When asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)—Roman Catholic convert, godfather of the global village, irrepressible punster, incessant prober, and the man who once declared that, if he had the power, he would destroy all the television sets in the world—replied: “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I am an apocalyptic only.”
Many of us carry a somewhat distorted interpretation of the word “apocalypse.” It arises out of a vague recollection of the weird tales in the Christian New Testament’s closing episode. The term is linked in popular culture to notions of the “end of days,” “the Battle of Armageddon” and those nasty horses that brought conquest, slaughter, famine and death. The last horse, carrying death, was a “pale horse,” ridden by Clint Eastwood in the movie Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1979). The term was also in the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s far-famed film Apocalypse Now (1985), which featured Martin Sheen in, perhaps, his most important cinematic role. It’s complicated.
How Marshall McLuhan could be an apocalyptic is a problem for anyone who doesn’t know the root meaning of the word. To many of us, it seems to have a lot to do with the Hale-Bopp castrati who imagined themselves about to be raptured onto a hunk of interplanetary rubbish in 1997, in anticipation of which they ended their lives in a most unpleasant manner. Apocalypse, upon inspection, has very much the same meaning as “revelation,” for the aim of an apocalyptic is not necessarily to visit terror, agony, deprivation and extinction, even in an ultimately good cause, but to reveal an important and knowable truth.
Robert Jensen has written what he says is either a long pamphlet or a short book. Take your pick. It’s only seventy-four pages long and it is not as spooky-scary as its main title suggests. Instead, it has a closer companion in a piece of clever sloganeering with a distinctly twentieth-century flavour and a hint of sarcastic witticism from Milton Friedman, one of the founders of the contemporary and seemingly hegemonic, neoliberal ideology. In 1965, the economic sage of University of Chicago and the future muse for the cruel domestic policies of brutal Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, declared that “we’re all Keynesians now.” It was a phrase that was clipped, removed from its context and occasionally falsely attributed to President Richard M. Nixon, but which was also sufficiently concise and provocative that it has entered the folklore of late capitalism as a bit of irony from a generally humour-free zone.
So, Jensen says we’re all apocalyptic. What does he mean when he says we’re all apocalyptics now? Oddly, it is a token of hope.
The truth is that Jensen’s message is fairly benign. He is a latter-day messenger of the best hopes of Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) or maybe Max Weber (1856-1920) or, in a stretch, even G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). He thinks humanity is in deep, deep trouble, but he is eager to bring reason and rationality to public discourse because, although the odds may be against us, he believes that we have the intellectual capacity and maybe even the spiritual fortitude and corporeal courage to save ourselves and our species. Considering the number of people suffering from PMSD (post-modern stress disorder), a new mental illness I’ve just decided to invent in case anyone at Pfizer or Hoffmann-La Roche needs a marketing research project, he is a relatively optimistic apocalyptic. My purpose in commenting briefly upon him here is not so much to treat his comments in this little booklet with excessive gravitas, but to recognize and assess the considerable attention he’s been getting and to endorse his main points as they apply to college teaching and learning.
Jensen correctly points out that our species and our planet are in pretty sad shape. What’s worse, the people who purport to lead us in discourses about politics, economics, social relations, scientific and technological innovation, elite culture and the popular arts, intellectual life and education, and especially in the now impossible-to-ignore area of ecology are somewhat small stuff. This is not to imply that we lack brilliant minds, worthy souls and champions with spines of iron; it simply means that extraordinarily worthy people don’t often get elected or otherwise promoted to positions of influence and authority. While preoccupied with the likes of Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi and the Kardashian Kids, the most edifying among us are usually left to play supporting roles when they aren’t booted out of the cast of our unique tragic-comedy altogether. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, since people with amazing gifts, intimations of authentic charisma (not mere popularity and a pretty face) and grand, transformative visions of the future, often end up being more dangerous than the squalid celebrities we are encouraged to admire. So, when desperately craving leadership, we should remain very careful what we wish for and very attentive to the sort of monsters to whom we may regret surrendering our autonomy and our liberty. I am implying, of course, that heroes almost always have fetid feet and that history may best be built from the bottom up without self-regarding demigods who eventually display a willingness to impose their will on the people they vowed to lead, to liberate and to serve. Seeming supermen have a consistent tendency to rule from the top down.
