Memo From Jonestown: Whoopee! We’re not dead. Now what?

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one subject, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed on a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of tears, to be reaped by its posterity…. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

–Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852)

I no longer remember where or how I first found Charles Mackay’s fantastic book. I remember someone mentioning it to me in the early 1990s, so probably a fellow grad-school malcontent turned me on to it. Beyond that dim recollection, I can’t recall much about how I came by it. However, I do remember being knocked on my ass from the very first pages, and thereafter recommending it to all of my friends.  It’s that kind of reading experience. Because in this sad, hilarious, sometimes horrifying volume, published first in 1841 and then in a second edition in 1852, Mackay offers an overview–the merest sample, as he points out in his introduction–of human delusion, bizarre behavior, and the thoroughly avoidable suffering that results from mass irrationality, from the Crusades to the Mississippi Scheme of 1720.

Howdy. It’s Monday, May 23rd, 2011–Judgment Day plus 2, as it were–and another End of the World has come and gone. Nice to see everyone back. (Except, sadly, for Macho Man Randy Savage. Godspeed, Macho Man; Pro Rasslin’ Heaven has gained a saint.)

Like most of you, I spent last Saturday idly aware of the ticking of the clock according to Family Radio Worldwide’s Rapture Countdown, a sort of goofball-apocalyptic “ABC’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” with civil engineer and amateur bible numerologist Harold Camping in place of Dick Clark, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse standing in for the Dropping of the Ball in Times Square.

Of course, here in Bucktown we were also celebrating the annual Strawberry Festival, and so I kept myself irrigated on the off-chance that Camping and company were right, since the arrival of Conquest, Slaughter, Famine, and Death would likely be easier to accept, or at least more fun to watch, if I were slightly oiled. (I was also watching the Festival Parade, and unless there’s been a grievous misreading of Revelation and the four horsemen are actually Miss Farm Tool, Shriner Clowns, Classic Cars, and Minor Local Television Celebrity, I missed the end of days entirely.)

But as it turned out: ho-hum. Aside from the parade, at least around my house it was a standard Saturday; I hung out with some friends, I watched a movie, I had a few drinks, and I went to bed. And then, if only to spite a single civil engineer in Oakland, California, I woke up the next morning.

It’s easy to poke fun at doomsayers. It’s easy to poke fun at anyone who’s being 100% deadly earnest about anything, in fact. That goes for proponents of world peace as much as boosters of World of Warcraft. Total commitment to anything makes you an easy target, no matter what trip you happen to be on. But, to this observer anyway, there’s something deeply mean-spirited about the end-is-nigh crowd. And–oh, irony of ironies–they’ve been with us, well-documented and noisy as crickets in a baseboard, since the first millenium.

Difficult as it is, I want to try to talk about this outside the context of religious faith, since I doubt even a statistically significant percentage of global Christendom put much stock in World Radio’s judgment day stopwatch. That apocalyptic countdown was the stated context for Camping’s prediction, but the grim and pessimistic sentiment behind it–the country’s going to hell in a handbag, humankind is circling the drain, we’re all gonna die, everything’s getting worse, the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out, etc.–seems to be infiltrating contemporary public discourse to a degree that’s not just alarming, but damn near stifling.

Also, not that it has much bearing on this particular discussion, but quite contrary to the phrasing used in several mainstream-press news stories about the Great 5/21 Celestial Soul-Hoovering, Harold Camping has precisely the quality of credentials for claiming to be a “Bible scholar” as I have for claiming to be an Admiral in the Queen’s Navy.  I’m a little disgruntled at the cavalier way the word “scholar” has been treated in this context, but for the nonce, let’s put the quasi-religious concerns to one side.

