, without apparent instruction, to reinvent American history. Who was good and who bad, who could be killed and under what conditions were an accepted part of a collective culture of childhood that drew strength from post-World War II Hollywood.

What Would My Dad Think?

Today, 60-odd years later, having never been to war but having focused on it and written about it for so long, here’s what I find eerily strange: since 1945, the country with the greatest military on the planet that, in budgetary terms, now leaves the next nine countries combined in the dust, has never — and let me repeat that: never! — won a war that mattered (despite engaging in all too many spectacles of slaughter).  Stranger yet, in terms of lessons learned in the world of adult culture, every lost war has, in the end, only led this country to invest more taxpayer dollars in building up that very military.  If you needed a long-term formula for disaster in a country threatening to come apart at the seams, it would be hard to imagine a more striking one. So long after his death, I must admit that sometimes I wonder what my dad would think of it all.

Here’s the thing: the American experience of war since 1945 should have offered an all-too-obvious lesson for us, as well as for the planet’s other great powers, when it comes to the value of giant military establishments and the conflicts that go with them.

Just think about it a moment, historically speaking.  That global victory of 1945, ending all too ominously with the dropping of those two atomic bombs and the slaughter of possibly 200,000 people, would be followed in 1950 by the start of the Korean War.  The statistics of death and destruction in that conflict were, to say the least, staggering.  It was a spectacle of slaughter, involving the armies of North Korea and its ally the newly communist China versus South Korea and its ally, the United States.  Now, consider the figures: out of a Korean population of 30 million, as many as three million may have died, along with an estimated 180,000 Chinese and about 36,000 Americans.  The North’s cities, bombed and battered, were left in utter ruin, while the devastation on that peninsula was almost beyond imagining. It was all too literally a spectacle of slaughter and yet, despite ours being the best-armed, best-funded military on the planet, that war ended in an all-too-literal draw, a 1953 armistice that has never — not to this day! — turned into an actual peace settlement. 

After that, another decade-plus passed before this country’s true disaster of the twentieth century, the war in Vietnam — the first American war I opposed — in which, once again, the U.S. Air Force and our military more generally proved destructive almost beyond imagining, while at least a couple of million Vietnamese civilians and more than a million fighters died, along with 58,000 Americans.

And yet, in 1975, with U.S. troops withdrawn, the southern regime we had supported collapsed and the North Vietnamese military and its rebel allies in the South took over the country.  There was no tie as there had been in Korea, just utter defeat for the greatest military power on the planet.

The Rise of the Pentagon on a Fallen Planet

Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, had — and this should sound familiar to any American in 2023 — sent its massive military, the Red Army, into… yes, Afghanistan in 1979. There, for almost a decade, it battled Afghan guerrilla forces backed and significantly financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia (as well as by a specific Saudi named Osama bin Laden and the tiny group he set up late in the war called — yes, again! — al-Qaeda). In 1989, the Red Army limped out of that country, leaving behind perhaps two million dead Afghans and 15,000 of its own dead. Not so long after, the Soviet Union itself imploded and the U.S. became the only “great power” on planet Earth. 

Washington’s response would be anything but a promised “peace dividend.” Pentagon funding barely dipped in those years. The U.S. military did manage to invade and occupy the tiny island of Grenada in the Caribbean in 1983 and, in 1991, in a highly publicized but relatively low-level and one-sided encounter, drove Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in what would later come to be known as the First Gulf War. It would be but a preview of a hell on Earth to come in this century.

Meanwhile, of course, the U.S. became a singular military power on this planet, having established at least 750 military bases on every continent but Antarctica.  Then, in the new century, in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush and his top officials, incapable of imagining a comparison between the long-gone Soviet Union and the United States, sent the American military into — right! — Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government there. A disastrous occupation and war followed, a prolonged spectacle of slaughter that would only end after 20 years of blood, gore, and massive expense, when President Biden pulled the last U.S. forces out amid chaotic destruction and disorder, leaving — yes, the Taliban! — to run that devastated country. 

In 2003, with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (on the false grounds that Saddam Hussein was developing or had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow linked to Osama bin Laden), the Second Gulf War began. It would, of course, be a disaster, leaving several hundred thousand dead Iraqis in its wake and (as in Afghanistan) thousands of dead Americans as well.  Another spectacle of slaughter, it would last for endless years and, once again, Americans would draw remarkably few lessons from it.

Oh, and then there’s the war on terror more generally, which essentially helped spread terror around significant parts of the planet. Nick Turse recently caught this reality with a single statistic: in the years since the U.S. first began its counter-terror efforts in West Africa early in this century, terror incidents there have soared by 30,000%.

And the response to this? You know it all too well. Year after year, the Pentagon’s budget has only grown and is now heading for the trillion-dollar mark.  In the end, the U.S. military may have achieved just one success of any significance since 1945 by becoming the most valued and best-funded institution in this country. Unfortunately, in those same years, in a genuinely strange fashion, America’s wars came home (as they had in the Soviet Union once upon a time), thanks in part to the spread of military-style assault rifles, now owned by one in 20 Americans, and other weaponry (and the barrage of mass killings that went with them). And there remains the distinctly unsettling possibility of some version of a new civil war with all its Trumpian implications developing in this country.

