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The Apocalypse Not Now

Edward Curtin

It was balmy and breezy by the bench where I sat outside a public library east of Atlanta, Georgia, brooding about the state of the world.

It seemed like the end times, and I had just attended a fire and brimstone sermon, not perused the mainstream and alternative press. I had just spent a few hours on the internet, noting so many articles that announced that the world as we know it was coming to an end, or maybe just the world.

The American Empire was collapsing, the U.S.A. was a failed state, climate change would soon destroy the world if nuclear war didn’t do it first, etc. Many of these articles were predicting that soon the elites who run the U.S. would be getting their comeuppance because of hubris and overreach and, like the Roman Empire, the die had been cast and disaster was on the horizon.

Such prognostications were appearing in publications that covered the political spectrum. All of it was fear-inducing, notwithstanding one’s political beliefs. Left, right, and center had reasons to be depressed or elated by the claims, depending on one’s politics and existential reality. And, need I surmise, the writers of these jeremiads were probably writing from a position of personal privilege, not scrounging for their next meal.

And it was a beautiful mid-October day. The benches by the adjacent church were full of homeless people, their meagre belongings arrayed at their feet. The susurrant sound of the leaves of the sycamore tree that formed a sacred canopy above me was lulling me to sleep. In my half-asleep state, I, a northerner, was dreaming I was a Georgian civilian hiding behind the enemy’s lines, those lines being General Sherman’s Union Army’s artillery that was arrayed a few miles to my west and was shelling Atlanta.

And in this reverie I was also aware that, as I wouldn’t have been in 1864, that Sherman would soon leave Atlanta and lead his troops on the savage “march to the sea” that would earn him the appellation as the American father of total warfare that would become America’s tactic from World War I until the present day, a form of warfare that has brought apocalyptic death and destruction to millions around the globe. Lost and frightened in this half-dreaming state with my eyes closed, I was startled by a thud and dim awareness of a shadow to my left.

Awakening, I saw that a homeless man had sat next to me. We said hello. “Sorry to give you a fright,” he said, “but all the benches by the church are taken.” We got to talking. He told me that he had been homeless for almost two years, that he had originally been from Indiana, where he had graduated from the University of Indiana, and that when he was laid off he was unable to pay his mortgage and had lost his small house. He looked to be in his late thirties, with a scruffy beard and a very tired face. His name was Paul.

Among his tattered belongings, I was surprised to see an old paperback copy of a book sticking out of a side pocket of one of his bags. I knew the title – Raids on the Unspeakable – by the anti-war Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who died in a very mysterious manner in Bangkok, Thailand fifty years ago this December 10. Merton’s death was the third that year of prominent and influential anti-war fighters: Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy having earlier been assassinated by forces of the American national security state. Nineteen sixty-eight had been a very bad year for peace and peace-makers. It was a year of endless war and strife, a time when everything seemed to be collapsing. And here we are.

Paul told me he had picked the book out of a box of books that had been set out for garbage pickup. He said he had read a few of the essays and one in particular had struck him. It is called “Rain and the Rhinoceros.” I knew and loved the essay and was startled by the serendipity of our meeting. He said the reason the essay struck home to him was because he had grown up on a farm in Indiana and had spent much of his youth outdoors. He loved the natural world, and his mother and grandmother had early introduced him to the “Hoosier Poet,” James Whitcomb Reilly, whose poems he had memorized. He proceeded to recite a stanza from one of them for me, as I, mesmerized, watched his expressive face light up.

Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin’-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be—
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin’-hole.

Then his face grew dark again, tired and forlorn. He said that when he lost his home, the last piece of mail he opened was his water bill, and it was sky high. He thought it appropriate that since he couldn’t afford a home, he couldn’t afford water, the water of life that should be free. And that’s what so resonated for him in the Merton essay. Merton’s opening paragraph, which he opened to show me, goes like this:

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.

When they will sell you even your rain,” he said sadly. “They sold me a bill of goods. The American dream! What a bad joke, here I am, a college graduate, not a drunk or drug addict, and I’m living in a tent in the woods in a ravine by a golf course. Some nights I think they make it rain on me for fun, as if to say: here’s your free water, you loser.”

He asked about me, and I told him who I was and why I was there. I mentioned the end-of-the-world articles I had been reading earlier, realizing as I did that I was saying a dumb thing to this this poor guy whose world was in tatters already.

Then he taught me this, as if he were Socrates asking questions. I paraphrase:

If you were Merton’s “they,” those who rule the American Empire and your oppressed subjects were restless and awakening to their plight, what message would you want to convey to keep the peons from rebelling? What strategies, short of direct violence, would be most effective in rendering even the relatively well-off middle class passive and docile? What, in other words, is the most effective form of social control, outside economic exploitation and fear of penury, in a putative democracy when all the controlling institutions have lost the trust of most of the population?

