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.

“American Gods” answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship

Divine drama: Bryan Fuller and Michael Green combine their talents to bring Neil Gaiman’s deity-driven story roaring to life

Divine drama: "American Gods" answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship
American Gods(Credit: Starz)

Take a moment to appreciate the spiritual symmetry Starz’s “American Gods” brings to the next eight Sunday nights. Millions will greet each of those mornings with ceremonial worship and prayer, and a share of those same people, as well as others who are less religious, will end the day watching this drama — a show that questions whether faith gains us anything in the end.

For there’s no question in “American Gods” as to whether deities exist. They walk among us and have done so for centuries, sharing many of the same urges and frustrations as humans do. What the gods are not, however, are interventionists. Pray all you want; odds are they’re not listening. But be careful because the ones who answer may not give the pious the deliverance sought.

“American Gods,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., represents Neil Gaiman’s contemporary take on pantheons merging and colliding, something genre fiction writers played with on page and screen many times over. Readers familiar with Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic books will recognize the insouciant humor and a similarly fluid sense of time and reality in Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s television adaptation.

The otherworldly travelers in “American Gods” are immigrants who arrive alongside their human believers but whose relationship with the faithful tends toward the parasitic as opposed to the symbiotic. In an opening scene set in the distant past, Vikings are marooned on an unfriendly North American shore and maim themselves to gain favor from Odin, the All-Father, whose bestowal of a piddly breeze is not commensurate with the stunning orgy of bloodshed that precedes it.

If Odin’s boys could only see him now! Traveling as Mr. Wednesday, the battered and rumpled old god (played sublimely by Ian McShane) merrily, lazily slides into the life of recently released convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Shadow finds out as he’s released that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died unexpectedly, a terrible stroke of fate that brings him into Wednesday’s orbit.

Wednesday cons his way into first class by pretending to be senile and harmless, and Shadow, in a stroke of luck, is bumped up when his seat is double booked. Whether this was actually coincidence or the downward-trending god’s will is the first of many small mysteries “American Gods” sprinkles throughout its initial episodes — and probably the least important.

Mr. Wednesday is up front about who he is: a liar, cheater, swindler, hustler. A few drinks later Mr. Wednesday persuades Shadow to become his paid bodyguard, a job assured to come with a lot of perks as well as a high probability of a violent death. For Wednesday is gathering an army of old deities to take on the New Gods, a coalition of uncaring beings led by Mr. World (Crispin Glover), which includes the bratty Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and the seductive Media (Gillian Anderson).

While the Norse god can count on some truly potent allies, including a tall and pugilistic leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a bloodthirsty Slavic lord of darkness, latter-day humanity’s obsession with material gain and convenience has decided tilted the odds against Mr. Wednesday’s team.

Now capricious creatures of faded glory, these formerly supreme beings have been forgotten, pushed into musty, small spaces and wrapped in dingy, plain clothes. Survival has transformed them from masters over the elements and protectors of humanity into con artists, thugs and killers. Yet they personify timelessness; regardless of the actor playing them, these beings do not seem recognizably young or ancient. Their places of worship may be velvety scarlet dens of supplication or a bank of screens at a big-box store; their altars are dreamscapes of temptation, threats and teeth that catch men by the throat.

“American Gods” takes place at the nexus of classic myth and modern techromancy, archetype and prototype, and wrestles with concepts no less than the churning of an unconcerned and enthralling cosmos.

Gaiman’s new gods, like the old ones, are manifestations of modern beliefs. And what do we believe in these days? The material and the measurable — fame, convenience, wealth. The new gods promise the kind of immortality that can accessed by a search engine, with none of the nonsense about souls or angels or never-ending bliss in union with the infinite.

But the infinite is dazzling, no question. Transitional sequences within each episode convey the wonder of the universe through wide shots of color-saturated natural vistas and skies streaked with carpets of stars. The show’s cinematography and digital imagery emphasize the juxtaposition of the natural world against the synthetic, reality versus the realm of the unreal, impressing upon the viewer how inconsequential man happens to be in the vastness of time and space. It also invites the viewer to see an extra level of magic within floating tufts of dandelion seed.

