I am willing to bet that you’ll able to read this come Dec. 22, and thereafter, too, should you be so inclined. That’s because I don’t think the world is going to come crashing down around us, as the Mayans predict, on Dec. 21, 2012. For that matter, I don’t think any cosmic ending is about to befall humankind. Ever.
We might just well succeed in destroying ourselves, however. Civilizations — ways of life built around common myths, ideas and settled practices — come and go. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, cataloged some 21 civilizations in his 12-volume lifework, A Study of History, published in 1961. By 1940, 14 civilizations, 14 distinctive ways of looking at, and organizing the world, had vanished. Each had a story of origins and endings, each tried to situate people in the seemingly infinite expanse of space and time.
If we destroy our way of life, the causes will be mundane, not cosmic. We might destroy the environment, and make life unsustainable. We might even succumb to collective madness, perhaps arming each and every person with an assault weapon and a thousand rounds, and then just wait for some unhinged soul to pull the first trigger. We can undo the work of civilization, or the very physical conditions that make life possible.
I had intended to write something light, and vaguely mocking, about our apocalyptic fantasies. Then gunfire erupted in Newtown. As if that weren’t crazy enough, the Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas rolled into town, threatening to spew its hellfire and brimstone brand of madness. In their view, we brought God’s wrath upon ourselves given our permissive ways: tolerate gay marriage and abortion, and expect God’s wrath, they say. I’ll defend their right to freedom of speech, but silently wish that God would prove His existence by striking these deluded fools dead, or, at the very least, turning them to pillars of salt.
But the Westboro clan isn’t really that much crazier than many of us, they’re just a little more open and honest about it — playing Old Testament prophet in the 21st century is, after all, a tough act. We all harbor deep-seated notions about the nature and destiny of the universe. We cannot help it.
Consider our Tea Partiers. They’re playacting — blind worship of the founders of the republic, and the claim that we’re a city on a hill, an example of something so new, and so special, that we should serve as a model to the world. What is that but another mythic rendering of origins? Rome had Romulus and Remus, we’ve George Washington and his cherry tree, both serving as discrete starting points orienting us in time. And where are we heading? Our city may not be eternal — Rome certainly wasn’t. But we must serve some discrete end, there must be some goal, some aim, some culmination toward which all our efforts drive us. Otherwise, we’re merely adrift in a senseless world of sense and sensation.
We seem to have lost confidence in the ends we set for ourselves. We’re pressing so hard at the boundaries of these ideas, that the center no longer holds. Equality for all? Why, yes. But not for gays. Why? Marriage is between one man and one woman for life, another time teaches. But what if yesteryear’s dogma no longer fits the felt necessity of our times? What then?
Dread sets in among those for whom old dogma sets the limit of what is acceptable. If events in space and time cannot be reckoned according to ancient standards, then there are no standards. All is flux. The end is upon us. I say the apocalyptic imagination is fundamentally an angry form of nostalgia. If the world as it is is no longer acceptable, then destroy the world. Wipe the sinners, and their sin, from the face of the Earth, and recreate a new, innocent society, filled with people sharing just the right values. That is the appeal of every apocalyptic vision.
We crave the very end we pretend to dread as a means of wishing for simpler times. How else to explain the appeal of movies and fiction about the end of the world?
Gun sales are soaring. Folks stockpile food and supplies to prepare for the end of the world. Others want to secede from a union they say they can no longer support. The gap between rich and poor grows. Although we all live together in a world we rely upon in common, sharing roads, foodstuffs, resources, too much of our politics is painted in the language of extremism. The libertarians want simply to be let alone. But no man is an island. We are social creatures.
Is it possible that increasing acts of violence are less a reflection of individual acts of madness than they are expressions of collective dread? The shooters aren’t mere madmen unhinged, capable of being identified and managed. They are troubled loners, to be sure, but are they acting on impulses the rest of us suppress? We are fascinated with play-acting the apocalypse because we sense how tired our ideals and ideas have become. The weak act, lacking the internal resources to tamp down what the rest of just experience as frustration.
What did Toynbee see when he saw civilizations in decline? What would he say were he alive today? I doubt we’re on our last legs as a civilization. We’ve too much energy for that. But there is something unhinged about the state of our culture and society. There are no ideals, just hatred. Our prophets seem mad, and without vision. We’re killing one another for no reason. Troubling times, but, certainly not end times.
Oh, and lest I forget, Merry Christmas. And Happy New Year, too. 2013 promises to be a wild ride if we don’t rethink the basics.
Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register company.