Where was I? Oh, that’s right…

I’d like to be able to say that I’ve been in deep cover, embedded with a doomsday cult so that I can fathom their motives, ideas and motivations.  I’d like to be able to say that I’ve been taking time to ‘harden’ my defenses and prepare my own personal “secure, undisclosed location” for potential fire, flood, plague and general mayhem.  Heck, I’d like to say that I was just sitting back in a hammock sipping mojitos and reading the Left Behind series of books.  Alas, the truth is far less glamorous.

I’ve got a lot to catch up on, as we’re more obsessed than ever before, and the (perpetually) impending end of the world as we know it has been in the news quite a bit lately.  We’ve narrowly missed having yet another asteroid smack into us, and somehow we’ve endured despite the terror of blood moons, and strange cloud formations, eerie lights in the sky, and the onslaught of a dizzying array of “weird tricks” to cure everything from bad breath to some folks dissatisfaction with fiat currency.

Meanwhile, there have been more mundane and prosaic apocalyptic obsessions lately, including a resurgence of the Sovereign Citizen/Posse Comitatus movement, and a doubling down on the “all against all” tactics of the culture war we had good reason to think was long over.  Alas, Tumblr sits in for Babylon these days and proliferates so many ways of seeing and theorizing about the world that we might as well be speaking different languages.  Only the most obtuse could think that we would find it easy to come to some kind of consensus over the question of race relations or economic inequality, but lately it seems we can’t even manage to have a civil conversation over the question of fiction, with everything from movies, to video games, to my own beloved science fiction being shredded by partisans in a bitter, endless, and nihilistic attempt to destroy everything held dear by those who view the world in a different way.

It’s definitely time for me to stop musing on this by myself, so I’m making a resolution, a May Day resolution, to freshen up the bunker a bit by getting all of this out of my head.  In the coming days and weeks, I want to think a bit about the return of widespread social unrest to the streets of American cities (as opposed to merely simmering and festering in the shadows) and I’d like to take note of what I think is a corresponding return of the figure of the apocalypse ‘prepper’ (such individuals always become an object of curiosity when unrest moves from the fringe to the center of discourse).   I have in fact been consuming as much popular apocalypse culture as I can make time for, from the sublime to the execrable, and taking copious notes for discussion at a later date.

(A May Day resolution that’s coming over a week late.  There’s always something, it seems!)

I have a confession to make

Even though I am a confirmed apocalyptoholic (I even watched The Divide all the way through to the end), I admit that I had only caught snippets of Doomsday Preppers until very recently, when I finally decided I had to sit down and watch all the episodes I could get my hands on.  I only made it part way through the first season of the series: even taking into consideration the ominous implications of the name (let’s face it, if you are planning a thorough and non-sensationalized look at ways for people to be better prepared for negative eventualities, you aren’t going to be using the term “doomsday”) and the sad fall of the National Geographic Channel into near-reality television status (though it’s still not quite so bad as The “History” Channel…  yet), I wasn’t quite prepared for how bad it would turn out to be.  I’m not talking bad in the “gee, that’s not such good advice” kind of way, or even in the sense of inadequate production values.  I’m referring to the soul-killing, civilization destroying tendency to exploit the confusion and neurosis of terminally (and illogically) frightened people for fun and profit that contemporary television has seemingly fallen into.

I remember the writer’s strike.  Honestly, if I thought that this is what we would come to when the networks realized that they could get all kinds of cheap programming by moving to “reality” based shows, I would have gone to each and every picket line and begged the writers to take whatever deal they could get so long as they just went back to work.

But I digress…

I’ll have to devote more time and attention to the show in the future.  I think it’s worth talking about why the show is so abysmally, crushingly awful, and what consequences that might have for the rest of us, especially in this dawning age of more frequent and more extreme storms.  I think a real focus on what can make individuals and communities more prepared for disaster and more resilient in general is long overdue.  Unfortunately, the kind of spectacle presented by Doomsday Preppers is not only not going to help with that focus, it will actually make it much more difficult (if not impossible) for us to have the kind of conversation about preparedness and resiliency that we desperately need to have.  The parade of wingnuttery and frequent misanthropy on parade in any given episode of DP, along with the not-so-subtle mockery embedded in the framing of the individual stories makes it more likely that the average person to dismiss the whole idea of ‘preparedness’ as unnecessary and unproductive at best (not to mention complicated, expensive and extreme) and perhaps even a little unhinged.