The drama provides an ideal canvas for Fuller and Green to unleash their creative and collaborative powers. The conscientious visual style that Fuller honed on “Hannibal” achieves riotous new heights of sensuality in this series. Green, a DC Comics veteran whose television credits include serving as an executive producer on “Heroes,” aids in harmonizing the story’s surfeit of histories and personalities into an intelligible and spellbinding structure.

Combining their strengths, Fuller and Green have taken a story long believed to be untamable and channeled its powers into a delirious odyssey that takes its time with character development without putting too much drag on the tale’s velocity.

It doesn’t take long for Shadow and Wednesday’s road trip to become a Technicolor debate about the nature of belief and the power of faith. Mr. Wednesday needs both to continue to exist. Shadow Moon, as his name implies, is a guardian of the threshold between the mortal and the eternal. He believes in nothing. Yet the oddity he witnesses at Wednesday’s side gives him pause.

Fuller and Green co-wrote five of the first season’s eight episodes, and their scripts gives the show’s superlative cast a buffet of opportunities to chew the scenery. Orlando Jones’ introduction as Mr. Nancy is marked by a blazing monologue evocative of Alec Baldwin’s epic “Glengarry Glen Ross” speech and it’s chockablock with just as many cold assurances.

McShane ascends to his usual level of brilliance, but Whittle’s Shadow wields a seductive, brooding charm that stands up to the “Deadwood” star well enough. And their partnership gives credence to the idea that the gods could be a little insane.

But Fuller and Green accentuate the comedic side of these gods and goddesses much more than their cruelty (the exception being Yetide Badaki’s divinely concupiscent Bilquis) which imbues “American Gods” with a cheeky flair. And if the performances by the likes of Jones, Stormare, Schreiber and Cloris Leachman seem outsized, that’s proportional to the beings they play.

So numerous are the number of gods that we don’t even meet them all in the first four episodes. Those who are introduced, however, are fascinating enough to purchase the viewers’ patience with the relatively leisurely speed that “American Gods” travels through the plot. It takes time to construct a world worthy of worship.

America Is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People

BOOKS
A new book reveals that the U.S. is becoming two distinct countries, with separate economies, politics and opportunities.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.” But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place.

In a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear: America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations and fates.

Two roads diverged

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

The two sectors, notes Temin, have entirely distinct financial systems, residential situations and educational opportunities. Quite different things happen when they get sick or when they interact with the law. They move independently of each other. Only one path exists by which the citizens of the low-wage country can enter the affluent one, and that path is fraught with obstacles. Most have no way out.

The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure: our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.

The result is profoundly disturbing.

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration: check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

In the developing countries Lewis studied, people try to move from the low-wage sector to the affluent sector by transplanting from rural areas to the city to get a job. Occasionally it works; often it doesn’t. Temin says that today in the U.S., the ticket out is education, which is difficult for two reasons: you have to spend money over a long period of time, and the FTE sector is making those expenditures more and more costly by defunding public schools and making policies that increase student debt burdens.

Getting a good education, Temin observes, isn’t just about a college degree. It has to begin in early childhood, and you need parents who can afford to spend time and resources all along the long journey. If you aspire to college and your family can’t make transfers of money to you on the way, well, good luck to you. Even with a diploma, you will likely find that high-paying jobs come from networks of peers and relatives. Social capital, as well as economic capital, is critical, but because of America’s long history of racism and the obstacles it has created for accumulating both kinds of capital, black graduates often can only find jobs in education, social work, and government instead of higher-paying professional jobs like technology or finance— something most white people are not really aware of. Women are also held back by a long history of sexism and the burdens — made increasingly heavy — of making greater contributions to the unpaid care economy and lack of access to crucial healthcare.

How did we get this way?

What happened to America’s middle class, which rose triumphantly in the post-World War II years, buoyed by the GI bill, the victories of labor unions and programs that gave the great mass of workers and their families health and pension benefits that provided security?