Then, without skipping a beat, he answered his own questions. You would, he said, tell them that the sky is falling, the empire is collapsing, that the rich rulers are going to get theirs when the system collapses on itself and that this is in the process of happening right now. So sit back and watch the show as it closes down. The end is near.

Then he said he had to go. Lunch was being served at the nearby soup kitchen and if you didn’t get there early, they sometimes ran out of food.

As he walked away, I thought of my vast ignorance and the society of illusions and delusions that I was living in, a constant streaming theater of the absurd. I wanted to cry for this man and all people, even myself, as he disappeared around the corner. He seemed to carry his loneliness in the old backpack that weighed him down. As he turned the corner, he looked back and waved, a smile on his face. I felt overcome, and when I recovered my bearings, I noticed he had left the book on the bench. But by then he was long gone. I opened it to a page that was dog-eared, and read these words of Merton, another solitary man in the woods, his solitude a choice, not, like Paul, an imposed necessity, at least the living arrangement part:

It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory. When this is faced, then anguish is not necessarily overcome, but it can be accepted and understood. Thus, in the heart of anguish are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the contemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man. The solitary, far from enclosing himself in himself, becomes every man. He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.

Next to this paragraph was the word “Paul,” written in blue ink.

It was such an achingly beautiful day. I got up and left the book on the bench, as I too walked away, after writing “Ed” in black ink next to Paul’s blue.

We are all bruised, aren’t we? But often times those bruised the most have the most to give.

This is Paul’s gift.

Edward Curtin teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His writing on varied topics has appeared widely over many years. He writes as a public intellectual for the general public, not as a specialist for a narrow readership. He believes a non-committal sociology is an impossibility and therefore sees all his work as an effort to enhance human freedom through understanding. His website is edwardcurtin.com

29 Comments

  1. rilme says

    “the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market”, where it becomes a “security”!

  2. Seamus Padraig says

    Thanks for a very moving essay. As I lead a sometimes precarious existence myself, I especially found the parts about Paul very poignant. God bless him …

  3. MichaelK says

    I thought this might amuse you. Jim Carey, actor and multi-millionaire, cares about the poor. What a guy! He also thinks that Christopher Steele, yes, that Steele, the father of the dirty dossier on Trump, the one commissioned by the ghastly Democrats and based on fantasies and romours… Carey thinks Steele is a fucking hero of our age! Christ, save me from millionaire liberals.

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    • DunGroanin says

      Hollywood is a major highway of the propaganda effluence.

      All these superhero films – aimed at justifying exceptionalism and intervention wherever and whenever, by self important individuals who have no need to conform to regular democratic principles and justice.

      All the other shoot em up and respect the man in the suit from the govt agencies genres. Etc.

      Jim Carrey is not alone, George Clooney dallying with the White Helmets and LeMesurier, no doubt associate of Steele, is a total plonker tool.

  4. MichaelK says

    Being a European and having family members that have financed and fought in an awful lot of wars over the centuries, the prospect of yet another war being fought in Europe, the American battlefield of choice against Russia, is a terrible thought. This one will probably be the final catastrophe for Europe as a continent.

    If the European leaders allow the Americans to deploy medium range battlefield nuclear rockets aimed at fighting the Russians; they are criminally insane. Will they resist, or simply bow their heads, nodding approval and let this madness happen? Accept that Europe is a battlefield in a war they have absolutely no control over because the Americans are in charge and they are mere vassals, willing to sacrifice their cities like pawns on the Devils chessboard.

    Nothing Trump does is approved of by our media aristocracy, who these days resemble a priesthood or a cult. So how come the decision to roll closer to the nuclear death pit isn’t attacked and rejected in the Sunday papers, lack the space do they? Why aren’t Trump’s war planning and preparations condemned outright, don’t the journalists care that the cities occupy with their lovely families risk being turned to burning wrecks where the lucky ones will be the dead? Trump makes a remark about up-market courtesan and there’s uproar, yet the prospect of nuclear war passes with barely a murmur of criticism, let alone dissent or opposition.

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    • MichaelK, you know the answer. They LIKE the thought of nuclear war – nuclear weapons are the most expensive and lots of money will be made. Our euro politicians are not there to defend Europe but as well-paid Washington puppets to carry out, even enforce, Washington’s will. And Euro journalists are overseen by the CIA and daren’t step out of line even if they wanted to. Same old story, getting worse since the war and the quality of both politicians and media ever lower and more bestial and degraded.

