The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of “Like a Rolling Stone”

How Bob Dylan took a “long piece of vomit about twenty pages long” and turned it into a six-minute masterpiece

The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of "Like a Rolling Stone"
(Credit: AP/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon)
Excerpted from “Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited” by Mark Polizzotti (Continuum, 2006). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

It has to be the most celebrated drumbeat in all of popular music. Often described in ballistic terms—a “rifle shot,” a “gunshot”—Bobby Gregg’s inaugural smack is indeed the shot heard ’round the world. “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA,” Bruce Springsteen recalled twenty-four years after the fact, “and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Greil Marcus, in his penetrating if overwrought study of “Like a Rolling Stone,” contends that while many other songs use the same kick-off—including the Beatles’ “Any Time at All” from the previous year and Dylan’s own “From a Buick 6” further down Highway 61—“on no other record does the sound, or the act, so call attention to itself, as an absolute announcement that something new has begun.” This might be overstating the case somewhat: as Al Kooper reminded Marcus, it’s very common for the drummer to end a one-two-three-four count with a sharp thwack. Still, there is something about this particular beat that makes it more than simple timekeeping, that renders it more memorable. Somehow, a common device has turned itself into a signature. If you heard only this one second of “Like a Rolling Stone,” you could still identify the song.

This drumbeat has become so associated with the song, in fact, that its presence or absence directly inflects upon the character of the performance. “Like a Rolling Stone” was the invariable closer of Dylan’s 1966 world tour. One can almost gauge the degree of exasperation he felt on any given night over the catcalls that greeted his electric set by the emphasis that drummer Mickey Jones placed on his opening salvo. It echoes authoritatively in Edinburgh. It booms with smashing finality in the valedictory concert at Albert Hall, following a drawling introduction in which Dylan dedicates the song to “the Taj Mahawwwl.” And it positively deafens with scorn following the legendary “Judas!—You’re a LIAR” exchange between Dylan and disgruntled fan Keith Butler at the Manchester Free Trade Hall ten days earlier, which triggered Dylan’s exhortation to the band to “play fuckin’ loud.” Its absence in favor of a cranking instrumental build-up, in the version played at the Isle of Wight in 1969, was one of the reasons for that performance often being tagged as lifeless. (Oddly, the version played at the infamous Newport concert, only weeks after the studio version was recorded and with many of the same musicians, also foregoes the opening bang: it made enough of a statement as it was.) Among the many, many covers of the song, one by the band Drive-By Truckers is notable in that it begins with a similar drum shot, which then rests for a few bars, imbuing their entire rendition with a kind of we-know-you-know slyness.

In fact, the famous drumbeat is actually two beats, the resounding snap of the snare followed by the almost subliminally faint echo of a kick-drum, which makes the whole thing take a half-step back and gives it an extra push of forward momentum: not ONE-(pause)-TWO, but ONE-two-THREE. Marcus, again, tends to oversell when he likens “the empty split-second that follows” the initial beat (but that’s just it: it’s not empty) to both “a house tumbling over a cliff ” and the Oklahoma Land Rush. What he’s missing in his own rush to hyperbole is the way that half-heard second beat pulls in, eases in, the onslaught of guitar, piano, organ, bass, and drum that henceforth sends the song—and the album it starts off with a literal bang—charging forward.

“Like a Rolling Stone” is also no doubt the most famous song ever written out of sheer boredom. Dylan had spent April and May 1965 in England, for what would be his last fully acoustic tour. Both the performances and the time surrounding them, captured in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back (the title’s lack of apostrophe mirroring Dylan’s idiosyncratic approach to punctuation), show a man barely going through the motions. Dylan is in control of his material and his audience, but there is no spontaneity and little verve. Even supposedly off-the-cuff remarks (“This one is called ‘It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’—ho ho ho” [audience laughs]) have been rehearsed many times before. By the time he returned to the States at the beginning of June, he was considering giving up performing altogether. “I was very drained,” he explained [in a Playboy interview] several months later. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.… It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”

What changed his mind, he said, was the new musical vista opened by “Rolling Stone.” “I’d literally quit singing and playing,” he told Martin Bronstein of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before.” As he described it to Jules Siegel, the “vomit” began as simple prose ramblings: “It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper… I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion following something.”

Dylan’s interviews are notoriously unreliable sources of information, more like theatrical performances than communication sessions, and perhaps none more so than the ones he gave around the release of Highway 61. But what emerges consistently from his remarks about “Rolling Stone,” in addition to his pleasure at having written it—“the best song I wrote,” he told Gleason—is the sense of spontaneity regained, of an elusive but thrilling encounter with the muse. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that,” he recalled in 2004, with a note of wistfulness as if speaking of a long time gone. “It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.” To television commentator Ed Bradley that same year, he described the songs of this period as having come from “a place of magic.”

In this case, the magic seems to have been triggered precisely by the creative stagnation Dylan had been feeling (and that his records had been showing) over the previous two years. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is well-crafted but resolutely downbeat, more like medicine than entertainment, while Another Side, despite a few stand-outs, just sounds bored. Little wonder that by the time Dylan returned from his all-acoustic British tour, he’d decided to give it all up—or that the inspiration of “Rolling Stone” seemed such a godsend. It ushered in a creative outpouring that is almost unrivaled in Dylan’s career (let alone anyone else’s), and that over the following half-year resulted in many of the songs on which his reputation still stands.

Also rare for a chart-topping pop hit, the lyrics focused not on love but its opposite. It was “all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest,” Dylan told Siegel, immediately amending that to: “In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word… It was like swimming in lava. In your eyesight, you see your victim swimming in lava. Hanging by their arms from a birch tree.” Lucky in lava is not the same as lucky in love, but the contradiction is very much in keeping with the spirit of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that manages to balance sadism, compassion, and sheer liberated joy in a six-minute display of pure bravado.

Theater professionals address the Flint water disaster

Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play: A remarkable artistic event

By Joanne Laurier
15 June 2017

Written, directed and produced by Purni Morell, based on An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

A remarkable cultural event took place last week in the devastated city of Flint, Michigan, whose 100,000 inhabitants have been systematically poisoned with dangerous amounts of lead and other deadly contaminants.

Actors from across the US, assisted by a British writer-director, performed Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, on June 8, 9, and 10 in the gymnasium of a former school.

Ibsen’s famed work concerns a doctor, Thomas Stockmann, who tries to warn the local authorities—including his brother, the mayor—about water contamination problems and is persecuted for his discoveries. Parallels to the present catastrophe in Flint are striking, and hundreds of residents from the city and surrounding area responded enthusiastically to the performances.

Purni Morell

British theater directors Purni Morell and Christian Roe learned about the Flint water crisis in January 2016, while touring the US. In an interview, Morell explained to a reporter: “It’s not about doing a play about a water crisis in a city experiencing a water crisis—it’s about the underlying issues, like what made the water crisis possible in the first place. In the play, as in Flint, the water is a symptom of a bigger problem, and I think that needs to be investigated because it affects all of us, not just the city of Flint.”

