Saturday, December 22, 2012

Worst Apocalypse Ever

Considering that we've all seen several--dozens even--"end of the world/planet/civilization" scenarios in the movies/TV/literature/church all of our lives, I would have to agree with these fellows (these grumpy geezers are a hoot). But we wouldn't be encountering all these hypothetical ways life as we know it would all come crashing down if it weren't for some larger, for a "culture of doom" if you will.

Let's take this latest doomsday myth, for example. The real descendants of the ancient Maya were back in the old country yesterday celebrating the end of one cycle and the beginning of the new. It was, by all accounts (from Western news media, which is the best I could find on it, unfortunately), more like our New Years Eve celebrations, full of remembrance and hope at the same time. Meanwhile, back in the USA everyone is going on about the "Apocalypse" like the planet is going to explode. Even the intelligent people who know it's not true, because they have found no empirical evidence (that means science) to back it up, are still making jokes and posting memes on social media about the “world ending.” Because that’s the meaning our culture has attached the end of the Mayan calendar cycle, that the planet has to explode, get hit by a meteor, get taken over by some plague that turns all humans into flesh-eating zombies, or else Jesus swoops down on his angelic-white horse to call up all his followers (they know who they are, but somehow the rest of us are none the wiser despite hearing about this all our lives) so that the rest of us can happily slay one another out of despair for not having been caught up in the original “rapture.”

Exactly. Those are our myths; those are the stories we tell one another, our kids, our friends’ kids when their parents aren’t looking (so that the little’uns will freak out later when it’s bedtime and we can have a good laugh when the friends post on social media that their son or daughter wouldn’t sleep all night, thus neither did the parents, because they were convinced Jesus was going to send zombies to blow up the Earth or some such rot). You know how it goes. We hear stories about “primitive cultures” who had stories about the bunyip, or the sasquatch, or that gingers who died without being baptized would reanimate their corpses in order to drink the blood of their living tribesmen. And then we say something about how it was “just a story to scare their children in order to keep them from misbehaving.” Just like we tell children in our society that they better be nice instead of naughty so that Santa Clause will bring them toys and mittens instead of sticks and coal for [fill in name of winter festival of your choice here]. It lasts until somewhere between the age of 6 and 10 when they figure out it’s just the adults in their life, else why would Santa be “operating on a tight budget this year” or “leaving those gifts in the top of the hall closet for safe keeping.” (The really adventurous one may even sneak downstairs and catch Gramps red handed putting gifts under the tree, a little schnockered on the eggnog, like I did in the second grade.)

Myths are usually not “real,” but they have some kernel of “truth” in them. There is some kind of value (well-behaved, obedient children) or meaning (we’re all afraid to die!) embedded in the story, but the emotional triggers in the tale help it stick in our memory in a way that we internalize the values and meanings written between the lines.

Yes, okay, we all generally get that…after four years of college and a lot of late night reading or watching documentaries as a means to educate ourselves. And in that process we are also exposed to new myths, new memes and tropes and cultural patterns from popular media (meaning movies, TV, books, viral internet videos, and social media which is in its most basic sense the means by which the populace spreads information).

So then why this pervasive notion that the world was going to end on the winter solstice in the year 2012? No, not because it was the end of the grand cycle on the Mayan calendar. When our calendar runs out we simply flip the page or hang a new one in the kitchen. We don’t assume the planet will explode because the cycle ends and we, literally and figuratively, turn another page. It's no more of a zombie apocalypse than waking up the next day with a raging hangover after drinking too much and kissing someone completely inappropriate before passing out at 3 a.m. and waking up at noon. What’s so mythic about that outside the stories people will tell later about the “epic” party? Nothing, aside from us, as a society, even choosing to mark time in years and planetary orbits at all because our brains like patterns and we’re smart enough to notice things like seasons and the fact that about once a cycle it snows on us in many parts of the world. I can see where back in the day before gas furnaces and twinkly electric lights that whole winter thing could be frightening—the possibility of starvation and hypothermia always is. But that, as they say, is not really the end of the world, even if several individuals are no longer in it.

With a lot of time on my hands (and a small bit of mental fatigue flavored avoidance that is keeping me from writing on my thesis in the past little bit), I have thought about what it is that made everyone freak out, to some degree or another, about this impending world-ending, society-leveling doom.

Why did we all buy into this 2012 hype? Because Jesus told us to! (Before you get offended, read on, please.) No matter what religious tradition—or not—one considers themselves to be affiliated with, everyone in the Western world, and most of the rest of it as well, has heard variations on the same apocalyptic stories from one or more of the prevailing world-spanning mainstream religions of Middle Eastern origin. That’s a short, politically correct way of saying you’ve all heard the Christian stories of how the world is supposed to end and most people end up in eternal torment—meaning it won’t be fun. We live in a culture with a long-standing tradition of anticipating an “apocalypse.” Under every good thing is the realization that this too shall eventually end. No mater how badass your civilization, it has to end sometime. Just ask the Romans. Oh wait, you can’t because about 1,500 years ago, give or take a couple decades, their whole business went down the flusher too. And what took its place? Religion. The Christian religion, which in most parts of Europe (admit it, that is the basis of our cultural heritage here in America) was the social glue holding things together, often the only thing preventing (or causing, lest we forget he Inquisition and Crusades) mass chaos and panic. Popular (meaning of the general people) myths were something everyone shared knowledge of, and thus usually internalized the values and meanings thereof, to one degree or another. Let's face it, it's a good way good to communicate with others because they too know what you're talking about. Things like “be good or you’ll go to hell,” or “be good or the bogie man will eat you,” or perhaps “be good or Santa will leave a lump of coal in your stocking.” (And we all hate rocks in our socks.)

Sound familiar? Our civilization has grown up on tales of world-ending doom. “Jesus is coming back any day, so don’t screw up.” Whether or not someone believes that to be literal truth is not at issue here. But the idea that we, as a society, as a people with a long cultural heritage spanning hundreds of years, have this tradition that one day some cataclysmic event is going to end it all, is something we have been collectively cultivating for a long, long time. Is it any wonder that when capitalist profiteering and high-tech visual media is thrown into the mix, everything we see and hear is full of this same theme when a few people latch onto an old (and, as usual, misunderstood) bit of lore from a culture that seems foreign enough from our own to be scary, everyone takes our cultural tradition of the ever-imminent “apocalypse” and runs to the extreme with it? Remember all the hype over Y2K? Exactly like that.

And what does this have to do with “pirates and princesses” or the Renaissance? Almost nothing. Except that it was since the European Renaissance that science has presumably taken over from myth (we can lump religion, folklore, and magic together for our purposes here) as the pervasive mode of thinking and examining the world in our society. Yet, some 500 years later, here we are, happily freaking out, wondering if perhaps—despite all evidence to the contrary—a meteor might not strike the planet yesterday (12.21.12), unleashing an alien virus that turns everyone into zombies, ending civilization as we know it and causing mass chaos and panic. And of course, since you're reading this, that did not happen. 

Happy Holidays! And may every apocalypse you experience be just as lame. Cheers! 

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