I doubt, in fact, that Donald Trump would ever have become president without the disastrous American wars of this century. Think of him, in his own terrorizing fashion, as “fallout” from the war on terror.

There may never, in fact, have been a more striking story of a great power, seemingly uncontested on Planet Earth, bringing itself down in quite such a fashion. 

Last Words

Today, in Ukraine, we see but the latest grim example of how a vaunted military, strikingly funded in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union — and I’m talking, of course, about Russia’s army — has once again been sent into battle against lesser forces with remarkably disastrous results.  Mind you, Vladimir Putin and crew, like their American counterparts, should have learned a lesson from the Red Army’s disastrous experience in Afghanistan in the previous century.  But no such luck.

There should, of course, be a larger lesson here — not just that there’s no glory in war in the twenty-first century but that, unlike in some past eras, great powers are no longer likely to experience success, no matter what happens on the battlefield.

Let’s hope that the rising power on this planet, China, takes note, even as it regularly organizes threatening military exercises around the island of Taiwan, while the Biden administration continues to ominously heighten the U.S. military presence in the region.  If China’s leaders truly want to be successful in this century, they should avoid either the American or Russian versions of war-making of our recent past. (And it would be nice if the Cold Warriors in Washington did the same before we end up in a conflict from hell between two nuclear powers.)

It’s decades too late for me to ask my father what his war truly meant to him, but at least when it comes to “great” powers and war these days, one lesson seems clear enough: there simply is nothing great about them, except their power to destroy not just the enemy, but themselves as well.

I can’t help wondering what my dad might think if he could look at this increasingly disturbed world of ours.  I wonder if he wouldn’t finally have something to say to me about war.


Prophecies, Then and Now: My Life at World’s End Fri, 24 Mar 2023 04:02:49 +0000 ( ) – Indulge me for a moment. This is how “The Prophecy” in my 1962 high school yearbook began. It was written by some of my classmates in the year we graduated from Friends Seminary in New York City.  

“Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit, but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now.

“First of all, let me introduce myself. I am THOMAS M. ENGELHARDT, world-renowned historian of the late twentieth century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account. After the great invasion, I was maintaining a peaceful, contented existence in the private shelter I had built and was completing the ninth and final volume of my masterpiece, The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century, when I was seized by a strange desire to emerge from my shelter, have a look at the world, and find some companions. Realizing the risk I was taking, I carefully opened the hatch of the shelter and slowly climbed out. It was morning. To my shock, I was in a wide field overgrown with weeds; there was no sign of the community that had been there…”

As I wander, I finally run into one of my classmates, now “a skinny old man with bushy white hair, wearing a loose deer skin.” And yes, whatever happened (that “great invasion”) while I was underground in — as anyone of that period would have known — a private nuclear-fallout shelter, is unclear. Still, in the world I find on emerging, all my former classmates, whom I meet one after another in joking fashion, now live in caves. In other words, it had obviously been devastated.

True, in those high school years, I was something of a Civil War nut and my classmates ragged me for it. I couldn’t stop reading grown-up books on the subject. (Thank you, Bruce Catton, for your popular histories of that war and for the magazine you founded and edited, American Heritage, to which I was a teen subscriber!) They obviously thought I was a history wonk of the first order. But more than 60 years later, it strikes me that we kids who had learned to “duck and cover” at school — to dive under our desks, hands over our heads (with CONELRAD warnings blaring from the radio on our teacher’s desk) — in preparation for a Russian nuclear attack, already had a deep sense not of future promise but of doom to come. In those days, it wasn’t that hard to imagine ourselves in a future devastated world returned to the Stone Age or worse.

And at the time, I suspect that was hardly out of the ordinary. After all, there were, in a sense, mushroom clouds everywhere on the horizon of our lives to come. By 1962, America’s victory weapon that, in two blinding flashes in August 1945, took out the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, had become a weapon (in other hands) of potential defeat. Everywhere in our lives there lurked the possibility that “we,” not “they,” might be the next victims of nuclear extermination. Consider it an irony indeed that our country’s nukes would chase Americans through the decades to come, infiltrating so many parts of our world and our lives.

Back in 1954, our Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, already had its own nukes (though as yet little effective way of delivering them). No one thought it worth a comment then that, in Walt Disney’s cinematic retelling of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, when Captain Nemo blows up his island, what’s distinctly a mushroom cloud rises over it. Of course, in those years, end-of-the-world movies would become everyday affairs.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, a now-forgotten bunker-culture mentality enveloped this country and my classmates caught the moment perfectly. In fact, that “shelter” I emerged from would, in 1962, still have been far too recognizable to need further description. After all, we grew up in a time when the Cold War was only intensifying and the very idea of building private nuclear shelters had become a commonplace. As an article in Smithsonian Magazine reminds us, right after the first Russian nuclear test went off in 1949, “[General] Douglas MacArthur’s ex-wife said she was furnishing the former slave quarters beneath her Georgetown mansion as a bomb shelter” and, only six years later, the head of Civil Defense began urging every single American “to build an underground shelter right now.’”  