The average person who watches Doomsday Preppers is not going to come away thinking, “you know, I should make sure I have a few cases of bottled water in the pantry and extra batteries for all my flashlights” and take some reasonable steps to make sure they are better prepared for the kind of likely emergency we all might face in the near future (fires, blizzards, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, tornados, etc…).  That person is going to look at the people featured on the show and think, “wow, those people are completely crazy!  I’m never going to do anything like that!”  It’s Hoarders for the paranoid, conspiracy theory set.

And this comes from someone who does maintain a bug-out bag (because I’ve been evacuated to emergency shelters for both hurricanes and wildfires) as well as a deep pantry of emergency supplies (because more often than that, I’ve needed to hunker down in place to wait out a big snowstorm).

So, I’m disheartened, and a bit disgusted.  Imagine my delight when The Simpsons decided to take on the subject and nail it in perfectly.

The apocalyptophiliac’s Black Friday guide

I sometimes think that if Black Friday isn’t an actual sign of impending apocalypse, it does at least give us the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what it could look like.  In other countries, they riot over government corruption and social injustice.  Here, we riot over cheap cell phones.  But don’t worry, even if you are like me, and have decided to avoid entering any retail establishment between now and Epiphany in order to preserve your health, safety and sanity, you can still get all your end of the world supplies delivered right to your door!

Amazon has got you covered if your apocalyptic fears center on the rise of the zombie hoards.  I appreciate that they begin by featuring protective headgear under the category of “brain protection,” but I would like to see them feature bite-resistant, as opposed to specifically fire resistant clothing.  Don’t get me wrong; I know you need to take care when burning the bodies to try to stem the spread of the pathogen/virus/alien ick causing the undead to run around with the munchies, but I’ve watched all the movies, and I know that the biggest danger the survivors face is not fire but instead that surprise nibble you get when you reach out to pull a door closed, or back up without looking behind you first.  You have to look a bit more, but they also have customer-generated Listmania posts featuring more general end of the world needs.

This is, of course, in addition to the simple 13-item guide produced by the helpful folks at REI.  There are lots of folks out there ready, willing and able to help you plan for the end of all things (for a fee, of course) and most of them will helpfully provide you links to the stuff you need.  Just make sure to get the expedited shipping; after all, we’ve got less than a month before M-Day.  Of course, the need to amass all of this gear can seem overwhelming, so start small.  A simple go bag and some helpful reference material will give you a good start.

Once you have all your stuff, you’ll need a way to lug it around with you.  Being on foot is no fun, especially with all that gear.  Of course, with all the mess on the roads (including random debris, the walking dead and other cars) you will want a truck, of course, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t travel about in style and comfort.  The amount of armor needed will, of course, depend on the precise nature of the end time scenario we face, though it might be best to just go all in and design the ultimate mobile bomb shelter on wheels.  Of course, if the end comes with a flood, those ultra-secure, heavily armored and fully stocked trucks will just sink.  Perhaps something like this would be more practical?

Finally, you will need the appropriate training and practice.  If you aren’t lucky enough to have training provided for you, the Center for Disease Control and FEMA have simple lists of supplies and suggestions, and there are lots of ways to meet others and practice survival skills.

But if you just need a last minute, all-purpose survival gift, suitable for stocking-stuffing, you can always go with this little kit, and have an all-purpose supernatural threat neutralizer.  Okay, the gun isn’t included, and you’ll need to get your own garlic necklace and bottle of holy water, but those are best when fresh anyway.

Happy shopping!

Only 28 days to go!

Tracking fascination

One of the dubious pleasures of blogging is the availability of analytics.  I say ‘dubious’ here, because although Google and WordPress helpfully offer me a wide variety of data that I can sift and track according to any number of metrics, it isn’t altogether clear to me why such data is useful.  Of course, if I were offering advertisements on my site, or if I intended to approach someone for funding, being able to track my readership would be extremely useful.  But I don’t, and so I’m left with pages and pages of data that I mostly ignore, though sometimes I check my stats pages in much the same obsessive way that some of my friends check their Facebook walls or Twitter feeds.

