Tom Engelhardt: Three Failing Experiments – Mine, America’s Humanity’s?

Yves here. It’s a bit puzzling to see Engelhardt depict populism as a right wing-phenomenon; the mainstream press is eager to warn of the dangers of populists like Bernie Sanders and the 5 Star movement. But dealing with body failures and limitations is a pointed reminder of mortality and the question of whether there was any point to what one has done.

By Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the and the author of a history of the Cold War, . He is a fellow of the and runs . His sixth and latest book, just published, is (Dispatch Books). Originally published at

There was a period in my later life when I used to say that, from the age of 20 to my late sixties, I was always 40 years old; I was, that is, an old young man and a young old one.  Tell that to my legs now.  Of course, there’s nothing faintly strange in such a development.  It’s the most ordinary experience in life: to face your own failing self, those muscles that no longer work the way they used to, those brain cells jumping ship with abandon and taking with them so many memories, so much knowledge you’d rather keep aboard.  If you’re of a certain age — I just turned 74 — you know exactly what I mean.

And that, as they say, is life.  In a sense, each of us might, sooner or later, be thought of as a kind of failed experiment that ends in the ultimate failure: death.

And in some ways, the same thing might be said of states and empires.  Sooner or later, there comes a moment in the history of the experiment when those muscles start to falter, those brain cells begin jumping ship, and in some fashion, spectacular or not, it all comes tumbling down.  And that, as they say (or should say), is history.  Human history, at least.

In a sense, it may hardly be more out of the ordinary to face a failing experiment in what, earlier in this century, top officials in Washington called “” than in our individual lives.  In this case, the nation I’m thinking about, the one that seems in the process of being unbuilt, is my own.  You know, the one that its leaders — until Donald Trump hit the Oval Office — were in the habit of eternally praising as the most , the most country on the planet, the global policeman, the last or sole superpower.  Essentially, it.  Who could forget that extravagant drumbeat of seemingly obligatory self-praise for what, admittedly, is still a country with wealth and financial clout beyond compare and than the next significant set of competitors combined?

Still, tell me you can’t feel it?  Tell me you couldn’t sense it when those election results started coming in that November night in 2016?  Tell me you can’t sense it in the venomous version of gridlock that now grips Washington?  Tell me it’s not there in the feeling in this country that we are somehow besieged (no matter our specific politics), , and no longer have any real say in a of, by, and for the billionaires, in a Washington in which the fourth branch of government, the national security state, gets , all the tender loving care (except, at this moment, from ), all the attention for keeping us “safe” from not much (and certainly not itself)?  In the meantime, most Americans get and have ever less say about what they’re not getting.  No wonder in the last election the country’s despairing heartland gave a hearty orange finger to the Washington elite. 

States of Failure

“Populist” is the term of the moment for the of Donald Trumps around the planet.  It may mean “popular,” but it doesn’t mean “population”; it doesn’t mean “We, the People.”  No matter what that band of Trumps might say, it’s increasingly not “we” but “them,” or in the case of Donald J. Trump in particular, “him.”

No, the United States is not yet a failed or failing state, not by a long shot, not in the sense of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen that have been to near-collapse by America’s twenty-first-century wars and accompanying events.  And yet, doesn’t it seem ever easier to think of this country as, in some sense at least, a failing (and flailing) experiment?

And don’t just blame it on Donald Trump.  That’s the easy path to an explanation.  Something had to go terribly wrong to produce such a president and his tweet-stormed version of America.   That should seem self-evident enough, even to — though they would mean it in a different way — The Donald’s much-discussed base.  After all, if they hadn’t felt that, for them, the American experiment was failing, why would they have voted for an obvious all-American con man?  Why would they have sent into the White House someone whose Apprentice-like urge is to fire us all? 

It’s hard to look back on the last decades and not think that democracy has been sinking under the imperial waves.  I first noticed the term “the imperial presidency” in the long-gone age of Richard Nixon, when his White House began to fill with uniformed flunkies and started to look like something out of an American fantasy of royalty.  The actual power of that presidency, no matter who was in office, has been growing ever since.  Whatever the Constitution might say, war, for instance, is now a presidential, not a congressional, prerogative (as is, to take a recent example, the of tariffs on the products of allies on “national security” grounds).

As Chalmers Johnson used to , in the Cold War years the president gained his own private army.  Johnson meant the CIA, but in this century you would have to add America’s ever vaster, Special Operations forces (SOF), now regularly sent on missions of every sort around the globe.  He’s also gained his own private air force: the CIA’s Hellfire-missile that he can dispatch across much of the planet to kill those he’s personally deemed his country’s enemies.  In that way, in this century — despite a on presidential assassinations, now long ignored — the president has become an actual judge, jury, and executioner. The term I’ve used in the past has been .

All of this preceded President Trump.  In fact, if presidential wars hadn’t become the order of the day, I doubt his presidency would have been conceivable.  Without the rise of the national security state to such a position of prominence; without much of government operations descending into a penumbra of on the grounds that “We, the People” needed to be “safe,” not knowledgeable; without the of taxpayer dollars into America’s intelligence agencies and the ; without the creation of a war-time Washington engaged in conflicts without end; without the destabilization of significant parts of the planet; without the war on terror — it should really be called the war for terror — spreading terrorism; without the of vast populations (including something close to of Syria’s by now) and the rise of the populist right on both sides of the Atlantic on the basis of the resulting anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments, it’s hard to imagine him.  In other words, before he ever that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in 2015, empire had, politically speaking, trumped democracy and a flawed but noble experiment that began in 1776 was failing.

