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.
This week, I continue my ongoing series “On Being Human” with “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica,” two Syfy TV series that explored the struggles between humanity and the machines that rebelled. |
I continue my CCLaP essay series “On Being Human”, this week exploring the dark world of Warhammer 40K and the Space Marines.
Discovered this wonderful fake whiskey ad on Youtube.
Note: Bushmillls is not endorsed by Protestants.
Dictatorships: Leading an Insane Clown Posse of One’s Own
Late last year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died. Along with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and global supervillain Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-il (1941 – 2011; Supreme Leader, 1994 – 2011) joined an esteemed list of rat bastards no one will miss. At least no rational person. That’s the rub, since the Supreme Leader of the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea has been perceived as a crazy lunatic nutjob. Everyone from David Letterman’s writing staff to the writers on Cracked.com have made a cottage industry from the simple equation: Kim Jong-il = Crazy!
As illustrated in the clip from 30 Rock, Kim Jong-il acts like a hyper-positive weather man, asserting that North Korea is “always sunny all the time.” In a gonzo performance, comedian Margaret Cho turns the dictator into a goofy clown with absolutely no connection with reality. (Which makes him totally different from our esteemed political leaders. Right, guys?)
Critiquing dictators is nothing new in pop culture. The most prominent historical example is Charlie Chaplin’s the Great Dictator (1940). What is new is the twist given to this critique, that of insanity. Its usefulness shouldn’t be underestimated. With an accusation of insanity, a critic does not need the obligation of taking the target seriously. The critic also comes from the privileged position of “sanity.” Unlike other people who are labeled “insane” or “mentally disturbed” (the homeless, the elderly, etc.), Kim Jong-il possessed a massive concentration of military power and the unswerving obedience of the Party machinery. When not making ridiculous claims, saber-rattling North Korea’s neighbors, and living in obscene opulence, he came across as threatening as an Elvis-coiffed garden gnome.
The charge of insanity made it easier for Internet comedy writers, but was it actually useful or effective? It is hard to quantify in real foreign policy terms.
The Political Aspects of Insanity
Thus far, we have taken insanity as a given. If you’re a North Korean despot who claims to have invented the cheeseburger, the charge of insanity seems firm. However, insanity itself is a slippery concept. Like the words “reality” and “culture”, insanity can become a loaded term. How does one define “insane”? Who defines the term? What power do they have? What are the political aspects of insanity?
Insanity is a different breed of affliction than, say, high blood pressure, asthma, or tuberculosis. One can point at a chart, an X-ray, or read-out and come to an agreed upon conclusion. The term itself (“insane”) has become the cultural shorthand for the different and maladjusted. This should not be confused with those who suffer from brain defects or neurological disorders. Unlike a severe cranial trauma or brain deformation, insanity has as much to do with medical knowledge as with political consensus. Kim Jong-il was such a real-life caricature of state terror, that is was easy to label him insane. Kim’s father, Kim Il-Sung, represented a very dangerous threat to national security and his totalitarian rule was nothing to laugh at.
Today charges of insanity usually arise on Internet discussion boards when one voices doubt in the inherent durability of the American two-party system. Because the economic and global situation has become so bad, it would be utterly insane to vote for someone other than a Republican or Democrat. (Because these same two parties and the same people in power have done such a bang-up job, I should keep them in power. Now who’s being insane?)
Because the first step to being different is thinking different, insanity has been used as a regulatory measure to control one’s family life, sexuality, and personal associations.
“Only an insane person would like _______” (Pick what you detest most.)
A. Gay people marrying.
B. A literal interpretation of the Bible.
C. Kim Jong-il.
D. The Atlas Shrugged, Part I movie.
What becomes dangerous about the definition of insanity is it becomes the psychiatric tool of political consensus. Attacking the opposition by characterizing them as insane lunatics has caused the usual heated American political discourse to become completely abandoned. Since the Occupy member thinks the Tea Party member is crazypants, then it’s no use even talking to them. (The reverse is also true.) Both sides need to abandon the hyperbolic rhetoric and realize they are missing the forest for the trees. (Obviously, both those groups are insane. Hey, isn’t that no-account, corrupt, adulterous sleazbag up for re-election in my district. I need to keep him or her in office for another term to fix things. To the voting booths!)
