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I remember him (barely) as a thin, bald, little old man with a white mustache and a cane. As I write this, I’m looking at a photo of him in 1947, holding the hand of little Tommy Engelhardt who had just turned three that very July day. They’re on a street somewhere in Brooklyn, New York, Tommy in shorts and a T-shirt and his grandfather, Moore (that wasn’t his original name), wearing a suit and tie. It’s hard to imagine him as the young Jewish boy from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who ran away from home — somewhere in modern-day Poland — after reportedly “pulling the Rabbi’s whiskers” in a dispute. By his own account, he spent two desperate years working to scrape together the money for passage alone in the steerage of a ship from Hamburg to America and finally made it here in the early 1890s with the equivalent of a 50-cent piece in his pocket. And he was a lucky man.

He died when I was five, but sometimes I try to imagine him arriving in New York harbor and seeing that lady, the Statue of Liberty, for the first time. A century and a quarter later, I still wonder what, at that moment, he dreamed of when it came to the country that would indeed welcome him (though his life, in those early years, was — at least as family stories had it — anything but easy). How could I imagine myself as I am now (a bald little old man with a white mustache) without him, without that moment? So today, as Donald Trump does his best to keep every imaginable modern version of my grandfather out of this country and eject so many of those “Moores” now living here, I wonder about the grim cruelty of our world.

I wrote this about my grandfather early last year and, of course, it still applies:

“In other words, my grandfather was a kind of nineteenth-century equivalent of a DACA kid (though without even parents to bring him here). Like so many other immigrants of that era, he made it to the United States from a shithole part of Europe… and he was lucky… A few decades later, Jews like him, or Slavs, or Italians, or Asians of any variety — the Haitians, Salvadorans, and Nigerians of that era — would essentially be put under the early twentieth-century equivalent of Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ and largely kept by law from entering the country. In those days, the analog to Trump’s bitter complaints about Muslims and others of color was: Europe was ‘making the United States a dumping ground for its undesirable nationals.’ (So said Henry Fairfield Osborn, the then-president of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, in 1925.)”

So, as I focused on today’s chilling piece by TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg on the Trumpian assault on citizenship and so much else, I couldn’t help thinking about those 16-year-olds of our moment so desperately trying to make it to this country across our southern border, often alone, and just how they’ve been “welcomed,” as well as about the future Tom Engelhardts who will never come to be, at least not here in this — as Greenberg points out — increasingly walled-in and xenophobic land.

 
• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump, Immigration 
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How appropriate, don’t you think? America’s longest war, the Afghan one, now heading into its 18th year, may set another kind of record — for the longest withdrawal ever. The Pentagon recently revealed news of its daring “plan” to end that war. It will take up to five years to get 14,000 U.S. troops (and unknown numbers of private contractors), military equipment, and the like out of that country successfully, ensuring a war of perhaps 23 years (without, of course, a victory in sight). To add to the cheery news, just about everyone’s on board with the plan, except perhaps for one recalcitrant individual. As the New York Times recently reported:

“So far, the plan has been met with broad acceptance in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels. But American officials warned that Mr. Trump could upend the new plan at any time.”

In other words, when it comes to setting records in Afghanistan (USA! USA!), the news couldn’t be more upbeat if the president doesn’t interfere (and his administration’s peace talks with the Taliban don’t somehow get in the way). In fact, there might be even better news lurking just offstage. The Pentagon’s “plan,” after all, looks strangely like an effort to simply outlast the Trump era in hopes that a future president might be far more intent on record-setting than the present one. General Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, which oversees Washington’s never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East, may be typical of top U.S. commanders when it comes to such matters. He’s not just against the president’s urge to withdraw American troops from Syria but envisions a permanent war with ISIS into the distant future — and he imagines something similar in Afghanistan. As he told the House Armed Services Committee early this month, speaking of a possible U.S. withdrawal from that country, “The political conditions, where we are in the reconciliation right now, don’t merit that.”