Had that imperial power not been exercised in such a wholesale way in this century, Donald Trump would have been unimaginable.  Had President George W. Bush and his cronies not decided to invade Iraq, The Donald probably would have been inconceivable as anything but the proprietor of a series of in Atlantic City, the owner of what he loves to call “” (adorned with those giant golden letters), and a TV reality host.  And the American people would not today be his apprentices. 

When that “very stable genius” (as he again recently) inherited such powers long in the making, he also inherited the power to use them in ways that would have been unavailable to the president of a country that had genuine “checks and balances,” one in which the people knew what was going on and in some sense directed it.  Consider it a sign of the times that he’s the second president to lose the popular vote in this 18-year-old century — the first, of course, being George W. “Hanging Chad” Bush.  So perhaps it’s only proper that President Trump has now nominated to the Supreme Court a judge who was once a Republican operative for the very legal team on stopping the recount of those contested Florida ballots in 2000 — a recount the Supreme Court did indeed halt, throwing the election to Bush.  Note that Brett Kavanaugh is also the perfect justice for America’s new imperial age of decline, one who that the law should read: the president, while in office, is above it.  Think of him as Caligula’s future enabler.

In other words, in the twenty-first century, Donald Trump is proof indeed that the American experiment in democracy may be coming to an unseemly end in a president with all the urges of an autocrat (and so many other urges as well).  Or think of it this way: the contest — from early on an essential part of American life — between democracy and empire seems to be ending with empire the victor.  However — and here may be Donald Trump’s particular significance — empire, too, looks to be heading toward some kind of ultimate failure.  He himself is visibly a force for imperial demolition. He seems — as in the recent abusive NATO meeting and the chaotic get-together with Russian President Vladimir Putin — on dismantling the very world that imperial America built for itself in the wake of World War II.  You know, the one in which it was to be the ultimate and eternal victor in a rivalry between imperial powers that had begun in perhaps the fifteenth century, reached its peak when only two “super” rivals were left to face each other in the Cold War, and ended with a single power seemingly triumphant and alone on planet Earth.

How quickly those historically unique dreams of global dominion fell apart in the “” of this century.  Think of Donald Trump as the overly ripe fruit of that failure, that endless imperial moment that never quite was.  Think of him as the daemon in the (malfunctioning) global machinery of a world that is itself — as in Brexiting “Europe” — evidently beginning to come apart at the seams amid war, a flood of global refugees, and one factor never experienced before (on which more below).  Think of America as being caught up in some only half-recognized United Stexit moment, though what exactly we are withdrawing from may be less than clear.

Still, bad as any moment might be, you can always hope for, dream about, and work for so much better, as so many have over the centuries.  After all, everything I’ve described remains the norm of history.  What empire hasn’t had its Caligulas, its Trumps?  What empire hasn’t, in the end, gone down?  What democratic experiment hasn’t sooner or later faltered? Even the best of experiments come up short as autocrats take power and hand their rule on to their sons, only to be overthrown by some revolt, some new attempt to make better sense of this world, which itself falters sooner or later.  And so it goes.

Again, that, as they say, is history, a series of failed experiments, but ones that always end, in their own fashion, with hope still alive for a better, fairer, juster world.  Yes, a particular failure might be terrible for you, your community, even several generations of yous, but it, too, will pass and you can expect our better angels to reappear someday, even if not in your lifetime — or at least until recently you could do so.

The Ultimate Experiment

There is, however, another experiment, a planet-wide one that seems to be failing as well.  You could think of it as humanity’s experiment with industrial civilization, which is disastrously altering the environment of this previously welcoming world of ours.  I’m referring, of course, to what the greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels we’ve been burning in such profusion since the eighteenth century are doing to our planet. 

Whether you call it climate change or global warming, the one thing it isn’t — despite the fact that we’ve done it — is history.  Not human history anyway.  After all, its effects will exist on a that dwarfs our own.  If allowed to play out to its fullest, it could destroy civilization.  And ironically enough, unlike so many of our experiments, this was one we didn’t even know we were conducting for something like a century and a half.  So consider it an irony that it’s the one likely to endanger every other imaginable experiment.  If not somehow halted in a reasonably decisive fashion, it could not only coastal cities, turn verdant lands into , and create weather extremes presently hard to imagine, but produce that will be .

And yet don’t give us any kind of a free pass on this one.  Despite those endless years of not knowing what we were doing, ignorance can’t be pled.  Increasing numbers of us (including the giant oil companies who did to keep the news from the rest of us) have known about this since at least the 1960s.  In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee sent him a report that a human-caused warming of the planet from the carbon dioxide burned off by fossil fuels.  It included remarkably accurate projections of the increased heat to come in the twenty-first century and of other effects of climate change, including sea level rise and the warming of sea waters.  So don’t say that no one was warned.  As time went on, we’ve been warned again and again.

And for this, too, Donald Trump can’t be blamed, but his presence in the White House is now a powerful symbol of a human failure to grasp the dangers involved.  Talk about a symbolic act of self-destruction: the American people put a fierce climate denier in the White House.  He, in turn, has brought his passionate 1950s-style of an even more oil-fueled global future with him.  He has, among other things, a remarkable set of Republican climate-change doubters and deniers to crucial positions throughout his administration.  He’s moved to this country from the Paris climate accord, while fossil-fuel and projects of every sort and the drive to develop alternative energy sources; he has, that is, done everything in his power to stoke global warming.

Along with the actions of the CEOs of the giant oil companies, this will surely prove to be the in history, since it takes the greenhouse gas emitter out of the running (except at the state and local level) when it comes to impeding global warming.  In other words, whatever else he may be, President Donald Trump seems singularly intent on being a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to human history.

Since walked upright by that African lake three million years ago, this has been a remarkably welcoming planet for the human experiment.  If, in the coming century, climate change hits full force, it won’t just be a matter of refugees in the or individual deaths in countless numbers, or some failing democracy that became an empire.  It could mean the failure of the whole human experiment in ways that are still hard to grasp.  It could mean no more chance for failure, The End.