The dual economy didn’t happen overnight, says Temin. The story started just a couple of years after the ’67 Summer of Love. Around 1970, the productivity of workers began to get divided from their wages. Corporate attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell galvanized the business community to lobby vigorously for its interests. Johnson’s war on poverty was replaced by Nixon’s war on drugs, which sectioned off many members of the low-wage sector, disproportionately black, into prisons. Politicians increasingly influenced by the FTE sector turned from public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism. As money-driven politics accelerated (a phenomenon explained by the Investment Theory of Politics), leaders of the FTE sector became increasingly emboldened to ignore the needs of members of the low-wage sector, or even to actively work against them.

America’s underlying racism has a continuing distorting impact. A majority of the low-wage sector is white, with blacks and Latinos making up the other part, but politicians learned to talk as if the low-wage sector is mostly black because it allowed them to appeal to racial prejudice, which is useful in maintaining support for the structure of the dual economy — and hurting everyone in the low-wage sector. Temin notes that “the desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks has motivated policies against all members of the low-wage sector.”

Temin points out that the presidential race of 2016 both revealed and amplified the anger of the low-wage sector at this increasing imbalance. Low-wage whites who had been largely invisible in public policy until recently came out of their quiet despair to be heard. Unfortunately, present trends are not only continuing, but also accelerating their problems, freezing the dual economy into place.

What can we do?

We’ve been digging ourselves into a hole for over 40 years, but Temin says we know how to stop digging. If we spent more on domestic rather than military activities, then the middle class would not vanish as quickly. The effects of technological change and globalization could be altered by political actions. We could restore and expand education, shifting resources from policies like mass incarceration to improving the human and social capital of all Americans. We could upgrade infrastructure, forgive mortgage and educational debt in the low-wage sector, reject the notion that private entities should replace democratic government in directing society, and focus on embracing an integrated American population. We could tax not only the income of the rich, but also their capital.

The cost of not doing these things, Temin warns, is incalculably high, and even the rich will end up paying for it.

“Look at the movie Hidden Figures,” he says. “It recounts a very dramatic story about three African-American women condemned to have a life of not being paid very well teaching in black colleges, and yet their fates changed when they were tapped by NASA to contribute to space exploration. Today we are losing the ability to find people like that. We have a structure that predetermines winners and losers. We are not getting the benefits of all the people who could contribute to the growth of the economy, to advances in medicine or science which could improve the quality of life for everyone — including some of the rich people.”

Along with Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century examines historical and modern inequality, Temin’s book has provided a giant red flag, illustrating a trajectory that will continue to accelerate as long as the 20 percent in the FTE sector are permitted to operate a country within America’s borders solely for themselves at the expense of the majority. Without a robust middle class, America is not only reverting to developing-country status, it is increasingly ripe for serious social turmoil that has not been seen in generations.

A dual economy has separated America from the idea of what most of us thought the country was meant to be.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

http://www.alternet.org/books/america-regressing-developing-nation-most-people?akid=15455.265072.jP3WSU&rd=1&src=newsletter1075889&t=8

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism

Let’s get past the stupid Nobel debates: Dylan is not just a great poet, but a prophet whose genius can sustain us

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism
Donald Trump; Bob Dylan (Credit: AP/Getty/Ben Stansall/Salon)

Two weeks ago, Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize in person; true to form, he did so not at the December ceremony (where Patti Smith performed in his stead), but during a previously scheduled tour of Stockholm. He has yet to deliver, on tape or in person, the acceptance speech that is a precondition for the prize money. When he won the prize it was just before the November election, and now we’re a few months into the unfolding disaster. Which makes you wonder: Does the Nobel Prize committee know more about us than we know about ourselves?

This may quite possibly be the best Nobel Prize choice ever for literature, right up there with the recognition of William Faulkner. It has been given to the right person at the right time, as the academy has made an urgent intervention into the vexing question of just what literature is, at a political moment when demagoguery is making a mockery of language.

Writers and critics know that nearly all the greatest writers of the past century — and we know who they are — failed to get the award. The Nobel for literature is most helpful when it brings someone deserving to the global audience’s attention. Such was the case with Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk; he was already at a young age a world-class author, but the award gave him millions of new readers. And though Dylan has been a songwriter’s songwriter, or musician’s musician, for 55 years, there couldn’t be a better time than now for his poetry of prophecy to soak through to everyone’s consciousness.