Insanity: That’s so Gay!
The political uses of insanity have had real consequences, damaging to individuals and their families. The fields of psychology and psychiatry buttressed and refined what was formerly the province of religion. Religious persecution of homosexuality is a given with examples, modern and ancient, too numerous to recount. Adding fuel to the fire was the psychiatric community’s assertion that homosexuality was a form of insanity. Like other forms of insanity, it was seen as something “curable”. In a peculiar twist that shows the circular relationship between religion and psychiatry, certain religious organizations make routine claims that they can cure homosexuality.
Only in 1973 was homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Its presence in the DSM made homosexuality easier to criminalize and prosecute, since persecuting homosexuality on religious grounds violates First Amendment protections. (While the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of one’s own religion or non-religion and not getting taxed by an established religious authority, the amendment does have its limits. These include human sacrifice, bigamy, and violent persecution of another group.)
Consensus can become a dangerous weapon, especially wrapped in the garb of the scientific rhetoric used in psychiatry.
Occupy North Korea
One of the predictable criticisms of the Occupy movement is that Communists run it. But this is a critique too boring and too predictable to comment on. What naïve leftists within the Occupy movement need to realize is that free market plutocracies aren’t the only places with an oppressive One Percent. It takes many forms, usually dynastic. One sees this with the Saud Family’s financial mismanagement, monumental corruption, and radioactive hypocrisy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
North Korea also has its One Percenters. And like the United States, it asserts it is a democracy run by the people. (Don’t believe me? It’s in North Korea’s name.) The upper echelons of the North Korean Communist Party and military apparatus sport huge waistlines and live in grandiose mansions. A North Korean Party hack represents the average North Korean the same way an overpaid, multiple-married, pill-popping AM talk show host represents “the Real America.” Faux North Korean Communism is as real as Faux Conservative Populism. Both are hard to take seriously and both are manufactured and targeted at rubes too dumb or too scared (or both) to think for themselves. “If those Democrats are elected, then Obama’s gay Muslim abortionists will take my Bible away!” “If those Republicans are elected, they will ban abortion, bomb Iran, and make us all Protestant!”
And Kim Jong-il invented the cheeseburger.
In the words of self-styled exercise guru Susan Powter, “Stop the insanity!”
Short answer: Why not?
Long answer: The reason I’m investigating Warhammer 40K mostly stems from my own biography. As an 80s pre-teen, I enjoyed the pop culture of the time, especially if it was on TV and involved robots, vehicles, and weapons. Transformers, Voltron, and GI Joe were my favorites. (Although I owned a number of GI Joe toys, the TV show remained anathema in the house.)
I’m not sure when it happened or where, but it was probably a hobby shop somewhere in (possibly?) South Milwaukee area. While the store had the usual hobby store staples – trains, models, kites, etc. – what caught my wasn’t a model car or a Lionel product, it was the Citadel Miniatures catalogs of 1991. (And yes, I still have them.) The monsters, demons, soldiers, and armored vehicles really hooked me. In the terms of museology, I had a case of poeisia, the Greek term for wonder and awe. In the end, my dad ordered not a miniature or model, but the catalog itself.
Besides the Citadel Miniatures catalogs, I also found a copy of Rogue Trader. The illustrations, the hyper-dystopian mythology, and the ultraviolence appealed to my baser instincts. Only recently have I discovered my copy, falling apart as it is, remains a collector’s item in high demand.
Rogue Trader, the Dune Encyclopedia, and the Star Wars VHS trilogy (pre-Lucas meddling) form a constellation of precious pop culture commodities I value as one would a saint’s bone. Given the crypto-religious tone in Warhammer 40K, a reliquary for my Rogue Trader 1st edition doesn’t seem inappropriate at all.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s: I’m in the thicket of a grad school public history program. (What is public history? Short answer: The program you take when you don’t want to become a history professor.) Grad school in the humanities involves lots of reading. Lots and lots of reading. Footnotes, Foucault references, using the words “discourse” and “space” in a sentence. Heady, intellectual stuff, occasionally interspersed with writing as dense as a uranium milkshake. I don’t regret a minute of it.
