Tag Archives: apocaloptimism


It’s not often that a rock song nails a deep philosophical truth in a single pithy lyric… but that’s just what the band Semisonic did back in 1998, with their anthemic hit “Closing Time,” which includes this great line:

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

In this case, 2009 was that “other beginning.” Barack Obama’s Inauguration was the crest of a wave, a flowering of post-Bush “si, se puede” optimism that unfortunately was quickly squelched (let us not say “betrayed”) by his own centrist pragmatism and the Republicans’ petty, partisan obstreperousness.

So now here we are, at that beginning’s end – and a new beginning. On January 20, we will see what I am calling the “Dysauguration” of Donald J. Trump – as massive a perversion of the democratic process as the planet has seen since the emperor Caligula supposedly named his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate.

I plan to see this event from a different perspective. By the time Mr. Trump intones the words “So help me God,” I’ll be across the border, in Canada. (You might want to join me, even if just in spirit, or just for the day. See the article “Vote With Your Feet?” on my website, skipmendler.wordpress.com.)

I’m taking advantage of this “new beginning” to stage a new beginning of my own. I am headed to Europe for an indefinite period, with two goals in mind.

One is to get involved with refugee assistance over there. I am aiming for the Greek Isles, but I might find that I can be useful elsewhere along the route. Ideally, I’ll be able to use my performing experience by hooking up with one of the groups like Clowns Without Borders that has been doing shows to entertain the kids in the camps, but I’m willing to do whatever. (Look up “refugee clown circus” for a raft of articles about what some folks have been doing already, and why.)

The other is to get some opinions and suggestions from activists and academics over there regarding what can be done to fix our broken system, and our fractured society. I am particularly interested in how they make multiparty democracy work, and how we might bring the American system more in line with European democracies in this regard. (See my September column, “Two Parties Are Too Damn Few.”) I also plan to attend the 2017 Global Greens Congress in Liverpool at the end of March.

At present, I’m thinking I should be away for six months to a year, maybe more, depending on what happens (and how long the money holds out). In the meantime, I intend to continue this column, but I’ll be focusing primarily on my experiences along the way.

I remain an “apocaloptimist”: I believe that things are about to get quite rough, but I also believe they will work themselves out in the long run. This particular “new beginning,” this onslaught called Trumpism, will run its course and eventually end, hopefully sooner rather than later, but end it will.

And then there will be more – and better – new beginnings on the way.



(This essay was originally written in 1998. Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine.)

You’ve seen the pictures: one moment, there is a building, seeming solid and stable. Suddenly, flashes of light can be seen within the building, and puffs of smoke appear from its windows. The building seems to inhale for a moment, and then, as it exhales, it slowly folds in upon itself in a great cloud of dust and debris. The surrounding buildings are untouched, undamaged, except perhaps for a coating of dust.

It’s called “controlled demolition,” and the people who make it happen rely on a number of things:

  • An intimate knowledge of the structure to be brought down
  • Thorough understanding of the capabilities of their tools
  • Careful planning and consideration in the use of those tools
  • Absolute concern for the effects of their actions on the surrounding environment and the people within it.

Now consider the global society in which we live as a building of its own. Look at the conditions on the lower floors, where the air is fouled, the plumbing backed up, where children and old people sleep in hallways or closets. There has been a party going on in the penthouse for years, of course… but the partygoers are either unaware or uncaring about the conditions below them that make their party possible.

There are those of us, within the Green movement and elsewhere, who believe that this structure is inherently unsustainable — that at some time, it must collapse under its own weight. But what should we do? If we simply sit back and wait for the collapse, countless numbers of innocent beings will suffer needlessly. If, on the other hand, we just bring in the bulldozers and knock it over (the approach that was advocated by quite a few during the 1960’s), we will still cause unnecessary suffering – and be left with a bigger mess than we began with.

It seems to me that the task before the Greens and their allies is multifold.  Here is what must be done:

  1. Construct alternate structures.
  2. Help people become aware that alternatives are both necessary and possible.
  3. Enable as many as people as possible to make the transition.
  4. Then — and only then — bring the structure down, in as controlled and deliberate a manner as possible.

The first two steps are being done, to some degree.  Many individuals and groups are building alternative institutions, and the awareness of their existence is growing.  But we are nowhere near the point where large-scale transitions are possible.  In the meantime, there are other things to be done.  Within this metaphor, for example, electoral and legislative activity are attempts to temporarily shore up parts of the structure, to try to stave off the collapse until the other parts of the work can be completed.  This is not trivial work, it is not a waste of time, it must be done — but we must not deceive ourselves that electoral or legislative successes in and of themselves are the goal.  Rather, they are only one part of a much larger work.