Today, I got to thinking about my sense that the current fever of apocalyptophilia we find ourselves in is a relatively recent phenomena.  I’m not in any way arguing that human beings have not always had a kind of horrified fascination for imagining the end of (all) things, or that we’ve never before gone through such periods in our history, only that the contemporary moment feels somewhat unique.  Part of that feeling, I am sure, stems from the fact that I pay attention to any occurrences of apocalyptic rhetoric and therefore I see more of it than others would.  Once you are primed to look for something, you tend to see it.  Nothing controversial there.

But I do have a sense that there has been a measurable rise in ‘apocalyptomania’, a condition I liken to a kind of social hypochondria where every difficulty, every large-scale phenomena is suddenly elevated to the status of an extinction-level geophysical event.  In addition to the perennial interest in the apocalypse narrowly construed (anything related to a particular Christian eschatological preoccupation), we’ve also had stormpocalypses and snowpocalypses and in Los Angeles we even had a carpocalypse with the temporary closing of the 405 freeway for construction.  And so, as they say, I had a curious.

Tracking for the incidence of ‘apocalypse’ as a search term

Lucky for me, Google Trends was there to help.  It turns out that the last year or so has seen a distinct rise in curiosity about apocalypse, at least according to the prevalence of the term in Google search data.  That peak in September 2004 represents the high point of this interest (and is coincident – see point N in the graph above – with the release of the disappointing Resident Evil: Apocalypse), with a fairly steady drop off.  Interest in the apocalypse as a phenomenon began to climb again in October 2008 (coincident with the early days of the world financial crisis and just before the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Presidency).  Not all of those high points are related to the particularly Christian understanding of apocalypse, though the highest points are.  Point E represents the spike in interest in May 2011 during the height of the hysteria stirred up by Harold Camping and the helpful folks at Family Radio Worldwide over the impending (and still delayed) end of the world, while the spike at point A represents the ‘zombie apocalypse‘ hysteria sparked by a series of gruesome news reports.

But there’s an even more interesting graph to be had here when you just search for instances of “pocalypse” as a suffix.

Tracking for the incidence of words with the suffix ‘pocalypse’

See that line?  Assuming that my methodology and search terms are valid (not always a safe assumption, mind you), the story here seems quite clear.  In September/October 2008 (See above Re: global financial crisis) there was a sudden bump in the suffix ‘pocalypse’ being added to more and more words.  The extreme spike again is May 2011, and is most likely related to the above mentioned Camping/Family Radio fizzle.  Since the calmdown after The End failed to materialize in May, we don’t seem to have reset to zero but to have established one of the many ‘new normals’ of contemporary life where everything begins to take on apocalyptic proportions.

Incidentally, in my research today, I noticed this little gem.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has a much better track record than Harold Camping at bringing an end to planets, so we’d best hope that this isn’t an omen.

From Wittenberg to Wal-Mart

Mark Lilla has a great review of Brad S. Greenberg’s The Unintended Reformation in The New Republic, in which he provides one of the most elegant and plausible explanations of declinist thinking I’ve read recently.

“Since chronicles try to be comprehensive, they are wonderfully messy documents—messy like the truth. They leave the impression that the outcomes of human action depend on choices the actors make in time, that they are weaving the tapestry as they go.

“The Hebrew Bible belongs in this tradition. What makes the chronicle of the covenant so dramatic is that it follows the unpredictable encounter of divine and human freedom in all its emotional twists and turns. God chose Abraham, but would Abraham choose God? In the event, he did; but then Isaac had to choose whether to remain faithful to their covenant, as did Jacob and Esau, and so on down the line. The story that emerges is meaningful not because it exposes the irresistible work of providence, but because it doesn’t. It teaches that you must choose to be chosen.

“Human beings should be content with such stories and the gods who come with them. But few of us are. Chronicles place the responsibility for history on our very small shoulders, which is a burden we would like to shirk. We want comfort. So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape. Such myths begin with some remote historical Big Bang, after which life unfolds in a meaningful, if not precisely predictable, direction. It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths that early civilizations comforted themselves with were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in an Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. It’s not our fault, and perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost. Pazienza.”

