Apocalypse Now? Kennedy vs. Doomsday

Apocalypse Now? Kennedy vs. Doomsday
American Values 2024 | April 25, 2024

By David Talbot, columnist, The Kennedy Beacon

I felt assaulted by Civil War, the movie about the implosion of America that everyone is talking about. It was loud, very loud, percussive. I jumped in my theater seat. My breath sometimes came in short gasps. My heart leaped from my chest. Some of the images – the horrific torture scene at the carwash; the grave pit and the truckload of dead bodies presided over by a sharp-witted, but morally-dead man wielding an assault rifle – stuck with me days later.

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I felt like I was in combat. That was probably the point.

The nation’s op-ed pages and social media universe are filled with dire comments about the movie. Civil War, says a headline in The New York Times, “Is a Terrifying Premonition.” The film, which pits a rump U.S. government against secessionist states led by California and Texas, has topped the domestic box office for two consecutive weekends, reports the newspaper, “at theaters from Brownsville, Texas to Boston, tapping into a dark set of national anxieties.”

America is now taking a dangerous road, the media proclaims, like the movie’s four war journalists as they navigate the eerie terrain between New York and Washington D.C. And the pundits are not wrong – America is boiling with hatred and division. The country could explode at any moment. Like other parts of the world. That’s the on-the-edge way that most of us feel. In red states and blue states.

It’s not just Alex Garland, the writer and director of Civil War. Other filmmakers and authors have been channeling the same poisonous feeling as we hurtle toward political and environmental system-failure. The artistic vision of dystopia has haunted humankind forever. But it seems acute these days, and more widespread.

Before Civil War, there was Leave the World Behind, a creepy, end-of-days drama starring Ethan Hawke, Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali, released by Netflix in December. The streaming movie featured ships that drift ominously off-course (three months before a big cargo vessel lost power and rammed into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge); personal computers and cell phones that suddenly go dead; a fleet of driverless, killer cars; a mysterious, screeching noise; and forest animals that turn humans into targets.

This strange vision of the near future was produced by Barack Obama, a fan of the novel that inspired Leave the World Behind and other dystopic fiction. The connection prompted a barrage of social media speculation: what does the ex-president know that we don’t? Leave the World Behind ends with a girl stumbling upon a billionaire’s hidden, well-stocked bunker. The movie suggests that the Davos elite are prepared to ride out the apocalypse in style. The billionaire class might even have devised a way to profit from the collapse of the modern, technology-driven world, the movie concludes.

A stream of recent novels and nonfiction books have also focused on the doomsday theme. In New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s popular 2023 novel Birnam Wood, it takes a fiery, self-destructive act by a radical environmentalist to save the planet from a psychopathic billionaire who is driven to ravage the earth for his own profit and power. As author Hari Kunzru recently observed in the Times, “A new kind of disaster novel is serving as scenario planning for real global crises.” In the new nonfiction book Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against the Apocalypse, author Emily Raboteau even gives prospective moms sobering advice about nurturing the helpless in the age of climate crisis, plague, police violence, political conflict and other crises. “Will my children be all right when I’m gone?” she asks plaintively in italics.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. acknowledges this sea of despair and bitterness. The national division is more extreme, he says, than at any time in our history since the real Civil War. But amid all the gloom and doom, Kennedy strikes a positive note. We can be saved, he says.

Kennedy refuses to launch ad hominem attacks on his political rivals, focusing instead on our major problems and how they can be overcome. He has built his campaign on uniting the country, not dividing it for political advantage. “Both establishment parties are using [the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol] to pour fuel on the fire of America’s divisions,” he said recently. “Each side claims that a victory by their opponents means the end of democracy. Then, anything is justified to stop them… We run the risk of destroying democracy in order to save it.”

He has repeatedly said, “During this campaign and during my administration, I will focus on the values that we share instead of the issues that divide us.”

There is something soulful about Kennedy’s national unity appeal at this political moment. Yes, the country is dangerously divided, and as we know, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

But the urge to heal is also personal. There are deep echoes in Kennedy’s rhetoric – familial, literary, and spiritual allusions – a kind of language not used in today’s political discourse. The story is America’s. And the story is his own. We know that his uncle and father were martyred. He invokes some of their language to remind us of our better selves. He also is honest about himself. We know that he suffered as a young man, that he was tormented. We know that he was an addict. He led a life that was far from perfect.

“I’ve got so many skeletons in my closet” he said wryly at his presidential campaign kickoff last year in Boston, “that if they could vote, I’d win in a landslide.”

Politics today is a twisted game of exclusion. Democratic and Republican strategists engineer victory by appealing to their bases and demonizing everyone else. They feed on rancor.

These days RFK Jr. is the political establishment’s enemy. Both parties want to keep him off the ballot – and the DNC is willing to pay big for it. Rather than extolling their own candidate’s strengths, they tear down any rivals. That’s not democratic. That’s demagoguery. That’s divisive. And in these times, it’s dangerous.

In Civil War, the armed man in the camouflage fatigues at the mass grave site – is he a soldier or militia member or unhinged criminal? – confronts two cowering journalists. “What kind of American are you?” he asks each ominously. They look different from him. Life – or sudden, violent death – hangs in the air.

Kennedy doesn’t want us to get to this precipice. He knows the answer. We’re all Americans.

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