Scorched Earth

American Big Thinking Classics Ecology Existential Fiction History Interviews Politics Psychology Reading

There's a smell of scorched earth in the air lately, here in America.

It's smoke from Pacific coast wildfires, and it's something more: the warning scent of an authoritarian future we must avoid, even as our society chokes on climate change, racism, social injustice, predatory capitalism and military escalation. Scorched earth is what I see when I close my eyes and think about the direction the USA is going in right now.

In five weeks I'm going to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (even though I wish I could be voting for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) and hope that the criminal enterprise known as the Republican party is removed from power. This would pull us back from the brink of civil war, which is where four years of Trumpism have left us.

But it will take a fair election to remove these lying crooks from power, and there is little confidence right now that our blatantly corrupt government with its white-supremacist Senate and stolen Supreme Court will conduct a fair election. Even if we manage to kick the crooks out, there is still a sickness in our society, and this is not a sickness that any election can cure.

I do not hate or blame Americans who support Trump, just as I wouldn't blame any victim of a sophisticated con. A sophisticated con is what William Barr, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Steve Mnuchin, Mike Pompeo and Steve Miller are carrying out right now from within their positions inside the federal government. This is a reactionary putsch by a privileged minority. I hope more and more Americans will wake up, understand the urgency of the current moment and unite to remove these fascists from power. We can then work together for a new revolution, a green new deal, an end to military profiteering, a constitution that doesn't suppress the voting power of minorities and urban citizens.

That's what I think. What do you think?

The absurdity of the modern age can be deadening. It's hard for a lot of us to keep our focus. I am doing a lot of rhythmic breathing. Be here now.

Lately I've been working with World BEYOND War, where I am technology director. We just relaunched our website! (Thanks to Connor Doherty for great assistance with the design.) I am also really proud of two podcast episodes from a long and wonderful two hour interview with the wildly original and irrepressible novelist, essayist and historian Nicholson Baker.


Our conversation was scheduled for an hour but went on so long I had to split it into two episodes. In the first episode, we talk about Baker's new book Baseless, a personal diary of his attempt to pry the truth from the federal government about biological war crimes they may have committed during World War Two and the Korean War. Nicholson Baker is a determined pacifist and I was really glad to talk to him about this important book. This podcast episode also includes an update on what's going on at World BEYOND War, featuring our board president Leah Bolger and new social media manager Alessandra Granelli. Give this episode a listen!

In the second episode, we talk more generally about antiwar activism, about the choices we make in our lives, and about the larger meaning of the historic human search for world peace. I also ask Nicholson what he thinks of various peace organizations, and we talk about an essay he wrote several years ago that features some of the same peace activists I still encounter at conferences and events today. This episode begins with a piano piece by Margin Zheng, a young pacifist who I briefly interview. I think this episode came out very well.

Well, so ... all this bullshit that surrounds us - isn't this why we have been reading books all our lives? In 2020, I finally understand why I've read so many books about World War Two, and why I read William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich twice.

We all choose different books to read. But don't we all read to explore possible future situations, to warn us of worst-case scenarios, to help us fortify our freedom with knowledge - to give ourselves courage? So now, today, as we contemplate our troubled global society in 2020, we know what a lot of books were about.

Books by Albert Camus and Suzanne Collins, by George Orwell and Margaret Atwood and Ngugi wa-Thiong’o. That play by Eugene Ionesco. Those poems by Yeats. This is just a sketch of an infinite possible list, because we all have different contexts to our lives, different dreams and nightmares, different imaginary worlds to explore. Lots of people don't even read books. They still fortify their free souls with music, or nature, or arts and crafts. It's what we do when we wake up every morning and gather our courage for an unpredictable day.

I'm thinking of another new book I recently enjoyed: The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka, another favorite novelist of mine who I've chatted with in these blog pages before. The Great Offshore Grounds is a warm-hearted novel about two half-twins searching for a possible parent. It narrates both an epic cross-country journey and an ocean voyage, calling to mind Melville, Twain, Conrad, Steinbeck, Kerouac. I like Vanessa Veselka's fiction because her characters live the way many people I know do - street smart, suspicious, cocooned in strange urban countercultures, three-quarters broke, deeply dedicated to staying sane, avoiding disasters and keeping it real.


When I think about the United States of America in 2020, and the vast divisions that separate us, and the vile racist leadership that a greedy privileged minority in this country thinks it has the right and the power to inflict on all of us human beings who live here, and when I try to comprehend the fact that apparently 40% of this country wants to bow down to a dictator like Trump ... well, I sometimes wonder why we bother to keep this broken government together. Can this marriage be saved? Should this marriage be saved? Is it possible that we could have a better world without corrupt mega-governments abusing our lives and stealing our freedom?

I don't think nations are good for us anyway. I think not only USA but the entire world can save itself by reinventing the way we coexist, and defunding not only militarized police forces but entire archaic government systems that were invented centuries ago and no longer have the power to contain us. This is a topic for another blog post, or another podcast episode.

Scorched earth. Sometimes I hear a friend say that they fear the future, in the age of rising global authoritarianism and collapsing public trust. I always say that fear plays no role here. We're all ready to do our part to save our souls and save our planet. I hope my country can save itself, but if the worst happens I would never bother shedding a tear for the United States of America. I will shed a tear for our scorched earth.

8 Responses to "Scorched Earth"

by Howard Park on

Imagine...the end of the nation-state!

by Marc Eliot Stein on

Yep, I'm imagining it. John Lennon had the right idea.

Most urgently, though, we've got to remove a lying fascist from power ASAP.

by Mark Kiemele on

Good essay, bad times… Shades of Nixon shades of Reagan. I feel so fortunate to have escaped to Canada 50 years ago.

So in America when the sun goes down… and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry… and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old… – Kerouac

by Barbara Eckstein on

the current scorched earth situation has been smoldering since the end of world war 2. The ember is the current manifestation of military take over for profit. In the past appropriation of resources required elephants and armies crossing the Alps. A visible and impossible to ignore conflagration that one could actively point to and oppose. Since the end of WWII, active, incendiary invasion works more like an infinite fire in a coal mine. Underground, hidden, ignorable.

The current administration's individual persons behaviors expose the smoke of the coal mine fire, seeping out via outrageousness, the reason some neocons and capitalists are openly opposing trump in the 2020 POTUS election. They want the coal fire to continue. They just don't want the smoke seeping and becoming visible.

Maybe the analogy is a bit stretched.

by Marc Eliot Stein on

I agree, Barbara. I'd say it's been smoldering since World War 1, rather than World War 2. Sadly I don't think your analogy is much stretched.

by mnaz on

" I think not only USA but the entire world can save itself by reinventing the way we coexist, and defunding not only militarized police forces but entire archaic government systems that were invented centuries ago and no longer have the power to contain us" ... This comment of yours struck me as related to Barbara's comment in some odd, even ironic ways-- namely, that a portion of Trump's support derives from contempt for bloated, corrupt "archaic government systems" (though of course characterized by the massive right wing talk media empire as strictly a Democratic Party problem). That, and Trump is too much of an uncontrollable "loose cannon," of course.

by Marc Eliot Stein on

Hi Mnaz - I think I know what you mean, but I don't accept this formula. I'm proposing a bold movement against all the established injustices that oppress us: predatory capitalism, endless war, climate abuse, government corruption. Trump pretends to stand for change, but he actually stands for a continuation of all these abuses. The fact that an empowered liar pretends to stand for good causes shouldn't reflect badly on those who do work sincerely for good causes.

Add new comment