TIKTOK USER Well, to be honest, I really know if I should believe in all the World War III stuff, but if it's true, I'm kind of scared.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The existential dread stirred up by the Iranian crisis and Generation Z finds an outlet on TikTok. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. Speaking of the end of the world, it's been a while since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Are we due for an apocalypse?
DAN CARLIN If you think of human capabilities like a stock market, we've been on a stock market tear for since the Renaissance at least. But there have been time periods where growth has sort of gone backwards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus tips and tricks on how to inoculate yourself against war propaganda.
NATHAN ROBINSON If you watch Fox News, you'll see what can be fairly characterized as war lust. I shouldn't even say Fox News alone because it does permeate everywhere. And you've really got to watch out for that.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. Barely into the new news year and it's been dramatic: an assassination of an enemy general, just because; an exchange of apocalyptic threats; a missile barrage toward U.S. troops in reprisal; and a public finding itself bracing for war.
NEWS REPORT Crowds on the streets of Tehran. Anger growing over the U.S. airstrike that killed the head of Iranian special forces… [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Ballistic missiles soaring into the night sky. Their targets: two Iraqi military bases housing thousands of U.S. soldiers. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD At the moment, this is being recorded on Friday, both Iran and the United States seem to have backed down. But the situation remains tense, as Congress ponders how to keep an erratic president in check and the rest of us try to sort out how we got to the brink of another ruinous regional war. Some spoke of a childish president frustrated when protesters in Baghdad broke, Benghazi-like, into the heavily guarded U.S. embassy on New Year's Eve. Some spoke of inevitability following 40 years of Iran-sponsored terrorism and others turned a phrase.
NEWS REPORT Do you think the president was doing the proverbial wag the dog? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Wag the dog. The construction dates back to the 1860s, but it took on a new meaning in the 1997 Barry Levinson film called Wag the Dog.
Just got to distract them, Less than two weeks till the election. What in the world would do that, what in the world would do that? I’m working on it.… [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The movie president is embroiled in a sex scandal amid a tense reelection campaign. So to change the subject, his handlers stage a fake war with Albania, knowing that in war time, the public and press will line up behind the commander-in-chief. So, yeah, of course, movies are pretend. A real war with Iran promised actual catastrophe. But administration hawks and their media proxies nonetheless got busy trying to win the hearts and minds of the American public, using the same techniques deployed in the run up to deadly fiascos in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs magazine, had seen it before, beginning with the government making misleading claims and the media running with them.
NATHAN ROBINSON Some of us remember that The New York Times was widely criticized for this reporting in the lead up to the Iraq war because The New York Times would run headlines like, “Saddam Intensifies His Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” or “Nuclear Weapons Parts, says U.S.” Technically, there's nothing wrong about that headline. The U.S. does say that. But of course, we trust the media to have vetted the information. That they've actually got some reason why they think it's credible enough to put it in the newspaper. Unfortunately, that's often not true. So I just saw an example of this. Vox was writing an article that was very critical of what a U.S-Iran war would look like. It's said it would be a disaster. But they said as a fact, “Iran has killed 600 Americans.” Well, when you click the link, it's a Military Times article saying “the Pentagon says Iran has killed 600 Americans.” But the “Pentagon says” part then disappears in the repetition. And that's what you saw on Vox. And it was pointed out to them and they've now changed it to say, “the Pentagon says,” but you really got to watch out for this stuff.
BOB GARFIELD But it doesn't take someone in Trump land to confuse the issue. Here is Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks on CNN.
GREGORY MEEKS I have not seen any strategy on behalf of this president. That's what bothers me. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's what bothers him? Not the assassination perse, because on both sides of the aisle, the conversation begins with the presumption that if it serves American interests, it is our right and duty to kill him. But you dispute that calculus.
NATHAN ROBINSON You have to go deeper and ask, well, strategy for what? America presumes that the pursuit of nothing more than its own self-interest, with no regard to the interests of other countries is a reasonable objective. And I don't think that's self-evident. A lot of people are going to be saying, “well, the president was impulsive. He didn't follow the right process. There should have been strategy.” But they need to ask a deeper question, which is, “Is it acceptable for the United States to assassinate foreign officials? And what is the standard? Can anyone do this? Under what circumstances is it reasonable to take an action like this?”
BOB GARFIELD Most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls seem to be criticizing Trump.
NATHAN ROBINSON Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who did not lead with, “Soleimani was a terrorist or a bad guy of some kind,” but led with, “I voted against Iraq. I knew what would happen in Iraq. We're not going to do that again.” Pete Buttigieg gave a nothing statement. It said, “I have questions about how this decision was made.” Well, you could say that about pretty much any decision ever made.
