Appetite for Destruction, by Thomas Frank

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December 2012 Issue [Easy Chair]

Appetite for Destruction


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.

Actually, it doesn’t take much reading in the 2012 canon of doom to figure out that universal disaster is almost certainly not what the Maya had in mind when they worked out their calendar. But our cluelessness about what they did mean is something of a blessing, at least for doomsday fans. It gives them yet another platform from which to hawk their very familiar and yet very confusing wares.

How will the world end? Will it be death by asteroid? A series of really big solar flares? An electromagnetic pulse? Thank goodness the Maya, whose civilization collapsed more than a thousand years ago, left so many options on the table. Maybe Earth’s poles will shift. Maybe a mystery planet will come zooming around a blind corner and crash into us. Maybe we will finally exit that “galactic synchronization beam” we’ve been traversing for the past five millennia. Maybe the surface of the earth will rip loose from its underlying core in a malfunction of the geologic Velcro, which I think (but am not quite sure) is what happens in Roland Emmerich’s $200 million disaster film 2012.

The scenarios keep multiplying. But the precise source of the cataclysm doesn’t seem to matter, and the traditional Judeo-Christian baggage is conspicuously absent. Jesus plays no role in the preferred 2012 scenarios, and there’s no Rapture on offer. Gog and Magog are not forecast to come marching into the Holy Land, nor will a spontaneous rearrangement of Earth’s magnetic fields vindicate the prophecies of Ezekiel. Still, people keep snapping up 2012 product. Apparently Americans just love end-times scenarios, regardless of their provenances or where they will deposit our souls when they’ve run their course.

In his 1992 study of modern American apocalypse literature, When Time Shall Be No More, the historian Paul Boyer marveled at the peculiar anti-intellectualism of the end-times genre. After World War II, Boyer writes, laypeople took up interpreting prophecy with enthusiasm. Self-taught theologians wrote bestsellers deciphering the Bible’s prophetic passages, self-commissioned preachers set up TV ministries, and all of them went out of their way to rail against the elitism of the seminary-trained professionals who looked down on such pursuits. Indeed, it sometimes seemed in those days as though everyone was working on a pet theory of Revelation. According to Boyer, the rapture craze amounted to a “Theology of the People”—a sort of re-enactment of the Protestant Reformation, filtered through the intensely populist political culture of the New World.

At the same time, however, the doomsday zealots loved expertise and craved credentialing. They showed what Boyer calls “a touching eagerness for intellectual respectability,” piling up great heaps of prestigious-sounding quotations and always carefully noting their own educational attainments.

This same end-times populism repeats itself almost note for note in the 2012 version of the narrative. The ostensible subject may be the end of the world (or, alternately, its spiritual transformation), but what really gets these authors going is the latter-day hierarchy of scholarly merit and their place near the bottom of the heap. Their anxiety may very well arise from the fact that most of them are not accredited experts on the ancient Maya. A sizable number are self-taught, like the people who have been drawn to interpreting biblical prophecy during other periods of Rapture mania. And many are reacting against the contempt that trained scholars have always shown for New Age pseudotheological speculation, which has fastened on the ancient Maya ever since their ruined cities were explored by Europeans in the nineteenth century.

For all these reasons, then, traditional academic authority is the enemy in 2012 literature. José Argüelles, father of the galactic synchronization beam theory (as well as the 1987 harmonic convergence theory), repeatedly assails “the forces of scientific materialism” in his influential book The Mayan Factor. What turns science away from the truth is, of course, the sin of pride, the reluctance to acknowledge that there might have been, in Argüelles’s words, “people smarter, wiser, more advanced than us, who in our smugness we have overlooked.”

It’s a standard theme in 2012 theory. “All our scientific advances! All our fancy machines!” moans a scientist in Emmerich’s 2012 as he tracks the transformation of Yellowstone National Park into a giant volcano. “The Mayans saw this coming thousands of years ago!” According to Lawrence E. Joseph, author of Apocalypse 2012, “Archaeologists are impertinent.” In assembling his compendium of half-baked disaster scenarios, Joseph himself falls guilelessly for theories of wandering poles and waning magnetic fields. But archaeologists, in his estimation, are guilty of a much greater crime—that of daring to “compare cultures, and rate them on scales: technological development, legal codes, governance structures, and health and sanitary systems.” (The Maya, inevitably, are one of the cultures given short shrift by these capricious scales’ fussy emphasis on contract law and sewer systems.)

The charge of anti-Mayan prejudice is also taken up by John Major Jenkins, inventor of the 2012 “galactic alignment” theory. “The gist of the prejudice,” he asserts, “is to not allow the Maya and other Native American groups the same level of intellectual ability and cultural sophistication as that attributed to Western cultures.” Basically, implies Jenkins, our scientists are plodding materialists, too earthbound to grasp Mayan-style profundity. “If a metaphysics of transcendence is an essential key to Maya cosmology”—and it is, reader, it is—“how can scholars who are biased against such a notion be reliable interpreters of that worldview?”

Now comes the caveat. None of this scholar-bashing is meant to imply that just anyone can set up shop as an expert on Mayan predictions. Unlike Bible stories, the ancient calendar of the Maya is far too esoteric to be interpreted by average citizens.[1] Understanding it requires some minimum level of expertise or spiritual attainment. John Major Jenkins, for example, may have a weakness for the metaphysics of transcendence, but he has certainly done his homework. He can read Mayan hieroglyphs, has explored Mayan ruins, and presents himself as an unsung polymath, bringing together strands of academic research on the subject in a way that is simply beyond Western science.

