Yet Another Failed Apocalypse
Like the inevitable outing of virulent homophobes, we have yet another example of a failed apocalypse. The problem is not necessarily the apocalypse itself, but the frequency of these failed apocalypses has become so grating that even the jokes have become predictable and flat. In 2012 alone, we had Howard Camping’s multiple declarations of impending doom as well as the famous Mayan “apocalypse.” (Ironic air-quotes because it is a classic misunderstanding of a non-Gregorian calendar system by hysterical nutjobs. In December 2012, the Mayan calendar ends. What happens when you reach December 31, 2012 in your household? Most people usually get a new calendar.)
I won’t bother listing the failed apocalypses. Here’s a link. It’s a really long list. And in the future there will be more non-apocalypses added to that list. But people will still be hysterical, declaiming the end of the world, and getting everyone worked up over nothing. Another after-effect of all these failed apocalypses is that apocalyptic rhetoric has lost all meaning.
Apocalyptic rhetoric has been trotted out whenever a poorly written cash-in reaches the New York Times bestseller list. (Because that never happens.) Until the next sub-literate hack gets a choice book deal and struggling authors continue to struggle in obscurity. All this talk of cultural apocalypse because the author of Fifty Shades of Grey sold some books seems a bit overheated. The wealth of Hollywood wasn’t built on good movies either. The apocalypse is fast becoming meaningless the same way terms “indie” and “edgy” have been eroded to vacuous buzzwords.
Do not misinterpret this post as some snarky smug “religion is dumb, hooray science!” diatribe. (The Internet has plenty of those.) I was raised in a Lutheran household and apocalyptic rhetoric wasn’t in the conversation. Yes, the theological basis for Lutheranism includes the Apocalypse, but there wasn’t any ham-fisted close readings of the Book of Revelation like certain denominations, sects, and cults do. (For examples, tune in to your local religious networks, except EWTN, since the Catholic Church isn’t apocalypse-happy as Kirk Cameron’s flock.) The Apocalypse was part of Lutheran theology, but believers were taught not to presume to know when it would happen.
Presume is the key word here. As with other things, God will determine when the Apocalypse will happen. Hence the constant empty blathering of failed prophets. This goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of the Antichrist of the Week. So many people have been charged with being the Antichrist that it gets comical. Cracked.com, the reliable barometer of American opinion, published one of their most hilarious articles saying “Obama is the least efficient Antichrist ever.”
Not to belabor the point, but naming someone the Antichrist has become as politically expedient as calling someone a Hitler. The same people using the same rhetoric have called everyone from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Saddam Hussein to Barack Obama the Antichrist. One doesn’t need a PhD to see what’s going on. Label the political opposition the Antichrist and the flock will follow accordingly. And since Obama was re-elected, American is in a state of moral depravity and God will smite us. Or something. (I live in Minnesota and the state recently voted down the Traditional Marriage Amendment. I’m still waiting for the being-caused-by-gays earthquakes and hurricanes. We did get a snowstorm on the day of the Mayan Apocalypse … in Minnesota.)
The same people who label the President as the Antichrist are the same people who allege there is a War on Christmas. Which leads us to …
The Holiday Spirit
August to December 25th annually, depending on the retailer
“First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)
I enjoy the holiday season. I get to home to Wisconsin, be with family, open presents, and generally have a good time. Again, this is not some garden variety anti-religious screed. Those are boring. This post is exploring the issue of fatigue. Along with apocalypse fatigue, the commodification of Christmas inevitably gives way to fatigue. Since free market capitalism is based on the premise of an ever-expanding market, the Christmas season has been incrementally expanded into more of the calendar year. While retailers and businesses are right to exploit the reason for the season, this can have an unintentional blowback effect.
Christmas is fine. Shopping is fine. But I don’t need to see Christmas trees in retailers in August! By the time Black Friday rolls around, I’m already sick of Christmas. To put this another way: I like chocolate cake, but I don’t want to eat chocolate cake for every meal every day for three months. What is happening to me and fellow shoppers is the retail equivalent of diabetic shock.
Ironically, I see myself as a traditionalist here. Christmas season should begin on Black Friday and end on Christmas (with some overlap for New Year’s). The relentless drive to have us shop, shop, shop til we drop has extended the holiday season way too far. The Holiday Season has become a calendar-eating amoeba, devouring everything in its path.
