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The End of the World As They Know It

What do Christian millenarians, jihadists, Ivy League professors, and baby-boomers have in common? They’re all hot for the apocalypse.

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T he week of September 11 (two weeks ago, not five years), I noticed a poster up at Frankies, my sweet neighborhood trattoria in Brooklyn: It advertised a talk on 9/11 by Daniel Pinchbeck—the former downtown literary impresario who has become a Gen-X Carlos Castaneda and New Age impresario. My breakfast pal nodded at the poster and said, “The guy is selling his apocalypse thing hard.”

Apocalypse thing?” I knew of Pinchbeck’s psychedelic enthusiasms, but I’d somehow missed his new book about the imminent epochal meltdown. In 2012, he interprets ancient Mayan prophecies to mean “our current socioeconomic system will suffer a drastic and irrevocable collapse” the year after next, and that in 2012, life as we know it will pretty much end. “We have to fix this situation right fucking now,” he said recently, “or there’s going to be nuclear wars and mass death … There’s not going to be a United States in five years, okay?”

The same day at lunch in Times Square, another friend happened to mention that he was thinking of buying a second country house—in Nova Scotia, as “a climate-change end-days hedge.” He smirked, but he was not joking.

On the subway home, I read the essay in the new Vanity Fair by the historian Niall Ferguson arguing that Europe and America in 2006 look disconcertingly like the Roman Empire of about 406—that is, the beginning of the end. That night, I began The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s new novel set in a transcendently bleak, apparently post-nuclear-war-ravaged America of the near future. And a day or so later watched the online trailer for Mel Gibson’s December movie, Apocalypto, set in the fifteenth-century twilight of, yes, the Mayan civilization.

So: Five years after Islamic apocalyptists turned the World Trade Center to fire and dust, we chatter more than ever about the clash of civilizations, fight a war prompted by our panic over (nonexistent) nuclear and biological weapons, hear it coolly asserted this past summer that World War III has begun, and wonder if an avian-flu pandemic poses more of a personal risk than climate change. In other words, apocalypse is on our minds. Apocalypse is … hot.

Millions of people—Christian millenarians, jihadists, psychedelicized Burning Men—are straight-out wishful about The End. Of course, we have the loons with us always; their sulfurous scent if not the scale of the present fanaticism is familiar from the last third of the last century—the Weathermen and Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians. But there seem to be more of them now by orders of magnitude (60-odd million “Left Behind” novels have been sold), and they’re out of the closet, networked, reaffirming their fantasies, proselytizing. Some thousands of Muslims are working seriously to provoke the blessed Armageddon. And the Christian Rapturists’ support of a militant Israel isn’t driven mainly by principled devotion to an outpost of Western democracy but by their fervent wish to see crazy biblical fantasies realized ASAP—that is, the persecution of the Jews by the Antichrist and the Battle of Armageddon.

When apocalypse preoccupations leach into less-fantastical thought and conversation, it becomes still more disconcerting. Even among people sincerely fearful of climate change or a nuclearized Iran enacting a “second Holocaust” by attacking Israel, one sometimes detects a frisson of smug or hysterical pleasure.

As in the excited anticipatory chatter about Iran’s putative plans to fire a nuke on the 22nd of last month—in order to provoke apocalypse and pave the way for the return of the Shiite messiah, a miracle in which President Ahmadinejad apparently believes. Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, at 90 still the preeminent historian of Islam, published a piece in The Wall Street Journal to spread this false alarm.

And as in Charles Krauthammer’s column the other day: He explained how a U.S. military attack on Iran would double the price of oil, ruin the global economy, redouble hatred for America, and incite terrorism worldwide—but that we had to go for it anyway because of “the larger danger of permitting nuclear weapons to be acquired by religious fanatics seized with an eschatological belief in the imminent apocalypse and in their own divine duty to hasten the End of Days.” In other words: Ratchet up the risk of Armageddon sooner in order to prevent a possible Armageddon later.

I worry that such fast-and-loose talk, so ubiquitous and in so many flavors, might in the aggregate be greasing the skids, making the unthinkable too thinkable, turning us all a little Dr. Strangelovian, actually increasing the chance—by a little? A lot? Lord knows—that doomsday prophecies will become self-fulfilling. It’s giving me the heebie-jeebies.

Declinism is the least-troubling species of end-days forecast, but still, it’s apocalypse lite. These forecasts are grandly gloomy, commonly depicted as a replay of the disintegration of Rome that ushered in the Dark Ages. “As Rome passed away,” Pat Buchanan writes in his new anti-immigration best seller, State of Emergency, “so the West is passing away.”


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