I’ve seen two anecdotes frequently repeated in news stories concerning Camping’s big bustout in this game of divine blackjack.  Last year, Joel and Adrienne Martinez quit their jobs in New York and cancelled plans for Adrienne to attend medical school, budgeting their income and savings to run out on 5/21.  (The couple has one daughter, and another child–actually typing this makes me feel so petty–due next month.  Call me cynical, but timing your pregnancy so that the delivery date occurs after the end of the world is either the most or the least selfish act I’ve ever heard of.)  NYC transit employee Robert Fitzpatrick spent his life savings, approximately $140,000, to advertise Harold Camping’s prediction.  That’s a hundred and forty.  Thousand.  Dollars.  Poof.  Gone.  Just spent.

These, and many others, are sad stories.  Much of the news coverage I’ve seen takes Camping to task, blaming the resulting financial hardship and suffering his advocates are now going to have to endure on his exploitation of human uncertainty and fear, for profit.  (Family Radio Worldwide is financed entirely through private donations.  And you’ll never believe this, but you can STILL make contributions through the organization’s web site.  Ye gods.  The sheer audacity.)

I have to admit, however, that I can’t work up much sympathy for people like Martinez and Fitzpatrick.  I tried.  I didn’t try very hard, but I did try.  And of course, I feel the standard wince at the thought of a fellow human depleting his savings in a way that would have been equally as effective had he soaked the money in gas and lit it on fire.

Still, anyone who balances the end of the world against hope for the future, and incinerates their money and personal security in the process, has something much more badly damaged inside them than can be explained away by simple uncertainty over the future, which it falls to all of us to face and overcome.

It’s not even as if this irrational, irresponsible behavior were locatable only in our own age. This sort of thing has been going on for at least a thousand years, in more or less exactly the same way.  Charles Mackay devotes the fifth chapter of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds to prophecies of the end of the world.  In it, Mackay describes the mass European pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 999.  The number of pilgrims was “so great,” he writes,

that they were compared to a desolating army.  Most of them sold their goods and possessions before they quitted Europe, and lived upon the proceeds in the Holy Land.  Buildings of every sort were suffered to fall into ruins.  It was thought useless to repair them, when the end of the world was so near.  Many noble edifices were deliberately pulled down.  Even churches, usually so well maintained, shared the general neglect. (257)

Not only that; they saw ominous portent in every naturally-occuring weather pattern:

Most of them were smitten with terror as with a plague.  Every phenomenon of nature filled them with alarm.  A thunder-storm sent them all upon their knees in mid-march… Every meteor in the sky seen in Jerusalem brought the whole Christian population into the streets to weep and pray… Fanatic preachers kept up the flame of terror.  Every shooting star furnished occasion for a sermon, in which the sublimity of the approaching judgment was the principal topic.  (257-8)

Well.  The shock of recognition, even when it comes from a book published over 150 years ago, is one of the hardest shocks of all.

I said above that I find something particularly sinister and mean-spirited about doomsday rhetoric. There’s something in apocalyptic language that’s not only dependent upon, but that also in some way fetishizes the very idea of, all the lights going out. That seems not only deeply pessimist, but also deeply misanthropic, in the least valuable way possible. A valuable misanthrope, on the Mark Twain model, might try to point out our faults in order to help us improve ourselves and cut the bullshit, as it were. A useless misanthrope sees no point in going on, and never expects anything but the absolute worst, so why not pull the plug already? All we’re going to lose is this crap world anyway.

This tendency to hysteria, to stridency, to the sort of language that not only keeps us divided but moves us farther apart from each other, is observable not only in the context of apocalyptic faith, but in the strident tone of most of our public conversations in contemporary American life.  Now that we’ve reached the 2012 candidacy-announcement season, the vocabulary of rack and ruin is being trotted out again, and for exactly the same purpose as always: to make us scared, to stifle the exchange of genuine ideas, to thwart calm rationality, and to subvert the intellect.