That’s something worth working against.  That’s a failure no one in any possible future can afford.

In the meantime, here I am, another year closer to my own moment of “failure,” living in a potentially failing country on a potentially failing planet.  Happy birthday to me. 

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67 comments

  1. Jeremy Grimm

    This grim vision of American empire gives far too much credit to Donald Trump. There are so many more deserving of noose and falling blade who must not be forgotten in our nearing endtimes. Suppose Trump had not been elected President. I don’t feel I would find it any warmer were I held in the comforting arms of Hillary. Smiley face stickers on a disaster don’t lessen its impacts and Hillary’s smile is both phoney and scary as the smiles of insane clowns.

    We were warned and warned again and again about Climate Disruption, and running short on energy, and running out of antibiotics and effective antibiotics, and running out of fertile soil, and fresh water, and so many other resources. We received manifold warnings about our long, thin, remarkably fragile supply lines for the materials, parts, and vital resources like food and potable water, and those warnings were made corporeal as natural disasters in distant parts of the world made their effects evident in our local industries. The disasters that will come do not come at us unaware — though strangely uncaring perhaps. We live in an age of profound tragedy.

    Reply
    1. Shrewd Tipster

      Interesting to read Tom link Caligula with Trump. I suspect a Clinton Presidency would have been more Caligula like. The “we came, we saw, he died” cackle sums her up all to well.

      Trump for all his oafish and misogynist tweets isn’t in the Clinton bloodlust league yet

      Apart from that, Tom is as ever spot on his reporting of the end of American Empire and at least Trump ushers that in much quicker.

      Reply
      1. Wukchumni

        The reign of error is a worthy latter-day Caligula-who was fond of erecting monumental buildings and the like.

        His Nemi Ships were yuuuuuge!
        ~~~~~~~~~~~~

        The Nemi Ships were two ships, one ship larger than the other, built by the Roman emperor Caligula in the 1st century AD at Lake Nemi. Although the purpose of the ships is only speculated upon, the larger ship was essentially an elaborate floating palace, which contained quantities of marble, mosaic floors, heating and plumbing and amenities such as baths. Both ships featured technology thought to have been developed historically much later. It has been stated that the emperor was influenced by the lavish lifestyles of the Hellenistic rulers of Syracuse and Ptolemaic Egypt. Recovered from the lake bed in 1929, the ships were destroyed by fire during World War II in 1944.

        Reply
      2. Lord Koos

        Not in the Clinton league, yet, but give him time. Some kind of large military action while Trump is in power seems inevitable. I hope I’m wrong about that, but recent reports say that he is considering bombing Iran.

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    2. Lackawanna

      This grim vision of American empire gives far too much credit to Donald Trump. There are so many more deserving of noose and falling blade who must not be forgotten in our nearing endtimes.

      Did you fully read Engelhardt’s essay? He makes the point over and over again that America’s failing state didn’t start with Trump, has been an ongoing process for decades, and many of his predecessors are to blame. For example, Engelhardt states:

      * And don’t just blame it on Donald Trump. That’s the easy path to an explanation. Something had to go terribly wrong to produce such a president and his tweet-stormed version of America. …

      * It’s hard to look back on the last decades and not think that democracy has been sinking under the imperial waves. I first noticed the term “the imperial presidency” in the long-gone age of Richard Nixon, when his White House began to fill with uniformed flunkies and started to look like something out of an American fantasy of royalty. …

      * All of this preceded President Trump. In fact, if presidential wars hadn’t become the order of the day, I doubt his presidency would have been conceivable. … In other words, before he ever descended that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in 2015, empire had, politically speaking, trumped democracy and a flawed but noble experiment that began in 1776 was failing. …

      * When that “very stable genius” (as he reminded us again recently) inherited such powers long in the making, he also inherited the power to use them in ways that would have been unavailable to the president of a country that had genuine “checks and balances,” one in which the people knew what was going on and in some sense directed it. …

      * President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee sent him a report that highlighted a human-caused warming of the planet from the carbon dioxide burned off by fossil fuels. … So don’t say that no one was warned. As time went on, we’ve been warned again and again. … And for this, too, Donald Trump can’t be blamed, but his presence in the White House is now a powerful symbol of a human failure to grasp the dangers involved.

      Engelhardt makes it very clear that it is a long process that produced the current state of the U.S. and that Trump is merely the capstone, as it were.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Agree with what I think is your point — Engelhardt isn’t a Trump thumpers beating the drum for Hillary. And you are right that there was no Trump versus Hillary rhetoric. It is too easy to read into a long post things not written and I read this post more than once.
        I think one of Engelhardt’s assertions particularly troubled me:
        “He [Trump] seems intent — as in the recent abusive NATO meeting and the chaotic get-together with Russian President Vladimir Putin — on dismantling the very world that imperial America built for itself in the wake of World War II.”
        I don’t want to give Trump credit for dismantling or attempting to dismantle the world that imperial America built. I view Trump’s actions as opportunistic, and sometimes strangely based on “common sense” –whereas “dismantling” suggests to me a more directed intent. [For example why do we need NATO as a counterforce against the Soviet Union when there is no Soviet Union?]
        Also:
        “Talk about a symbolic act of self-destruction: the American people put a fierce climate denier in the White House.”
        “President Donald Trump seems singularly intent on being a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to human history.”
        Doesn’t this give Trump a little more credit for destructive capability than he deserves?

        Reply
      2. Chris

        Yes but is glaringly obvious that he jumped from W to Trump, all the while failing to mention all the crap Obama pulled to continue us down the primrose path.