I am not making a romantic plea for democratic decision making. I am relying on the psychological sciences which are teaching us, for example, that one of the essential elements in the job description of a bona fide leader is almost certainly that the candidate should be ruthless, dissembling and incapable of the rudimentary points of honour. There are exceptions, of course, but I can think of very few individuals who currently hold the high formal or informal public offices in my (or any other) country who would be admired for their humility and open-mindedness toward those with starkly different opinions from their own. Victor Lipman (2013), for example, wrote that “troubling research indicates that in the ranks of senior [business] management, psychopathic behavior may be more common than we think—more prevalent in fact than the amount of such seriously aberrant behavior … in the general population. So, although Emory University Professor Scott Lilienfeld et al (2012), in a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, did their best to step back from making a direct connection between sociopathy and American presidential success, he nonetheless clearly signaled the propensity of political leaders to exhibit traits such as fearless social dominance, self-centered impulsivity, superficial charm, guiltlessness, callousness, dishonesty and immunity to anxiety. These are clinical characteristics associated with Keynes’ famous “madmen in authority” (1964, p. 383). They certainly cannot be entirely discredited and, in too many cases, they are all too obvious. Whatever the compulsion to attain and wield power, the tempering influences of altruism and tolerance are not readily apparent.
Though we have troubles with our leaders, we also have problems with discernible threats to our civilization. Despite our best efforts at denial and regardless of notable efforts by corporations and governments alike to silence scientists who have had the audacity to speak out against the petroleum, pharmaceutical and weapons industries, we are becoming increasing aware of the anthropogenic hazards to the biosphere. This is certainly nothing new.
I vividly recall, for example, my former colleague, Jim Dator, addressing the Hawai’i state legislature in 1970, telling the esteemed law makers about the dozen or so ways in which humanity might succeed in destroying itself. He listed growing pollution of the air, soil and water, medical pandemics, global warming and desertification, overpopulation and mass starvation, grotesque domestic and international inequality, accidental nuclear or biochemical warfare and other convenient strategies for autoextinction. Of course, any one of these might or might not do the job alone—but the ease with which they could come together in a perfect historical-psychotic episode was easily demonstrable.
At the time, Dator raised an eyebrow or two by rhetorically asking if it required a “conservative” like him to show that the toxic consequences of our collective behaviour could only be avoided by implementing massive social changes and manufacturing attitudinal shifts on an almost metaphysical scale. A perceptive “futurist” then and now, he impressed the politicians and their assembled aides, but not enough for them to take his message completely seriously as long as his economic, political and ecological therapies might cost votes in the next campaign. The people to be salvaged by his suggestions were, after all, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, and they would not be voting in the election of 1972. Of course, any of those who were present over four decades ago and who remain alive today are at liberty to say that Jim Dator’s warnings have not come true … yet.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the population seems to have moved on. In the times when Silent Spring (1962), The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits to Growth (1972) were best-sellers, people at least seemed more sensitive to environmental issues. We witnessed, for example, the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington in (1970) and the upstart organization Greenpeace in Vancouver (1972). People at least seemed more sensitive to the environment and that was before when almost anyone had heard of bitumen or fracking!
Now, however, in spite of the marginal success of urban recycling programs, the reduction of fast-food Styrofoam and the impression made by celebrities from David Suzuki to Al Gore, both politicians and whole populations try to balance their commitment to economics and ecology, as if favouring one means ravaging the other. Our supreme dilemma is falsely portrayed as a zero-sum game in which, regardless of what choice is made, we all lose. Robert Jensen doesn’t want to change the odds; he wants to change the game.
Plenty of charming, thoughtful and occasionally inspirational people are still sounding alarms. Four who come to mind are Gar Alperovitz (b. 1936), James Howard Kunstler (b. 1948), John Michael Greer (b. 1962) and Phil Radford (b. 1976)—a fair intergenerational representation of ecology, democracy and social justice advocates and inspirations for grass-roots activism. Robert Jensen (b. 1958) fits in about the middle.