[1] Average citizens of the U.S.A., that is. Average Maya, who still live in Guatemala and southern Mexico and speak languages deriving from those of their ancestors, are occasionally sought out and quoted by some of these authors.

And yes, despite their limitations, certain branches of Western science are universally respected among 2012ologists. You can’t make claims about galactic alignment, for example, without acknowledging astronomy. You can’t get worked up about the dire volcanic situation without making reference to a geologist or two. What’s more, just about everyone in the field of 2012 speculation seems to find special significance in Jungian psychology. They’re equally enamored of quantum physics, which is so whacked-out as to challenge, like, everything we believe.

In a sense, this ambivalence is the literature’s real subject. For all its yammering about the failures of modern science, 2012’s heroes include a U.S. government geologist and an Indian astrophysicist whose death in the deluge is supposed to be a singularly tragic event—far more moving, of course, than the extinction of billions of ordinary humans in the movie’s waves of terrifying computer-generated imagery. The heroes of Dustin Thomason’s novel 12.21 are a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and a Maya expert at a fancy museum who must decipher an ancient text in a frantic race against the clock. (Along the way, we learn how academia froze out one 2012 expert for his unfashionable ideas and hobbled the career of another for his entering the equally unfashionable field of archaeoastronomy.)

What about the rest of us? While pseudoscience battles the ivory tower for the badges of professional prestige, what becomes of everyone else? Is our fate merely to be part of the sea of suffering bodies blown hither and yon by Emmerich’s earthquakes, volcanoes, and tidal waves?

By and large, yes. The various 2012 authors tend to regard the rank and file—even those who might find their ideas vaguely plausible—with undisguised scorn. In Thomason’s novel, for example, the streets of Los Angeles are filled with boorish believers who spray-paint their stupid symbols everywhere and, presumably, buy books like the author’s. (In a complicated plot twist, these raging calamity lovers are actually responsible for bringing on the catastrophe.) Jenkins, meanwhile, laments that the “2012 discussion” has been turned into “a smorgasbord of underinformed writers and market-driven hypesters” who “pillage 2012 on their way through to the next trendy topic.”

But all is not lost. Just beneath the surface of the Mayan-flavored literature thrives a second imaginary apocalypse: the survivalist 2012, in which the New Age malarkey never comes up at all and the really absorbing subject is a sort of ultramaterialism. These people care not a jot about galactic alignment or spiritual renewal. What they want to know is how to stockpile enough food and .30-06 cartridges to prepare for that great moment when the worldly order of things comes crashing down.

There is something refreshingly defiant and even democratic about survivalism. Just let someone mention divine wrath—be it St. John or the Maya—and resourceful Americans will immediately start figuring out ways to get around it with “bug-out bags,” cases of surgical masks, and shelters buried deep underground.

[2] And the key to resolving this conflict, as Paul Boyer writes of modern American end-timers, is “embracing both positions.”

It’s predestination versus free will in the rawest sense.[2] Yes, the opulent city of Babylon will be humbled; yes, the arrogant scientists will learn the folly of ignoring indigenous wisdom—but the man who knows how to run a chain saw will make it through all right. Money and learning and prestige will give way to a more honest aristocracy of outdoorsmanship. It’s a vision well summarized in Chevy’s 2012 Super Bowl commercial, where the world lies in ruin and the only ones to survive are guys in denim jackets and lumberjack coats who have chosen to buy the truck of the common man.

There is also something really monstrous about all this. Watch a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers, a show on National Geographic TV about people who dedicate their spare time to disaster preparedness, and you’ll notice that most of the subjects are preparing not only to survive but also to gun down the mob of mindless fools who didn’t stock up on firewood, antibiotics, and Cup-a-Soups. This is not “Be Prepared” in the altruistic manner of the Boy Scout motto. It’s about getting ready for the golden day when the nation evaporates and every man is well and truly out for himself. So much for solidarity.

In my survey of apocalyptic literature, I was surprised to keep coming across something called “Timewave Zero.” This homegrown theory is based on the pop-culture cliché that “change” is accelerating and will accelerate even more in the future, until we come to a kind of vertiginous end point: novelty out of control. What struck me about this notion was not that it was complete nonsense, but that I had heard it somewhere before.

After a little bit of reflection, I remembered where. The accelerating “speed of change” had been one of the signature ideas of the New Economy back in the 1990s, furnishing cogitation fodder for management theorists and dot-com gurus alike. The mood in those days was not cosmic pessimism but the opposite—a kind of national euphoria expressing itself in all manner of hollow ideas, of which the changing rate of change is just a single, silly example. There were others. The bull market was going to make everyone rich, especially the humble people of middle America. The workplace was becoming a shrine of democracy. And there was nothing to fear in the exhaustion of natural resources, since the only resource that mattered was human creativity.

Twelve years on and the national mood has undergone a polar (perhaps a bipolar) shift. The accelerating rate of change is no longer welcomed as a hierarchy-smashing emancipation; this time it’s going to end life as we know it. The Internet isn’t freeing us all; it’s making us even more dependent on fragile technology. It’s not the millennium that’s coming; it’s the tribulation. Doomsday, not utopia. What’s really remarkable, and really spooky, is how quick a trip it’s been from one to the other.


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