Perhaps millennials in pursuit of the latest musical illusion will seek out the timeless instead, in Dylan’s music, which should lead them back to the abiding sources of American music: the origins of the blues tradition, for example, in such singers as Charley Patton or Skip James, or Blind Willie McTell, about whom Dylan recorded a memorable song in the early 1980s, or later Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, all acknowledged influences on Dylan, whom he transformed and reworked in his own idiom.

Dylan receiving the award at this point in time is a reminder for us to seek the ultimate sources of poetry — and I certainly consider the blues as poetry of the highest order — rather than be distracted by the next vulgarization that comes along.

Purity, of the most extreme degree, to the point that it is prophecy, is what Dylan manifested, particularly in his peak 1962–1966 period, which I think is unparalleled in the history of music for its sheer genius, its fecundity and its deep tapping of the mystical poetic roots, all of which defy comprehension as to how it could have come about in such a short period of time.

Is Dylan a poet? To me, the question is, is Dylan the 20th century’s Arthur Rimbaud? Or Keats or Shelley? Or Yeats? Those are the valid comparisons for me, not whether he is a poet.

The Nobel academy is also recognizing, as it failed to do when the time was right, the entire Beat tradition, into which Dylan flows and which flows into Dylan. Remember that Allen Ginsberg was more Bob Dylan’s acolyte than the other way around. All of the Beats alive at the time of Dylan’s peak productivity in the early 1960s were keen to associate themselves with him, and for good reason. If Beat poetry is poetry — and I suppose some academicists would question even that — then Dylan was its purest, most acute, most immortal manifestation.

I would make the same connection with folk music, too. There is a long tradition of American folk music, almost necessarily associated with the left, or rather programmatic left causes, that Dylan tapped into and revived and intensified, put into a language of pop music, and later rock and roll, or folk-rock or whatever you want to call it, an endeavor that had eluded the so-called “purist” exponents of folk music.

The question of authenticity is front and center in any evaluation of Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. He was always secretive and still is, even in a supposedly tell-all work like “Chronicles: Volume One“ (2004) — about his origins as a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, preferring to make up fabulous tales about himself when he first arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, intent on becoming a “music star.” Robert Allen Zimmerman liked to claim to reporters then that he didn’t know his parents, that he had worked in carnivals around the country, that he had traveled everywhere as a hobo on freight trains — and in that era of impromptu reinvention, it was all taken in good spirit.

For that matter, Woody Guthrie, to whom Dylan rigorously dedicated himself early on, arguably mastering Guthrie’s oeuvre better than the master, was himself an act. A creation of the big cities, tutored by academic folklore experts, speaking for the “folk”? But he is as authentic as they come, right? Or Pete Seeger, how about him? Whenever you look behind any artist claiming to be authentic, you find the same story of invention, duplication, homage, unreality and indecipherability. Dylan, being perhaps the most lacerating of all the modern wordsmiths, represents these traits in the most intense manner.

Like the best poets or prophets, he is unknowable — to this day.

The 1967 movie “Dont Look Back — D.A. Pennebaker’s pathbreaking cinéma vérité record of Dylan’s 1965 English tour — remains the most astute example of its genre. Take a look at it to decide for yourself the issue of Dylan’s authenticity as poet, or prophet.

To me, Dylan’s dealings with the two journalists he meets in the film — the first of whom he treats in a Socratic or Wittgensteinian manner, questioning the very definition of such basic concepts as friendship or identity, and the second a Time magazine reporter Dylan interrogates about what is news (or fake news) — are particularly emblematic of the degree to which he was not a fake. He was immersed so deeply in all the intellectual currents of his time, in a purely intuitive manner — and this is where the obvious comparison with Rimbaud comes in — that he didn’t have the luxury to worry about such distinctions as fake or authentic, or to wonder about how he was learning what he was learning.

He acted a little put upon in that movie, but you can also sense that his degree of poetic intensity — poetry defining the person and persona of the artist, not just as a part-time or semi-habitual intellectual endeavor — couldn’t possibly be kept up for long, as was the case with Jesus, for example, and that the end was near.

It is said that Dylan’s first long-term girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, taught him much about poetry — and art and literature and radical politics — and that later Allen Ginsberg, especially after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, provided him with further reading material. But these are just ex post facto biographical explanations that don’t tell us much about where his poetry came from.