        Reply
  2. JBird

    In the meantime, here I am, another year closer to my own moment of “failure,” living in a potentially failing country on a potentially failing planet. Happy birthday to me.

    Ouch. What a cheerful post.

    On Tom Engelhardt using the label of populist when writing about conservative politicians and groups: I believe that in poli-sci the left wing usually gets called progressive while the right gets populist. Don’t know why exactly and I am tired and it’s too late to dig through my class notes to be absolutely sure. I believe that leftist movements are supposed to be about change, reform, progress although they can be populist. Think of the American Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rightist movements can be about change, but as conter-reformation, a popular desire to supposedly return or remain.

    I would not count on the media especially mainstream or the rabidly partisan media to actually use labels with anything like accuracy or even honesty. This is especially true of American media. Really. Don’t. I ain’t an expert but saying Maoists, Communist, Socialists, Leftists, Liberals, and Neoliberals are basically the same is as goofy as saying the Conservatives, Neoconservatives, Paleoconservatives, Falangists, and Reactionaries are all the same.

    There has been a conscious effort for at least fifty years to change the meanings of words like these to taint, make less acceptable and finally to destroy the meanings of words like these; it makes it easier to connect unions to Stalinism and help it easier to push the neoliberal center-right Democratic Party further right if it is labeled as the American “leftwing.” The Democratic Party is about as leftist, or even liberal, as the current Republican Party is “conservative.” The Republicans can be considered rightwing, yes, but they are becoming reactionary although that is not quite the right label. Corporatist crypto-conservatives might be a better description.

    Anyways, I am sure that NC’s commentariat will have something add to my late night rambling.

    Reply
    1. RWood

      So, J, and for all who feel the need, exercise this right, as strongly as you may:

      In this time, it may be an aid to virtue.
      “Slow down, you’re moving too fast…”

      Reply
    2. Carolinian

      The 20th century populist movement–that reached its zenith in the Roosevelt administration–was more than dubious on civil rights with the Jim Crow south serving as a solid bulwark of the Democratic party. So the competition between underclass groups that we see in Trump’s version of populism has always been an element–these days perhaps a forgotten element–of this brand of politics.

      And yet FDR may have been the high point of economic liberalism and something people like Bernie Sanders want to return to. It’s hard to resolve these contradictions other than to accept that the poor aren’t necessarily saints either and that a “moral” approach to politics often sinks under its own hypocrisies. This gave us LBJ’s version of politics which was bombing the village in order to save it.

      Personally I think Engelhardt is way to gloomy and exhibits typical lefty chicken little-ism. Science problems have a tendency to get solved and one should hesitate to make bets against human ingenuity in that department.

      But the irrational human element is a thing to be feared. We see that in the current political hysteria.

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      1. witters

        “Science problems have a tendency to get solved and one should hesitate to make bets against human ingenuity in that department.”

        The problems are not “scientific”, they are political and economic. This is basic.

        And “the monkey can’t ever fail!” is not, in my view, supported anywhere in the terrestrial record.

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        1. Massinissa

          I dont understand how people think that, because Malthus was off by a few centuries, that means somehow that what he predicted will never, ever, ever come to pass no matter what happens, ever, because if it didn’t happen exactly when he predicted it, it won’t happen ever…

          Makes no sense. Just because the world hasn’t had a dark age in 1000 years doesn’t mean we can’t have another. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. And its not like just because mankind has never seen a mass extinction before because the previous ones were before mankind was a thing, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again just because we are here now. Again, it’s not like mass die-offs have not happened before.

          Its just so short sighted. Also, note how he refers to this as a ‘scientific problem’. So many people think ‘Science!’ will prevent any kind of civilizational challenges from ever happening, because some sort of gadget will magically fix the problem,.

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        2. Carolinian

          Global warming is a science problem–in my opinion. Solving it via social change doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, at least so far.

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      2. John Wright

        And what are the unnamed scientific problems to be solved? How does resource degradation get “solved” without a new, almost free, and almost unlimited energy source?

        Always hydrogen fusion is just around the corner, clearly a scientific problem that hasn’t been solved.

        Betting against human ingenuity with respect to practical hydrogen fusion would have been a good bet for the last 70 years, if one could find someone to take the other side.

        On the drive home, I heard that the Maine, USA cod fishing industry has just about collapsed, and meanwhile wildfire season in CA has started early and with a vengeance.

        Here’s a link to the Maine story:

        Topsoil is disappearing from arable land ().

        The world has never stopped putting more CO2 in the atmosphere, deforestation continues, the coral reefs are under severe stress.

        Perhaps indicative of how much the environment will be exploited by humans may be indicated by the percentage of old growth coast redwoods that remain in Northern California, not too far from where I write this.

        Only 4% of the old growth coast redwoods remain per

        The only “scientific solution” to energy and environmental issues might be a vastly smaller human population.

        If so, getting to this state will be very disruptive as populations fight for resources.

        Reply
    3. tokyodamage

      That quote is amazing! 90% of the time I agree with Yves’ idea that generational beefs are dumb, superficial, and counterproductive, but that particular quote is just too classic to pass up: he’s being condescending even as he dies? – ain’t no self-pity like boomer self-pity. Give me a middle-aged emo any day.

      As far as definitions of ‘populism’ go, here’s why it’s hard to define, IMO: Populism is a movement from an previous era, so it doesn’t fit neatly into our current ideological categories. It was originally a movement of white farmers who hated 2 things with a passion: East Coast bankers, and competition from non-white farmers. It’s too racist to be ‘lefty’ but too anti-rich to be ‘conservative.’

      OTOH, populism becomes much easier to understand. . . if you consider populism to be just another example of, “Redistribute wealth – but only to MY group!”.