Morell’s version follows the general outline of Ibsen’s play. Dr. Heather Stockman has ascertained through laboratory tests that the water in the town’s economic “salvation,” its Wellness Resort, owned by Mineralcorp, is contaminated with lethal chemicals and carcinogens.

Stockman tells the newspaper editor Oscar Hofford: “I mean contaminated, Hofford. Polluted. Impure. Mercury, in high proportions, chloroform off the scale—that means legionella; copper levels way too high…I’m saying the Wellness Resort is a danger to public health. Anyone who uses the water is endangering himself.” It turns out, she explains, that an industrial plant upriver is “seeping chemicals into the groundwater. And that groundwater is the same groundwater that feeds the pipes into the pump room.”

Hofford, at this point supportive of Stockman’s exposé, thinks the contamination speaks to broader issues: “What if the water isn’t the problem, but only a symptom of the problem?… I think this is the perfect opportunity to talk about what’s really going on. The vested interests, the—well, maybe not corruption exactly, but the system, Heather—the system that means these people can do whatever they like without any comeback.”

Audience members in Flint

The newspaper’s publisher, Stephanie Anderson (Ibsen’s Aslaksen), representing the city’s small business concerns, makes an appearance. The embodiment of petty bourgeois philistinism, Anderson’s watchword is “moderation” in all things. As a founding member of the Homeowners’ Association and the Temperance Club, she informs Stockman that the “resort is the backbone of our enterprise…Especially for the property owners.”

Anderson too is initially supportive of Stockman’s revelations, even suggesting that the doctor be recognized for her “contribution to the city’s welfare.”

Everything changes when Stockman’s brother Peter, the mayor, outraged by word of the doctor’s findings, bursts in and demands that the truth be suppressed to protect Mineralcorp’s interests. He claims that re-laying the pipes, to avoid the contaminated water, will cost $7 million and mean closing the resort for at least two years. “Do you have any idea, any idea at all, what this means? … This would finish us. We close the resort, everyone else capitalises on our idea, and in three years’ time, when, if, we reopen it again, this city will face ruin. And it’ll be your fault.”

In Ibsen’s play, Act IV is entirely taken up by a public meeting at which Stockmann denounces town officials and imparts “a discovery of a far wider scope than the trifling matter that our water supply is poisoned … the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” He passes on from that insight to a misguided conception, the defense of “isolated, intellectually superior personalities” and the notion that the “majority never has right on its side.”

In the Morell-Flint adaptation, the director and actors have decided to turn over this portion of the play to a genuine public meeting.

Tyee Tilghman (Horster)

Tyee Tilghman, the actor playing Jim Horster, a soldier who faces deployment to Mosul in Iraq, addresses the audience directly: “What we’re going to do now is change things up a little bit because in the next scene in the play, there’s a town meeting and what normally happens in it is that Stockman tells the people in the town about the water problem, and they call him an enemy of the people because they don’t want to hear about it—but we thought it would be more interesting to do this a different way, since we’re here and you’re here, and so we thought we’d set up a little town hall of our own.”

This prompted audience members of all ages, children, teenagers and adults, to discuss their appalling and inhuman conditions. One man described having to lug endless cases of water up flights of stairs. Some audience members reported owning houses that were literally crumbling. Others bitterly denounced the bullying of the authorities, who threaten to take their homes and even their children. Still others recounted how they had received water bills higher than their mortgages, and how the homes of protesters had been broken into by police who confiscated computers. Angry residents explained how they contracted health problems and even debilitating diseases from the poisoned water.

All of this was reinforced by the fact that signs in the restrooms alerted users not to wash their hands with water from the taps! Cases of canned water were stacked against the wall.

Sign in the restroom warns against using tap water to wash hands

When Public Enemy: Flint resumes, Dr. Stockman and her daughter, Petra, a teacher, both lose their jobs. Moreover, Stockman’s mother-in-law, Eleanor, the owner of the polluting plant, threatens the doctor and her daughter with financial disenfranchisement and destitution. Stockman lashes back at “hypocrites” like Anderson, with her “cheap, small-town flimflam,” and the townspeople themselves.

Petra has the final word: “This town is fine—it’s no better or worse than anywhere else. OK, there are things you can’t fix—you can’t fix that people with money can buy their way out of problems, and you can’t fix that some people care more about their position than what’s right—maybe you can’t even fix the water.

“I think you’re wrong about people, Mom. You said people get the government they deserve but I think people get the government government can get away with. And the government gets away with a lot, not because people are poor or because people are stupid—but because for years, for decades, we’ve eroded our schools, we’ve failed to educate our youth, we’ve failed to invest in ourselves as people.”

And she mentions that like her counterpart in Ibsen’s play, a work now 130 years old, she will start a school.

Public Enemy: Flint is a highly unusual confluence of a classic play, committed, talented actors and a motivated and engaged audience. It is proof, if proof be needed, that art is not something detached from social life. Important, enduring art by definition is work that does not remain indifferent to the crises and convulsions of its time. From that point of view, this modest three-day presentation, staged in a gym, was one of the most significant theatrical efforts in the US in recent years. The participants in the production, which was serious and thoroughly professional throughout, deserve the strongest congratulations and thanks.

The central role of Dr. Stockman was exceptionally performed by Los Angeles-based actress Michole Briana White. She was supported by an outstanding cast that included Charles Shaw Robinson from Berkeley, California as Peter Stockman, Madelyn Porter from Detroit as Stephanie Anderson, Briana Carlson Goodman from New York as Petra, Tilghman from Los Angeles as Horster, Meg Thalken from Chicago as Eleanor and Chris Young from Flint as Billing.

Public Enemy: Flint was the creation of British theater company fieldwork, in collaboration with Detroit Public Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Chautauqua Theater Company (New York), Berkeley Repertory Theater, People’s Light (Philadelphia), UM-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance, M.A.D.E. Institute, & the New McCree Theater, Flint.

Morell’s adaptation honored Ibsen’s play while eliminating its more elitist tendencies. The latter had a great deal to do with the situation in Norway in the 1880s, where, as Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov once explained, “a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.”

Plekhanov pays strong tribute to Ibsen’s social insight and instincts, in particular the dramatist’s abhorrence of the crude, grasping petty bourgeoisie. The Norwegian writer, observes Plekhanov, despises the “moral rottenness and hypocrisy of small town society and politics” and “the boundless tyranny of petty bourgeois public opinion.” He notes that “Ibsen hates opportunism with all his soul; he describes it brilliantly in his plays. Recall the printer Aslaksen [Anderson, in Morell’s play], with his incessant preaching of ‘moderation,’ which, in his own words, ‘is the greatest virtue in a citizen—at least, I think so.’ Aslaksen is the epitome of the petty bourgeois politician.”