The motorcycle accident, oh yes. That was the dividing line, in 1966, in rural Woodstock, New York, after which the poetry and the music ceased to be what they were before the accident. I believe that, as any prophet-poet in his condition would have done, he terminated his prophecy at that point. The accident probably wasn’t serious after all. But Dylan retreated, didn’t tour for another eight years, and tried to rediscover himself, going back to the roots. Later, in his explicitly “spiritual” manifestations — the avowed Christianity, for example, or the reclaimed Jewish heritage — he tried to capture the spirit that had moved him, but the gift of prophecy had left him.

Of course, he had already committed the ultimate no-no, as far as folk purists were concerned, by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but now, after trying the amplified rock and roll sound, he went back to the basics, consciously limiting the sound in “The Basement Tapes“ that eventually came out as a result of work he did in 1967 in Woodstock, removed from the public eye. He didn’t release this work at the time, instead trying on different modes, with a brilliant reinvention of the pastoral in “Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait“ and “New Morning,” work that I find increasingly meaningful with the passage of time.

How great his poetry and music were in the 1962–1966 period can be understood by the fact that Dylan himself was never able to approach his climax, despite half a century of relentlessly trying.

I’ve been diligently exploring album after album of the post-motorcycle accident era, and they’re all gems in their own way, but Dylan himself recognizes that he could never again reproduce the magic of 1962–1966, a period that includes “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited“ and “Blonde on Blonde.”

Weary of hewing to expectations, he wanted to terminate, also, any programmatic association with the progressive/alternative/leftist folkies, having mastered their tradition quickly, and having decided to move on.

He had to move along; the direction his poetry was dictating compelled him to. Can we imagine “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as an acoustic song? But “To Ramona” we can, and must. He had soaked it all up, the gentle radicalness of Joan Baez, the straight talk of Woody Guthrie, the surreal imagistic prolificity of Allen Ginsberg, incorporated it all in his poetry, and made something entirely new out of it in that climactic period, and then almost as quickly as he’d done it, he ended it and moved on. Isn’t that the way of all prophets?

His so-called Never Ending Tour, consisting of thousands of concerts since the late 1980s, still with no end in sight, seems to me a prophet’s impossible search for what he was and what he has lost, though he doesn’t necessarily want it back. In the process he has been discovering himself and his songs anew for the last four decades, without any hope of ultimate success. Long ago, he lost his “voice” — literally.

It has been his greatest sacrifice, I think, this never-ending tour, which fueled the bootleg industry, and in which every Dylan song is a work in progress, different each time, coming across as provisional poetry for our time that refuses to let us see poetry as fixed words with fixed meanings. Dylan was as postmodernist as Charles Olson, the never-ending tour his expressive manifesto of poetry as contingent and hopelessly derivative and unself-sufficing.

He distilled the best of our literary and artistic values in that period of profound self-questioning in American culture — we have been going downhill in every respect since then — and this is another reason why the Nobel committee’s recognition of him at this time is an important reminder of what was best about America (all of which is rapidly dying, as even Dylan will cease to be in a short while). What was best about us was our ingrained quality of doubt toward highfalutin theories and our conviction in the decency of the common man, as evident in Thomas Jefferson as in Mark Twain. This has become all the more important at a time when demagogic manipulation has taken us a long way from our founding ideal of democracy as a practice of stubborn skepticism of — well, of bullshit.

There is no better antidote for the box we’ve put ourselves in, in this age of distorted politics, than any of Dylan’s music of that early period. The Nobel committee is also implying, by overlooking the “literary” names that are perennially mentioned as American contenders, that we are not good enough in what we think of as the literary realm; we are too conformist there, and this too is a timely rejoinder to us, a reminder that the game may well be over for us.

But the question remains, is it poetry?

How can anyone listen to “Masters of War” or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and seriously ask this question?

I think that the New Critical approach taken by British critic Christopher Ricks — breaking down each Dylan song according to conventional matrices such as rhyming and alliteration and assonance — is a bit reductionist and naive. It misses the point about Dylan’s poetry.