BOB GARFIELD You could say that the crisis was triggered when the U.S. bombed and killed some Iran-sponsored militias in Iraq, which resulted in the storming of the embassy compound, which provoked the Soleimani assassination, which provoked the Iran missile attack and whatever happens next. But it didn't begin there. There is history to be reckoned with.
NATHAN ROBINSON It's impossible to understand this at all without understanding how we got here over a long period of time. That the United States overthrew the Democratic leader of Iran, who was moderate, within the lifetimes of presently living people. Right? And installed a hated authoritarian leader and supported him, and also supported Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war and so caused the deaths of countless Iranians during that war. And also shot down an Iranian civilian airliner and killed hundreds of people and then refused to apologize for it. So it's very bizarre when you hear Iran talked about as a place that just has this pathological hatred of us without any consideration of the context, any consideration of the fact that we made it very clear that we intend to have nuclear weapons and we intend to allow Israel to have nuclear weapons, but we don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons. And from their perspective, obviously, that's incredibly menacing and threatening.
BOB GARFIELD You suggest a sort of “turn-it-around” exercise to imagine how everything would sound if the other side had said it.
NATHAN ROBINSON So imagine that everything had occurred the other way around. Iraq had invaded the United States rather than the United States invading Iraq. They'd done so because we have weapons of mass destruction, which we actually do. And people in the United States had started violently resisting the occupying force. Would we classify that as terrorism? We probably wouldn't. We would classify that as legitimate resistance. Now, neighboring country—if Canada had come to assist us and then the top Canadian general had been assassinated, we would consider that an unlawful assassination. Terrorism and assassination look very, very different when they're seen through the other perspective.
BOB GARFIELD Now, there was something else that you pointed out that I'd actually noticed myself, and it was a different sort of revisionist history using the power of suggestion to make a relatively anonymous villain, Soleimani, into a longstanding Osama bin Laden-antichrist.
NATHAN ROBINSON I mean, there are some profiles that appeared of him from time to time. And in fact, you know, they were very complimentary. Right. Mainly because Soleimani was known for providing valuable assistance in the fight against ISIS.
BOB GARFIELD Well, he also I mean, just to be fair here, he also did create and fund proxy militias all over the region that were quite deadly and destabilizing. And he came to the aid of Assad in that brutal, grossly immoral regime's civil war.
NATHAN ROBINSON Yes, he did. And that's important, because actually what it really shows is that we don't care about things like that, until we do. Saddam Hussein was committing horrible atrocities, right, throughout the 1980s and the United States was supporting him. But all of a sudden, a switch flipped and Saddam Hussein became public enemy number one. So then we go back and we go, “look at all the atrocities he committed.” So you often see that. This revisionist attempt to take someone who was always committing indefensible acts, but was our friend. And then when they're not our friend, suddenly we go, “look at all the indefensible acts.”
BOB GARFIELD So all of these things you mentioned individually skew the reporting and they skew public perception. But the most pernicious effect, you say, is the aggregation of them. Causing the public quickly to, if not accept the facts as presented by the government as gospel, but to accept the inevitability of war.
NATHAN ROBINSON Yes, that's what's very dangerous. You get so far away from the underlying questions, so far away from the evidence. “How are we going to respond?” is the question. And you don't say “I don't think we should respond.” Because if you say that, then you're saying, “oh, well, you think that acts of terror can go unpunished.” And with Iraq, if you go back and you look through all the media accounts during the build up to Iraq, you see just how warped the debate became. It became, “what should we do about Saddam Hussein?” Not “Do we need to do anything about Saddam Hussein?” but “how much should we do?” And then after the invasion, it became is the invasion being managed well? And all of the questions became practical questions of once again, strategy. So be aware of the questions being framed. There was some general on MSNBC saying--
BARRY MCCAFFREY There's an appropriate response in what appeared to be a new phase of attacks on either the embassy or Americans in Iraq. So I think it was a great move. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD So that was Barry McCaffrey. And I think General David Petraeus said something very similar.
NATHAN ROBINSON Yeah, you'll hear it over and over and over.