      I mean, that was the complaint about “Lean In Feminism” a few years ago, right? and those were professional white collar women, not crusty old farmers. So, some things never change.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        You see many strange shapes in the ‘ink-blot’ of Engelhardt’s essay — To me the quote was an expression of defeat and sadness by an old guy as he saw his end-time nearing, an expression of a sense of personal failure, coupled with an expression of a sense of our nation’s failure, and a sense of the failure of humankind. And you saw “condescending” “boomer self-pity”?

        Granted populism and progressive are peculiar labels for today’s politics — but so are our usages of labels like liberal and conservative. “… populism becomes much easier to understand. . . if you consider populism to be just another example of, ‘Redistribute wealth – but only to MY group!’. ” And “white collar women, not crusty old farmers” must make quite a stretch to in any way relate to the post.

        Reply
  3. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Is the world a spiritual place or a mechanistic one?

    In either case, I feel that nations, like individuals, have their destinies. The Law of Karma, like the of Law of Gravity, is inexorable and unavoidable, no matter how exceptional you’ve convinced yourself you are or deluded yourself into believing that even if it does exist, the Law of Gravity or the Law of Karma does not apply to me.

    As the Law of Karma essentially states, “As you sow so you will reap.”

    Extrapolating from the rewards or chastisements the Law of Karma dispassionately distributes based on an individual’s behaviour, what are the karmic implications for a nation that rained more bombs on a country the size of North Carolina than were dropped on both sides in World War II? What are the karmic burdens incurred by a nation that has overthrown more governments and destabilized more countries since Rome swept through Europe and the Middle East?

    As my much beloved grandmother always said, “I grieve for my people.”

    Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    I have a lot of respect for Tom Engelhardt and always enjoy what he has to write. Maybe here the years are weighing too heavily on him and made him to lose perspective. At its most basic, we humans are born, we live and we die and as Shakespeare once wrote: “A man can die but once; we owe God a death” There is no failure. Living is not a matter of winning or losing but doing the best with what you have – and having some fun along the way.
    Tom is of course worried about the future of the United States and he does have cause to be but the United States has meant different things to different Americans over the past quarter of a thousand years. To show you what I mean, take a look at the evolution of the United States since 1783 at to see what has changed and reflect what the people living in the different eras thought about where they lived.
    Countries are like life in that they grow, thrive, decay and are reborn over the centuries. I doubt that the US will expand further but in a changing world there may be a devolvement. If the US gave up its empire and concentrated its resources at home it would be the better for it but at the moment there is an elite that still dreams of a global dominance and is still working towards it. This too will change.
    Even humanity itself. It is an unnatural thought that one species has dominance in perpetuity as species too grow, thrive and decay over time. We are the dominant species now but there is no guarantee that we will be the only one in the history of the earth. There is no guarantee that the way we humans look now will be the same in several hundred thousand years time. For all we know, we may only be the first dominant species in a series of several dominant species on our planet. Again, this is not a matter of winning or losing but just how life is. At the moment humanity could lose 99.99% of the population and there would still be several hundred thousand people to carry on the species. The only thing that is constant over the eras is change and that is just how life is.

    Reply
    1. Lord Koos

      I read that anthropologists believe that at one time early in our evolution, homo sapiens was reduced to around 1400 people in Africa.

      Reply
    2. Yves Smith Post author

      It is easy to be philosophical about aging when it hasn’t started to become a problem. I’m effectively crippled by a bad injury a year ago, and I’m a good bit younger than Engelahrdt. Hard to maintain any pretense of cheer when your activities are curtailed and you are in pain. I can relate to where Engelhardt is coming from.

      Reply
      1. Petter

        Me too – seventy three and emphysema.
        Rereading the first chapter of Jean Amery’s On Aging. Amery is best known for his work At the Mind’s Limits:Contemplations of a Survivor of Auschwitz and It’s Realites.
        Chapter one: Existence and the passage of time:

        — The young say of themselves that they have time before them. But what really lies before them is the world, which they absorb and by which they let themselves be branded.
        –Characteristically, one is more like to say of a young person that the world is open to him, rather than he has time before him. The old or aging person, however, experiences the future daily as the negation of the spatial and thereby of what is really going on.
        –To be old, or even just feel oneself aging means to have time in one’s body and what we call, in short, one’s soul. To be young is to throw one’s body out into a time that is no time at all , but life, world space.

        Reply
      2. The Rev Kev

        Not so much being philosophical about aging here and I know what is ahead. Doing genealogy for years forces some harsh truths on you. I have literally hundreds of birth, marriage and death certificates and it makes you aware of the nature of human life. You grow up thinking of life as linear and ever ongoing but in the end realize that it is cyclical. I think Englehardt once wrote about that when he was going through his late parent’s stuff. Depressing stuff that.

        Reply
    3. Jeremy Grimm

      Death may be as painful to the old as birth to a newborn and as ‘natural’ but I will not resign and willingly go gentle into that good night.

      We are not living in just another era. Our present store of knowledge is a one time gift to humankind. I believe large populations, which include large populations of gifted people, were crucial to our heights in science and culture. The large human populations, as well as the wealth of materials and energy needed for science all rely on petroleum and coal — the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. If our knowledge is lost the generations of humankind that pass through the population bottleneck to live after us might never regain it. Indeed some of that knowledge could be crucial to human survival after the bottleneck as Climate Disruption begins its ravages in fuller force.

      Reply
  5. Norb

    “And that, as they say, is life. In a sense, each of us might, sooner or later, be thought of as a kind of failed experiment that ends in the ultimate failure: death.”

    This statement stood out as a subtile reminder of what is wrong with contemporary thinking, and points to a reason why most people are incapable of making any reasonable changes for future generations.