It’s a compellingly simple explanation: the work of civilization is hard, man, and we’d all rather put our feet up and have a beer in front of the telly.  If we succeeded in the past, it is because we were fated to do so, and if we are struggling and suffering now it is because such suffering was also fated and certainly not our fault.  We are still the most favored and best beloved, and we are promised even greater blessings for this undesirable present which we endure.  No action is necessary on our part, and we certainly ought not to get the idea that we should interfere in grand patterns of history which are beyond our power to comprehend, let alone shift.

The tension and difference between historiographical understanding as the “World We Have Lost” versus the “Goodbye to All That” narrative is clear, but as Lilla notes, they tend to lead to the same place.  The World We Have Lost vision of history removes concern over the contemporary workings of society by insisting that we are, and have always been, walking a path that was immutably charted out for us and we must place our faith that though the road might now be hard, it is all part of the plan (and all that suffering will be redeemed later, anyway, if we simply place our faith in the movement and wisdom of forces much greater than ourselves).  The Goodbye to All That view of historical progression offers a schism between a before where all was benighted human muddling, and an after in which revelation has placed us on The Path (though as Lilla also points out, this view leaves one prone to despair and a frustrated nostalgia when the future fails to keep pace with the wonders we hope for).  Either way, though, it’s all out of our hands: we can’t explain it and we certainly can’t change it, all we can do is endure and obey.

In the course of explicating the topic at hand (Gregory’s book) Lilla also introduces a third historiographical perspective, that of The Road Not Taken, describing a point of view where, at some particular point in the past, the faithful travelers on The Path wandered off into the weeds, or (more usually) were led astray by some misguided or definitively evil being with malign intent, and though (as with the Goodbye to All That narrative) we chose the correct path at the beginning, we are living in a fallen world produced by the impatience of all those who would not wait for modernity to arrive until well after the process of modernization was complete and we could see which aspects of modernity would be desirable and which aspects of traditional ways of life were preferable, with a robust Church to adjudicate between them without the need for a theologically and philosophically troubling need for tolerance toward pluralism.

The mood disorder of the contemporary moment is to find ourselves torn between the political myths of Goodbye to All That utopianism (suggested by Lilla as the particular affliction of the left) and World We Have Lost declinism, pawing over Road Not Taken historical fables as if we could simply and easily undo the problems we face in the present and step directly into a golden world if only we would turn away from the missteps which have drawn us from our fated path.

The failing of both of these views lies in the idea that history happens somehow despite our choices and actions, that history happens as it is ‘intended’ or fated to happen, a view which eschews any idea that we, though the weight of individual human choices, actively produce history as we move, leaving it in our wake like the phosphorescent wake of a ship moving through tropical waters.  Both views ignore the immense power of compounded human behavior, the fact that society and history are fundamentally no more (though certainly no less) than the compounded effect of human behavior in and over time.

We are, as Lilla notes of the actions of earlier humans, represented in such historical chronicles as the Bayeux Tapestry, “weaving the tapestry as [we] go.”  If that tapestry is now full of holes and fraying, it is our choice that it be so (abdicating responsibility for the conditions of modern life is a choice; as Eric Liu has noted, society becomes how we behave).  The belief and insistence that we are at the end of things is less a description of actual historical conditions than a statement of unwillingness for it to be otherwise.

Mayans and liars and boors, oh my

For those of us who enjoy following the rampant apocalyptophilia in contemporary culture, there was a hidden gem in this past week’s On The Media broadcast.  In the larger framework of a show on the perils and pitfalls of fact checking, Brooke Gladstone interviewed NASA scientist Dr. David Morrison, who has been doing heroic work at NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist site addressing and debunking the perennial insistence by some that the world will come to an end in a violent cataclysm on 12 December 2012 (only 88 shopping days left, folks!!).  The interview was prompted by an excellent article on The AWL by Dan Duray, who interviewed Dr. Morrison and provided what is surely one of the best section subheadings in recent memory (“Are you there, NASA?  It’s me, Nibiru”).

Sadly, as the questions repeatedly posed to Dr. Morrison illustrate, many people are resistant to even the most rigorous efforts at debunking this pernicious myth.  Push back on any one front (folks, there is no hiding “under” a spherical earth, trust me), and like one of those creepy squeeze dolls, something pops out in another location (there is no “hiding behind the sun” when the Earth and sun are in constant motion).  I suspect, though I have no objective proof beyond close analysis of the language and themes used to discuss these ideas, that people hold onto these beliefs in apocalypse because they satisfy a somewhat paradoxical need for security and stability in a modern world that has displaced many of the traditional frameworks for meaning held by humans for centuries.