The play’s passion and outrage continue to speak to present-day audiences, not least of all in Flint, whose working-class residents are the victims of corporate predation and government indifference or worse. In fact, when the mayor in Public Enemy: Flint proclaims that “the public doesn’t need new ideas; what the public needs is good, strong, time-tested method, not hare-brained theories that turn the world upside down,” one is tempted to shout out that the world, above all, needs to be turned upside down.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/15/ibse-j15.html

Netflix’s War Machine: A hard-hitting attack on America’s military madness

By Joanne Laurier
30 May 2017

Written and directed by David Michôd

The Netflix satire War Machine is a forceful work that depicts the futility and madness of war in general and the war in Afghanistan in particular. The film revives a venerable tradition of anti-military and anti-war drama and comedy in the US, which the media and the establishment thought (or hoped) had been thoroughly suppressed and even extinguished.

Written and directed by Australian David Michôd, and produced by and starring Brad Pitt, the film is based on the 2012 non-fiction book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, by the late American journalist Michael Hastings.

Hastings, only 33 when he died under suspicious circumstances in June 2013, authored “The Runaway General,” the article for Rolling Stone magazine in 2010 that led to the removal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his post as ranking US commanding officer in Afghanistan. War Machine is a fictional account of McChrystal’s tenure in Afghanistan and the events leading up to his firing.

Brad Pitt in War Machine

In the movie, Pitt plays a platinum-haired Gen. Glen McMahon who, in 2009, has just been appointed to direct the war in Afghanistan, already in its eighth bloody year. McMahon, according to the narration, arrives fresh from “a successful stint running the secretive special operations killing machine in Iraq.” The narrator, Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), a Rolling Stone journalist, describes the general as a throwback to another era,” his hand “bent into a permanent claw, like it was still clutching a World War II cigar.”

With a frozen face and a freakish squint, McMahon runs seven miles before breakfast, sleeps only a few hours a night and has been dubbed “the Lion King, the G-Man, Big Glen and, most commonly, the Glenimal” by his entourage of toadies. Front of that pack is the psychopathic Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), loosely based on Gen. Michael Flynn—described by a staffer in Hastings’ book as a “rat on acid.” Other members include Cory Staggart (John Magaro) as McMahon’s special operations advisor and Matt Little (Topher Grace) as his as his civilian press consultant.

Michôd’s War Machine presents the war in Afghanistan as a debacle, presided over by lunatics and egomaniacs (in Hastings’ The Operators, the author describes the war as a “clusterfuck” that “defied satisfying analysis”).

The mockery directed against America’s military and geopolitical policies begins at the outset, when the narrator ironizes, “Ah, America. You beacon of composure and proportionate response. You bringer of calm and goodness to the world.”

The conflict is presented as an entirely doomed project. In this regard, the tone is set early on by the journalist-narrator, who refers to “two types of generals in the American military. There are those who believe they can win in the face of all evidence to the contrary. And there are those who know they can’t. Unfortunately for the world, it’s the believers who climb to the top of the ladder.”

The narrator insists on getting “a handle on the madness of modern American war.” He explains that the US military’s “counterinsurgency” strategy (McMahon has his own personalized version—SNORPP, short for Systemic Negation Of Repetitive Procedural Practice) runs up against basic political realities. “When … you’ve just gone and invaded a place that you probably shouldn’t have, you end up fighting against just regular people in regular-people clothes. These guys are what are called insurgents. Basically, they’re just guys who picked up weapons ’cause … so would you, if someone invaded your country. Funnily enough … insurgencies are next to impossible to defeat.”

War Machine’s voice-over points out that the British and French tried to hang on to their “crumbling empires” through counterinsurgency and the efforts failed. “You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it. You can’t build a nation at gunpoint.”

The film’s version of McChrystal/McMahon’s sojourn in Afghanistan includes the general’s conflicts with Obama administration officials over release of his initial assessment (which the officials want to sit on and which he subsequently leaks to the US media) and, based on that assessment, his demands for tens of thousands of additional troops. War Machine devotes a portion of its time and energy to the Afghan war commander’s jaunt across Europe, where he attempts to raise more soldiers from reluctant US allies. It also touches upon his fantasy of winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, with “the unassailable might and power of our ideals.” Helping to pour cold water on that possibility, American officials inform the general that the sole crop the occupying force will permit local farmers to grow is poppies for the heroin trade.

It is not possible or necessary to recount every detail, but certain episodes and themes stand out. They stand out, above all, because they run counter to the official US media and political establishment narrative, which finds almost unanimous expression in film and television. In other words, War Machine punches through the big lie.

One of the more striking and lengthier sequences occurs when McMahon encounters a unit of Marines, just back from rest and rehabilitation in Italy, and who we will meet again. A young black soldier (Lakeith Stanfield) complains to McMahon, “I can’t tell the difference between the people and the enemy. They all look alike to me. I’m pretty sure they’re the same people, sir.” To which the Afghan commander replies, “Sometimes when you’re dealing with an insurgency, you’re not gonna be 100 percent clear on who the enemy is.”

Once McMahon has his troop “surge,” he sets out to organize Operation Moshtarak, aimed at removing the Taliban from the town of Marjah and destroying its influence in Helmand Province (which McMahon has just been told by a British military official is “a lost cause”).

During the battle of Marjah the death of an Afghan child traumatizes the same black soldier. A Marine sergeant offers money and empty platitudes to the grieving father. Later, a translator repeats a local man’s blunt protest to McMahon, “And every day that you spend here longer, the worse it will be for them [the residents] when you leave. So please, leave now. Please.”

The pointed portrayal of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), Washington’s puppet, in War Machine adds a darkly and lively comic note.

In one scene, McMahon feels obliged to seek Karzai’s approval for Operation Moshtarak, and complains to the president, who he has not been able to reach, that he is not behaving “like a leader.”

Karzai-Kingsley responds sagely, but cheerfully, “But I am behaving like a leader. I’m unavailable. I am as unavailable to you as is your own president. Hmm? You have my approval, General. We both know it was never really mine to give. But… I thank you for inviting me to participate in the theater of it all.”

The performances in War Machine reflect genuine thought and commitment. The actors here, for once, are attached to an important reality.

Pitt bears the largest weight in the film, and bears it admirably. He enables us to “get inside the mind [and empty soul] of Glen McMahon,” this madman in whose hands lies the fate of vast numbers of human beings. Much of the role necessarily involves debunking, criticizing, not something American actors have done much of in recent decades. Too often actors want to be loved. Pitt remains unlovable and unattractive virtually throughout, as he should.