    Equating failure with death is an intellectual stumbling block- a blind alley. Death=Failure leads to a neurotic overachieving and drive for accumulation that tries to fend off individual limitations brought about by the certain fact that everyone and everything eventually dies. The 9.9% are hell bent on living forever and their worldview reflects that conception. The world exists so that they and theirs will live forever. The world consists of winners and losers. Or the even worse cynical conception that the world does not matter, only personal gratification and excessive consumption in an individual lifetime.

    Humility is needed. A humble person views the world as Life=Death. The bitter-sweet reality of a harsh world gives rise to a desire to live in harmony with ones surroundings in peace.

    There is strength in humility and it is not found in the despairing, handwringing type. It comes from a clarity of vision not clouded by personal greed or self importance. It leads to successfully confronting evil.

    Reply
    1. Carla

      “Humility is needed. A humble person views the world as Life=Death. The bitter-sweet reality of a harsh world gives rise to a desire to live in harmony with one’s surroundings in peace.

      There is strength in humility and it is not found in the despairing, handwringing type. It comes from a clarity of vision not clouded by personal greed or self importance. It leads to successfully confronting evil.”

      Truly words to live by. Thank you, Norb.

      Reply
  6. Brooklin Bridge

    A wistful pearl like article drawing slightly melodramatic comparisons between personal aging and the ever crystallizing decay of democracy, US democracy in particular, and global collapse in general. A gifted individual trying to come to terms with the difficulty of grasping the reality and scope of humanities predicament in an unforgiving environment it has at least temporarily (but with consequences to be measured in geological time) befouled.

    What jars slightly is such specific use of individuals and local incidents in such a sweeping reflective mood. Yes, we know Trump is symptom as much as agent, the current players are actors on a stage, but if so why even bother with them in this ode to embracing end times?

    Reply
    1. jrs

      besides Tom has been trying to advocate for a better world and saving the world for a long time, the failure of that to change anything at all has to weigh on him, hence the quote. But one person seldom makes such a difference. Most of us may think that way, but I don’t think one does advocacy writing for a living without thinking that they *can* make a difference (unless they are super cynical and he seems more genuine than that).

      Reply
      1. Brooklin Bridge

        I don’t think one does advocacy writing for a living without thinking that they *can* make a difference

        Absolutely! Really thoughtful points, particularly about his (I would add, apparent) failure to change anything weighing on him. I think that provides a good vantage from which to consider the weakness of his plaint of death being inherently failure.

        Reply
        1. Carl

          Exactly so. Dedicate your life to something (advocacy of a less militaristic US, in Tom’s case) and watching your life slip away as nothing happens, has to weigh on you just a bit.

          Reply
          1. Petter

            A poem by Philip Larkin

            Continuing To Live

            Continuing to live — that is, repeat
            A habit formed to get necessaries —
            Is nearly always losing, or going without.
            It varies.

            This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise —
            Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
            You might discard them, draw a full house!
            But it’s chess.

            And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
            You command is clear as a lading-list.
            Anything else must not, for you, be thought
            To exist.

            And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
            We half-identify the blind impress
            All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
            But to confess,

            On that green evening when our death begins,
            Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
            Since it applied only to one man once,
            And that one dying.

            Reply
  7. freedomny

    That was one of the most depressing posts I have ever read. To equate your future death as somehow a “failure” shows a spiritual disconnect with the natural world and is intellectualism at its worst.

    Reply
    1. abynormal

      Hi5 freed.

      Apologies, no copy/paste available…so I’m going to phone type.

      “To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than equilibrium.
      However, percisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is Nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.
      There is so much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche:
      “He who has the WHY to live for, can bear almost any HOW.””
      Viktor E Frankl

      so off i go back to logoland… Cyall

      Reply
      1. jrs

        one meaning in one’s life one might find is that humanity (one’s own kids and grandkids but EVEN if one has none just humanity as such) will survive one even after one is long gone. The world will go on much as it has without you etc.

        With the state of the planet, there is no guarantee of that and the only certainty is that life will not go on much as it has been. So yea life might seem devoid off meaning, it’s not just that one is dying, but that there will be no future generations.

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  8. Alex morfesis

    Tom…after 200 years…calling it an experiment s ancient royalist dreams. That the Congressional cowards who are constitutionally the only parties who can declare war, regularly allow the steep date to declare Congress kritrz unworthy of review of certain critical information or how the less than 750 persons designated by popular vote to run the country allow themselves to be told they are only maybe allowed to read certain documents and not allowed to take notes.

    Abrogation of constitutional responsibilities by the failed lawyers who populate the rotunda is only a problem the commonweal allows to continue…and as to failed nation…

    Last I checked.. Chinese citizens are still paying tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to get to America… What do they know that you are missing Tom ??

    Ben Franklin would laugh at our complaining and if allowed to step back to life would have a hard time removing that (family blog) eating grin off his face…drink some grape juice and get back to work…it ain’t over till it’s over.

    Reply
  9. sharonsj

    Well, I’m the same age as Tom and equally pessimistic. The public is so dumbed down and digitally distracted that most have no idea why modern life is so difficult. They only know that it is. I think the country will eventually fall apart due to climate change, abject stupidity, and the greed of our politicians.

