Age of Apocalypse

Where Right & Left Intersect

A hermit back from deep forest haunts, perusing the wings of online punditry, would be staggered by pervasive, oddly-parallel End of Times bombshells. Throw in frazzled ecosystem scientists for a third homily on looming Armageddon. While right wingers with crackers for brains bewail how Obamacare and ruinous debts are sure to bankrupt American, if not western civilization, left wing voices snicker, “what civilization”?

Hail the Age of Apocalypse, a step up from the 20th C.’s Age of Anxiety or the 19th C.’s Great Awakening. While belief systems diverge widely, partisans rounding out the edges sound a similar drumbeat: our world is crashing – doomed by financial, cultural, religious and/or environmental collapse. The end isn’t just near but encircling us, and doomsday criers only wonder that the terminal patient is still breathing. The magnitude of doom is matched only by the certainty of the Jeremiahs.

Grim scenarios are nothing new, and by 2010 evangelicals and scientists were sounding like End of Times cousins. Andy Borowitz’ joke fits perfectly: “Senator Ted Cruz raised the ante in the battle over the Affordable Care Act on Sunday, telling CNN’s Candy Crowley that ‘destroying the entire planet is really the best and only way to stop Obamacare.’”

Ingrained apocalyptic visions surfaced long before the week’s Great Debt Melodrama, itself prompting this funny advisory from Huffington Post, “A Survival Guide To The Debt Ceiling Default Apocalypse.” Predictably, Tea Party “experts” pooh-pooh mere economists who “believe” credit ratings determine national credibility. Armageddon acolytes on Cruz control, like climate and evolution deniers, worship the realm of beliefs and opinions. The more far-fetched and conspiratorial, the better.

No Equivalence Implied

That political outliers sound related alarms doesn’t for a moment imply equivalence, moral or intellectual. Only witlings cheer on the militant lunacy of the Rapturous right, bristling with ignorance about language, culture and Biblical history. That folly contrasts dramatically with well-informed pessimists, whether climate scientists, or left wing progressives like Chris Hedges or Paul Craig Roberts. For me, savvier Jeremiahs follow film critic Pauline Kael’s defense of calculated overstatement: promote heavily or breakthroughs get ignored. Nor do I deny extraordinary threats: climate warming, devastation to oceans, nor a destabilizing American wealth gap time bomb.

But socio-economic instability, and enduring hard times, don’t prove broken capitalism is about to collapse, that Wall Street or Washington will soon implode, nor that America is inexorably in decline. Were any of that to happen, by the by, what organized and effective movement would step in to rebuild something better? The high anxiety behind the Age of Apocalypse comes down to “this time is different, the crimes are so vast, the status quo must tumble like Humpty-Dumpty.” Gloom may reassure the gloomy, but heartfelt assertion is not proof.

That systemic stress is high, and pain enormous, doesn’t mean major intact powers are suddenly vulnerable, nor without defenses. Look, Mr. Hedges and allies are right, eventually – doom comes to empires and extinction to species, especially cultures that mishandle resources. But where’s evidence anything big is imminent, nor concession of entrenched resilience. Calculation, money and high-tech armed forces will not roll over. Open conflict aside, does adaptable, human ingenuity not factor at all in facing up to undeniable problems?

We are a self-interested, voracious species, but creative imagination, buttressed by pressing necessity, will address the worst downsides of industrialism, like urban pollution, if only to keep workers healthy and the system functional. Realism, if not history, challenges despair married to desolation.

Timing the Debacle

Hell, it’s possible for Palin-Bachmann’s Rapture obsessions to come to pass. That must overcome immense convolutions for the patchwork Rapture, sequences beset with improbability and magic thinking. Evangelicals stand fast with Israel not out of love for Jews (who must ultimately convert or perish) but because Holy Land conditions fit snugly in their fantasy script. Lost in the shuffle is vaunted compassion for the non-Christian billions who perish badly when the Elect painlessly rise to heaven. Death has no sting when this brand of triumphant Christianity runs roughshod. Would Jesus weep, or what?

By the way, U.S. Christians are especially infected with Rapture disorders: nearly 48% reckon Jesus will “probably” or “definitely” return to save sinners, once and for all, before 2065 (10% just “don’t know”).  Why not, instead of Final Judgment, let’s envision Jesus mandating spiritual growth, population restraint, comforting the poor, even commanding a truce to the endless wars likely over resources? Why must the Second Coming be such a downer?

Yes, climate change augurs devastation, but does that automatically end-stop the human story? That we are unprepared for repeated global winters, emerging after huge volcanic eruptions or crashes with large, wandering rocks, is undeniable. That the most powerful countries will further maul the earth, with conventional belligerence or nukes, is certainly depressing. Yet even if brutal haves with better technology conquer have-nots, does that, per a recent PBS special, spell species extinction? Will greater world starvation wipe out the American empire, or western powers, or impede the Chinese monolith? Global warming will painfully “correct” overpopulation, but is that apocalypse?

Well-constructed warnings, even when overstated, serve to enlighten, especially when indicting the party of stupids or the crony criminal class. Dramatizing how disastrous are growing wealth gaps, land and ocean devastation, dire oil spills, or invasions of privacy will engage frustrated centrists. High drama and vivid prose will awaken millions that the Koch Brothers are predatory, with interests opposed to ordinary folk. Rebel-rousing is heroic, but unproductive when the audience senses manipulation or distortion.

Ideology of Bleakness

In fact, overwrought pessimism will worsen polarization, turning prospects into alienated, dismissive skeptics. If times are so riddled with bleakness, why won’t even more terrifying insurgencies come down the pike? If well-known progressives are perceived as forever crying wolf, focusing only on the dark side, the hopeless could end up tilting towards authoritarianism.

The great enemies to progressive change are cynical detachment, ignorance and indifference. Already, Rapture advocates welcome End of Times because that lets their callousness off the hook, shamelessly bowing to a higher force. Deafening cries of Armageddon will also scare off the skilled professional classes that served past transformations: how many want to risk everything from the get-go? In short, when developing any movement, overstatement carries its own risk, and strident doomsday predictions can boomerang.

The mass support needed to rebuild democratic rule here will not embrace heavily ideological pitches. High disdain for what a majority still honors as workable “civilization” will offend, not engage. Further, what country in modern times prospered after entirely clearing the deck and starting anew, from scratch? That way lies unnerving disruption, though less certainly than Armageddon delusions. For me, sustainable, systemic change comes about with a well-organized movement not without some optimism. Time to reconsider the reassuring comfort for some of worst case scenarios.

Robert S. Becker was educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English). He left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. "Writing for the public taught me how to communicate." From '92-02 he did marketing consulting, grant, and business writing. Since '02, he scribbles on politics, science and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows. Read other articles by Robert.