BOB GARFIELD What follows you say is a kind of sloganeering that takes hold. So it became almost inevitable that a Republican congressman would show up on cable news saying this:
NEWS REPORT Nancy Pelosi does it again, and her Democrats fall right in line. One, they are in love with terrorists. We see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our gold star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani. [END CLIP]
NATHAN ROBINSON I mean, if you watch Fox News, you really see like, “let's go kick button Iran.” “Let's go show these people what we're made of.” Because for a certain class of people in America who it won't affect, a war actually would be satisfying because they'll be shielded from all the consequences. They're not going to die in it. And so it's just an opportunity to feel powerful and win a game. That's how you see it talked about on Fox News, and that's what's really gross and upsetting. I shouldn't even say Fox News alone because it does permeate everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD But what's left out of that kind of mentality is then what happens? Well, what happens is 20 years, trillion dollar war, hundreds of thousands of deaths in Afghanistan. And ISIS coming out of the misadventure in Iraq.
NATHAN ROBINSON Oh, yeah. I mean, that's absolutely true. The Bush administration had no plan whatsoever. Their job was to depose Saddam Hussein. And when he was deposed, it was mission accomplished. It was all completely improvised with no knowledge of Iraqi culture, Iraqi government, Iraqi economics, nothing. They were thinking single mindedly of that one objective of removing Saddam. And if you do that, I mean, it really does cause a disaster. So that's why you have to get away from this kind of looking solely at the moment or solely at one fact, like Soleimani’s a bad guy and start to think about historical context and what happens if you do something that feels satisfying and feels like justice, but ultimately might unravel into chaos.
BOB GARFIELD Nathan, thank you.
NATHAN ROBINSON Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Nathan Robinson is editor in chief of Current Affairs magazine. His article is called “How to Avoid Swallowing War Propaganda.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, former generals with ties to the arms industry return to their media armchairs and the memeification of World War III.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. As the Iranian crisis brewed, the media charged into action, seeking expertise from public figures we can trust for sobriety and perspective.
NEWS REPORT Joining us now for reaction are Fox News contributors Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer.
NEWS REPORT Former Senator of Connecticut Joe Lieberman joins the show today.
NEWS REPORT Judith Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist and Fox News contributor.
NEWS REPORT Former U.S. deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz on all of that. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Oh, yeah, baby.
BOB GARFIELD The whole crowd that stoked the Iraq invasion furnace in 2003 are back. So many familiar faces.
NEWS REPORT Now former director of National Intelligence James Clapper. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Also CNN's National Security Analyst James Clapper. In 2003, it was Clapper who claimed Saddam had smuggled WMD components out of Iraq to hide them from the West. So the question is: Why seek insight from the coalition of the wildly wrong? Which is not the only category of sketchy sourcing on display this week. The other concerns undisclosed conflicts of interest. As investigative journalist Lee Fang recently reported in The Intercept, in booking ex-military to opine about the situation on the ground, the media glossed over or entirely omitted the pundits earnings from defense contractors. Lee, welcome to OTM.
LEE FANG Hey, Bob, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Who's showing up to speak in favor of what may or may not be a war with Iran?
LEE FANG Some folks like former Army General Jack Keane,
NEWS REPORT Fox News strategic analyst. General, the president's obviously taking a hard line here. You approve?
JACK KEANE Oh, yeah, most definitely. I take it at face value what he is saying that this was a preemptive defensive measure to disrupt a subsequent attack on American troops. [END CLIP]
LEE FANG Keane has appeared over and over again almost on a nightly basis on Fox News. He's also appeared on NPR. Jack Keane has a financial stake in the debate. He's a board member of several defense contractors. He's been a longtime consultant to the defense contracting industry. A prime example of the revolving door, The Boston Globe had a great story years ago showing that he had been contracted with AM General, which makes Humvees to lobby legislators on a plan to not refurbish old Humvees for operations, but instead just to buy new Humvees from his client. But only his former military titles are mentioned when he goes on the media. There are many other examples. Van Hipp, the chairman of a defense contracting lobbying firm American Defense International, had a column in Fox News just the other day.
NEWS REPORT You're a military kind of guy. I was intrigued, at that elephant walk with all those F-35 As lined up and taking off fully armed. That’s sending a clear message to the Iranians, isn't it?
VAN HIPP JR Listen, a big time message. And also look what he's done, that president Trump has done the last few days to pre-position assets in case he has to use them. But, you know, don't forget, this is a president who has shown great restraint. [END CLIP]
LEE FANG Stephen Hadley, former NSC National Security Council official for President Bush, who's also a board member of Raytheon, which produces sensors for the predator drones used in the strike last week. He’s paid something like 300,000 dollars in cash and stock every year for working with Raytheon, [and] had an op ed in The Washington Post. All across the media, we see these former military officials who also have a military contracting tie, whether that's a board position, working as a lobbyist, working as a consultant. And those ties are never disclosed.