By 1961, faced with a crisis over a divided Berlin, President John F. Kennedy himself urged Americans to do just that. (“The time is now,” he insisted.) In those years, Life magazine typically ran a feature on constructing “an H-bomb Hideaway” for a mere $3,000! And real-estate ads even promised “good bomb immunity,” while Science News warned of “hucksters who were peddling backyard shelters, burn ointments, dog tags, flashbags, and ‘decontaminating agents.’” Naturally, once you had built your private shelter, there was the question of whether, should a nuclear war be about to begin, you should let the neighbors in or arm yourself to stop them from doing so.  (A friend of mine still remembers one of his schoolmates and neighbors warning him that, in a crisis, according to his parents, his family better not try to come to their nuclear shelter or they would regret it.)

And that yearbook passage of mine was written in the winter or spring of 1962, months before the Cuban missile crisis shook us all to our bones. That October, I remember fearing the East Coast, where I was then attending my freshman year of college, might indeed go up in a giant mushroom cloud. And keep in mind that, in those years, from popular magazines to sci-fi novels to the movies, the bomb either exploded or threatened to do so again and again. In my youth, atomic war was, culturally speaking, all around us. It was even in outer space, as in the 1955 film This Island Earth in which another planet goes up in a version of radioactive flames, scaring the living hell out of the 11-year-old Thomas M. Engelhardt.  

So, yes, my classmates were messing around and having fun, but underneath it all lurked a sensibility (probably only half-grasped at the time) about the world we were to graduate into that was anything but upbeat. The planet that our leaders were then assuring us was ours for the taking seemed to us anything but. 

World-Endings, Part Two

It’s true that, in the years between then and now, the world didn’t go up in a mushroom cloud (with an accompanying nuclear winter killing billions more of us, a probability we knew nothing about in 1962). Still, whether you’re talking about actual war or potential nuclear catastrophe, it’s certainly looking mighty ugly right now.

Worse yet, if you’re 18 as I was then (and not 78, as I am now), you undoubtedly know that the future isn’t looking cheery these days either, even without a nuclear war. Sadly, in the years since I graduated high school, we discovered that humanity had managed to come up with a second slower but potentially no less devastating way to make this world unlivable. I’m thinking, of course, of climate change, a subject deeply on the minds of the young on this embattled planet of ours.

I mean, from unparalleled floods to unprecedented melting ice, staggering megadroughts to record wildfires, sweltering heat waves and ever fiercer storms to… well, increasingly extreme weather of almost any imaginable sort, this planet is an ever less comfortable place on which to live, even without a mushroom cloud on the horizon. And that’s especially true, given how humanity is dealing with the crisis to come. After all, what makes more sense right now than a never-ending war in Europe to create an energy crisis (though that crisis is also helping fuel the rapid growth of alternative energy)? What makes more sense than an escalating arms race globally or the world’s two greatest greenhouse gas producers, the United States and China, facing off against each other in an increasingly militarized fashion rather than cooperating to stop our planet from burning up?

What makes more sense than the Biden administration giving the nod to an oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska expected to produce an estimated 576 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years, despite the president’s previous promise not to do such a thing? (“No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”) What makes more sense than China using more coal, that monstrous greenhouse-gas producer, than the rest of the world combined?  What makes more sense than the major oil companies garnering greater profits in 2022 than in any previous moment in history as they broil the planet without mercy? What makes more sense than, as the Guardian reported, more than 1,000 “super-emitter” sites, mostly at oil and natural gas facilities, continuing to gush the potent greenhouse gas methane into the global atmosphere in 2022, the worst of those sites spewing “the pollution at a rate equivalent to 67 million running cars”?

And no less daunting, so Michael Birnbaum reported at the Washington Post recently, as various countries begin to explore the possibility of “solar geoengineering” (spraying a sun-blocking mist into the earth’s atmosphere to cool their overheating countries), they might also end up messing with atmospheric conditions in other lands in a fashion that could lead to… yes, as the “U.S. intelligence community” has come to fear, war. So add potential climate wars to your list of future horrors.

It’s true that alternative energy sources are also ramping up significantly, just not yet fast enough, but there’s certainly still hope that, in some fashion, humanity will once again figure out how to come up short of The End. Still, if you’re young today and looking at the world, I suspect it’s not a pretty sight.

Prophesies to Come

Let me now offer my own little summary of the very future that I, like so many of my classmates, did live through to this moment:  No, Thomas M. Engelhardt never wrote that classic book The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century, but he did author The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (published in 1995) in which he wrote about the victory weapon of World War II, the “bunker culture” of the 1950s and 1960s that it produced, and what (as best he could tell) to make of it all.