So there’s no end to the records that could still be set, if it’s up to the generals, who — as TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and historian William Astore points out today — are filled with similar wisdom when it comes to what Pentagon officials have taken to calling “infinite war.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, American Military 
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Yes, it’s happening. It really is. And I’m not just thinking about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and the support it’s getting from Democratic presidential candidates or the controversy it’s generating. I’m also thinking about Washington State Governor Jay Inslee’s entry into the 2020 presidential race on a platform that boils down to a climate-change crusade. I’m thinking about the way Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — not your usual definition of a radical thinker or activist — is now planning to make global warming a key issue in the 2020 elections. I’m thinking about the fact that some Democrats suddenly are convinced the subject will be a winner on the campaign trail. I’m thinking about the fact that a book on climate change, David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, has just hit the bestseller list. I’m thinking about the strike-for-the-future movement, all those Generation Z kids that TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan writes about today who have started a wave of global protests about the increasingly degraded world they’re likely to inherit.

And I’m also thinking about the fact that every new study of climate change seems to offer worse news about the fate of the planet — greater potential temperature rises; more drought and famine; larger population displacements; faster-melting Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets leading to radically rising sea levels; more unexpected climate feedback loops that will only heighten the ravages of global warming; record levels of greenhouse gases still entering the atmosphere; and, most recently, the unexpected phenomena of heat waves not on land (yes, they’re coming, too, and they’re likely to be devastating) but in the planet’s oceans that could, among other things, significantly reduce fish populations and so humanity’s food supplies yet more.

In other words, don’t think of the recent rise in climate-change attentiveness and concern among Americans as a passing thing. It’s not for the simplest of reasons: climate change itself isn’t passing. Human-caused it may be, but it’s not faintly part of human history in terms of its potential time scale, and whatever effects we’re already feeling are essentially nothing compared to what’s likely to come. So in a country that, in 2016, elected history’s greatest crew of climate-change aiders and abettors, men who may one day be seen as the worst criminals in history, something’s finally starting to happen, even if just what it is still isn’t exactly clear. Under the circumstances, parents like Frida Berrigan have a tough job ahead. They’re going to have to explain to their children just how we adults have so royally screwed up this planet, the one that should have been their birthright. And that, as she makes clear today, is the necessary conversation from hell.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Global Warming 
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Here’s something that should still stun anyone, but has had no discernible impact in this country. Between December 29, 2001, when B-52 and B-1B bombers killed more than 100 revelers in a village in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, and December 2013, when a drone slaughtered perhaps 15 members of a car caravan headed for a wedding in Yemen, U.S. air power wiped out at least eight wedding parties — brides, grooms, musicians, relatives, celebrating villagers, you name it — in three countries across the Greater Middle East. To the best of my knowledge, only this website has ever tried to either count such incidents up or keep track of them over the years. As I’ve written in the past, if an Islamist terrorist had ever taken out an American wedding party here in the United States, the media coverage would have been overwhelming and unending — and I doubt the event would have been forgotten any time soon, if ever.

In 2004, then-Major General James Mattis caught the spirit of the era perfectly. Responding to reports of the deaths of at least 40 celebrants in an Iraqi wedding party, including women and children, he asked, “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” In fact, the almost- or just-wedded dead across the Greater Middle East never registered here at all. There were certainly individual news stories about such incidents, but no shock, no horror, no self-reflection whatsoever. Assumedly, the departed and instantly forgotten of Washington’s distant wars since September 11, 2001 — a day that will live in infamy, unlike the days when those wedding slaughters occurred — don’t matter a whit to Americans. Today, I doubt that one in a million of us even knows that the U.S. military ever did such things again and again and again.

Sadly, the tradition — if that’s even the word for it — of such wedding slaughters has only continued. In April 2018 and again that July, Saudi air strikes in a war being fought with American planes, bombs, and intelligence assistance took out two Yemeni wedding parties. In the first, at least 23 villagers were killed and many more wounded. (“It took us over a week to find all the body parts,” said one survivor.) In the second, 11 people in a caravan on their way to a wedding were killed, mostly women and children. Add it all up and, in those 10 brutal attacks, hundreds and hundreds of civilians in those three countries have died or been wounded while attending (or heading for) weddings.

Today, Allegra Harpootlian, a media associate at ReThink Media and a specialist on American drone strikes, considers the upsurge in emotion and protest against gun violence, especially school shootings, in this country by a mobilized new generation. In the process, given her professional focus, she asks an all-too-appropriate (and rare) question: When will Americans, young or old, start to think about the civilians that have died in striking numbers in these years of “infinite war” across the Greater Middle East and Africa?

