Yes, once again it’s time for the world to end. Apocalyptic thinking never wholly goes away. In good times reason sometimes reduces end-times fantasies to an entertaining diversion like the fabulous “Left Behind” fad. But doomsday takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. It’s partly an innocent cognitive prejudice: we frame reality all the time. To make sense of overwhelming reality, we rely on beginnings and ends, boundaries, agreed definitions, rules. When they don’t exist, we invent them. The idea of death of course undermines all such frames. It’s bigger than what we know, without measurable limits in any direction. Its mystery is an insult the idea of a person.
Better, then, to imagine the absolute end of everything. It’s closure. No more stress, no more doubts.
I’ve written about apocalyptic thinking recently in Berserk Style in American Culture, but today the angels of doom are swarming and biting like midges – the aptly named no-seeums.
Sometimes doomsday is an explicit theology or fantasy of the end. More often it’s a trope or marker for breakdown or the “I-don’t-want-to-go-there” unthinkable. Sometimes doomsday is seductive millennialism: a projection of “fate” with hints of utopia or final perfection, as in the Nazi “Thousand Year Reich” or its Soviet counterpart. This sort of fantasy protects infantile addiction to idealism and impossible self-aggrandizement, as Hitler obligingly demonstrated. Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are susceptible to this sort of cosmic payoff, but they’re hardly alone. As he slipped into Alzheimer’s dementia, President Reagan poignantly brought up end-times themes in a way that showed the mind trying to cope with encroaching awareness of its own doom.
The point is, doom can be used in all sorts of ways. It’s a Swiss army knife, an arsenal of tools that can be used in every emergency you can imagine.
Rightwing politics and media strongly favor apocalypse as a form of threat display that can compel attention and assent in anxious, frustrated audiences. Candidates such as Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman are enthusiastic about doomsday. Newt Gingrich favors attention-getting ideas that explode “outside the box” (frame) like the atmospheric nukes he imagines causing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would shut down civilization.
Robert Reich recognized the desperate quality of Gingrich’s budget-demolishing tax plan: “Americans are so cynical about the major institutions of our society that someone who offers huge, outrageous plans holds a special fascination: The whole system is so awful, people tell themselves, why not just jettison everything and start from scratch? Let’s throw caution to the winds and do something really big – even if it’s colossally stupid. This is why the more outrageous Newt can be, the better his polls. The more irresponsible his bomb-throwing, the more attractive he becomes to a sizable portion of Americans so fed up they feel like throwing bombs.”
The apocalyptic feeling, Reich sees, reflects exasperation and despair of practical solutions. Hence the urge to run amok.
The berserk behavior registers in Reich’s metaphor of “bomb-throwing.” That trope in turn ought to remind us of suicide bombers and the thrilling, stupid pledge to succeed “or die trying.” History’s most expensive military is always deploying doomsday threat to trigger another war. Osama bin Laden provided the corporate military with a rich fund of threats. The nasty TV series “24” celebrates torture as the sovereign prophylactic for unimaginable crisis. These days a chorus is warning us that the Iranians are planning nuclear apocalypse.
The empire according to Newt has learned nothing.
This is of course one of the core motives for doomsday thinking. If you keep repeating the same demonstrably futile behavior – Iraq was a disaster, Afghanistan is a chronic disaster: let’s invade Iran – you may begin to hear a voice in the back of the mind screaming for doomsday relief. Vietnam marked the beginning of fifty years – half a century – of what has been “the American War.” After all the corpses, refugees, and trashed economies are tallied, there has been no victory. As usual, merchants of death have made a buck, but the nations involved have only enriched the undertaker.
The political-economics of the American War has a counterpart in the tormented struggle to cope with the financial debacle on Wall Street and in Europe. The banks have created a crisis that demands the equivalent of war on the public treasury to prevent global explosion. These days financial writers are howling about collapse, devolution in Europe (Rick Perry has advocated secession for Texas, too), and of course Nazi despotism.
On Main Street the doomsday feeling comes partly from the hoarding of money and power at the top. It makes ordinary working people feel helpless and worthless. At the top boundless money is boundless life and boundless freedom. On the bottom, the empty pocket means social death. The problem isn’t just sickening injustice. Hoarded wealth doesn’t circulate, so the economy’s lifeblood stagnates and the heart dies. In more senses than one.
But even at the top the fear of doomsday is at hand. After all, the higher you go, the farther you can fall and the more you have to lose. The more you loot and hoard, the more you fear your bony, hollow-eyed, snarling neighbor.
Survival greed haunts the Midas suite as well as the gutter. As Becker says, “Whoever gets enough life?” No wonder the very rich live behind electric fences. No wonder dictators murder compulsively trying to swat the swarming no-seeums of doomsday.
In this context the mild Occupy Wall Street protests are long overdue. They dream of rolling down darkened limousine windows. As in Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” they dream of looking the boss in the eye. The act of speaking out boosts morale, but protest always struggles against disillusion and despair–doomsday. If you rebel against denial and let yourself feel the sting of injustice and bungle, you risk feeling helpless and in danger of retaliation from on top. The photos of cops and pepper spray that make you indignant can also make you afraid. When media demands that the protesters say what they want, as if modern economies can be reformed by a bumper sticker, the challenge is so extreme it insinuates helplessness.
The best answer to doomsday is build something. That means seeing problems to be solved and thinking about the toolbox rather than the cosmic grindstone. Step by step. Swat those no-seeums.
Roll up your sleeves.
Occupy the toolbox.