It happens on the left and the right.  I was especially disheartened to read this statement–one can’t really call it an editorial or an argument–by P.J. O’Rourke, printed in the Weekly Standard.  Reading it depressed me, because I’ve always admired and enjoyed O’Rourke’s writing, and found it eminently reasonable and worth considering carefully, even if my politics didn’t always meet up with his–as if that last consideration mattered a goddamn in a free society anyway.  This piece… of something… instead trades in irrationality and fear-stoking in order to appeal to our inner end-is-near-er.  And no coherent point is raised.  Not a single one.

I hasten to point out that this isn’t a matter of political or party affiliation.  I mention the O’Rourke piece because for me, as a reader who’s admired his work for its levelheadedness in the service of making a political argument, it serves as an emblem for what happens when that rationality gets cast aside in favor of whipping that segment of the populace that already agrees with you into a frenzy.  It’s not a left-or-right phenomenon.  It happens all along the political spectrum.

What can possibly be the point?  Why the hysterical tone in our public discussions?  Who can be moved by such rhetoric except those who are already on our side?  What’s the purpose of all this stoking of the fires of armageddon anyway, even (maybe especially) in the context of debates over politics and differences of public opinion?

I have a theory.  Don’t I always.

Hauling out the rhetoric of demise and destruction–figuratively, metaphorically, or literally–allows for the maximum amount of dramatic window-dressing for any political, ethical, moral, or religious opinion one cares to spout, and it encourages the debate to ride on purely emotive energy instead of pesky elements like logic, evidence, or reason. As opposed to a self-fulfilling prophecy, doomsday is a self-aggrandizing prophecy. It turns every disagreement into a do-or-die last stand, at the end of which anyone who doesn’t agree with us gets thrown over on the “die” side. It divides us all–not to ransack the thesaurus of religious metaphor–into left-hand and right-hand, sheep and goats. It presents us with an either-or proposition: Get on board, or be a part of humanity’s long slide into death and destruction. Also, give me a donation.

We’re better than this.  We’d damn well better be.  Because the responsibility for our accepting of opinions we take whole-cloth from hucksters and con men; every chance we miss to fact-check some claim that someone tries to get us to believe in the service of furthering their own projects; every moment in which we might have used an opportunity to learn something and instead chose to rebroadcast a sound bite we got from someone else, even to the point of using our own life savings to do so… all of that responsibility–all of it–is ours.  Individually.

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

The process of recovering our senses is slow, solitary, difficult, and expensive.  How much better not to lose them in the first place.

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3 Responses to Memo From Jonestown: Whoopee! We’re not dead. Now what?

  1. T Shelton says:

    Outstanding and oh-so-timely.

  2. R. Fanning says:

    I found your site because of the incredible ‘Elemental’ post which has rightly been all over social media. This also spoke to me and I see a lot of relevance to the current issue. You are a great writer and thinker. I’ll be reading Mackay soon.

  3. Michelle - a transplanted Mountaineer says:

    Same for me. I will have to go look for that book – although I fear it will only depress me.
    I still remember vividly when I was a teen at Jackson’s Mill in the 70’s (at some youth conference or another) figuring out that I could stir an audience one way, and then exactly the other way by standing and raising “points” — directly conflicting points — through demagoguery – with not one person calling me on it. I found it fearsome. When I realized what I had done, I stopped speaking at the meetings. But I started noticing how folks often employed those devices – just to capture an audiences emotions…. to gain applause…. and to control that audience and take them places they never would have gone absent that ploy. I see it more frequently every election now.

    Many otherwise good and earnest folks in this country are being led to communal madness by some one or some group (industrialists? that certain TV network? sinister bankers? politicians? ) that I can only suppose thinks it will profit from a civil war. I only wish I could discern who that is, so we could shine a light upon it and start that hard, hard work of finding our way back to sanity and perhaps avert a disaster….. Yes, I think the book – given its age, its references to even ancient historical events and such huge, long-standing and terrible events, and its universality – will indeed only depress me. But I am intrigued by what you say. So, I think I shall read it. Thanks.

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