Of course all the techniques are there, the whole poetic arsenal, and also tremendous fluidity with transitions, handling meter in a way suited to both poetry and music (that is, reading and singing), giving complex intellectual life to the linguistically simplified blues and folk and country traditions by way of exploiting modern(ist) techniques, and exploiting images and metaphors to merge the personal and the political in a way that few writers have been able to do.

That’s all there, without a doubt.

But is it still poetry if it’s not put to music? I suppose that is the underlying question that bugs those who resent Dylan getting the award. (In asking that question we are also, by the way, questioning whether drama is literature, because it too is enhanced by or is meant for performance. It’s a point Dylan noted by mentioning Shakespeare as literature in his Nobel acceptance speech.)

I would argue that Dylan writes his poetry in a way that takes full advantage of the potentialities of performance. We cannot say that poetry is only that which is purely restricted to the page. Poetry can be written to take advantage of the latent possibilities of delivery and performance and spectacle and music and everything else we can think of doing with it. And it is the better for it.

Conventional modern poets — William Blake and W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost aside — have had a very difficult time with certain things. How can a ballad, especially one dealing with tragedy, not succumb to the weight of its form, and succeed instead in building a transcendent argument by repetition, or accumulation, making the story larger than the sum of its content? This dilemma, actually, is true of all conventional or academic poetry. When it is written down as poetry, it often loses form and flexibility. To what extent can a poet magically endow it with a life that refuses to die, once it’s written?

That comes from prophecy, or the kind of youth that is immune to ordinary views of decline and mortality (hence Rimbaud and Keats and Dylan), a beautiful youth that delivers the best of our human spirit without knowing what it is doing. It can condemn without being whiny. It can fall in love without being naive. It can exit politics or love without being coy. That is a much higher form of poetry that breaking things down by New Criticism methodology will not explain.

Consider how in his early composition “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” Dylan is completely unafraid — and this must have taken an incomprehensible degree of unselfconsciousness — to indulge in a form of satire that he knows must lead back to himself. In that period he often wrote very long poems, unafraid of the risks in doing so.

The Death of Emmett Till” is another condemnation, like the even better “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which presents racial oppression without self-consciousness (he sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about the murder of Medgar Evers, in Mississippi along with Pete Seeger, and you can catch a glimpse of it in “Dont Look Back”). Perhaps this is why he needed what I would consider the crutch of folk music for a start, to convey his sense of the wrongness of things in a form that wouldn’t overwhelm him. His poetry contained the genre of folk music, rather than the other way around. Isn’t that amazing? But then, he was completely self-taught.

How is “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as short and concise a Dylan poem as we’ve ever seen, any less of a poem than the best that Hardy or Tennyson or Yeats wrote? The hinge, of course, is the “answer” that’s “blowin’ in the wind” — an answer Dylan has no intention of revealing.

Why does “Masters of War” not indulge in didacticism and pettiness, as is true of most political poetry, despite being a curse going back to a classical form? We might as well ask if the Bible is poetry. Or if the great religious scriptures of East and West rise to the level of poetry.

In “Masters of War” Dylan shows that he has complete mastery of the logic of the Bible, whatever his actual degree of study of it at the time may have been, because it’s what makes the curse work, it’s what elevates it to the highest degree of well-wishing (by naming sin) one could direct toward the enemies of humanity: “But there’s one thing I know/ Though I’m younger than you/ Even Jesus would never/ Forgive what you do.”

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” takes off from a well-known Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” but consider the layers of transformation when Dylan gets to work on it. With his insistent play on “my blue-eyed son” and “my darling young one,” it is perhaps his most tragic song, his most ideally executed song. I have no clue how he writes something like this (and then pitches it in his incomparably poignant voice, the most penetrative musical instrument of the late 20th century): “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,/ I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,/ I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,/ I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,/ I saw a white ladder all covered with water,/ I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,/ I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

It would take a petty bourgeois (f)rigidity of murderous proportions, a zombie commitment to academic poetry driven by mechanical identity politics and anti-humanistic neoliberalism, not to see the transcendent poetry in this. This is poetry that means business, it is written from the depths of the mystical soul whose origins no one can perceive, and it is presented with zero self-consciousness, both on the page and in the delivery, and it works!