Pitt and Ben Kingsley

The general is a fraud. Supposedly committed to keeping the civilian population alive and sympathetic, he presides over war crimes. He is renowned for his irrepressible energy and determination, but what does that lead to? Destruction, criminality … His “folksy,” “man of the people” demeanor is another charade. As the narrator points out, “Glen was known as a humble man. But humble in that way that says, ‘My humility makes me better than you.’”

Hall gives Pulver-Flynn (“His official title was director of intelligence, but all I saw was a guy with anger management issues whose life had no meaning without Glen.”) his terrifying due. Tilda Swinton, as a pacifistic German politician who questions McMahon’s crude insurgency “arithmetic,” makes a mark during her brief time on screen.

Not everything in War Machine works. There are issues of tone and consistency and pace. The first half of the film is more successful. The European portion, in which we witness the personal idiosyncrasies and misbehavior of McMahon’s team, drags somewhat. Largely secondary issues suddenly arise.

The film does not delve into the larger geopolitical realities behind the war drive in the Middle East and Central Asia. Related to that perhaps, the Netflix movie’s comic, not to say occasionally flippant, element is incompatible at certain moments with the awfulness of the situation. To his credit, Michôd does allow the tragedy to unfold in the film’s culminating scenes, but at times the work suffers from a flatness as it tries to find the proper balance between dark and light.

However, even the failings in War Machine have to be seen in historical and artistic context. Michôd, Pitt and company are traveling in what is relatively uncharted territory in our day. Savagely satirizing and mocking the “glorious” American military, dripping with blood from every pore, has become practically illegal in the US. Widespread popular hostility toward a quarter century of brutal war and toward the politicians and generals who have conducted it finds virtually no outlet in American culture. Here, for once, the pent-up disgust and horror comes through.

Michôd explains in an interview, “The great sadness and the great concern is that we—and by we, I mean the United States and its allies, including my great country, Australia—are not only still at war in Afghanistan, but that this ‘War on Terror’ has expanded now to six or seven other different countries. And it’s shocking to me how seemingly un-newsworthy this stuff is.”

He told another interviewer, “And, at some point, in the process of outlining the movie, I realized that what I wanted to do was not just make a movie about the insanity of war but I wanted to make the movie feel insane. I wanted to create a kind of sharp and pronounced tonal schism between that upper executive level and the boots on the ground in order to make that distinction more pronounced.”

The critics for the most part have been unsettled by War Machine. They pick on certain weaknesses as a means of dismissing the film’s sharp and long-overdue critique. Variety, for instance, snidely refers to Michôd’s film as a “costly flop,” a “big-budget Netflix misfire” and a “colossally miscalculated satire.” A CNN review headline reads, “Brad Pitt’s ‘War Machine’ fizzles on Netflix.”

These are some of the same people who find complexity and depth in the rubbish Hollywood ordinarily churns out, including its exercises in psychotic violence, along with its superhero and comic book movies.

In fact, if the truth be told, the critics and the media generally identify with the US military and its drive for global hegemony. They instinctively react to any exposure of the institutions that protect their stock portfolios and comfortable lives. They are outraged that the universal consensus about the “war on terror,” another enormous falsehood, is broken through.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/30/mach-m30.html

Trump on Jackson and the Civil War: Historical ignorance and the decline of the American presidency

By Tom Mackaman
4 May 2017

In recent comments on American history, President Donald Trump conflated the era of Andrew Jackson with the Civil War and insisted that the latter, known then and since as the “irrepressible conflict,” could have been avoided.

“Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump asked in his May 1 interview on Sirius satellite radio. He went on to assert that the Civil War upset his hero Andrew Jackson—who had been dead for 16 years at the war’s outbreak.

Trump said: “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been [president] a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War…. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

It hardly seems necessary to correct Trump’s false statements, which follow February 1 remarks revealing that the president does not know who the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was. As for his assertion that the Civil War was a calamitous error—in other words, that there was nothing historically necessary about the bloodiest war in American history, the “Second American Revolution” that ended slavery—this is a reactionary and discredited interpretation with its own sordid history.

There is a more salient point: The president of the United States is completely ignorant of the basic facts and chronology of his own country’s history, including its most significant event, the Civil War.

From this troubling fact other inescapable conclusions must be drawn. It is clearly impossible for Trump to draw, in any meaningful way, on the experience of history. He cannot possibly place current events in any broader political and historical context. And if American history is so foreign to him, one can be certain he knows nothing of the history of the countries he menaces with trade war or military attack: Mexico, Germany, North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, etc.

In a narrow sense, Trump’s ignorance is unsurprising. Like the billionaire and multi-millionaire investors and “entrepreneurs” he represents, and for whom money-making is the true and only God, the real estate swindler and reality television personality-turned commander in chief surely sees little use for the past. To the extent that he turns to history, it is transactional. Much like the sale or purchase of a hotel, to Trump every historical event is a unique episode to be selected and interpreted impressionistically from the standpoint of immediate gain.

In a broader sense, however, Trump only epitomizes the long-term decline of historical knowledge in the American ruling class. Consider his predecessor in the White House. While it may be true that Barack Obama did not make such clamorous factual errors as Trump, one will search his speeches in vain for a single memorable or profound reference to the past.

Obama’s knowledge of history was hardly less superficial or dishonest than Trump’s. How could it be otherwise? How could the president who, in the bailout of Wall Street, oversaw history’s greatest transfer of wealth from the working class to the wealthy honestly equate himself to Lincoln, who, in the emancipation of the slaves, carried out the largest seizure of private property in world history prior to the Russian Revolution? How could a president who proclaimed his “right” to assassinate without trial those he alone claimed to be terrorists appeal to the democratic legacy of Jefferson and Madison, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, respectively?

To put such names in the same paragraph—Trump and Obama on one side; Lincoln, Jefferson and Madison on the other—is to be reminded of the breathtaking decline in the personnel of the American presidency. Lincoln, though largely self-taught, was an assiduous student of Shakespeare, mathematics and history. Jefferson and Madison ranked among the great thinkers of their day, their huge and well-used libraries filled with volumes on science, philosophy and classical antiquity.

The decline after Lincoln has been steep and protracted. There has not been a real student of history in the White House in the half century since the truncated administration of John Kennedy (1961-1963), who, like Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) twenty years before him, was at least able to convey the appearance of an individual at ease speaking about the past. Before them, in the Progressive Era, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and the professor-turned-president Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) wrote volumes on history and were named presidents of the American Historical Association after their years in the White House.

These presidents’ use of history was always in the service of an American ruling class, whose revolutionary days had died with Lincoln. For example, Wilson, in his historical scholarship, promoted the myth that the Civil War was a mistake—a false interpretation that Donald Trump now embraces. Wilson did so as part of a larger academic project that sought to bury the revolutionary and egalitarian significance of the Civil War. This was done in the context of the emergence of the US as an imperialist power waging bloody colonial wars abroad while conducting industrial warfare against the working class at home.