    Reply
  10. Newton Finn

    Compare the bold, hopeful, inspirational literature of the Enlightenment (i.e., Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, etc.), or even the brashly daring and confident “revolutionary” literature of the late 60s/early 70s, to the torrent of futility and despair, the odes to cynicism and defeatism, which pour forth from the left today. What has been lost is nothing less than the tenacity and sublimity of the human spirit. We are what we are, broken people living in a broken world, and much work needs to be done, inside and out. I’m so tired of and turned off by all the whining and lamentation, however accurate the observations that fuel them. Been there, done that, a million times over. Rather than bitch and moan, why not take a time machine to the late 19th Century and read Edward Bellamy–Looking Backward, then Equality–for a refreshing and exhilarating lift of mind and heart? Both of these extraordinary books are free on the net. If you do nothing more, take a look at the greatest Socratic dialogue ever written about capitalism, socialism, and how to get from the former to the latter, found in the opening section of Equality. Apart from the awareness of global warming and other crucial environmental challenges, there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, the vision was clearer in many ways more than a hundred years ago.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      There is a place for that, but isn’t there also a place for grief? Grief isn’t bitching and moaning, grief is grief. Whining about not having single payer may be a waste of time when we could fight for it (don’t whine, organize).

      But the grief is far more basic, the grief is that we are killing the planet. The grief is for a loved one, it’s biophilia. We loved the world even as children, we loved it before we worked and cared who owned the means of production, before we worried about bills and health coverage. Does one bitch and moan if one grieves the death of a parent, a spouse, cries and cries from a seemingly endless well? This is larger even and ongoing.

      Reply
    2. jrs

      There is a place for that but isn’t there also a place for grief? Grief is not whining, grief is grief. Isn’t there a place for grief that we are killing the planet?

      It is grief over the death of a loved one, it is biophilia. We loved the world even as children, we loved it even before we worked or cared about who owned the means of production, even before we worried about bills and health insurance. It is that which is dying (and yes of course it will take humanity with it). Is grief over the death of a parent, a spouse, a best friend, when the tears flow out of a seemingly endless well, cynicism and defeatism? No it is is grief, only this is larger than that and ongoing. It is not our personal tragedy, the death of our own mother say, but all of our tragedies, this death of life.

      Reply
    3. Lord Koos

      We live in a dark time. The national mood changed after 9/11, I think that was the start of it. Everyone woke up to the fact that the USA is vulnerable. And now of course, most of our so-called leaders are dropping the ball on climate change, inequality, etc. Hustlers think short-term.

      Reply
      1. Norb

        Vulnerable to what?

        My first reaction to the event was outrage at the criminals responsible for the event and they should be brought to justice- in about a week! On the face of it, It was a criminal event, not a social paradigm shift. It took the media- Advertising- to convince people that the nation was in peril.

        What is fundamentally important to realize about 9/11 is that the public mood was manipulated to change in a certain way- it was an orchestrated event. It was an opportunity, laying the foundation to condition the American citizenry to accept war 24/7/360. That starts a stampede of the masses away from any policies that would bring about more equal distribution of resources and opportunity.

        In times of war, the status quo must be supported. As George Bush so eloquently stated, “You are either with us or against us….”

        As time moves on, the sham looses effectiveness and a new round of conditioning must be implemented to keep the herd moving in the right direction. I’m sure the evil geniuses running the Deep State have cooked up many scary scenarios ready to be implemented as soon as political opposition raises to a certain level or becomes effective in redirecting policy toward the common good and a more peaceful world.

        How else to explain the endless war on terror- that never address root causes, only symptoms.

        Our leaders are not dropping the ball. They are creating exactly the world they desire.

        In their twisted minds, culling the herd is the fundamental problem concerning most problems, even climate change- not reorganizing the political economy in order to create a sustainable and balanced world. Millions of deaths are, “worth it.”

        Demonize the poor and the downtrodden, create an external enemy needing extermination and enslavement, and constantly play on peoples fears and insecurities, all the while masquerading as the deliverer of security and purpose. Convince people to join “US” and be on the winning side of a great struggle.

        The story of Empire. The story of the powerful elite creating a world that suits their own, narrow interests at the expense of well- all the rest.

        You are with US or against US. The siren call of capitalism.

        Reply
  11. juliania

    Tom, maybe you need to have lived a few more years and let your personal history fall into place a bit better. I’m there a few years on past you, but I did have a different outlook earlier on than the one you describe. When I reached fifty, I thought of that as the pinnacle of my life, the mountain top from which I had a great view of both sides of it, and that’s the vision I have held onto. There are more things about that mountain — well, maybe it’s only a speck of dust, but to me, and to you, and to each of us, it is a mountain — to be discovered, I suspect, right up to the moment I depart for other mountains; I will leave that last thought for the sages to dispute. Clarity about moments from earlier memories, love for the planet and new discoveries about human frailty for sure; that wonderful gift, humility, as we each discover our own mistakes and that we didn’t know what we thought we knew (and isn’t that great?)

    Also, I would say the nation may be in the deepest trouble it has ever been in, but then the only way forward in a dynamic and everchanging world is up. There’s a new state mountain to climb, and we oldies can at least shine a lantern up that path. We’re not dead yet, and where there’s life there’s hope. You have been putting yours to the best use you knew how to do up till now, and you have a forum; use it well.

    Trump’s not as bad as you seem to think he is. Best wishes.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      Exactly. Trump isn’t as awful as his detractors say he is. And he isn’t as wonderful as his supporters say he is.

      Reply
  12. Oregoncharles

    “Think of America as being caught up in some only half-recognized United Stexit moment, though what exactly we are withdrawing from may be less than clear.”

    Empire? And withdrawing from that is a bad thing?

    There’s a self-contradiction, neatly exemplified by the quoted sentence, running through this piece. On the One Hand, Trump is a remarkably offensive and destructive president – as Tom himself says, a giant middle finger directed at the Powers That Be. On the Other Hand, he is presiding over the end of the empire, and, as long as the Dem hysterics and war profiteers don’t get us into a nuclear war, that’s a good thing. Maybe Trump is what it takes. I tend to agree with Juliania – and like her, I’m Tom’s age.