  5. DunGroanin says

    The ‘end is nigh’ trope put out by the MSM – to keep peoples fearful, is a sure sign that narrative control has been lost by the establishment.

    Here is an effort from todays Obsessive:

    ‘Merkel symbolises steadiness, safety and continuity. If, or rather when, she falls, she will be much missed.’ concludes Tisdall – wishfully.
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/28/angela-merkel-germany-elections-eu-europe
    Headlined:
    ‘As Angela Merkel’s star dims, Europe is facing perhaps its biggest challenge since 1930s
    Pragmatism and brave policies have sustained her so far, but her possible fall could have a dire impact on the whole EU’

    It being Halloween and darker evenings here is how to deal with the doommongers that would have us cower rather than seek change
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UrcWzMKE3Sw

    The peerless Peter Cook and Rowan Atkinson and friends. Go on have a laugh.

    • archie1954 says

      I think that some, at least, EU leaders are having sober second thoughts about blindly following the US lead. Merkel may be the strongest proponent of EU self sufficiency in defense. Italy may be the strongest proponent of sovereign decisions on foreign policy. There are definite cracks appearing in the US relationship with EU countries which in the end could positively affect NATO decisions.

      • Emperor Rusk says

        It is high time NATO was dissolved entirely. It is no longer fit for purpose.

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        • wardropper says

          It won’t go without a fight… North Atlantic Total Ownership…

      • Martin Usher says

        The UK’s Defense Secretary has already lined up behind Trump. Squalid, I call it.

    • “The ‘end is nigh’ trope put out by the MSM – to keep peoples fearful, is a sure sign that narrative control has been lost by the establishment.”

      Excellent.
      In fact it feels most normal people with HOPE 😉

    • Emperor Rusk says

      You beat me to it !

      I read the Tisdall effort earlier and thought of it when reading the above. I think it makes sense, as Simon Tisdall usually comes across as another mouthpiece for the boys and girls at Vauxhall Cross, spouting the usual approved establishment narrative.

      Perhaps they are very worried. The only way left to control the people is to plunge them into despair and total passivity. They hope.

  6. Thank you for this article and for sharing Paul’s gift. I agree that fear-mongering and the draining of hope is part of the power elite’s ‘divide and conquer’ strategy.
    Hope dies last, and that is how it should be. Compassion and hope should unite us, no matter what.
    Yes, the elites are playing a dangerous game, but in the end they won’t win, if we, the people won’t let them. Sure we do need a small, no probably a big, miracle, but miracles do happen all the time, just look around.

    • Kathy says

      I would very much like to second this:
      I would also like to add that for me. It is the synchronicity and purity in fleeting meetings as the one above that gives renewed faith and hope.

  7. Gezzah Potts says

    I can relate to Paul. I sell a street mag in Melbourne to survive. Its the only income I get. Prior to this, I had a well paid factory job that was shipped off to China along with 200 other jobs from the same company. Apparently, the $6 billion they are worth wasn’t enough. I see society up close at the coalface. I see a lot of people struggling just to pay their bills. I see many resorting to the demonisation of others; The Other, not as fellow human beings, but as Them. Divide and rule is an age old strategy of the ruling classes, divide and conquer. The Murdoch muckrakers spew out their vile poisonous filth every day, and sadly, many in Australia lap it up. I follow the alternative media: OffGuardian, Moon Of Alabama, Worldwide Socialist Web, The Greanville Post, etc. Its like being in Alice In Wonderland; the state of the World is both surreal and Orwellian. Ed, many days I feel like crying too at where the World is at. Every day I’m out selling the magazine, I see all these little children with their parents. All those innocent children. My friends make sarcastic jokes if I’ve built my nuclear bunker yet. They are completely oblivious.

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  8. Thank you Ed and thank you Paul.

    Sometimes I feel addicted to the news cycle, a 40 year long habit of mainlineing all the very worst of things that people do to each other. Since Trump appeared on the political landscape the sureality of the news coverage has gone through the roof. Oftentimes I feel like it’s all a very vivid nightmare from which I am bound to wake up…soon hopefully. But it is only the past year, perhaps since the tripartite bombing of Syria following the Douma false flag that I have felt there is a real danger of a nuclear conflagration. This threat is real if Putin really is independent of and resistant to the western hegemonic empire.
    If Putin is not part and party to some obscene Hegelian Dialectic then the brinkmanship we are seeing is the most serious existential threat to humanity ever. Forty years ago I marched with 1000s of others through the streets of Edinburgh under CND banners demanding we end the Polaris program. The atmosphere was not messianic end of times doom but of hope, a carnival atmosphere of optimism. It’s not like that now. Those that care know that the ideological drive behind the scenes like PNAC are desperate to try the likes of Kissingers doctrine of “limited nuclear war” and angle to those ends. Even more worrying, and a threat I have always seen as greater than the nuclear one, is to be found in the implications implied in the uncovering of the extensive global US biological weapons program by Dilyana Gaytandzhieva. https://dilyana.bg If only because even an accidental release at such a site the threat in this has a potential to devastate humanity. And Putin voicing concerns such as here : https://off-guardian.org/2017/11/03/why-is-the-us-air-force-collecting-samples-of-russian-dna/ can only state that such a program is well advanced.
    I think if I had spoken to Paul even two years ago I would have agreed with him that the powers want us to contemplate the end of times. The impotency the concept engenders has real power to debilitate action. But now I am not so sure. I think that madmen do indeed have control of these weapons and a burning desire to use them.