In addition, with that end-of-the-world sensibility still in mind, while an editor at the publishing house Pantheon Books, he would make more visible something Americans had largely been prevented from seeing after August 1945. As it happened, a friend would show him a book put out by a Japanese publisher that collected the memories of some of the survivors of Hiroshima along with drawings they had done of that experience. Yes, in his childhood, Thomas M. Engelhardt had indeed seen giant irradiated ants and an incredible shrinking man on screen in science-fictionalized versions of an irradiated future. But missing from his all-American world had been any vision of what had actually happened to the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that all-American past.

In 1979, not long before an antinuclear movement that would make use of it revved up in this country, he published that Japanese book, Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which all too vividly laid out the memories of those who had experienced world’s end in an up-close-and-personal fashion. And several years later, thanks to that book’s Japanese editor (amazed that any American would have considered publishing it), he actually went to Hiroshima and visited the Peace Memorial Museum, something he’s never forgotten.

And in the next century, the one my high school classmates and I hadn’t even begun to imagine and weren’t at all sure we’d live to see, he would, almost by happenstance, start a website called (not by him) TomDispatch that would repeatedly focus on the two world-ending ways humanity had discovered to do itself in and how to begin to deal with them.

And honestly, all of this leaves me wondering today what that “prophesy” might look like for the high school graduates of 2023 or those of my grandchildren’s generation in an even more distant future. I certainly hope for the best, but also fear the worst.  Perhaps it, too, would begin: “Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit, but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now. First of all, let me introduce myself.  I am [NAME TO BE FILLED IN], world-renowned historian of the twenty-first century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account….”

More than 60 years later, even writing that, no less remembering the world of once-upon-a-time, and imagining what it will be like after I’m long gone sends chills down my spine and leaves me hoping against hope that, someday, one of my grownup grandchildren will read this and not think worse of the class of 1962 or their grandfather for it.


The New McCarthyism and the (True) One-Party State in America Wed, 22 Feb 2023 05:04:13 +0000 Note for TomDispatch Readers: I hate to bother you when you were so wonderful in helping keep this website afloat with contributions as last year ended, but believe me, you’re still needed! I know it’s relatively early in the year, but TomDispatch is now low on funds in a world where wasteful spending on the Pentagon and so many other things are the norm. This website could use a little wasteful spending right now, so if any of you have the urge, please visit our donation page and lend a hand. You can’t imagine how much I’ll appreciate your gesture! Tom]

( – Can there be any question that we’re in a mad — and loud — new age of McCarthyism? Thank you, Kevin! And don’t forget the wildly over-the-top members of the so-called Freedom Caucus and their Republican associates, including that charmer, lyin’ George Santos, Jewish-space-laser-and-white-balloon-carrying Marjorie Taylor Greene, and — once again running for president — the man who never lost, Donald Trump-em-all. 

I’d like to say it couldn’t get crazier. Still, despite watching Greene shout “Liar!” and other Republicans yell “Bullshit!” during President Biden’s State of the Union Address, I suspect it could get much worse (and more dangerous) in Washington in the months to come. And believe me, that’s leaving Hunter Biden’s penis aside. When it comes to this era’s McCarthyism, don’t for a moment think that the debt ceiling is the only ceiling that could end up in the dust of history.

If you’re of a certain age like me, you undoubtedly have an earlier vision of just how ominously mad Washington’s politics can get. And I wasn’t even thinking of the time in 1968, when Richard Nixon slipped by the Joe Biden of that moment, Hubert Humphrey, winning the presidency with less than 50% of the vote, thanks to his “Southern strategy” and a third-party run by segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace. Nor did I have in mind the Watergate Hearings five years later that revealed Nixon’s bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, among many other crimes.

In fact, Washington has long been a stranger and more ominous place than one might imagine. I didn’t live through the era that, in his recent book, historian Adam Hochschild called American Midnight, the moment during and after World War I when President Woodrow Wilson and his associates cracked down on dissent of almost any sort. They even banned publications they didn’t like from the mail and managed to put a former presidential candidate for the then-popular Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs, in jail for years.

Still, young as I then was, I do remember one of those earlier mad moments in American politics. It was April 1954 when what came to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings hit television screens nationwide. At that time, long before anyone had even dreamed of social media, TVs — black and white ones, of course — were changing lives and habits across the country. The star, if you want to think of him that way, and the most distinctly Trumpian figure of his moment and perhaps any other moment before The Donald, was Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. He shot to fame in 1950 by claiming he had inside information that 205 members of the State Department — yes, 205! — were card-carrying members of the Communist Party. 