Many of these people feel a deep fear and suspicion about the modern world (and its panoply of experts and authorities), and the idea of an apocalypse rolling out along a predetermined pattern offers the illusion of order and control to a world that we have been assured by those experts, is characterized by chance and serendipity as much as intent and will.  Such beliefs also provide the promise of punishment on a cosmic scale for those who disregarded the ‘fact’ of preexisting order and disbelieved in the higher power which set the clockwork heavens into motion.  Scientists are the culprits in this narrative, because it is from science that the drive for rationality and evidence-based conclusions about the universe have come, leading to the collapse of so many traditional narratives about the universe, and it is science which has played the most powerful role in highlighting the randomness and contingency of so many phenomena previously seen as inspired by divine hands.

The idea of apocalypse also fulfills many of the same psychological needs that other types of conspiracy thinking does.  It shifts the balance of cultural power significantly to believe that you hold the key to truth and a knowledge of the workings of the universe that even society’s most educated and elevated members do not seem to have access to.  It provides some measure of comfort to believe that, no matter how random and chaotic the world may seem, there is an underlying order and structure for those able to perceive it.  And, above all, it must assuage the loneliness and existential angst that so many people feel to think that there is a greater force in the universe which cares for and will seek to protect humanity.

In so many versions of these apocalypse stories, what is important to those who believe them is not so much the coming of the end (though they will fight desperately to insist on the validity of their vision of this end in the face of any pushback) but the promise of what will come after.  For those who believe in a Biblical apocalypse, the tribulation will be awful to endure (though everyone seems to believe that the enduring will happen to the other guy), but afterward peace and stability will reign.  Those who are loudly predicting an American collapse admit that, sure it’s gonna be bad for a time, especially in the cities (those horrible, diseased, sinful cities), but afterward we’ll undo the postwar modernization of the U.S. and return to the agrarian, small town existence that they prefer.  For those of the Nibiruans that I’ve had contact with, there is a small contingent who expects that it will all simply be over, and we’ll die, but most seem to move neatly from believing that there were ancient people who foretold this coming catastrophe to asserting that ancient aliens gave this knowledge to those ancient people (and may in fact have brought those people here in the first place) and that descendents of those aliens, still in touch with us to this day, will return to save us.

So, no matter how many times these ideas are shown to have no basis in anything but the sloppiest science fiction, or to have only the most tenuous connection to some piece of fact or real science that has been subsequently tortured out of all recognition, the beliefs remain.  Some argue that engaging with the 2012 conspiracy theorists (of whatever flavor) only gives credence and weight to their nonsensical assertions, by creating the illusion that there is some legitimate debate between those who believe that a massive, earth-killing planet is dancing out of our view on the other side of the sun without managing to cause even a blip in the orbit of any body in the solar system and, you know, normal people.  And I must agree that most of the time I feel the only response justified for such belief is to point and laugh, though the decision of mainstream science to stay out of the mud has not done anything to help drain the swamp.

So I applaud the efforts of Dr. Morrison and others who seek to rip this particular weed up by the roots, no matter how daunting and, at times even hopeless, that task may seem.  There is some good stuff out there, if only people will take the time to allow themselves to see and hear it.  I particularly enjoyed the efforts of C.G.P. Grey, whose brilliant work I only just discovered.  His fantastically witty piece on the 2012 hysteria is a masterpiece, and it comes in under three minutes, and he even provides an abridged version for those who can’t take time from aligning their crystals long enough to watch the full 2:27 minutes of the original.

As for me, I’ve already begun to warn people that they will not find my at my desk on the morning of 22 December, but not because I believe that my desk will have been sunk under flood waters or lava, or blown into bits by the force of a rogue planet hitting the Earth.  I intend to greet the “end of the Mayan calendar” the same way I do the end of my wall calendar every year: with champagne and munchies, and perhaps even a few fireworks (or at least some sparklers) at midnight.  Heck, as this will be the end of a really long calendar, so long that I won’t be around to tear the next one off the wall, maybe I’ll even spring for some of the really good stuff.  And on that evening, I’ll be delighted to lift a glass to Dr. Morrison and his heroic efforts on behalf of science, rationality and the reliance on evidence.