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media 
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I’ll tell you when the nightmare that TomDispatch regular Bob Dreyfuss raises so eloquently first hit me hard. I’m talking about the possibility that the next U.S. military disaster of the twenty-first century might be Iran. That country has, of course, had a significant spot on Washington’s war-making to-do list since the days of George W. Bush’s presidency. After all, the Washington catch-phrase of that moment when neocons like… well, John Bolton… helped take us so disastrously into Iraq was “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” The “real men” didn’t make it then. The question is: Will they now?

You remember, of course, that, on entering the Oval Office, Donald Trump turned to America’s generals for a hand. For secretary of defense, he proudly tapped retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, reveling in his nickname, which was “Mad Dog.” As it happened, Mattis already had a rep for obsessiveness on Iran that seemed to fit that moniker perfectly. As the head of U.S. Central Command in 2011, he reportedly responded to a query from President Obama about the top three threats across the Greater Middle East by saying, “Number one: Iran. Number two: Iran. Number three: Iran.” In the end, he was evidently removed from that command early because he hatched a scheme to take out an Iranian oil refinery or power plant in a “dead-of-night U.S. strike” to pay Iran back for supporting Iraqi Shia militias then fighting American troops.

I truly started worrying about Iran in the Trump era, however, only when the media began reporting that the same James Mattis was acting as a crucial restraint — yes, restraint — on the president, National Security Advisor John Bolton (famous for a 2015 New York Times op-ed entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”), and that other notorious Iranophobe, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Bolton, a man who never saw a regime he didn’t want to change, has had similar urges when it comes to North Korea and may recently have been responsible for torpedoing the president’s summit with Kim Jong-un.) Now, of course, Mattis is gone and I leave Dreyfuss to fill you in on the rest.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Iran 
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Sometimes your past returns in the strangest of ways, as happened to me when today’s article from TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon first crossed my doorstep. As you’ll see, its subject would not be one on which this almost 75-year-old guy would consider himself to have the slightest expertise: women discovering their bodies in complex ways in the 1970s — and mutilating them now. As you know, I almost always write little intros for TomDispatch pieces, but this time, fascinated as I was by Gordon’s account, my heart sank… until, that is, I made my way ever deeper into the piece and discovered something odd and wondrous. I had, however indirectly, been associated with each of the key documents from the late 1960s and early 1970s that she cites as crucial to her growing understanding of herself in those years.

In 1969, in the midst of the turbulent anti-Vietnam War movement, I was swept out of graduate school and found myself — I don’t quite remember how — working as a printer at what we then, romantically enough, called an “underground print shop” (though it wasn’t in any way “underground”). It went by the name of the New England Free Press (NEFP) and we spent our time printing up anti-Vietnam War leaflets, strike posters, and all sorts of other subversive creations of that moment. Just in case you doubt my memory, here’s a photo of me (yes, I swear it’s me!), circa 1969, working at that very print shop on an old Chief 22 press. The NEFP became known for its pathbreaking literature program, a remarkable and still-fascinating set of movement writings that we often (but not always) printed up ourselves and sent around widely. Fortunately, some old NEFP staff members have recently begun creating an NEFP website in memory of that long-gone moment and of some of those pamphlets, especially a remarkable catalogue of the women’s liberation materials we then distributed. As it happens, they included the three pieces mentioned by Gordon today as crucial to her own development: the famed Our Bodies, Ourselves (when it was still a pamphlet, not a book), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, and Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.

I certainly can take no credit for the fact that we were distributing such now-classic materials (though I do recognize one article that I did bring to that long list), but I can still take pride in the fact that I was there when it all happened. (The NEFP even distributed the first piece I ever wrote for publication, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” which would, a quarter of a century later, become the basis for my book The End of Victory Culture.) Anyway, enough about me, as they say. Now, consider the remarkable memories of Rebecca Gordon.

 
• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Feminism 
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He descended that Trump Tower escalator on June 16, 2015, to announce his presidential candidacy already bragging about the “great, great wall” he was going to build on the U.S.-Mexico border (“and nobody builds walls better than me… And I will have Mexico pay for that wall”). “When Mexico sends its people,” he insisted that day, “they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

And his tune has never really changed. Almost three years later, in April 2018, he was still focused on those Mexican rapists, still insisting “they’re not sending their best.” In his final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in October 2016, he denounced all the “bad hombres” who have made it to this country and how “we’re going to get them out.” A week into his presidency, he was already threatening to send the U.S. military into Mexico to get rid of the “tough hombres” from the Mexican drug cartels preparing to invade this country. And just a week ago at a breakfast with U.S. governors, he was at it again, this time denouncing “rough hombres“: “And I told Guatemala and I told Honduras, and I told El Salvador — three places where they send us tremendous numbers of people… They’re not sending us their finest… They’re sending us some very — as I would sometimes say — rough hombres. These are rough, rough, tough people.”