Before that spring of 1954, McCarthy had the Trumpian time of his life holding endless Senate hearings to denounce public figures of every sort as communists. He made life a living hell for a stunning range of Americans. And then, with the all-too-hot Korean war at an end and the Cold War becoming ever more frigid, McCarthy, who had had a field day, went one step too far. In 1953, with the help of his chief counsel Roy Cohn (who, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, would later become a guiding light for one Donald J. Trump), began holding hearings investigating supposed communist influence in the Army and, in response, the military, you might say, did him in.

That should, by the way, be a lesson for the McCarthyites of this moment, too. No matter who you are or what positions you take, the one step too far in American politics isn’t calling your president a “liar,” it’s trying to turn your guns (such as they are) on the most preeminent (and preeminently funded) political force in America: the Pentagon. And oddly enough, that remains the strangest and least told story around. Yes, on January 6, 2021, a still-president of the United States tried to turn the American political system into a one-party state featuring his own Trumpublican Party and white nationalist militias. But the true version of the one-party state in this country in all these years remains the Pentagon.

It hasn’t mattered in the least that, since World War II, the most wildly overfunded military on the planet hasn’t won a significant war of any sort, despite fighting and losing a number of them or, at best, in Korea and perhaps Iraq, tying them. Nothing, not defeat as in Vietnam and Afghanistan, or anything else has ever stopped it from being massively overfunded by whatever administration is in power or whatever party controls Congress. That turns out not to be a choice in American politics. Even the implosion of the Soviet Union that left this country, at least briefly, without a significant enemy on the planet never resulted in a “peace dividend” when it came to lowering “national-security” spending. And, of course, since the 9/11 attacks that funding has simply gone through the roof. 

That’s a story all too little noticed by most Americans in Joe McCarthy’s time as in our own. Recently, however, I once again came across a figure from the McCarthy era who did indeed notice, but bear with me as I slowly wend my way toward him.

Hooray for Senator McCarthy!

I came from a liberal Democratic family in New York City. My mother was a professional caricaturist. (She worked under her maiden name, Irma Selz.) That was so rare then that, in a gossip column I still have, she was referred to as “New York’s girl caricaturist.” While there were men aplenty in the world of cartooning then, there was just one of her. (Well, okay, there was also Helen Hokinson of the New Yorker, but you get the idea.) In the 1930s and 1940s, my mom had done mainly theatrical caricatures for every paper in town from the New York Times and Herald Tribune to PM and the Brooklyn Eagle. In the 1950s, as that way of life disappeared (Al Hirschfeld aside), she found work doing her caricatures to accompany articles in the New Yorker and, above all, in the New York Post, which was then a liberal rag, not a Murdoch one. 

The Post, curiously enough, had her do caricatures of just about every political figure of that moment, nationally and globally, and ran them as if they were photos, even sometimes on its front page. Its editor James Wechsler took on Joe McCarthy in its pages and was then called before his Senate committee in blistering testimony in which he was attacked as a communist sympathizer. In April 1954, the Post assigned my mom to cover the televised Army-McCarthy hearings and, for that purpose, bought our family its first black-and-white TV. 

Senator Joe McCarthy by Irma Selz

McCarthy, with his patented sneer and smile, was distinctly the Trump of that moment and, memorably enough, his was the very first face I saw on a TV screen in my house. Walking in from school, my bookbag in hand, at age nine, I found my mother on a chair in the dining room, her giant pad of drawing paper balanced on her lap, the TV plugged in, and on it that face.

Believe me, it was the thrill of a lifetime! Until then I had to go to a neighbor’s house for Superman or any other show I wanted to see. Now, it was all mine. And that sneering-smiling face looking at me from that small black-and-white TV screen seemed completely recognizable — like the face of every belligerent 1950s dad I then knew. In fact, I always wanted to write a piece called “Hooray for Senator McCarthy” to catch my mood in that moment toward the man who wrecked so many lives but got me “my” TV. 

And like Trump, even after Joe was a total loser — censured by his Senate colleagues in 1954, he would die a few years later, possibly of drink, a broken man — his fans among the voters remained with him. In the wake of that censure, in fact, a Gallup poll found that 34% of all voters still approved of him. (Sound familiar?)

Then as now, his was hardly the only belligerent face in the room. (Think, for instance, of FBI head and fellow monster J. Edgar Hoover.) Almost 70 years later, of course, the belligerent faces no longer have to be male, not in Washington’s most recent version of McCarthyite politics.

Mind you, I don’t want you to think that politics in that other age (or in ours) was simply a hell on earth. There were indeed some truly admirable figures in that world. Take, for instance, I.F. Stone, known far and wide as “Izzy.” He was not just a progressive but worked for a remarkable range of outfits, ranging from PM and the New York Post to the Nation magazine. From 1953 to 1971, however, he produced a memorable one-person publication, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, that made him, in his own way, famous. In the process, he seemed to socialize with almost every progressive in America (and plenty of people who weren’t). But never with me. Yes, in the 1960s, I read that weekly of his fervently and I was almost 45 years old when he died in 1989. Still, no such luck.