Christmas, the best seven months of the year.
The Battle of Stalingrad
July 17, 1942–Feb. 2, 1943
Nikita Khrushchev: [addressing a roomful of Soviet political officers] My name… is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I’ve come to take things in hand here. This city… is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city… is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans… capture this city… the entire country will collapse. Now… I want our boys to raise their heads. I want them to act like they have balls! I want them to stop shitting their pants! That’s your job. As political officers… I’m counting on you.
Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Thousands died, thousands more were killed, and it was an ideological wrestling match between two totalitarian superpowers. I only mention this because, as a punchline, I have likened the annual Christmas season to the Battle of Stalingrad. It is a Stalingrad-like battle of enforced cheer and omnipresent Christmas songs. I’ll leave you with a clip of Christopher Hitchens likening the holiday season to living in North Korea. Is it really? Let me know your opinion in the comments section.
by Matt Christman
Divining cinematic trends from serendipitous release dates is usually a mug’s game, but when five movies about the end of the world come out within a few months of each other, especially given the relative scarcity of apocalyptic films since the end of the Cold War, it’s not going too far to suspect you’re catching a glimpse of the zeitgeist.
The fall/winter movie season is giving viewers their flavor of Armageddon: the secular (Zombieland and The Road), New Age pseudoscientific (2012) and religious (The Book of Eli and Legion), all crafted to appeal to a different subset of the coveted 18-35 white male demographic. Some of them deal with the spectacle of destruction that will come with the end of the world, others focus more on the Mad Max-ey task of rebuilding society in a world without plumbing or non-ragged clothing.
It’s probably a coincidence that this deluge of end times films, the first since the mid-80s era of nuclear saber rattling, is coming during a time of economic instability unseen for generations. But perhaps this renewed interest in the collapse of civilization reflects a creeping suspicion that the “great recession” isn’t like past downturns. Even as the stock market rebounds and bailed out investment banks rack up profits the economy continues to shed jobs, with no one capable of articulating exactly where new jobs could possibly come from.
Deindustrialization has turned huge swathes of the Rust Belt into sets for the next round of post-apocalyptic thrillers, and ever-exploding personal debt is crippling the service and consumer economy that was supposed to replace manufacturing in the first place. What’s next? “Green jobs?” Given that our sclerotic government is incapable of even reforming a manifestly broken health care system, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be able to summon the collective will for the massive public investment necessary to reorient the entire American energy infrastructure. The same governmental gridlock that will probably doom any effort at recreating a sound foundation for the economy is also ensuring that nothing meaningful will be done to combat global warming until it’s too late. Just as we all suspect that this new economic order will feature mass unemployment and chronic crisis, we know that runaway carbon emissions, ocean acidification and the continued depletion of fossil fuels could likewise spell the end of our comfortable lives of compulsive amusement and heedless waste. We look around our couches uneasily, just waiting for the cracks in the foundation to spread.
If this swirling vortex of economic collapse and environmental catastrophe have given credibility to cinematic apocalyptic visions, what could make people want to seek out such visions for entertainment purposes? Our latent anxiety about impending doom is mixed with a giddy anticipation for oblivion. Not only would the apocalypse offer the greatest spectacle in the lives of people conditioned above all to crave the spectacular, but it would signal the end of every mundane stress factor and petty indignity that make up an existence marked alternately by the dull and the disheartening. If we survived the mass destruction, we would live in a new world governed by the fight-or-flight response, not the intricate and soul-crushing array of social norms, economic necessities and personal failings that rule our day-to-day. It would mean a return to the nasty, brutish and unrestrained lives our bodies were evolved for.
Of course, all of these dreams of postapocalyptic adventure are predicated on the assumption that we will be among the few survivors of such a cataclysm. We’re going to be in the plane with John Cusack, not in the car tumbling off the highway into the yawning abyss below. We’re going to be Viggo Mortenson, not some anonymous burned-over carcass. Even in the face of a world annihilating catastrophe, we cannot abandon our subjectivity. In the end, we can never really accept the fact of our own deaths, even given the overwhelming statistical likelihood that any apocalyptic scenario would kill every single person who went to see 2012 this weekend. But the end of the world is just like the lottery: someone’s got to win.