He does compression, of the pressure of mortality, in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” in a way that makes it a poem of cozy friendship, exploding the sonnet of mortality, if you will, into something else altogether. A dream of mortality, we are led to think.

Has any poem-song of our time managed to be as inclusive of the shifting paradigms of change, as consistently progressive, as beholden to the long long view, as “The Times They Are A-Changin’? With simple words like “rattle” and “battle” he cuts out all the excess and superfluity of “poetry.” “Admit that the waters/ Around you have grown,” he starts, which is as powerful today as it was half a century ago.

How is “To Ramona” any lesser than the greatest of Keats’ songs of love — such as the elusive “La Belle Dame sans Merci”? Actually, Dylan does one better, by wanting to fortify Ramona — though that is ultimately her own job — against the illusions of the world, which is not interested in love: “But it grieves my heart, love,/ To see you tryin’ to be a part of/ A world that just don’t exist./ It’s all just a dream, babe.”

Later, in “I Want You,” perhaps the most beautiful love song of our time, Dylan opens up that fissure between the distracting world and the purity of love, in simplified language that refuses to look at anything but love. Compare the burdensome language used to describe distraction — “The guilty undertaker sighs,/ The lonesome organ grinder cries,/ The silver saxophones say I should refuse you” — with the simple purity of “Honey, I want you.” This is a playful dialectic that shows full awareness of the potential of poetry in explicating deep philosophical quandaries by the weight one places on words, by where and how one places them, by how one combines strength and lightness in the same compact space.

The brief lines, the staccato buildup, the rapid-fire listing of traps and illusions in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” make for as great a poem of keeping your head under while the capitalists are out to get you as has ever been written: “The man in the coon-skin cap/ In the big pen/ Wants eleven dollar bills/ You only got ten.” Now we’re dealing with Apollinaire, or Tristan Tzara, or Mayakovsky, in the plangent refusal to go along with conformity, in seeing the unreal behind the real, in arguing against formal education and formal manners.

This is true also of “Maggie’s Farm,” which he sings, in early recorded versions, with a laughter in his attitude that makes a mockery of work as a nationally sanctified enterprise, of discredited puritan aesthetics, that is as valid as Kerouac or Vonnegut or Bukowski.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” takes on the “discovery” of America itself; but which America? Dylan sings, “He said, ‘Let’s set up a fort/ And start buying the place with beads/ Just then this cop comes down the street/ Crazy as a loon/ He throw us all in jail/ For carryin’ harpoons.”

This is argumentative poetry that should be sung on all our streets, poetry that is fortified with music on the mind, with Dylan’s or any other wannabe prophet’s whine (or wine) in mind.

Mr. Tambourine Man” is very artful in splitting the poet’s persona from his poetry, in seeing the divided self, in alienating him from his alienation — as Charlie Chaplin did in the movies, or as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini were doing contemporaneously (Dylan loved Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player”), making of the artistry of connectivity the greatest alienation of all: “In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.// Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship,/ My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip.”

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is one of our most conclusive modern poems. It is so good that you know that the end for Dylan can’t be far off, because this level of prophetic poetry just can’t continue: “Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn/ Suicide remarks are torn/ From the fool’s gold mouthpiece/ The hollow horn plays wasted words.” Everything redundant about poetry, all of its wasteful tricks, has been done away with in this poem; its essence is pain, and because it is pure poetry, it does not come across as narcissistic, as none of his great poetry does. This alone sets Dylan apart from all postwar American poets.

He resorts to what I would call a surrealism not of cynical laughter but joyous present-mindedness when he considers his situation as an artist, or really a thinking person caught up in murderous capitalism, in “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/ Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/ Ain’t it hard when you discover that/ He really wasn’t where it’s at/ After he took from you everything he could steal.”

His poetic technique here illustrates, embodies, executes to perfection the “no direction home” ethos. It has been interpreted, this song-poem, as a revenge fantasy with particular entities in mind (as has “Positively 4th Street”), this one with perhaps the suicidal actress and model Edie Sedgwick as the target. But none of his poems of that era work at that reductionist level; they are all ultimately about himself, the fame and glory of being the prophet of his time preventing any narcissistic consciousness, which I find the most unbelievable thing about his poetry then.