So, I recently did the second-best thing and read D.D. Guttenplan’s superb biography of him, American Radical, The Life and Times of I.F. Stone. I was reminded, among so many other things, that the worst of times for numerous Americans, politically speaking, could be the best of times for others. And I’m not just thinking of Joe McCarthy or, in our present over-the-top moment, Congressional representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. In this country, the worst of times was invariably not so when it came to the Pentagon. McCarthy, of course, found this out to his dismay when he tried to take on the Army. 

Even in the 1960s, as it was losing the Vietnam War disastrously, somehow the Pentagon always managed to reign supreme. As Izzy would write in his weekly after young antiwar demonstrators (“The whole world is watching!”) were beaten by Mayor Richard Daley’s police during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, “This is the way it is done in Prague. This is what happens to candidates who finish second in Vietnam. This is not the beginning of the police state, it IS the police state.” And he added tellingly, “When a country is denied a choice on the most burning issue of the time, the war in Vietnam, then the two-party system has become a one-party rubber stamp. The Pentagon won the election even before the votes are cast.”

And strangely enough, all too little has changed since.

Izzy, You’re Missed!

In 1973, when the Watergate hearings on then-President Nixon began, I was living in San Francisco, working for a small progressive news service, and there was no question that I had to watch them. So, I bought my first TV, also — though the color TV era had begun — black and white. (Money was short in those days.) And there I watched the remarkable Senator Sam Ervin, Jr., who had played a role in McCarthy’s fall, take on Nixon’s crew as the head of the Senate Watergate Committee. 

And now, having seen several versions of all-American madness in my lifetime, from Joe McCarthy to the present Kevin McCarthy update, I wonder what sense (or, for that matter, nonsense) Izzy would have made of this world of ours in which the Pentagon still rules a one-party state (concerning its own affairs anyway). What if you could bring Izzy Stone back from the dead and fill him in on the Trump years? What if you could tell him about a one-of-a-kind former president who, having lost his reelection bid, encouraged his followers to take over the government by a coup d’état and even possibly hang his own vice president?

What if you could tell him that, no matter the McCarthyism of this moment, the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex that goes with it still reign supreme, despite more lost wars; that the latest Congress ponied up close enough to a trillion taxpayer dollars ($858 billion to be exact) for that military and undoubtedly closer to $1.5 trillion for the whole national-security-state?

What if you could tell him that all of this was happening in a world of such extremes that even he might have been shocked? What if you filled him in on the planet’s floods and megadroughts, its rapidly melting snow and ice, its soaring temperatures and ever fiercer storms? What if you told him, in a world where California could experience both a megadrought and record flooding rains at the same time, where one-third of a country could find itself suddenly underwater, that the fossil-fuel companies at the heart of this crisis were (like the Pentagon in its own way) making record fortunes off it all? What if you told him that, even in his moment, Exxon’s scientists already understood with remarkable accuracy what was going to happen to us in the distinctly overheating twenty-first century?

Izzy Stone died in 1989 and had no way of knowing any of this. In an era in which Joe McCarthy is back with us (even if in his Trumpian form) and the Pentagon still rides high, Izzy, you’re missed. Believe me, you are!


Why the Arctic turning into a Lukewarm Puddle should be a bigger Headline than a bit of Inflation Fri, 06 Jan 2023 05:02:30 +0000 ( ) – Let me start 2023 with a glance back at a December news moment that caught my eye. To do so, however, I have to offer a bit of explanation.

First, the obvious: I’m an old guy and, though I spend significant parts of any day scrolling through endless websites covering aspects of our ever-changing world, I have a subscription — yes, it’s still possible! — to the New York Times. That’s the paper New York Times. For those of you too young to know, once long ago, in an era when TVs were still black and white and the Internet, at best, a figment of some sci-fi novelist’s imagination, all papers and magazines were printed and sold on actual paper. Hence, of course, the graphically descriptive and definitional name “newspaper.”

In 2023, for those of you of a certain age, that may sound like something from the neolithic era. Still, so it was. And for me, when it comes to the Times — call it nostalgia, if you will — I remain in the age of the newspaper (though, often enough, I also visit its website). Every morning when I get up, it’s there on the mat in front of my door. So, I pick it up and, in my own fashion, face the day just past thanks to a set of front-page headline stories.

On the morning of Wednesday, December 14th, I glanced at the headlines atop the page and saw: “Inflation Slows, Leading to Hope of ‘Soft Landing’” and “Fraud at FTX Started Early, Charges Claim.” At mid-page was: “A Blast of 192 Lasers Achieves a Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion”; and at page bottom, “Beijing’s Streets Empty as Covid and Fear Surge”; “McCarthy Fights to Clear Path to Speaker’s Seat”; and “With Indiana Jones Era Over, Museums Assess Looted Art.”

Each was a perfectly reasonable story to focus attention on, while the nuclear fusion one actually offered some modest hope of a new way to switch off fossil fuels (even if in a future almost too distant to imagine). That, then, was the shorthand version of the previous day I faced that morning on this ever-stranger planet of ours. Those were the stories the editors of the Times wanted at least the ancient among us to notice, the ones that mattered most as they saw it.