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    • Edward Curtin says

      Thanks to you. I emphatically agree with you that the threat of nuclear war is very, very real now. Trump’s announcement that the US will pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia is another foreboding sign. Paul has a point also, but it’s not the whole point, and I’m not Paul. Nor am I homeless. The latter Merton quote speaks to our existential plight, no matter what. And no matter what, the world is beautiful, as Camus would say, despite our need to rebel against the merchants of death who ravage the world. Sometimes beauty surprises us, as Paul did with me.

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      • Gezzah Potts says

        Ed, have read numerous essays of yours, here, and on other sites. This one was probably the most poignant of all. My spirituality, my connectedness is Mother Earth; trees, clouds, flowers, feeling Apart of, not apart from. I too have a sense of foreboding, that things are coming to a head. What astounds me is the level of brainwashing in wider society. Its like the ‘2 minutes of hate’ from 1984. Orwell got it so right, as did Huxley. Post comments on ABC Facebook page here in Australia, and you get shot down as a Kremlin Bot, or a Putin Apologist. People swallow the propaganda spewed out by the mainstream media, including the despicable ABC. Operation Mockingbird indeed. The complete lack of awareness of how dangerous the situation has become is just mind boggling. My antidote to that is coming on sites like this.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says

          How true Gezzah. The ABC, Howardised and Murdochised for twenty years, has been driven so far Right that it apes the Murdoch cancer in almost every way. Yet the crazed, Evil, moronic, vicious psychopaths of the Right, led by the Murdoch hate-mongers, STILL shriek that the ABC is ‘Leftwing’. An Evil, stupid, racist, cruel and greed-crazed country riding for its long overdue comeuppance.

          • Gezzah Potts says

            Mulga M: its almost hilarious how all these right wing loons troll on ABC Facebook page, lambasting ABC as left wing, and frothing about the ‘Loony Left’!! When I’ve posted on it, been told to “get back under your bridge in St Petersburg’! “You’re just a Russian troll”! etc etc. Selling The Big Issue mag as income, I agree with you totally about ‘stupid, greed crazed country’. Vast majority of people I see are utterly consumed by the Neoliberal ethos: me, me and more for me.

      • frank says

        “the world is beautiful”

        Is it? Or was it? If I throw a bucket of paint over the Mona Lisa, is it still beautiful?

        Imagine there are two versions of earth, like in a parallel universe, one is heaven and the other is hell. Which version do we live in?

        • frank, which version do we live in? The real one, the gateway through which we pass to Heaven or Hell, to Purgatory or Limbo.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says

      The ruling elites know that either ecological collapse, economic implosion or geo-political conflict caused by the dying Exceptionalist Reich’s refusal to allow a multi-polar world, mean that the jig is up. But they will soon play that trump card they have been expending tens of billions on for decades-bio-warfare. The Pentagon has been collecting DNA, blood and tissue samples, including neo-plasms, from every identifiable human group, for years. And the use of re-combinant DNA technology, in the search for ‘ethnically specific’ bio-weapons receives tens of billions every year. Wipe out 90% or so of the ‘useless eaters’ and the rich would inherit a world free of many of today’s crises, after a few centuries of repair, of course. I have NO doubt that it is their ‘Final Solution’ to all their problems.

  9. Antonym says

    Just like US’s deep state reacting after 9/11: sow fear, reap more legal power and bigger budgets for Homeland Control, military etc.
    As living standards between the 1% and the 99 others increase, the project their own fears outside.

    Also remember: the bigger a person’s possession(s) the bigger his ego, the smaller his Soul. Some legacy after this life….

  10. Fair dinkum. says

    Tragedy and beauty.
    They don’t coincide very often.

  11. Thank you for this most thoughtful essay. I have never felt so despondent about the state of things; it is not my usual state. Your insights here help to see beyond/through it.

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