Even so, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt sought to promote the idea that their policies were the outcome of the progressive development of US and world history, a process in which they imagined American capitalism and its governmental forms would go on playing a special, even messianic role. They mustered their idealistic interpretations to contend with scientific socialism, whose materialist approach to history, discovered by Karl Marx, attracted intellectuals, artists and growing numbers of workers and youth.

For these and other reasons, presidents in an earlier period promoted the study of history in the classroom. Not so today. It is not just that the White House in more recent decades has been occupied by individuals ignorant of history, including some whose ignorance was of historical dimensions. The presidency is now a “bully pulpit” in the attack on the teaching of history, as well as art and music, in the elementary and high schools, colleges and universities.

Compare Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks on teaching history and art, delivered at the American Historical Association annual conference in 1912, to Obama’s insipid comment on the same subject, delivered in 2014.

Roosevelt: “History, taught for a directly and immediately useful purpose to pupils and the teachers of pupils, is one of the necessary features of a sound education in democratic citizenship… few inscriptions teach us as much history as certain forms of literature that do not consciously aim at teaching history at all. The inscriptions of Hellenistic Greece in the third century before our era do not, all told, give us so lifelike a view of the ordinary life of the ordinary men and women who dwelt in the great Hellenistic cities of the time as does the fifteenth idyll of Theocritus.”

Obama: “[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

It is not that Roosevelt overlooked the necessity of industrial work. But he paid lip service to the ideal, and backed it up with a degree of government funding, that broad access to history and culture was a positive good. In word and in deed, the recent presidents—Trump, Obama, George W. Bush, etc.— attack the teaching of history and the idea of a liberal education. Educational “reforms” such as Obama’s “Race to the Top” have brought layoffs for tens of thousands of social studies teachers and blocked a generation of history, literature, music and art majors from finding work.

Here it must be added that the attack on history has also been waged from within the walls of the Ivory Tower. Highly paid practitioners of postmodernism and identity politics, many of them the leading “theorists” and most highly compensated professors at elite universities—not only in the US, but also in Great Britain, France and Germany—insist that there is no objectively understandable history at all. It is all simply a “narrative” that one creates or discards for present purposes. The archival record left behind by past generations is treated in the most cavalier manner and the pursuit in history of objectivity, facts and truth—terms that are inevitably placed within quotation marks in postmodern texts—is treated with contempt.

If the postmodernist premise about history is true, then why should Trump’s deeply false “narrative” of American history be less valid than any other? Or, for that matter, German historian Jörg Baberowski’s “narrative” of twentieth century history, which relativizes the crimes of the Third Reich? How is Trump’s argument that the Civil War was all a big mistake fundamentally different from that of the advocates of identity politics, such as Michael Eric Dyson, who view American history as a story of unchanging and unending “white racism?”

It might appear ironic that as history closes in on the ruling class, its understanding of its own history erodes, a process embodied in the American presidency itself.

It is not at all ironic. History is a most unwelcome guest at the lavish banquet where the rich gorge themselves at the expense of the working masses. Its most basic lessons must fill the billionaires and their politicians with dread: That times change and at certain points the oppressed revolutionize their times, that masses of people can learn from history and assimilate its strategic experiences, and that the richest and seemingly most timeless oligarchies have fallen—among them the Capetian Dynasty of the ancien regime in France, the Romanov Dynasty of Tsarist Russia, and, of course, the old slave-owning elite with which Trump so identifies.

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/04/trum-m04.html

The Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) and the fate of the ‘60s generation

By Vladimir Volkov
3 May 2017

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the best-known Soviet poet from the 1960s to the 1980s, died at 83 from cancer on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Yevtushenko, born in 1932 in the small town of Zima in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, became one of the leading Soviet poets of the “thaw period” under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Those years were bound up with official condemnation of the “cult of personality” around Joseph Stalin and the widespread hope within the Soviet people that the country could be renewed on a socialist basis.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 2009 [Photo: Cybersky]

In one of his most renowned poems, “The Heirs of Stalin,” published in 1961 at the time that Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, Yevtushenko wrote:

Let someone repeat over and over again: “Compose yourself!”
I shall never find rest.
As long as there are Stalin’s heirs on earth,
it will always seem to me,
that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum.
[Translated by Katherine von Imhof]

Yevtushenko’s father was a geologist of Baltic German origin. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. The boy’s original last name was Gangnus, but his mother changed it to her family name after they moved to Moscow at the end of the war.

In secondary school and during his student years, Yevtushenko struggled and had various problems, but he quickly emerged as a talented poet. His first attempts at writing poetry were published in the journal Sovetsky Sport (Soviet Sport), when he was 17 years old, and his first volume of poetry, The Prospects of the Future, came out in 1952.

The poem “Babi Yar,” written in 1961 in honor of the Jewish victims of mass murder by the Nazi occupiers in a ravine outside Kiev in the fall of 1941, brought him true international fame. In the poem, translated into 72 languages, Yevtushenko writes:

I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’
let it thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage,
all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
[Translated by George Reavey]

“Babi Yar” is justly Yevtushenko’s best known poem. It is deeply moving and had an enormous impact when it was first published in the Soviet journal Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961.

In the Soviet Union, both under Stalin and his successors, state anti-Semitism flourished behind the scenes and—under this malevolent official influence—found expression in everyday life. Even though Red Army correspondents such as Vasily Grossman had been among the first to write and report on the Holocaust, the horrors were subsequently covered up by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which denied that genocide had been committed against the Jewish people, instead arguing that only “Soviet citizens” were murdered.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who incorporated the poem into his Symphony No. 13 (1962), reportedly told a friend: “I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.”

Andrei Voznesensky reading at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum

In the early 1960s, the great enthusiasm of Soviet young people for poetry generated the phenomenon of readings in large venues. The most legendary poetry evenings were the ones held at Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum, which attracted thousands of admirers. Apart from Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the three best-known young poets—Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina (who later became Yevtushenko’s first wife)—also read their verses there.

The readings at the Polytechnic Museum became part of the fiction film I am Twenty (Marlen Khutsiev, 1965), widely recognized as one of the symbols of the “thaw” period and the attempts of the best layers of the Soviet intelligentsia of the time to make a connection between the epoch of the 1917 revolution and the contemporary period.

The young poets often emulated the leading figures of the 1920s, such as Sergei Yesenin and especially Vladimir Mayakovsky. The influence of the latter was particularly felt in the works of Rozhdestvensky and Yevtushenko himself.

The principal peculiarity of Yevtushenko’s poetic style was the combination of a deep lyricism and self-examination—often bordering on self-infatuation and egocentrism—with a civic or social pathos and an urge to comment on the most topical questions of political life.

Yevtushenko elaborated his view on poetry, according to which the self-expression of the individual cannot limit itself to the “ivory tower” of “pure art,” and according to which it [individual self-expression] is inseparable from the striving to have a certain social position, in his poem “The Bratsk Hydroelectric Station” (1965). This poem was conceived as a hymn to the success of building Soviet society, which surpassed anything hitherto known in human history.