And I reacted accordingly, focusing on them briefly as I wolfed down my breakfast.

Crashes Then and Now

It wasn’t until that night, as I lay on the couch and began leafing through the inside pages of the first section of the Times that, at the bottom of page 12, I noticed a piece, reported by Raymond Zhong, headlined: “In a Rapidly Warming Arctic, Rain Where It Used to Snow, In Scientists’ Annual Assessment, Signs of Climate Change Include Storms Traveling Northward.”

And no, that obviously wasn’t a headline intended to blow me or any other reader away, storms heading northward or not. Admittedly, above it was a dramatic enough photo of what looked like a mountain of ice and snow with the subhead: “A September heatwave in Greenland caused the most severe melting of the island’s ice sheet for that time of year in more than four decades of satellite monitoring.” And as with that caption, here was the weird thing: more or less every other line of that story might, with a little interpretive rewriting, have become a blazing front-page headline focusing us on a planet that’s only expected to get ever hotter in 2023 and beyond, given that — and this should shock any of us — the last eight years have been the warmest on record.

Try just this random line from Zhong’s piece, for instance: “Over the past four decades, the region has warmed at four times the global average rate, not two or three times as had often been reported, scientists in Finland said this year. Some parts of the Arctic are warming at up to seven times the global rate, they said.” Sure, to make it onto the front page, it would have needed a headline that embodied some sentiment like: “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the Arctic is snoring” or a screaming handle about heat soaring in the coldest place on the planet, right?

So, let’s sum it up this way: Yes, the slowing of inflation was the page-one story of that day and certainly mattered to Americans, fearful of how a possible recession might level their lives. And headlined story two was, in a sense, the very opposite — a deflationary tale of how, at his now-collapsed crypto-currency exchange, FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried had already emptied the savings of striking numbers of his customers.

Still, if you stop to think about it, there, on page 12, was what could be considered the most crucial inflationary and deflationary story of our time, maybe of all time. I know, I know, the focus of Zhong’s piece was an assumedly wonky Arctic Report Card that’s been produced by scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 2006. And you could feel that wonkiness in the piece itself.

Still, while inflation — or even the Fed’s attempts to reduce it by eternally upping interest rates — could lead to an economic disaster that would damage the lives of so many Americans, nothing (short of nuclear war) could damage our lives the way climate change is likely to. Honestly, barring some future surprise, shouldn’t it qualify daily as the headline story of our lifetime, potentially of any lifetime? After all, whether in the melting, rainy Arctic or just about anywhere else, what we’re watching is the potential destruction of the only world humanity has ever known.

And when it comes to global warming, we’re not talking about a possible future crash from which, as in the Great Depression of 1929 or the Great Recession of 2009, we can recover in a limited number of years. We’re talking about the potential for a forever crash, the Greatest Depression of all time that lurks all too obviously in our future and is already beginning to clobber us.

My point being: the news isn’t just a matter of what’s reported, but of how and where it shows up, of what’s emphasized and what isn’t. This, to my mind, is especially true with the subject that should, in fact, grip us all daily: that worst version of inflation ever. And yes, the temperature on this planet is indeed rising precipitously thanks to the continuing use and abuse of fossil fuels and the release of staggering quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And that, in the end, is likely to cause harm of an unimaginable sort, the kind that newspapers simply aren’t used to covering.

In an all-too-literal sense, that is, we’re creating a hell on Earth. And yet, despite the efforts of figures like the remarkable Greta Thunberg or Bill McKibben or the Sunrise Movement and other groups that have focused tellingly on climate change — despite the increasingly immediate extreme weather it’s been producing from Pakistan to China, South Sudan to Chile, Europe to the United States — global warming remains a largely off-the-front-page phenomenon.

Screaming Headlines

Mind you, the extremes of national (if not global) weather are regularly reported, often with remarkable enthusiasm, just largely without the necessary context. For instance, I watch the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and one thing you can say about his show is that it loves extreme — and extremely bad — weather. In news terms, severe storm conditions sweeping across this country, often for days at a time, are pure attention-getters and, as a result, often that show’s lead story, night after night after night.

Such storms are presented as both weather reports and remarkable dramas — tornadoes/floods/snow and ice/the hottest or coldest weather — as they spread damage of all sorts across the United States. On occasion, Holt or his surrogates will, in passing, mention climate change or, on rarer occasions, even have a separate piece on the phenomenon. But at best, it’s the equivalent of a passing footnote. And yet, sadly enough, the fossil-fuelized overheating of our world and its effect via weather events causing increasing damage, including ever fiercer fires, the melting of ever more glaciers and ice sheets, ever more devastating droughts, or the record flooding of countries simply doesn’t register in the way it should — not in a way that might make some difference in how we think about and deal with this planet of ours.

