How the Threat of Apocalypse Justifies American Empire

A new book argues that in the military’s hands, warnings of world’s end become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Chris Lehmann

“Everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ,” said Ronald Reagan of the Cold War in 1971. (Getty Images)

As any casual visitor to a multiplex or a megachurch will attest, the American imagination is in the grip of apocalyptic fantasy. We continually rediscover that the end is nigh, be it in the popcult fables of a zombie apocalypse or the Revelation porn of the Left Behind novels. 

We should break the American addiction to world-disfiguring apocalyptic fantasy in favor of a “practical and inclusive radical optimism."

In The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Calls to Greatness, Betsy Hartmann traces our apocalypse obsession back to the Puritans. Her argument is pointed: America’s centuries-long courtship with world-ending calamity is crucial to the distinctively American brand of warmaking. By continually seeing ourselves on the brink of catastrophe, we rationalize catastrophic military interventions, one after another. This compulsion to cast ourselves as the chief actors in the drama of history’s end stems, in Hartmann’s view, from our Protestant culture, which created a self-ratifying sense of our national chosenness. That Americans are special and exceptional, a chosen people to carry out God’s will or else suffer dire consequences, are held to be self-evident truths,” she writes. So, too, is the belief that war is divinely justified.” 

King Philip’s War — a 17th-century campaign to exterminate Native Americans — spurred the colonists into reveries over their role as the protectors of Christian civilization. Cotton Mather memorialized the Puritan migration to the New World as the last conflict with the anti-Christ and the harbinger of the impending millennium.” 

Hartmann argues that we should break the American addiction to world-disfiguring apocalyptic fantasy in favor of a practical and inclusive radical optimism like the kind expressed in the inscription on the side of the Scottish Parliament building: Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ ” 

She also critiques the apocalyptic rhetoric of modern environmentalism. In two closing chapters on the overblown specter of overpopulation and the all-too-genuine threat of climate change, she shows how far the militarist-apocalyptic mindset has overtaken the movement to save the planet. The predicted population bomb” now comes off as racist and imperialist folly. Of Malthusianism, she writes: 

It convinces many otherwise well-meaning people that it is morally justified to curtail the basic human and reproductive rights of poor people at home and abroad in order to save ourselves and the planet from otherwise certain doom. 

Likewise, the effort to curtail carbon emissions slips too easily into a vision of an anarchic, violence-ridden social order at the outer reaches of Western civilization, marked by waves of climate refugees” fleeing rising oceans and deforestation. As Hartmann notes, these civilization-engulfing hordes often turn out, on closer inspection, to be standard-issue economic migrants. They may be fleeing conditions exacerbated by climbing temperatures, but many are already long engaged in migratory searches for geographically and seasonally dispersed work. 

Political leaders from John Kerry to Barack Obama to Bernie Sanders all signed on to a version of this fantasy by attributing the Syrian refugee crisis to climate-induced drought — distancing the resource-depleting regime of Bashar al-Assad from the consequences of its own actions. This creates the impression that such a mass migration is a neverending new normal.” Hartmann writes, Rather than seeing the current crisis as politically rooted and time-limited, we’re encouraged to believe that we’re entering a world of permanent emergency.’ ” 

Enter the American national security state. The defense establishment has already rallied to designate climate change as a first-order national security threat — a move welcomed by many environmentalists. 

But, Hartmann writes, we should be careful what we wish for: 

Through the securitization of climate change and disaster response, we are being taught to fear the dark people global warming will supposedly set loose. … The more we accept that racialized apocalyptic vision of the future, the more we concede control to the military. 

And that, in turn, seems our shortest available path to apocalypse now. 

Chris Lehmann, is editor-in-chief at The Baffler and a former managing editor of In These Times. He is the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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