The poet in Russia is more than a poet.
Only those in whom the proud spirit of citizenship roams,
Who find no comfort or peace,
Are fated to be born as poets in Russia.

At the same time, the main unresolved question that determined Yevtushenko’s fate as a poet, as it did that of the entire Soviet “‘60s generation,” lay in the incapacity to truly break with the Stalinist bureaucracy and find a direct path to the genuine history and spiritual pathos of the 1917 October Revolution.

This incapacity, in the final analysis, was an objective socio-cultural problem, not a failing of the individual artists. Stalinism had murdered off the finest elements in the working class and the intelligentsia, anyone perceived to represent a threat to the bureaucracy. As a result of the physical and intellectual devastation, the Soviet population was largely blocked from contact with genuine Marxism, including of course a left-wing critique of the counter-revolutionary regime itself.

The artists undoubtedly felt a sincere hatred and revulsion for Stalin, but the terrible practices and legacy of Soviet Stalinism could not be reduced to the personal foibles and malice of an individual, but rather were rooted in the nationalistic, reactionary theory of “socialism in a single country,” which represented the opposite of the international and revolutionary perspectives of October.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1963

The 1960s generation certainly went through a romantic infatuation with the revolution and the Civil War. This resulted, inter alia, in the lines written in 1957 by Bulat Okudzhava, the son of the Georgian Old Bolshevik, Shalva Okudzhava, accused of “Trotskyism” and shot by Stalin during the Great Terror in the late 1930s:

No matter what new battle shakes the globe,
I will nevertheless fall in that single Civil War,
And commissars in dusty headgear will bow in silence over me.

To resurrect the genuine spirit of the first years of Soviet power, however, and to lay a bridge between the two epochs, separated by the gulf of a horrible tragedy, the political genocide of several generations of the Bolshevik party and the entire culture of Russian socialism, it would have been necessary to turn seriously to the heritage of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. This political heritage embodied the best traditions of October and represented the socialist alternative to Soviet Stalinism. But the conditions for the artists making such a turn were very unfavorable.

Making this conscious connection to the history of the Left Opposition, the continuator of Bolshevism, was also necessary for a new—and genuine—“discovery” of Lenin, whom the official Soviet “Marxism-Leninism” had turned into an embalmed mummy, a dead statue with the face of a “state person.”

Without confronting this primary and most critical problem, the generation of Soviet intellectuals of the 1960s was condemned to degeneration and moral degradation, as well as to an increasing creative impotence.

Ambivalence, growing hypocrisy and cynicism found their reflection in Yevtushenko’s work and personal eccentricities.

In the mid-1960s he condemned the witch-hunt in the USSR of poet Joseph Brodsky and writer Yuli Daniel, and wrote about the merciless suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring by the Brezhnev leadership in the words: “Tanks are moving on Prague, Tanks are moving on the truth.” He also wrote a series of poems about the Vietnam War. However, in the 1970s Yevtushenko turned more and more into a stereotyped figure of a “representative of Soviet culture” abroad.

The celebrity poet visited over a hundred countries, meeting not only Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, but also such repugnant representatives of world imperialism as Richard Nixon.

President Richard Nixon and Yevtushenko

The necessity to regularly “speak out” on topical political questions in the general spirit of the interests of the Kremlin leadership too often gave birth to hurriedly cobbled together, often botched verses. The journalist and writer Denis Dragunskii remarks: “Yevtushenko is flashy, colorful, and sometimes tasteless. Just like his clothes—these overtly colorful jackets, rings, shirts of crazy styles.”

Discussing Yevtushenko’s ability to establish relations with the powers that be and “advance himself,” Dragunskii cites a story of one journalist from the newspaper Komsomolskaya pravda [ Komsomol Truth —organ of the Central Committee of the Komsomol, youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], who observed Yevtushenko in the mid-1970s “twice during one day. In the morning, the poet came into the ‘Komsomolka’ [which was in these years one of the anchors of “free thought” within the framework granted by the authorities] and was dressed very fashionably, striking and foreign. And at three in the afternoon he met Yevtushenko in the Central Committee of the Komsomol and hardly recognized him—he was dressed in a modest, Soviet suit, tie… He apparently had gone home only to change this clothes.”

The process of degeneration of the Soviet intelligentsia was not completed in an instant, but stretched out over a lengthy period of time, at least two decades or more, proceeding quite steadily in the years of the so called “stagnation” (under Leonid Brezhnev and his successors). Nevertheless, having received a significant impetus from the “thaw,” Soviet culture continued to yield significant fruits for some time. The flourishing of cinema, for instance, continued from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

But the continued rule of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy, which could only have been ended in a progressive fashion by a political revolution of the working class, doomed the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”) policies brought to light the hidden, long-term process of decay and the real danger of capitalist restoration, while leading layers of the Soviet intelligentsia “suddenly” discovered that, in the name of the democratic “values” of bourgeois society, they were prepared to curse the revolution, socialism and their own recent past.

The acknowledged leaders of the “Soviet ‘60s” in the various spheres of science and culture became the primary intellectual prop for the restoration of capitalism which the Stalinist bureaucracy conducted at the turn of the 1980s and 90s and which destroyed the Soviet Union.

Proceeding ever further along the path of renunciationism and anti-Communism, a significant section of this layer, including the above-mentioned Bulat Okudzhava, supported the authoritarian Boris Yeltsin regime and enthusiastically approved his shelling of parliament by tanks in October 1993. Some few years later, in full accordance with the positions of the most influential group of recently emerged “oligarchs,” they supported Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.

Yevtushenko tried to find a new footing in the post-Soviet period, but without much success. His moderate criticisms of Yeltsin’s Russia allowed him to maintain or develop a certain popularity, but all this resembled, more than anything else, a life after death.

In 1991, he moved with his family to the United States, after receiving a position at the University of Tulsa. From this point on, he returned to Russia mostly for short visits; he held readings from time to time, gave interviews and worked on editing a five-volume anthology of Russian poetry covering “ten centuries in the history of the country.”

In 2014 Yevtushenko disgracefully supported the pro-Western coup in Kiev, which was carried out by far-right and fascist forces. A few days before the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, he wrote the poem “State, Be a Human Being!,” in which he declared “With me on the Maidan are the warm ghosts of Pushkin and Briullov [Karl Briullov, the Russian painter who donated the proceeds of the sale of one of his paintings to buy the freedom of Ukrainian writer-artist Taras Shevchenko from virtual slavery].”

This final transformation of Yevtushenko from a “fellow-traveler” and “friend” of the Soviet bureaucracy into a loyal supporter of imperialism guaranteed him the sympathies of the pro-Western liberal opposition, which “rehabilitated” him as fully as they could.