Yes, if climate change, or perhaps I mean climate anxiety, is already part of your worldview (as, for instance, it evidently is with Gen Z) and you’re searching for news about it, you’ll always find some. Let me give you one recent example. If you go online and Google “coal use, 2022,” you’ll get numerous stories. For instance, on December 16th, based on an announcement by the International Energy Agency, CNN reported that (thank you, Vladimir Putin!) demand for coal, the dirtiest and most polluting of the fossil fuels, rose by about 1.2%, or eight billion metric tons, last year. That’s a record — and coal use may stay at that level for several years to come, which, in climate-change terms, simply couldn’t be worse news for this planet.

And yet, honestly, did you even notice that story? Until I mentioned it, did you know that coal use soared again last year? Was it the lead on the TV news you watch or at your crucial mainstream news website? I doubt it. It passed as if in the night, as did stories on the staggering profits of the fossil-fuel industry in 2022 — on, that is, how companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron continue to make unprecedented fortunes off the future devastation of our planet. In inflation terms, that coal report couldn’t have been a more nightmarish tale and yet the inflated use of coal and the inflated profits that go with it really don’t qualify as “front page” news, even if they help ensure that we humans will burn ourselves off this planet.

After all, despite remarkable advances in the development of green-energy sources, as the New Yorker‘s environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert wrote last November: “At the time of the Rio summit [in 1992], fossil fuels provided roughly 80% of the world’s primary energy. Thirty years later, fossil fuels still provide roughly 80% of the world’s primary energy. In the meantime, total global energy use has increased by almost two-thirds.”

Under the circumstances, you would think that some screaming headlines were in order, wouldn’t you?

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that such a reporting phenomenon is restricted to climate change. Take, for example, the funding of the U.S. military. After all, nothing really beats it in importance, when it comes to spending your tax dollar. We’re talking about a 2023 Pentagon budget of $858 billion, or just over half — yes, more than half! — of the full government budget for that year. By perhaps 2027, if not sooner, it’s expected to reach a trillion dollars.

And mind you, that’s not even — not by any means! — the full national security payout. When you include the budgets for the various intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and the like, you end up at $1.4 trillion or more. And last year, congressional Republicans and Democrats, who agree on so little, typically upped the military budget by $45 billion more than the Biden administration even requested. Imagine that for a moment and the sort of headlines it should have generated.

I mean, more than half of your tax dollars are going into a military that, since World War II, has essentially won nothing of significance, though to this moment it’s never stopped fighting in distant lands. (Just recently, for instance, American planes were conducting airstrikes in Somalia and U.S. troops were still battling in Syria.)

And again, though you might think screaming headlines were in order, this was basically stuff that, with rare exceptions, the mainstream media was reporting but not making the slightest fuss over. For that, you had to turn to edgy websites like TomDispatch or Robert Reich’s or William Astore’s Substacks.

Yes, such stormy news exists, but the question, as 2023 begins, is: Where is it? Why aren’t such stories eternally screaming headlines in the mainstream?

Replacing the Gods

Looking back on the history of humanity, of us, something regularly jumps out (at me at least). In this era, we’ve figured out two quite different ways to act in a fashion that once was left to the gods, something that you would think might be eternally headline-making material; we’ve discovered, that is, how to potentially destroy ourselves and end life as we know it on this planet in double time.

The first way is, of course, via nuclear weapons, the one kind of disaster that could actually cut short climate change by potentially creating a planetary “nuclear winter” that might starve billions of us. As has been true for decades, the “great” — and who knows why they’re still called that — powers are capable of functionally blowing this planet to hell and back, as are some lesser powers like India and Pakistan. And not faintly satisfied with that, in the coming decades, our country is planning to invest a couple of trillion more of your taxpayer dollars in “modernizing” the American nuclear arsenal. Only the other week, in fact, with staggering hoopla, the U.S. military rolled out an all-new nuclear weapon, a B-21 stealth bomber, as if on a Hollywood set.

And yes, all of this has, in some fashion, been reported and, when Vladimir Putin implied that he might use such weaponry in the Ukraine war, even crept toward the top of the news. Still, neither nuking the planet, nor overheating it beyond compare gets anything like the attention it deserves.

Ending the world as we’ve known it, whether in a matter of weeks or in slow motion over countless decades should, it seems to me, evoke the screaming headlines of our times. And I can’t help eternally wondering not where the reporting on such subjects is but where those headlines are when it comes to potentially the greatest versions of both depression and inflation ever.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Yes, we’re back! I hope TD readers had a good holiday season. I want to thank all of you who, as last year ended, so generously donated to this site to keep us going through 2023. You helped, big time — truly you did! And I simply couldn’t be more appreciative! Still, you won’t be surprised to learn that TomDispatch still needs more. I swear I’ll shut up about this now for at least a few weeks, but please, any of you who haven’t yet given and have the urge to do so as 2023 begins, visit our donation page and do what you can. It makes a difference, really it does! Tom]