Back in the Fall of 2006, Kurt Anderson wrote a column about apocalyptic fever in New York Magazine. In it he goes over the “new” fashion of apocalyptic thinking and worries — but not too seriously — that such thinking, particularly when it spills over into mainstream news analysis of perhaps taking us over the edge. I post it now because, a) if anything, I think he underestimates the power and ubiquity of these ideas, and b) we need to think about this material much more subtly than his rather ham-fisted approach — all this stuff is nutty, stay away.
The End of the World As They Know It
What do Christian millenarians, jihadists, Ivy League professors, and baby-boomers have in common? They’re all hot for the apocalypse.
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By Kurt Andersen Published Sep 25, 2006
The week of September 11 (two weeks ago, not five years), I noticed a poster up at Frankies, my sweet neighborhood trattoria in Brooklyn: It advertised a talk on 9/11 by Daniel Pinchbeck—the former downtown literary impresario who has become a Gen-X Carlos Castaneda and New Age impresario. My breakfast pal nodded at the poster and said, “The guy is selling his apocalypse thing hard.”
“Apocalypse thing?” I knew of Pinchbeck’s psychedelic enthusiasms, but I’d somehow missed his new book about the imminent epochal meltdown. In 2012, he interprets ancient Mayan prophecies to mean “our current socioeconomic system will suffer a drastic and irrevocable collapse” the year after next, and that in 2012, life as we know it will pretty much end. “We have to fix this situation right fucking now,” he said recently, “or there’s going to be nuclear wars and mass death … There’s not going to be a United States in five years, okay?”
2012 is big. Google 2012 Crop Circles and see what you get. In an age when our leaders — Republican and Democratic — seem to be flailing around without any sense of what to do, the younger generation can take “comfort” in these kinds of “promises.” It’s a form of “counter-knowledge” that’s particularly appealing as “reason” commits suicide.
The same day at lunch in Times Square, another friend happened to mention that he was thinking of buying a second country house—in Nova Scotia, as “a climate-change end-days hedge.” He smirked, but he was not joking.
On the subway home, I read the essay in the new Vanity Fair by the historian Niall Ferguson arguing that Europe and America in 2006 look disconcertingly like the Roman Empire of about 406—that is, the beginning of the end. That night, I began The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s new novel set in a transcendently bleak, apparently post-nuclear-war-ravaged America of the near future. And a day or so later watched the online trailer for Mel Gibson’s December movie, Apocalypto, set in the fifteenth-century twilight of, yes, the Mayan civilization.
So: Five years after Islamic apocalyptists turned the World Trade Center to fire and dust, we chatter more than ever about the clash of civilizations, fight a war prompted by our panic over (nonexistent) nuclear and biological weapons, hear it coolly asserted this past summer that World War III has begun, and wonder if an avian-flu pandemic poses more of a personal risk than climate change. In other words, apocalypse is on our minds. Apocalypse is … hot.
Millions of people—Christian millenarians, jihadists, psychedelicized Burning Men—are straight-out wishful about The End. Of course, we have the loons with us always; their sulfurous scent if not the scale of the present fanaticism is familiar from the last third of the last century—the Weathermen and Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians. But there seem to be more of them now by orders of magnitude (60-odd million “Left Behind” novels have been sold), and they’re out of the closet, networked, reaffirming their fantasies, proselytizing. Some thousands of Muslims are working seriously to provoke the blessed Armageddon. And the Christian Rapturists’ support of a militant Israel isn’t driven mainly by principled devotion to an outpost of Western democracy but by their fervent wish to see crazy biblical fantasies realized ASAP—that is, the persecution of the Jews by the Antichrist and the Battle of Armageddon.
I’ve addressed this aspect of the problem — one person’s messiah is another’s antichrist — in this post, and especially in this comment.
When apocalypse preoccupations leach into less-fantastical thought and conversation, it becomes still more disconcerting. Even among people sincerely fearful of climate change or a nuclearized Iran enacting a “second Holocaust” by attacking Israel, one sometimes detects a frisson of smug or hysterical pleasure.
As in the excited anticipatory chatter about Iran’s putative plans to fire a nuke on the 22nd of last month—in order to provoke apocalypse and pave the way for the return of the Shiite messiah, a miracle in which President Ahmadinejad apparently believes. Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, at 90 still the preeminent historian of Islam, published a piece in The Wall Street Journal to spread this false alarm.
That last sentence is ambiguously phrased. Lewis didn’t publish the piece to spread this false alarm, but to warn about something he feared. It’s also not clear whether publishing it did not have an effect on Ahmadenijad’s plans. In all these matters elaborate chess games are afoot. And Ahmadenijad does not “apparently” believe in this miraculous material, he does.
And as in Charles Krauthammer’s column the other day: He explained how a U.S. military attack on Iran would double the price of oil, ruin the global economy, redouble hatred for America, and incite terrorism worldwide—but that we had to go for it anyway because of “the larger danger of permitting nuclear weapons to be acquired by religious fanatics seized with an eschatological belief in the imminent apocalypse and in their own divine duty to hasten the End of Days.” In other words: Ratchet up the risk of Armageddon sooner in order to prevent a possible Armageddon later.
Here’s where the bien-pensant liberal can mock both ends of the spectrum. The sticking point becomes apparent when we translate this into a scene from the 1930s: “despite the dangers and the warfare and the resentments that it might lead to, we must confront Germany, given the larger danger of permitting the Nazis to rearm, seized as they are with the millennial belief in a tausendjähriger, dritte Reich and their own fore-ordained duty to bring it about.” It’s not enough to invoke the first law of apocalyptic beliefs — one man’s messiah is another’s antichrist — and then withdraw into secular, non-superstitious “reason.” You must remember the second law: “Wrong — as all apocalyptic and millennial believers end up being — does not mean inconsequential.”
I worry that such fast-and-loose talk, so ubiquitous and in so many flavors, might in the aggregate be greasing the skids, making the unthinkable too thinkable, turning us all a little Dr. Strangelovian, actually increasing the chance—by a little? A lot? Lord knows—that doomsday prophecies will become self-fulfilling. It’s giving me the heebie-jeebies.
Alas, we are going to have to live with the heebie-jeebies for quite a while, and learn how to distinguish the really noxious kinds of apocalyptic beliefs — active cataclysmic — from less dangerous ones, and mobilize firmly and consistently against the latter, rather than smirk at them all.
Declinism is the least-troubling species of end-days forecast, but still, it’s apocalypse lite. These forecasts are grandly gloomy, commonly depicted as a replay of the disintegration of Rome that ushered in the Dark Ages. “As Rome passed away,” Pat Buchanan writes in his new anti-immigration best seller, State of Emergency, “so the West is passing away.”
Not so long ago, it was only right-wingers and old crackpots making decline-and-fall-of-Rome claims about America. But Niall Ferguson is a young superstar Harvard professor, and he argues that we—undisciplined, overstretched, unable to pay our bills or enforce our imperial claims, giving ourselves over to decadent spectacle (NASCAR, pornography), and overwhelmed by immigrants—do indeed look very ancient Roman. He suggests, in fact, that Gibbon’s definitive vision—the “most awful scene in the history of mankind”—is about to be topped.
Jared Diamond made his name back in the fat and happy nineties with Guns, Germs, and Steel, explaining why the West ruled. His second best seller was last year’s Collapse, about how irrational religion and environmental recklessness destroyed previous societies and how America looks to be on the same suicidal path. Meanwhile, the unambiguous trend lines of everyday economic life—China’s rise, the dying-off of Detroit and old media—become the reinforcing background beat that makes the new declinism feel instinctively plausible.
There is something of the appeal of pornography here: sensational, shocking, simultaneously appalling and riveting, brutally frank and fantastically stylized. As with porn, it was mainly a fringe taste that has lately gone mainstream. And as with real porn, too, apocalypse porn comes hard-core (Krauthammer) and soft (Diamond), in fiction ranging from the hideous (The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion) to the absurd (the “Left Behind” series) to the merely dopey (The Day After Tomorrow).
One of the problems with Europe today is that they resolutely refuse to take seriously the “apocalyptic” prophecies of their own downfall. Fergusen may think that the USA is equally vulnerable, even if Steyn doesn’t. All such warnings need to be considered seriously and soberly. Too often, smug “liberals” and “progressives” think that civil society is immortal and invulnerable.
And now, with McCarthy’s The Road, something else again. I resisted. A nameless father wandering across a dead, denuded, anarchic America with his son, hiding from roving packs of monstrous killers? Not my usual cups of tea.
But the novel is awesome, a kind of reality-based Beckett, moving and unbelievably believable in its portrayal of horror and dread and hopelessness in the next Dark Age … with an announced first printing of 250,000, a gigantic number for any work of literary fiction, let alone one that barely has a plot. McCarthy is a high-end brand name, but The Road will be a best seller propelled by an end-times Zeitgeist that has smart people as well as fools and freaks in its thrall. As fine a book as it is, I still felt a little ashamed to enjoy its grisly what-if jolts; the pornographic aspect is there.
From a commercial point of view, The Road’s lack of any detailed backstory will be a boon: Because we never learn anything about the precipitating cataclysm, every reader can fill in the blank—nuclear war, meteor collision, attacks by extraterrestrials, or Gog and Magog. It accommodates an apocalypse of your choice.
Even the young people will find things to like in The Road. There are zombies, more or less—lots of cannibals, anyway, and “bloodcults.” “We’re not survivors,” the hero’s late wife said before she died. “We’re the walking dead in a horror film.” (The booming zombie genre is, of course, a pulpy subcategory of apocalypse porn.) And The Road also has marauding “roadagents” and a small army of slaveholders with spears made of repurposed auto parts—Mad Max touches.
Apocalypticism is one of those realms where the ideological spectrum bends into a circle and the extremes meet.
It was in those movies, as a lone ranger in post-nuclear-apocalypse Australia, that Mel Gibson became a star. Then he won an Oscar for glorifying a Scot leading his people to a kind of Armageddon,
Actually, that’s millennial — the just and free society that results from the forces of evil (here the English under the ruthless Edward I)
then became the Evangelicals’ favorite movie star with The Passion of the Christ. And now the very eagerly awaited Apocalypto. “The parallels,” his co-writer told Time, “between the environmental imbalance and corruption of values that doomed the Maya and what’s happening to our own civilization are eerie.” Mel himself goes further: “The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.” Mel Gibson, meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—runty, Bush-bashing, anti-Semitic, 50-year-old fundamentalist religious mystics with an abiding visionary interest in apocalypse.
Apocalypticism is one of those realms where the ideological spectrum bends into a circle and the extremes meet. The nuttiest Islamists and Christians agree that the present hell in the Middle East is a hopeful sign of the end-times, that an Antichrist will temporarily take control of the world. Muslims expect him to be a Western Jew; in many Christian versions, he comes to power through the European Union—although on his “Bring It On: End Times” Web page, Pat Robertson says Islam itself is an “antichrist system.”
For both sects as well as the New Age psychedeloids, apocalypse still has its original meaning—revelation, the appearance of God following destruction. The subtitle of Pinchbeck’s book is The Return of Quetzalcoatl, referring to the Mesoamerican Über-god. After the awful existential reboot in 2012, people will develop psychic superpowers to solve global warming and achieve communistic bliss. Not all people, alas, because just as the Rapture is strictly for Christians, and Allah will know his own exclusively, Pinchbeck apparently believes that only people like him—“those who have reached a kind of supramental consciousness,” according to a Rolling Stone profile—will achieve paradise.
Precisely the dangers lurking behind a “new-age” mysticism that grows impatient and angry with the refusal of the mainstream to pay attention. (All apocalyptic thinking is a form of ADD II — can’t get enough attention.) This also happened in the theosophical circles of the late 19th, early 20th century (Gurdjieff with his belief that most people didn’t have souls capable of reaching the higher spheres of understanding, anti-semitism of the “Ariosophists” who eventually produced the Nazis).
Speaking of 2012: That’s also the target year, according to the influential Saudi theologian Sheik Safar Al-Hawali, for Allah’s “day of wrath,” meaning the destruction of Israel and the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem. Which could jibe with the timeline on the Christian-porn-mongering site ApocalypseSoon.org, which envisions Israel nuking Syria in order that Isaiah 17:1 (“Behold, Damascus is taken away”) be fulfilled.
Let’s not freak out just yet. Apocalypticism has ebbed and flowed for thousands of years, and the present uptick is the third during my lifetime. Among my most vivid childhood memories are LBJ’s mushroom-cloud campaign ad, a post-nuclear Twilight Zone episode, and my mother’s (scary) paperback copy of On the Beach.
The next brief spike in apocalyptic shivers and dystopian fevers came twenty years later, coinciding with our last right-wing president: the nuclear-freeze movement, The Day After on TV, the post-apocalypse novel Riddley Walker (written in a prescient text-message-ese), Blade Runner, Mad Max.
And now, another twenty years later, here we are again—but this time, it seems, more widespread and cross-cultural, both more reasonable (climate change, nuclear proliferation) and more insane (religious prophecy), more unnerving.
I don’t think our mood is only a consequence of 9/11 (and the grim Middle East), or climate-change science, or Christians’ displaced fear of science and social change. It’s also a function of the baby-boomers’ becoming elderly. For half a century, they have dominated the culture, and now, as they enter the glide path to death, I think their generational solipsism unconsciously extrapolates approaching personal doom: When I go, everything goes with me, my end will be the end. It’s the pre-apocalyptic converse of the postapocalyptic weariness of the hero in The Road: “Some part of him always wished it to be over.”
Have a nice day.
He’s right about baby boomers. It’s a consistent pattern that some people as they near death, project their own deaths onto the culture. It’s a little like the Indian Raja’s who insisted on burning their wives on their funeral pyres: “If I can’t enjoy them, why should anyone else.” It’s a fine and ugly match with the moral narcissism of my aging generation.