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General News    H3'ed 1/6/22

Tomgram: Engelhardt, A Nation Coming Apart at the Seams

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What Will We Remember of 2022?
Nation (Un)Building and Planet (Un)Building, American-Style


Let me start 2022 by heading back way, way back for a moment.

It's easy to forget just how long this world has been a dangerous place for human beings. I thought about this recently when I stumbled upon a little memoir my Aunt Hilda scrawled, decades ago, in a small notebook. In it, she commented in passing: "I was graduated during that horrible flu epidemic of 1919 and got it." Badly enough, it turned out, to mess up her entry into high school. She says little more about it.

Still, I was shocked. In all the years when my father and his sister were alive and, from time to time, talked about the past, never had they (or my mother, for that matter) mentioned the disastrous "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918-1920. I hadn't the slightest idea that anyone in my family had been affected by it. In fact, until I read John Barry's 2005 book, The Great Influenza, I hadn't even known that a pandemic devastated America (and the rest of the world) early in the last century in a fashion remarkably similar to, but even worse than, Covid-19 (at least so far) before essentially being tossed out of history and the memory books of most families.

That should stun anyone. After all, at that time, an estimated one-fifth of the world's population, possibly 50 million people, reportedly died of the waves of that dreaded disease, often in horrific ways, and, even in this country, were sometimes buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, some of the controversies we've experienced recently over, for instance, masking went on in a similarly bitter fashion then, before that global disaster was chucked away and forgotten. Almost no one I know whose parents lived through that nightmare had heard anything about it while growing up.

Ducking and Covering

My aunt's brief comment was, however, a reminder to me that we've long inhabited a perilous world and that, in certain ways, it's only grown more so as the decades have passed. It also left me thinking about how, as with that deathly flu of the World War I era, we often forget (or at least conveniently set aside) such horrors.

After all, in my childhood and youth, in the wake of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this country began building a staggering nuclear arsenal and would soon be followed on that path by the Soviet Union. We're talking about weaponry that could have destroyed this planet many times over and, in those tense Cold War years, it sometimes felt as if such a fate might indeed be ours. I can still remember hearing President John F. Kennedy on the radio as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 began I was a freshman in college and thinking that everyone I knew on the East Coast, myself included, would soon be toast (and we almost were!).

To put that potential fate in perspective, keep in mind that, only two years earlier, the U.S. military had developed a Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war against the Soviet Union and China. In it, a first strike of 3,200 nuclear weapons would be "delivered" to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities. If all went "well," those would have ceased to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured and, given what wasn't known about the effects of radiation then, not to speak of the "nuclear winter" such an attack would have created on this planet, that was undoubtedly a grotesque underestimate.

When you think about it now (if you ever do), that plan and to steal Jonathan Schell's famed phrase the fate of the earth that went with it should still stun you. After all, until August 6, 1945, Armageddon had been left to the gods. In my youth, however, the possibility of a human-caused, world-ending calamity was hard to forget and not just because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In school, we took part in nuclear drills ("ducking and covering" under our desks), just as we did fire drills, just as today most schools conduct active-shooter drills, fearing the possibility of a mass killing on the premises. Similarly, while out walking, you would from time to time pass the symbol for a nuclear shelter, while the media regularly reported on people arguing about whether, in the case of a nuclear alert, to let their neighbors into their private backyard shelters or arm themselves to keep them out.

Even before the Cold War ended, however, the thought that we could all be blasted off this planet faded into the distant background, while the weaponry itself spread around the world. Just ask yourself: In these pandemic days, how often do you think about the fact that we're always just a trigger finger or two away from nuclear annihilation? And that's especially true now that we know that even a regional nuclear war between, say, India and Pakistan could create a nuclear-winter scenario in which billions of us might end up starving to death.

And yet, even as this country plans to invest almost $2 trillion in what's called the "modernization" of its nuclear arsenal, except for news about a potential future Iranian bomb (but never Israel's actual nukes), such weapons are seldom on anyone's mind. At least for now, the end of the world, nuclear-style, is essentially forgotten history.

That Good-Old Nation-Building Urge

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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Tom Hilton

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In grammar school in the '50s, I can recall hearing the TV news anchor inform us of our military's efforts to bring democracy to the unfortunate victims of communism, and thinking how proud I was to be a good guy in the white hat like Hopalong Cassidy freeing the world for a better, capitalist, tomorrow. Then I grew up, and realized it was all gaslight to help a few people get filthy rich.

Today, in my 70s, with two combat tours in the distant memory of my youth, I look around and get the sense that there are few adults left in the proverbial room. American adults seem to view politics as some sort of harmless game in which it is always us versus them and winner take all - even though both sides of their game are neighbors, and even though both sides always lose to the Military Industrial Complex. This describes the erosion of community.

Alas, it is the widespread head-in-the-QAnon sand worldview I see wherever I look that seems to spell the end of life as I have known it. We have become a species of weak, whiners, and complainers armed with a TV remote in one hand and an AR-15 in the other. So many adult heads are filled with contradictory values and beliefs rarely informed by unspun facts or moral values. TikTok, Twitter, Parler, etc. have replaced the community churches and organizations of my first 40 years of life. Adults increasingly live in a digital world untethered to their hometowns and prefiltered of diverse viewpoints. Just like the idiots of Jan 6th, a growing number fail to consider the serious consequences of their actions on their future (all negative for sure).

If I live another decade, I will surely see millions more surprised looks as more and more people experience to their shock and surprise the big-bad-wolf of climate change blowing their wood-frame houses to smithereens in tornados, windstorms, and hurricanes; or floating those houses down the river, or sliding them down the hillside into the valley; or just burning them to the ground because their is no sense of community to mow the brush near their pretty woodland homes along the river or on the mountain side, nor to harden their neighborhoods against the coming weather. Surely, the next smooth-talking grifter member of the oligarchy who will rule America will make it all better - just like I would have thought would be the case when I was a 10-year-old.

Submitted on Friday, Jan 7, 2022 at 6:16:26 PM

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Eddy Schmid

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Tom, as I am in my early 70's as well, I understand exactly from where your coming from, as I agree with every word you've written. However, to me the fact that you had never heard of the Spanish Flu growing up, nor were ever taught about it at school, tells me your education system clearly, picks and chooses what it's considered, you should know and not know. I cannot understand though, the LOVE affair many Americans have with Trump, and the inclination to automaticly lay at his feet, anything they don't agree with. From where I sit, such attitudes seem to elevate Trump into a super being. He's been. done and gone. End of story. Despite the Hoo Haa, he won't be back. It's time Americans adjusted to that fact, and got on with their lives developing more meaningful policies to get along peacefully with the rest of us.

Blaming Trump for lock downs and repercussions of Covid are senseless, as I'm Australian living in Australia where we have no Trump, but policies here are even worse than in the U.S. so who do we blame for this mess without having a Trump to pin it all on ?

Submitted on Sunday, Jan 9, 2022 at 12:46:48 AM

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