    In fact, I have a diagnosis for Engelhardt’s state of mind: he never quite got over the Two-Party. Granted this reflects my own priors, but there is definitely a certain equanimity that results from standing a little outside the partisan fray. Trump looks a lot like creative destruction to me. Which will prevail is certainly a very good question, but it is, at least, a question.

    Reply
    1. Carolinian

      I’ve offered this before but the late Alex Cockburn was on CSpan some years ago and said if you lived in the rape and pillage Roman Empire would you want it to be competently run? I think he might agree with your view that disruption is a good thing.

      Of course the downside is the fear by many that Trump may impulsively blow up the world but so far he seems to be far more interested in shooting off his mouth than in shooting off his missiles (although he has launched some at Syriia).

      What appears to be true is that we have a choice between crazy Trump or the now obviously crazy Democrats. Better the Devil you don’t know? When it comes to the Dems they have for some time been all too predictable.

      Reply
    2. Lord Koos

      Creative destruction? I don’t think so – Trump isn’t destroying the important stuff like the pentagon budget – among other things, he’s helping to destroy the environment.

      Reply
  13. Wukchumni

    I think one of our biggest failings will be the idea that precious little of what we accomplished will remain, especially in the realm of arts.

    I regularly glimpse 500 to 3,000 year old petroglyphs & pictographs all over the southwest, as a testament to them having lived here.

    We have Mt Rushmore & Stone Mountain (and wow, will historians in 3022 get the wrong idea from the latter about who won the first US Civil War, ha!) and a few other places that will survive the test of time, but that’s it.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      Like this aged bit:

      And on the pedestal these words appear —
      “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
      Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
      Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
      Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
      The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

      It’s tertibly frustrating to have so diligently cataloged the stupidities and frauds and destruction engineered by the uniformed and contracted parakeets of the Pentagram and the security state, and to be essentially ignored as a trivial pest, not even worth squashing.

      At least Yves has a couple of scalps to hang on her belt.

      Reply
      1. CenterOfGravity

        Recently had the misfortune of learning that the name for neoliberal click harvester Ozy.com was inspired precisely from this very poem. The following is a direct quote from the website about page:

        That’s what drives us at OZY: the idea that more is possible. And we’re not afraid to challenge assumptions about the way the world is in order to see the world the way it could be. That conviction is right in our name. Yup, it’s from the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem “Ozymandias.” And yup, most folks read that poem as a caution against big egos and the impermanence of power.

        We read it differently. To us, the poem says think big, but be humble, lest you end up “two vast and trunkless legs…in the desert.

        …it is very possible that our destruction would not be an undeserved outcome.

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        1. Massinissa

          Wow. They… Culturally appropriated Shelley’s poem and intentionally distorted its meaning.

          Makes me want to hit my head on my desk a few times.

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          1. The Rev Kev

            When you think about what message of the poem is and the assurances of Ozy.com that this time, “it will be different”, all I can say is BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

            Reply
          2. CenterOfGravity

            The desire to smash one’s head into something upon looking at the Ozy site was featured recently in both a and . Like Marlow’s journey down the river in Heart of Darkness, they recount The Horror witnessed at Ozy Fest 2018.

            Reply
    2. 4corners

      That’s an interesting yard stick but monuments are different from arts and accomplishments. As far as the latter goes, just look at medical breakthroughs over the last century. If we are fortunate enough to have future historians, they’ll no doubt see unprecedented achievement –but with unprecented environmental degradation and the same social ills that have dogged every society everywhere.

      Our time is so different from any other in history. We’re running up against natural limits and the rate of change in almost every area is making it a white knuckle ride.

      Reply
  14. Scott1

    The people like myself who want to change things peacefully can’t figure out how to kill without killing. Kim Jong un attacked Sony because he was killed in a movie. This is how you kill without killing in our world. It looks real enough. 4D technology is VR with scratch & sniff & shaking seats. “We have the technology!” We can kill without killing if we can find the budget.
    Barbara Tuchman wrote the essay “Should We Eliminate the Presidency”. Nixon could fire his cabinet. She ended up recommending the Parliamentary form of Democracy. In world history the Presidential Electoral form of Democracy turned into oligarchy every time. American Pragmatism and a belief in the Spirit of the whole thing, the US as proof that free men would go and keep on fighting for the President and Congress in whatever war perversely cheered monarchs. They could just be the Westminster part of it. Give all the work to the Lords and Ministers and plenty of room in the castle for their children to inherit. 21st Century Capitalism is feudalism. Everything is working well for the Royals.
    The Beats knew one thing “The Atom Bomb Changed Everything”. Presidents became War Dictators because Nuclear bombs delivered by tall missiles could hit DC in 25 minutes.
    “Burn everything up, and it gets hotter.” Want to make jet fuel from potatoes? Won’t be enough potatoes to eat.
    UN, as it is, will not prevent the Apocalyptic Riot. Hollywood is the last best hope.

    Reply
    1. JBird

      Capitalism replaced feudalism, but now a oligarchic hereditary spoils system falsely described as a Free Market Capitalist Meritocracy aka neoliberalism has replaced capitalism. So yes, I guess you are right as a kind of anarchic feudalism is arising.

      Reply
  15. polecat

    He mentioned FDR, Nixon, LBJ, Bush 2, and of course, Trump ! …. but took pains to NOT mention either Clinton, or Obama … by name. Why is that ? Why the invisibility cloak ??

    Reply
    1. Carl

      Well, it’s Tom. Still a bit of a D partisan, can’t quite make the leap to conclude that both parties support the same donors. He regularly features the horrid Rebecca Solnit on his site, which should tell you all you need to know.

      Reply
  16. Expat

    Nobody is blaming Donald Trump for American populism. He is the result of populism, not the cause. This does not make him any less reprehensible, especially since he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about The People unless they are cheering him.

    Reply

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