I preserved my sanity by rediscovering Warhammer 40K, this time in the omnibus editions of the Black Library novels I found in the local Barnes & Noble. The hook occurred with the first sentences of Ian Watson’s magisterial trilogy The Inquisition Wars. Now considered non-canon, it remains one of the best Warhammer 40K novels I’ve ever read.
The omnibus opens with a short story entitled “The Alien Beast Within.” It concerns an Imperial Assassin infiltrating a cabal of Genestealers. Pretty standard stuff in terms of space opera and military science fiction. While the plot didn’t stand out, the language did. Watson wrote the story in a gaudy pop decadence, a delicious fantasy reincarnation of French Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans. Here are a few opening lines:
THE GIANT EXERCISE wheel accelerated yet again while Meh’Lindi raced, caged within it. The machine towered two hundred metres high, under a fan-vaulted roof. Shafts of light, of blood-red and cyanotic blue and bilious green, beamed through tracery windows which themselves revolved kaleidoscopically. Chains of brass amulets dangling from the rotating spokes of the wheel clashed and clanged deafeningly like berserk bells as they whirled around.
I read on, blissed out on the verbal pyrotechnics. Here is Watson’s description of the God-Emperor’s Palace on Terra in the novel Draco(1990; 2002):
IF VIEWED FROM low orbit through the foul atmosphere, the continent-spanning palace was a concatenation of copulating, jewelstudded tortoise shells erupting into ornate monoliths, pyramids, and ziggurats kilometres high, pocked by landing pads, prickling with masts of antennae and weapons batteries. Whole cities were mere chambers in this palace, some grimly splendid, others despicable and deadly, and all crusted with the accretion of the ages.
Following the Inquisition Wars, I read the Eisenhorn omnibus written by the impossibly prolific Dan Abnett. The trilogy follows the eponymous Imperial Inquisitor and his rag-tag entourage across worlds. What makes Eisenhorn different from the usual Black Library volume is it spends most of the time amongst the ordinary and everyday in the grim 41st millennium. It was a nice re-introduction into this world. Both Inquisition Wars and Eisenhorn are excellent gateway volumes for those interested in the Warhammer 40K universe.
One final note: I don’t play Warhammer 40K. First, from the prohibitive pricing of just about everything in their inventory makes it financially detrimental to start an army. Second, I don’t know many players who live in my area. On the other hand, I continue to enjoy reading the novels and browsing the catalogs online.
Having survived Ayn Rand’s epic literary atrocity Atlas Shrugged, we thought that it is time to explore other pop cultural avenues. The two subjects under consideration are the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer 40,000. (Each title is shorthand for sprawling creative properties involving TV shows, role playing games, video games, web series, tie-in novels and comics, and countless other pop cultural artifacts.)
Battlestar Galactica represents a rich vein to tap into the struggles and ethical dilemmas facing the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The spin-off series Caprica dealt with issues like organized religion, terrorism, virtual reality, technological advancement, organized crime, and capitalism. The franchise will expand again with the upcoming series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, chronicling the First Cylon War.
Warhammer 40,000 (hereafter known as Warhammer 40K) began in the United Kingdom as a fantasy role-playing game. (There is also a companion RPG called Warhammer that has a fantasy setting.) Starting from the premise of The Lord of the Rings … IN SPACE!, the franchise has expanded in tie-in novels, video games, a magazine, and a vastly expanded universe. Issues like colonialism, imperialism, and posthumanism will be explored.
NOTE: For both features, there will be spoilers. These are critical analyses, not episode or book summaries. Also, given the vastness of these franchises, we at Coffee is for Closers would appreciate any feedback, corrections, etc. from fans and members of the academic community studying these pop cultural touchstones in greater detail.