Robert Jensen is also “middle of the road,” at least in terms of the people whom he attracts and for whom he sometimes speaks. He calls himself a Christian radical. He was raised in North Dakota. He worked a while in the newspaper business for the St. Petersburg Times and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. What could be more wholesome than that?
Jensen has a Bachelor’s degree in science, a Master’s degree in journalism and public policy, and a Doctorate in media law and ethics. He has the requisite academic credentials to be taken seriously by members of what one Republican strategist (Karl Rove?) condescendingly called the “reality-based community.” When given the opportunity, however, he risked his academic career in the interest of what he saw as the truth. Like very few Americans—Susan Sontag and Bill Maher being among the more famous examples of the minority—he offered a dissenting commentary immediately after the events of 11 September, 2001. He told his compatriots that the terrorists attacks were “reprehensible and indefensible,” but “no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism—the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes—that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.” The truth sometimes hurts.
It may sound odd to say that such pronouncements are moderate, but they came as no surprise and are considered in no way outrageous by people outside the US sphere of political, economic and military influence. Jensen wrote those words in an op-ed article that was published on 14 September, 2011 in the Houston Chronicle. He had been teaching at the University of Texas at Austin for nine years. Larry Faulkner, the President of the University, denounced Professor Jensen in the press. Larry Faulkner left the University of Texas in 2006. Robert Jensen still teaches there, offering courses in law, ethics and politics. That is as it should be.
We Are All Apocalyptic Now offers students and teachers alike a solid primer on the state of the world. It is not overwrought, extreme, fanatical, frenzied or frantic. It will not incite people to riot in the streets, place bombs in government facilities or kidnap visible members of the “1%” for ransom. It is rational in two senses: it bases its claims about the ecosphere on solid scientific analysis, and it promotes a practical, no-nonsense understanding of our reality as the premise upon which well considered change—however immense—must be undertaken. The book/pamphlet sets out a simple and, to me, irrefutable message. In his own words, Jensen believes that “we’ve built a world based on the assumption that we will have endless energy to subsidize endless economic expansion, which was supposed to magically produce justice. That world is over, both in reality and in dreams. Either we begin to build a different world, or there will be no world capable of sustaining a large-scale human presence.”
The revelation is harsh, but the apocalyptic message is accurate. The content of We Are All Apocalyptic Now makes a valid contribution to any college course that might touch on current affairs, ecology, economics, ethics and politics. Jensen goes on to say that “capitalism and the extractive economy are incompatible with social justice and environmental sustainability.” He further insists that it is our duty as educators to deal with this peculiar human condition openly and honestly, to teach, preach, report, write and speak out in support of the kind of radical analysis and morally defensible political action that is crucial to our progeny.
The context of the writing of We Are All Apocalyptic Now is also important. Jensen inhabits a classroom, but he also lives in a home with a wife and a child, and he participates in a public world which is at risk. By doing what he does, he stands as a fine example for all teachers and, ultimately, for all students who are no longer willing to accept the received opinion that justifies (post)modernity in its current state and direction. His main point is that we must be responsible. His book/pamphlet can be purchased for less than $10.00. It would be a very responsible use of resources to obtain a copy and use it as a platform from which to build a more responsible society. What else could education be for?
Keynes, John Maynard. 1964. The general theory of employment interest and money. London: Macmillan.
Lilienfeld, Scott O., Waldman, Irwin D., Landfield, Kristin, Watts, Ashley L., Rubenzer, Steven & Faschingbauer, Thomas R. 2012. Fearless dominance and the U.S. presidency: Implications of psychopathic personality traits for successful and unsuccessful political leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103(3), pp. 489-505.
Lipman, Victor. (2013, April 25) The disturbing link between psychopathy and leadership. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved 17 September, 2013 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/04/25/the-disturbing-link-between-psychopathy-and-leadership/.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.