In fact, many of those “hombres” — and they are always hombres — turned out to be rough, tough, bad children (even breast-feeding babies of the roughest, toughest sort) and rough, tough, desperate mothers, a crew so malign that they had to be eternally separated and incarcerated, which meant creating a children’s Gitmo on the southern border.

In his new book, The End of the Myth, From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin focuses on what it means for our country to live beyond the end of its own mythology. He sees that great wall, the one long ago constructed in the president’s mind (if nowhere else), as a forerunner of a grim new American mythology, “a monument to the final closing of the frontier.” Whether it’s ever built, that wall is already a symbol of a country whose inhabitants once believed they could escape history and now are in the process of walling themselves in, psychologically speaking, and becoming what Grandin calls “prisoners of the past.” Oh, and speaking of prisoners, today he points out the one circumstance in which the president tosses those hombres out the window and focuses instead on mujeres. And it’s undoubtedly no mistake that, when he brings them up, they always have duct tape across their mouths.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump, Immigration 
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Call me crazy, if you want, but I think I see how to do it!

We have two intractable issues, one intractable president, and an intractable world, but what if it weren’t so? What if those two intractable problems could be swept off the table by a single gesture from that same intractable man?

As a start, consider the problem of President Trump’s embattled “great, great wall,” the one to be built across 1,000 (or is it 2,000?) miles of our southern border, the one that so obsesses him, filling every other hour of his tweet-storming day, the one that a recalcitrant Mexican government refused to pay for, that Congress wouldn’t pony up the money for, and that striking percentages of Americans don’t want to fund either. As for turning it into a national emergency, that’s only going to line the pockets of law firms, not build the “big, fat, beautiful wall” of his dreams. But what if there were a simple solution, an easy-to-make deal that could solve his wall problem, while wiping the other intractable problem that goes by the name of China off the map of American troubles?

Wouldn’t that be a geopolitical magic trick of the first order, the art of the deal on a previously unimaginable scale? If your answer is yes, as it would almost have to be, then here’s the amazing thing: just a little fresh thinking in Donald Trump’s Washington could make it so.

Great, Great Walls in History

With that in mind, let me begin with China and show you just how it could be done. First, a simple question: Historically speaking, what country has had the greatest success building great, great walls? It’s a no-brainer, right?

I mean, how long is China’s famed Great Wall? Not a mere couple of thousand miles, but more like 13,000 of them (as Donald Trump himself has, in the past, pointed out). Admittedly, the idea of that wall — if not the actual set of walls built at different moments in history — was initially conceived of in 220 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China. And here’s the remarkable thing: the construction of various versions of his wall continued, on and off, for almost 2,000 years, into the mid-seventeenth century. Urban legends aside, China’s Great Wall is not visible to the naked eye from space, but it’s no less impressive for that. It was meant to keep out the nomadic peoples of the Asian steppes and other “barbarians” who might threaten the empire. Admittedly, as will undoubtedly be true of Trump’s future great wall (if it’s ever built), China’s version kept out far less than was advertised. Otherwise, there would never have been either a Mongol or a Manchu dynasty, both founded by invading groups from outside the wall.

Still, that country’s Great Wall is a monument to the building and engineering skills of a remarkable imperial power and, even in the twenty-first century, remains a tourist magnet. (More than 10 million people visit it annually.) That, in turn, should appeal to the Donald Trump we all now know so well, the man who clearly would, in the fashion of the Qin emperor, like his name to be highlighted in the history books a couple of thousand years from now. You know, the guy who is eternally eager to give the thumb (“You’re fired!”) to anyone not willing to make it so (which, of course, means just about everyone).

At the moment, he and his men are deep in a fierce trade war, escalating tariff battles, high-pressure negotiations, and various kinds of semi-militarized struggles with China, a country that, alone on the planet, has a special relationship to great walls. Now, do me a favor: keep all of that in the back of your mind for a moment, while I move on to some history that’s a little closer to home.