Ballad of a Thin Man” reminds us of Ivan Illich and Herbert Marcuse and the great social theorists of the 1960s, who talked about how functioning amid capitalist conformity has reduced us to intellectual and psychological ciphers, the Mr. Joneses of the world having their throats handed back to them: “You’ve been with the professors/ And they’ve all liked your looks/ With great lawyers you have/ Discussed lepers and crooks/ You’ve been through all of / F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.”

His poetic technique here, in posing relentless direct questions, as is true of so much of his work then, exemplifies the thinness of our personalities: “Because something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is.” There is zero poetic “technique” involved in this line; yet it is as high a poetry as Li Po’s in capturing the essential hollowness of our situation.

He plays on “stoned” (in both the Biblical and countercultural sense), with a duality of meanings opening up because of the unresolved tension, in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Here, as in so many other poems, the repetition doesn’t come across as a lament seeking something as prosaic as a political solution, but becomes the summation of our tragic condition, as is true of all real knowledge: “They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave./ But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.”

Do I even need to talk about “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”? It is a bold reinterpretation of his own earlier songs in a wildly unpredictable surrealist landscape: “With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,/ And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,/ And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,/ Who among them do you think could resist you?”

Various women have been said to have been the intended subject of this poem — perhaps Joan Baez, perhaps Sara Lownds, Dylan’s first wife — but it sums up, better than any poetical venture of our era, what it means to maintain the mystery of one’s existence, its purity and innocence, in a time when everything militates against it. Our vision is enough to see it, is it not? Only poetry, only the song of poetry, cuts through to the indefinable essence of the beloved.

Here, Dylan reaches the peak of his mysticism, but despite the length of the song, so unusual for its time, there is nothing wasted. With each powerful metaphor — “your sheet metal memory of Cannery Row,” or “your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — he piles on his own inadequacy to deal with, on its own terms, the beauty of women, or the beauty of anything beautiful.

Each of Dylan’s masterpieces from his peak deserves an extended breakdown to understand what he is doing poetically, though of course I can’t do it here. But any poet today who wants to know the source of life in poetry can learn untold amounts from making the attempt.

Dylan lent intellectual substance to popular music for the first time, and he was the first to show that complex poetic forms could be commercially successful. Rock and roll was already moribund, and had become silly after its inspiration from the original blues, by the time Dylan got started. But it got a new lease on life from him. Rock and roll stars — the Beatles were overwhelmed by Dylan — from Mick Jagger to David Bowie tried to reproduce a little of what Dylan had done poetically, but to one degree or another, they all failed. Heck, even Dylan after 1966 mostly couldn’t do it, which shows you how great his poetic zenith was.

His later “personal” poetry is just as “political” as his earlier songs designated as such. More than any other poet-songwriter, he completely erased the distinction between the two, more than even Allen Ginsberg, I think. That is a huge contribution both to music and poetry, one that has not been exploited since then, because it is so difficult to do. One that perhaps requires above all the gift of prophecy, for which we might have to wait another 500 years.

To experience, even at the remove of more than half a century, a tiny bit of what Dylan’s poetry achieved when he was the master of his game is to be transformed in the way that only the highest forms of writing can transform us. Through this award, Ginsberg gets a posthumous freebie, as do many others of that period who were plowing deep into the intensity of psychic experience, like John Berryman and Ted Berrigan. We Americans were never that good before. We never will be again.

What we need, at this point in time, more desperately than anything, is to return to the root of love, that is to say, to stare blindly, and with the highest intensity, at our human reality. Dylan did that better than almost anyone else in the last hundred years, except perhaps T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Philip K. Dick. This is why he will be read and listened to and admired as long as the self exists in tension with the collectivity, as long as people fall in love and ponder their mortality, as long as they are oppressed or killed or helped or saved by society.

Poetry does all that, doesn’t it? It can deal with all that, can’t it? Of course I haven’t been surprised at the condemnation that has erupted on American social media since he won, the duly certified and credentialed writers asserting that Dylan is not literature, this is a slap in the face of literature, and what about the real writers? That tells you all you need to know about why he won the Nobel Prize, and yet why his poetry cannot truly be recognized as victorious.