The poet and writer Dmitry Bykov speaks today of the “drama and triumph of Yevtushenko,” asserting he was “a man, endowed with super-human abilities.” At the same time, the decades-long “conflict” between Joseph Brodsky and Yevtushenko has finally come to an end. Brodsky, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, at the height of Gorbachev’s perestroika, had already, by the end of the 1960s, politically turned far to the right, to extreme anti-Communism. His personal animosity toward the officially recognized Soviet writers and poets found its most specific expression in his hostile attitude toward Yevtushenko. His animosity, it is said, went so far that Brodsky declared: “If Yevtushenko is against the kolkhozes [Soviet collective farms], then I am for them.”

When looked at today, this feud looks like a trivial episode, even though one that bears some significance if only from the standpoint of literary history.

It would be a gross oversimplification and a genuine error to regard the fate of the generation of the Soviet ‘60s as nothing more than one colossal defeat in the moral and creative sense. These figures left us quite a lot that is vivid and fresh and which will continue to live in the memory of future generations.

In the present day, the American ruling elite is conducting a ferocious anti-Russian campaign, trying to incite open hatred of the Russians as a people in order to justify their plans for global domination. Under such conditions one is pleased and moved to remember one of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s best poems written in 1961. In one of the most difficult periods of the Cold War, on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote, recalling the lessons of the Second World War:

Say, do the Russians want a war?—
Go ask our land, then ask once more
That silence lingering in the air
Above the birch and poplar there. …

Sure, we know how to fight a war,
But we don’t want to see once more
The soldiers falling all around,
Their countryside a battleground.
Ask those who give the soldiers life
Go ask my mother, ask my wife,
Then you will have to ask no more,
Say—Do the Russians want a war?

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/03/yevt-m03.html

Scientists in many disciplines see apocalypse, soon

It’s the end of the world and we know it:

Stephen Hawking is one of many scientists who see the possible near-term demise of our species. Spend that 401k!

It's the end of the world and we know it: Scientists in many disciplines see apocalypse, soon
(Credit: Getty/Everlite/Leon Neal/Photo Montage by Salon)

While apocalyptic beliefs about the end of the world have, historically, been the subject of religious speculation, they are increasingly common among some of the leading scientists today. This is a worrisome fact, given that science is based not on faith and private revelation, but on observation and empirical evidence.

Perhaps the most prominent figure with an anxious outlook on humanity’s future is Stephen Hawking. Last year, he wrote the following in a Guardian article:

Now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it.

There is not a single point here that is inaccurate or hyperbolic. For example, consider that the hottest 17 years on record have all occurred since 2000, with a single exception (namely, 1998), and with 2016 being the hottest ever. Although 2017 probably won’t break last year’s record, the UK’s Met Office projects that it “will still rank among the hottest years on record.” Studies also emphasize that there is a rapidly closing window for meaningful action on climate change. As the authors of one peer-reviewed paper put it:

The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far. Policy decisions made during this window are likely to result in changes to Earth’s climate system measured in millennia rather than human lifespans, with associated socioeconomic and ecological impacts that will exacerbate the risks and damages to society and ecosystems that are projected for the twenty-first century and propagate into the future for many thousands of years.

Furthermore, studies suggest that civilization will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than in all of human history, which stretches back some 200,000 years into the Pleistocene epoch. This is partly due to the ongoing problem of overpopulation, where Pew projects approximately 9.3 billion people living on spaceship Earth by 2050. According to the 2016 Living Planet Report, humanity needs 1.6 Earths to sustain our current rate of (over)consumption — in other words, unless something significant changes with respect to anthropogenic resource depletion, nature will force life as we know it to end.

Along these lines, scientists largely agree that human activity has pushed the biosphere into the sixth mass extinction event in the entire 4.5 billion year history of Earth. This appears to be the case even on the most optimistic assumptions about current rates of species extinctions, which may be occurring 10,000 times faster than the normal “background rate” of extinction. Other studies have found that, for example, the global population of wild vertebrates — that is, mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians — has declined by a staggering 58 percent between 1970 and 2012. The biosphere is wilting in real time, and our own foolish actions are to blame.

As for disease, superbugs are a growing concern among researchers due to overuse of antibiotics among livestock and humans. These multi-drug-resistant bacteria are highly resistant to normal treatment routes, and already some 2 million people become sick from superbugs each year.

Perhaps the greatest risk here is that, as Brian Coombes puts it, “antibiotics are the foundation on which all modern medicine rests. Cancer chemotherapy, organ transplants, surgeries, and childbirth all rely on antibiotics to prevent infections. If you can’t treat those, then we lose the medical advances we have made in the last 50 years.” Indeed, this is why Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, claims that “Antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development and security.”

Making matters even worse, experts argue that the risk of a global pandemic is increasing. The reason is, in part, because of the growth of megacities. According to a United Nations estimate, “66 percent of the global population will live in urban centers by 2050.” The closer proximity of people will make the propagation of pathogens much easier, not to mention the fact that deadly germs can travel from one location to another at literally the speed of a jetliner. Furthermore, climate change will produce heat waves and flooding events that will create “more opportunity for waterborne diseases such as cholera and for disease vectors such as mosquitoes in new regions.” This is why some public health researchers conclude that “we are at greater risk than ever of experiencing large-scale outbreaks and global pandemics,” and that “the next outbreak contender will most likely be a surprise.”

Finally, the acidification of the world’s oceans is a catastrophe that hardly gets the attention it deserves. What’s happening is that the oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and this is causing their pH level to fall. One consequence is the destruction of coral reefs through a process called “bleaching.” Today, about 60 percent of coral reefs are in danger of bleaching, and about 10 percent are already underwater ghost towns.

Even more alarming, though, is the fact that the rate of ocean acidification is happening faster today than it occurred during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. That event is called the “Great Dying” because it was the most devastating mass extinction ever, resulting in some 95 percent of all species kicking the bucket. As the science journalist Eric Hand points out, whereas 2.4 gigatons of carbon were injected into the atmosphere per year during the Great Dying, about 10 gigatons are being injected per year by contemporary industrial society. Thus, the sixth mass extinction mentioned above, also called the Anthropocene extinction, could turn out to be perhaps even worse than the Permian-Triassic die-off.

So Hawking’s dire warning that we live in the most perilous period of our species’ existence is quite robust. In fact, considerations like these have led a number of other notable scientists to suggest that the collapse of global society could occur in the foreseeable future. The late microbiologist Frank Fenner, for example, whose virological work helped eliminate smallpox, predicted in 2010 that “humans will probably be extinct within 100 years, because of overpopulation, environmental destruction, and climate change.” Similarly, the Canadian biologist Neil Dawe reportedly “wouldn’t be surprised if the generation after him witness the extinction of humanity.” And the renowned ecologist Guy McPherson argues that humanity will follow the dodo into the evolutionary grave by 2026. (On the upside, maybe you don’t need to worry so much about that retirement plan.)

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also recently moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight, or doom, primarily because of President Donald J. Trump and the tsunami of anti-intellectualism that got him into the Oval Office. As Lawrence Krauss and David Titley wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

The United States now has a president who has promised to impede progress on both [curbing nuclear proliferation and solving climate change]. Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter.

At two-and-a-half minutes before midnight, the Doomsday Clock is currently the closest to midnight that it’s been since 1953, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union had both detonated hydrogen bombs.

But so far we have mostly ignored threats to our existence that many leading risk scholars believe are the most serious, namely those associated with emerging technologies such as biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. In general, these technologies are not only becoming more powerful at an exponential rate, according to Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, but increasingly accessible to small groups and even lone wolves. The result is that a growing number of individuals are being empowered to wreak unprecedented havoc on civilization. Consider the following nightmare disaster outlined by computer scientist Stuart Russell:

A very, very small quadcopter, one inch in diameter can carry a one- or two-gram shaped charge. You can order them from a drone manufacturer in China. You can program the code to say: “Here are thousands of photographs of the kinds of things I want to target.” A one-gram shaped charge can punch a hole in nine millimeters of steel, so presumably you can also punch a hole in someone’s head. You can fit about three million of those in a semi-tractor-trailer. You can drive up I-95 with three trucks and have 10 million weapons attacking New York City. They don’t have to be very effective, only 5 or 10 percent of them have to find the target.

Russell adds that “there will be manufacturers producing millions of these weapons that people will be able to buy just like you can buy guns now, except millions of guns don’t matter unless you have a million soldiers. You need only three guys,” he concludes, to write the relevant computer code and launch these drones.

This scenario can be scaled up arbitrarily to involve, say, 500 million weaponized drones packed into several hundred semi-trucks strategically positioned around the world. The result could be a global catastrophe that brings civilization to its knees — no less than a nuclear terrorism attack or an engineered pandemic caused by a designer pathogen would severely disrupt modern life. As Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum put it in their captivating book “The Future of Violence,” we are heading toward an era of distributed offensive capabilities that is unlike anything our species has ever before encountered.

What sort of person might actually want to do this, though? Unfortunately, there are many types of people who would willingly destroy humanity. The list includes apocalyptic terrorists, psychopaths, psychotics, misanthropes, ecoterrorists, anarcho-primitivists, eco-anarchists, violent technophobes, militant neo-Luddites and even “morally good people” who maintain, for ethical reasons, that human suffering is so great that we would be better off not existing at all. Given the dual technology trends mentioned above, all it could take later this century is a single person or group to unilaterally end the great experiment called civilization forever.

It is considerations like these that have led risk scholars — some at top universities around the world — to specify disturbingly high probabilities of global disaster in the future. For example, the philosopher John Leslie claims that humanity has a 30 percent chance of extinction in the next five centuries. Less optimistically, an “informal” survey of experts at a conference hosted by Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute puts the probability of human extinction before 2100 at 19 percent. And Lord Martin Rees, co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, argues that civilization has no better than a 50-50 likelihood of enduring into the next century.

To put this number in perspective, it means that the average American is about 4,000 times more likely to witness civilization implode than to die in an “air and space transport accident.” A child born today has a good chance of living to see the collapse of civilization, according to our best estimates.

Returning to religion, recent polls show that a huge portion of religious people believe that the end of the world is imminent. For example, a 2010 survey found that 41 percent of Christians in the U.S. believe that Jesus will either “definitely” or “probably” return by 2050. Similarly, 83 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan and 72 percent in Iraq claim that the Mahdi, Islam’s end-of-days messianic figure, will return within their lifetimes. The tragedy here, from a scientific perspective, is that such individuals are worried about the wrong apocalypse! Much more likely are catastrophes, calamities and cataclysms that cause unprecedented (and pointless) human suffering in a universe without any external source of purpose or meaning. At the extreme, an existential risk could tip our species into the eternal grave of extinction.

In a sense, though, religious people and scientists agree: We are in a unique moment of human history, one marked by an exceptionally high probability of disaster. The difference is that, for religious people, utopia stands on the other side of the apocalypse, whereas for scientists, there is nothing but darkness. To be clear, the situation is not by any means hopeless. In fact, there is hardly a threat before us — from climate change to the sixth mass extinction, from apocalyptic terrorism to a superintelligence takeover — that is inevitable. But without a concerted collective effort to avert catastrophe, the future could be as bad as any dystopian sci-fi writer has imagined.

Parts of this article draw from my forthcoming book “Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks.”

What’s in store at John Waters’ offbeat summer camp?

The idyllic Connecticut woods with a touch of Waters’ wacky additions

What's in store at John Waters' offbeat summer camp?

Ah, the sights and sounds of summer camp.

Remember the smell of a bonfire? The ring of the dinner bell in the mess hall? The refreshing sensation of jumping into a lake on a hot day? The burlesque lessons taught by notorious film director and writer John Waters while getting drunk on scotch and puffing down stogies? The endless games of capture the, wait, what was that last one?

Ok, so maybe getting taught how to perform variety shows with a buzz by the film guru of hits like Pink Flamingos and Polyester doesn’t register in the memory banks of most people’s summer camp experiences, but it will be for 300 lucky campers.

Waters will host an adult summer camp weekend experience full of filthy fun at Club Getaway in Kent, Conn. this September. The camp will be complete with all the traditional camp essentials like cabins and canoes, as well as activities like arts and crafts, paddleboarding and rock climbing, but will also feature Hairspray Karaoke, John Waters reading a John Waters’ book and a costume contest judged by the Prince of Puke himself and other wacky and weird Waters-like things for campers to enjoy.

The excursion started at $499, plus alcohol, and is already sold out, but there is a waiting list for people interested if spots open up and more wacky weekend excursions could be in the making due to the popularity of the first one.

Each camper will be given a signed copy of Waters’ new book “Make Trouble,” which is based on a commencement speech he gave at the Rhode Island School of Design where he told the class of 2015 to “get a job and fuck it up and then go to the next place and fuck it up.”

Waters stopped into Salon to talk about “Make Trouble” with Salon’s Amanda Marcotte. “I mean, wreck things in a good way,” Waters said. He explained that he did not want to offer a “Hallmark greeting kind of way that really means nothing and you can’t take the advice and do anything with it.” Instead, he said, he wanted to remind the students that wrecking the world is their responsibility.

“That’s youth’s responsibility. Every new movement comes from ending the movement that came before. So I say, don’t try to get on your parents’ nerves. Try to get on the coolest people one year ahead of you in school’s nerves. Then you can change things, right?

What’s in store at John Waters’ offbeat summer camp?

Watch the Salon Talks interview with John Waters to hear more.

Jason Stormer is a Salon intern in the video department.