When it comes to the building of monumental infrastructure of the most tangible sort (rather than that of the virtual world), what country on this planet would you normally look to? In the 1950s or 1960s, it would, of course, have been the United States. In those decades, from superhighways to airports, this country was the planet’s infrastructure-building powerhouse.

Almost half a century later, though, it’s quite another story. In 2017, for instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ on a “report card” it issued. From dams to roads, levees to drinking-water systems, airports to public transit, the situation could hardly have been more dismal. Imagine this: the highest grade, a “B,” went to “rail” in a country that has yet to build a single high-speed mile of it (and whose only significant high-speed line in the late planning stages, the one that was to run between San Francisco and Los Angeles, now seems to be going down). China, on the other hand, already has 15,500 miles of high-speed rail and far more planned for the future.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: China, Donald Trump, Immigration 
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If you think of the age of Trump as a spectator sport, then perhaps the truly riveting show isn’t on the president’s Twitter feed or in his latest shout-outs to the press or at another of those “cabinet meetings” where everyone is obliged to publicly praise you-know-perfectly-well-who (and so does he). I wouldn’t for a second claim that any of those weren’t spectacles in a media world in which the very word “spectacle” is now spelled D-o-n-a-l-d-T-r-u-m-p. Still, if you’re into such things, I don’t think there’s a better one around than watching the president and his crew assiduously working to dismantle, piece by piece, an American imperial system, a genuine world order, that was almost three-quarters of a century in the making.

From his regular swipes at NATO to those threatened tariffs on German cars, from the ditching of the Iran nuclear pact to the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, from the cutting of U.N. peacekeeping funds to leaving the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, from the threats against the international criminal court to those leveled at just about any trade pact in sight, America First has turned out to be a curious kind of America Second policy. After all, the structure of much of our planet since the middle of the last century has been an America First one (even if Donald Trump is clueless on the subject). Now, it’s being ditched and, in doing so, The Donald seems to be speeding up a process that, historically speaking, was already underway.

In that context, TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, offers a monumental look at what American decline is likely to mean in the context of the collapse of past world orders and on a planet that, thanks to climate change, seems to be in its own kind of decline.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump, Global Warming 
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Honestly, the inequality gap in America should stagger the imagination or, on second thought, maybe it shouldn’t, not with the first billionaire in the White House and at least two more threatening to join him in a run for the presidency in 2020. After all, we now live on the planet of the billionaires. In January, as the billionaire summit in Davos, Switzerland, was about to be held, Oxfam summed our world up this way:

“Billionaire fortunes increased by 12% last year — or $2.5 billion a day — while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth decline by 11%… [T]he number of billionaires has nearly doubled since the financial crisis, yet wealthy individuals and corporations are paying lower rates of tax than they have in decades, thanks in part to the new tax law championed by President Trump.”

Yes, a billionaire strolled into the Oval Office in January 2017 and (don’t be shocked!) promptly fused with congressional Republicans not to fund America’s crumbling infrastructure of roads, dams, levies, and the like, or to offer better medical care, or to rescue the environment, or to face the climate crisis that threatens the human future, or to do anything that would help an average American. Instead, they focused on funding the creation of yet more of the super wealthy with a tax cut sent straight from billionaire heaven.

With 2020 in mind, President Trump is now warning American voters about the dangers of “radical left” Democrats, a crew of “socialists” capable of launching a reign of terror against… hmmm, billionaires. Let me quote the most dangerous among them. Bernie Sanders: “Instead of an austerity program for working families and the poor, we need austerity for billionaires and large multinational corporations.” Elizabeth Warren: “I want these billionaires to stop being freeloaders.” So watch out if they take the White House! And while you’re at it, check out what really should be the scandal of this American century. From the indispensable Nomi Prins, TomDispatch regular and author, appropriately enough, of Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World, comes an overview of the economic “great wall” that Donald Trump and crew are building to keep most Americans out.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Donald Trump 
Tom Engelhardt
About Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tomdispatch.com is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman's Maus and John Dower's War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan's The American Empire Project. Many of the authors whose books he has edited and published over the years now write for Tomdispatch.com. He is married to Nancy J. Garrity, a therapist, and has two children, Maggie and Will.

His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.


Personal Classics
Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the Twenty-First Century
How the Security State’s Mania for Secrecy Will Create You
Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower