Easy Chair — From the December 2012 issue

Appetite for Destruction

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Apocalypses are lots of fun. They bring excitement to our otherwise boring lives. They smash through the smug façade of everyday authority. And it’s a blast to imagine the exact manner in which divine punishment will rain down on this wicked world—the way the buildings will crumble and the cars will crash and the luxury vacation spots will be incinerated by lava—while we, the virtuous, are spared.

One thing that any start-up prophet should have learned by now, however, is to be a little hazy about dates. Sure, a big part of the end-times entertainment is deciphering a precise scenario from some yellowing primeval text. But consider the downside—the way, for example, that the failed apocalypse of May 2011 killed the illustrious career of the Christian broadcaster Harold Camping. Remember, too, the Y2K bug that never materialized, the comets whose return brought no extinction, or the 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Remember, above all, the Millerites of the early nineteenth century, the classic failed prophets, who bet everything on October 22, 1844, as the date of Christ’s Second Coming.

So what was the doomsayer community thinking when they settled on December 21, 2012, as the correct date for the Big Event? Actually, they had a better than average rationale: it’s not only the winter solstice, but also the day when the ancient “long count” calendar of the Maya comes up zeroes, like an apocalyptic slot machine. Some, with a shaky grasp of astronomy, also believe that it’s the day when the sun will align itself with the center of the galaxy. All these amazing coincidences are supposed to prove that the Maya were really advanced stargazers and prognosticators, and that we need to take their ideas seriously.

But if that is the case, why didn’t anyone warn those ancient clairvoyants that their carefully chosen date also fell smack-dab in the middle of the Christmas season? Could they really have thought that sending us such tidings of discomfort and woe, like some cosmic Grinch reaching across the eons to smash Whoville, was the way to improve their credibility? Not to mention scheduling this improbable Armageddon right before the biggest bargain-basement markdown of the year, when the post-holiday remainder tables are sure to be groaning under their heavy load of unwanted end-times tirades.

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