BOB GARFIELD Now, on one level, these bookings make perfect sense. The circumstances do demand expertise or at least experience, provided that the experts can be depended on to be disinterested observers. But as employees or consultants, too, are lobbyists, for the defense contractors or board members, war means money.
NEWS REPORT And defense stocks are benefiting. We saw big gains from Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin on Friday.
NEWS REPORT But this is helping out defense contractors, Raytheon in particular, really all of them. But as investors and traders think… [END CLIP]
LEE FANG I don't think we generally view issues of war and peace as a corporate reporting issue, but it very much is in America. These are major corporations with a stake in the debate. President Trump has won over 130 billion dollars in increased Pentagon spending. And it's not a secret that rising military tension in the region, particularly with Iran, is very much a part of the strategy for asking for these increased military budgets. Many of these companies Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman. If you look at their investor filings and their quarterly reports, they've said just in the last few months, in fact, that rising tensions with Iran will help them when they go to Congress to ask for higher military spending. The Cohen Group, which is a specialized investment bank that serves the defense contracting industry, they sent a note to investors almost within 24 hours of the strike on Soleimani, saying that this strike could boost defense spending not only for the traditional Pentagon budget, but for the Overseas Contingency Fund. That's a special fund that provides finances to wartime theater spending. So while there is a lot of talk about lives lost, about, you know, all the dangers that could come from escalation, for a small but significant sector, they see a financial opportunity.
BOB GARFIELD You believe that to some degree they get these gigs because they can shape policy that could be beneficial to the contractors?
LEE FANG I mean, we can look at stories over the last decade or so that show examples of this. You know, Huntington Ingalls, major shipbuilder. There's a great story in The New York Times a few years ago showing that they were hoping to encourage Congress to spend money to buy new aircraft carriers that are produced by Huntington Ingalls. And so they went to former military officials. They had them work with think tanks. They produced reports. They went to the media claiming that China's new aircraft carriers would threaten U.S. naval dominance and that the only way to counter this was to spend money on these 11 billion dollar aircraft carriers built by Huntington Ingalls. And part of this lobbying strategy was using former military officers who had been retained to talk to the media and talked to legislators. There's a long history of major defense contractors working with former military officials, not for their technical expertise per se, but for their political influence, for their influence in the media. Because for any major government contractor, public opinion matters because public opinion shapes what are politicians looking towards when they asked for more money..
BOB GARFIELD Now Lee, some of this is a structural problem, is it not? The defense industry is the elephant's graveyard for military careers. The vast majority simply shift from the military side of the military industrial complex to the industry itself. So if you're a news organization and you are seeking experienced hands to lend expertise and context, where else to turn?
LEE FANG As a journalist, I don't think there should be an outright ban on anyone speaking or being used as an expert. If someone has a financial stake in the outcomes of a debate, readers or viewers should know that if you're in a trial and an expert witness is called, there's a disclosure there. I don't see why these media appearances should be any different.
BOB GARFIELD And I would further propose that perhaps there should be at least one direct question in interview along the lines of: “Your company stands to gain from war. How do we know you're not playing for the house, general?”
LEE FANG Sure. I mean, we don't see these former generals appearing in the media and saying we need less defense spending, especially those involved in the defense contracting industry. And I don't think that's a coincidence.
BOB GARFIELD The last general to say that, I think was Dwight D. Eisenhower as he was leaving office in 1959.
LEE FANG Yeah. And that was an era in the U.S. when we had much less of the revolving door. It was a big scandal. If you look at The Washington Post or The Washington Star back in the ’50s, they covered it as a real controversy when any major politician or general went to work for a major corporation. Now it doesn't raise an eyebrow because it's so common, but there's no reason it shouldn't be reported as such.
BOB GARFIELD One last thing, Lee, you've been here before. In 2016, you did a piece for The Intercept disclosing similar connections to the pundits opining on TV and elsewhere about the presidential election without disclosing their ties to various super PACs and other highly interested parties. And that story had an effect.
LEE FANG Yeah, that's right. We reported on a number of major pundits who appeared on the networks who were introduced as “Democratic strategist” or “Republican strategists” to give their independent analysis of the race. But without disclosure, they were being paid either as consultants for the Super PACs or directly by the campaigns. That story did very well in social media. There were a lot of calls on CNN and other networks to do better with disclosure. And within a week of us running that story, the same pundits who had appeared in some cases dozens of times promoting their candidate without disclosure were suddenly being disclosed by producers, by hosts. So it's not hard to do.
BOB GARFIELD So, hell. I mean, this problem is as good as solved. Everything's going to change within a day or two, I guess.
LEE FANG Potentially. Here’s hope.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah. Thanks a lot.
LEE FANG Bob, thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Lee Fang is an investigative reporter for The Intercept.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the president ordered a hit on an Iranian military leader. The media chewed on it for about a week. Iran effected a bloodless retaliation. The media mostly called the crisis over and the president left that up in the air. Meanwhile, the anxiety of the media-consuming public shifted momentarily from politics to war, and not least on social media platforms inhabited mostly by people born in the mid-90s to 2010, dubbed Generation Z. There you could find the trending hashtag #World War III.
On TikTok, home to micro music video memes, and dominion mostly of the zoomers, apocalyptic anxiety appeared in post after post, many centered on premonitions of a military draft. Young men tore up fake draft letters or unironically ironically, resigned themselves to duty.
TIKTOK USER I'm a soldier now. I shouldn’t cry, I’ll see you in six months. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Many drew upon videogame lore. Some imagined themselves dancing to dodge bullets. Young women dreading a more inclusive draft, furiously pantomimed mid-century domesticity joking, “women belong in the home. Please don't draft me.” These memes were dark, one opened with the caption “Children in 2070 buying the new video game Call of Duty, World War 3.” Then the TikTok user was shown lying on the ground with the caption “me under Iranian soil,” and some skipped the jokes and just said what they felt.
TIKTOK USER Well, to be honest, I really know if I should believe in all the World War III stuff, but if it's true, I'm kind of scared, so. [END CLIP]
IAN BOGOST The interesting thing about these reactions is how quickly World War III became a theme, a kind of symbol for that concern. There was no indication that a conventional war was imminent, let alone a war on a global scale.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ian Bogost, Georgia Tech professor and contributing writer at The Atlantic, says that is unrelated to geopolitical realities these posts may have been a very real generational view emerged.
IAN BOGOST What World War III means to me, as someone who grew up during the Cold War, it was a fear as nuclear weapons amassed on both sides that all of humanity could be annihilated all at once. And with Iran, there has been a concern about their nuclear aspirations. But as far as we know, they're not in possession of nuclear weapons. So all of these things suggest just how kind of murky, how cloudy, how much of a lack of knowledge was driving these posts, which I say not to point out ignorance among the young people, but rather to suggest that this response was interpretive. It wasn't necessarily about the news. It was about their own feelings and about a kind of desire to find some sort of comfort in uncertainty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Comfort? I mean, you take the ramping up of conflict between Iran and the U.S., but how do you turn that into a conflict that brings the whole world into flames, reinstitutes the draft? Has people staring in the mirror saying, “I'm scared.” Where's the comfort in that?
IAN BOGOST The fantasy of a global war of the World War III sort, while it would be horrific, of course, hearkens back to a time when there was greater simplicity, or at least a perception of greater simplicity. The notion of World War II in particular was one in which there were clear good and evil, or at least a perception that there was clear good and evil where a conventional war was the kind of thing that everyone could get behind. And so by invoking this symbol of the World War in general and World War III in particular, you're able to sort of reoccupy a time kind of between the 1950s and the 1980s when even though there was great uncertainty, and we had a lot of concerns about the threat of nuclear annihilation, things felt simpler or our memory is that they were simpler. We had national states that were responsible for warfare. There were not that many of them. And today we have, after Vietnam, after the destabilization of war during the 1980s and 1990s, the rise of non-national actors like militias and guerrilla forces, and we have asymmetric warfare in all of these things are uncertain now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're talking about a period before the end of the Cold War when, for good or ill, there was a recognizable world order. Even though there was a tremendous amount of moral ambiguity during that period and continues and of course, through every war, even the ones that seem simple. But my question is about the zoomers is that, they weren't born before 1980. So what I saw were young people drawing from cinema and comic books and television.
IAN BOGOST Yeah. This is cultural memory and received ideas which of course, become nostalgized. They become a kind of fantasy that never really existed. And, you know, after the fall of the Soviet Union during the 1990s, we saw this enormous rise in kind of apocalypse films, big budget Hollywood blockbusters, whether it was about asteroids or aliens or what have you. We needed, culturally, we needed something to replace that threat of nuclear destruction in order that we could feel like we could rally around it. And, you know, a lot of those films show humanity coming together to push the asteroid off course or what have you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One thing that seemed weird about the World War III memes is that even though they appear to be anti-war, they also buy into its inevitability.
IAN BOGOST It is just very interesting that by invoking that phrase, you're not necessarily in support of military action of any kind. You're not necessarily a detractor of that action. You're almost sort of just kind of testing the waters of this question, “well, what if it were real? How would it play out today? and how would that be different than it was in the past? And am I ready for it?” All of those ways of practicing for the idea that there might be another conflict to worry about. On top of all the other worries that we have in our world today, I think that's what the hashtag with the memes are for they're kind of acting out or a kind of therapeutic process of thinking about geopolitical uncertainty, not necessarily about Iran specifically or the consequences of this specific event. One of the criticisms that I saw of these posts was like, “look, you kids in middle America or wherever, you've got nothing to worry about. It's the civilians on the ground in the Middle East who are going to pay the price.” If there is that kind of a concern, a concern for the fate of those who are really in the line of fire in this region... I don't know that that's necessarily the kind of thing that we saw, at least in the posts that I witnessed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We didn’t see any of those.
IAN BOGOST Yeah, there's a certain, you know, narcissism to posting on social media at all, which of course, is going to play out in concerns about one's own personal welfare in the face of global conflict.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Obviously, it's not the first time that kids on TikTok expressed their anxieties there. It just has a different hashtag.
IAN BOGOST You know, a year or two ago, nobody knew the TikTok existed. And I think it's important not to fetishize these platforms or go to them as some sort of novel generational rift, but rather that it's probably representative of something deeper, something more ongoing. And to me, that ongoing thing, that sort of ultimate cause of which the posts are proximate causes, is this--on top of everything else--more geopolitical unrest as the new year turns. And I thought I was going to be able to enjoy a few more days of school break or whatever. Here is another performance of that uncertainty on behalf of all of the forces that are out of my control. And I think that's the pattern that we will see recur, not necessarily with respect to warfare, but whatever the next thing is. And there certainly will be a next thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that the end of the world could be a “dark but deviously appealing fantasy.” And you were talking about your own experience as a Gen Xer during the Cold War. What seemed soothing about the apocalypse back then?
IAN BOGOST The idea that you live at the end of history is incredibly comforting, even if you don't know everything that happened in the past. There will be none who follow you. You've seen it all either personally or historically. You haven't missed anything in the project that is human kind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's FOMO taken to the nth degree, isn't it?
IAN BOGOST Right. I mean, the fear of annihilation is a particularly piquant version of the fear of death. It's about not seeing what comes next for your progeny, for humanity at large. It makes sense to me that there would be some comfort, even if it's a perverse comfort in everyone being together at the end.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so for a person in 2020, a young person, what's the meaning to be found in apocalyptic dreaming? What are they dreaming of?
IAN BOGOST Yeah, it's almost like a dream of a better kind of apocalypse than the one that they might face, which, you know, sort of nth order perversity here. But when you think about something like the climate crisis, it's a slow burn. We're kind of slowly snuffing ourselves out. That's a different kind of threat of annihilation than the one day when everyone kind of knows it's coming and the news stories tell you, “well take shelter, do the best you can, we don't know what's next, but it was nice knowing you.” So I think it's this fantasy for a better kind of end than the one that the youngest generation feels like they might face.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ian, thank you so much.
IAN BOGOST Thank you. It's great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ian Bogost is a professor at Georgia Tech and a contributing writer to The Atlantic.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, we consider how history depicts apocalypse. Like, how come we still don't know why the Roman Empire fell?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Seeing as this hour turned out to be devoted to images of mayhem in the media, we decided to end with a look at how history treats apocalypse with journalists and devotedly amateur historian Dan Carlin, creator of the compulsively listened to podcast Hardcore History. He's author of the new book The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses. I called him because I couldn't get one of those moments I first heard in his podcast out of my head. It was when Xenophon, the Greek encountered the disintegrating ruins of a great Assyrian city, gave its 18-mile fortifications, its walls a 100-feet high. Nineveh possibly, some 200 years after its fall, and imagining him standing there rapt in its impossible grandeur.
DAN CARLIN Xenophon was an ancient Greek general who fought in a Persian civil war around the times of the classical Greeks. So, you know, 400 BCE. And while he's fleeing after the battle is over, he and his men stumble upon cities that are just deteriorating in the dust. But he can see from the walls and the height of everything that their mammoth by comparison to what he knows about back home. And he quizzes the locals and they just blamed it on on the previous people who live nearby. But a lot of people have always thought these are Assyrian cities that a couple hundred years before had probably been the capital of the greatest empire the world had yet known. You know, the reason I think we find it compelling is because we can't imagine anything like that happening to us. If you could go back and find the ruins of a civilization before yours and find stuff in it that could cure cancer or that had medical technologies above and beyond our own, you wouldn't even know how to process it as a modern person. Because we've been on a 500 to 800 year jaunt. If you think of human capabilities like a stock market, we've been on a stock market tear since the Renaissance at least. But there have been time periods in some places where growth has sort of gone backwards to rise up again. So that Xenophon account is wonderful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You likened it to that moment in the Planet of the Apes. “Damn you!”
PLANET OF THE APES: You blew it up! Damn you. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The time traveler sees the Statue of Liberty's head in the dust.
DAN CARLIN And I've always loved that scene in that movie because of all it says in the blink of an eye. Right? Everybody at the same time in the theater has the same thought and realizes the same thing at the same time. And it's this weird idea that Xenophon was probably having when he saw the Assyrian cities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You pretty much start off your book with the end of the Bronze Age. I didn't realize how much was lost when it fell.
DAN CARLIN Go back to our civilizational stock market idea. It represents a real spike in the modern areas of the Middle East, West Asia and the Mediterranean, where all of a sudden you begin to have a highly sophisticated, highly literate--for the time period--massively interconnected society, via things like trade and even communication. So letters between the various rulers of the various states, which have survived in some cases. This is also the time, by the way, when our concept of ancient Egypt was at its height. And when you read the histories of the period, it's really the first time that you look at it and you go, “gosh, you know, I kind of from a geopolitical standpoint, I recognize this.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE If we go back a thousand years, we see an entirely different world. This Bronze period lasted far longer than we can even imagine. And yet it came down. It could have been incursions of people from the sea, famine or climate change, drought, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, plagues maybe, internecine warfare?
DAN CARLIN Or maybe a systems collapse. Maybe the first time you get such a sophisticated system. And you know, the one thing you could say about the Bronze Age system compared to our own is it was a lot more brittle and it had a lot less redundancy in it. So if something did fail, the cascading effect might have affected them a lot more than it would affect us today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like what?
DAN CARLIN The trade system, for example. This was an era where the Hittites were around. When the Bronze Age ended, they ended, too. But when the Hittites went down, they were sort of a center-spoke of a wagon wheel in the trade system. In the in the area, sort of at the crossroads between West Asia and the world of the Greeks. I mean, the Bronze Age was the first of the great eras of Greek civilization, too. So if you're the Hittites, I mean, you're the great trade middleman. If all of a sudden, let's just say barbarian tribes take over that region. It's the equivalent of having the road cut. So, I mean, these are ways that the system itself, if a local outage it happened, might have cascaded like a bunch of dominoes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was it systems collapse that did in the Roman Empire?
DAN CARLIN Oh, boy. It's a lot less excusable to not know why the Roman Empire failed than the Bronze Age. You're talking about something that predates the Old Testament of the Bible. I mean, that's a really long time ago. Comparatively speaking, the Roman empire is close to us. And yet, I don't know, the last time I read, there were 250 or 300 theories. But when the Western Roman Empire went down, it's like a giant power station for that part of the world. And when it went down, a lot of other places were either on impulse power or totally in the dark.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And as you note, especially in connection with the fall of the Roman Empire, these falls might not be falls at all, just changes in management.
DAN CARLIN This is one of the things I love about history. You know, some people sometimes make fun or get mad at revisions in history, and they’ll say, that's revisionist history. Revisionist history is what historians do all the time. Right? As new information comes forward, they react and synthesize it. And what it really does is over time, you get a lot of different views. And one of the ideas about the Roman Empire falling is that it didn't fall at all, that what you have is a transition. That's big these days. The hard breaks or the end of eras or whatever are more constructs by later historians. And that for a lot of people in the era, if I could transport you back there, things might look reasonably the same.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you feel there's value in putting yourself back there to understand what humanity has come through so far.
DAN CARLIN While at the same time understanding that it's sort of--
BROOKE GLADSTONE inconceivable.
DAN CARLIN Historians have talked about this for years now about how it isn't possible to understand the past were too burdened by everything that we grew up with. At the same time, this is why I like to get right into the human level. Because while we can't understand them culturally, there are things that make people in any era the same as people in any other era. At a certain root level, we're all people, and that's why those stories still resonate with us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the book, you talked about many towns where plague took more than a quarter, or in China, maybe 90 percent of the inhabitants. What does it do to the person? Do you attach yourself less to your children? Are you more brutal or casual about death? You suggest that people in the time, in certain fundamental ways may be different from us. Right now, the last couple of years, people on the coasts and in big cities may have felt a strain that they're not used to. And maybe the idea of apocalypse is in people's minds. Can we assume that what happens to us during one or two presidential administrations will change us forever? Can history turn on a dime?
DAN CARLIN I would suggest that yes, history can turn on a dime. But I would also suggest that oftentimes when it appears to turn on a dime, the roots of that quick turn go back more deeply than maybe first appears. I truly think if someone were writing a history book 250 years from now and put our era right now into context, that you could probably date this more towards the beginning of radio and then television and then what we have now as almost an exponential growth in the power of communication.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how that influences everything else.
DAN CARLIN And so quickly that it is hard for systems to evolve at anywhere near the same speed. So I think you could already see the cracks forming in places that are more culturally repressive-- Iran, China, Russia--where they're desperately trying to figure out how you control this destabilising power of communication. Now they're the canaries in a coal mine. We’ll feel it, too, and we do feel it, too. It impacts elections and foreign countries. I mean, when I was a kid, Radio Free Europe was a big deal because you could beam a signal across a border. But think about how different it is now. Everybody's on the same message boards together. Right? We are probably in the really early stages of this revolution. I've done a bunch of shows. The hidden theme is this question about long term progress that has to be paid for by a generation. Right? If we're on our way to a better world, but there's going to be some creative destruction on the way to get there, could we be the generation that has to pay the societal tab for that? I actually debate this with myself sometimes about the practical value of thinking hard about these things, because, for example, I think you could make a logical case that we should all every single day be as concerned about the potential of nuclear war as people were while the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you quote Bertrand Russell saying you may reasonably expect a man to walk a tightrope safely for 10 minutes. It would be unreasonable to do so without accident, for 200 years.
DAN CARLIN The basic question in that chapter is: can humankind handle the ever increasing power of its own weapons systems?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can it evolve enough to keep up with its technology?
DAN CARLIN This is the basic question between the two sides when atomic and nuclear weapons were young. You know, the philosophers and the Bertrand Russell types and a lot of the people that worked on the early bomb saying we're going to have to grow into a higher level of greatness as human beings, as a species, willing to renounce war as a policy and all these sorts of things. And then the people who did not have any faith in our collective ability to do that and thought if we can't figure out a higher level of greatness to grow into, we're gonna have to use our human ingenuity and adaptability to create systems that allow us to live with the weapons and the power that they have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that part of the difficulty of imagining past apocalypses is has to do with this moment we're in: the period of the long peace, a period in which we've developed weaponry that could conceivably destroy the world. And we can't focus on it. That's the danger of the long peace?
DAN CARLIN I grew up next door to an Air Force colonel and he said once, sometimes it gets to be too long since you smelled the bodies. His point was he knew people that had walked through the concentration camps right after liberation. And, you know, they made some of the locals who lived nearby do that, too, because it was something you would never forget. But how many generations can you go since you had to live with a disaster like that till it becomes a television theme or a movie plot? It's almost become banal. “Oh, not another post-Armageddon nuclear war movie. You know, give me something new.” I don't have an answer, but I almost feel like instead of making us more aware of the dangers that lurk right around the corner, if we're not careful, we're bored of Armageddon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me why you wrote the book.
DAN CARLIN I'm interested in the extremes of human experience and these are backdrops where that comes to the fore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, but do you think we are approaching another extreme?
DAN CARLIN We can dodge Ebola here, a hemorrhagic fever there, an avian flu somewhere else, but eventually something's going to hit. If only because if you consider that we may be around another 10,000 years, I mean, there's just so many things that can get you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I want to play you a piece of tape. This is Bertrand Russell.
INTERVIEWER When you mentioned the kind of world order that you hope to see within the next 20 or 30 years, what kind of world order do you think we can expect to see?
BERTRAND RUSSELL Expect?
BERTRAND RUSSELL I expect to see nothing but corpses. It’s quite simple. I think the human race won’t outlast this century. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think?
DAN CARLIN I like to say the disclaimer, “if current trends continue.” If current trends continue, you are going to get to a point where the much slower evolving frameworks and systems that we have, governments, for example, national entities and all these things will not be able to coexist with with the level of change at the speed that it's happening. When governments become destabilized maybe by social media or the impact of all these sorts of things that we may be are only beginning to see, that could open up the door to things like war between the great powers, which seem very far-fetched today. So if current trends continue, I think we're heading deeper into this information revolution that we live in, and I think there's a decent possibility we might emerge on the other side into a better world, but we might be the generation that has to pick up the tab for for for making that progress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dan, thank you very much.
DAN CARLIN Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dan Carlin is creator of the groundbreaking podcast Hardcore History and author of The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Eloise Blondiau, and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.