May 21, 2011

Being spectator to the predicted end of the world

It's going to happen.

We know it will happen today.

Sometime in the evening, East Coast time, probably, sometime around 5 o'clock, an hour before the earthquake that's supposed to announce Christ's unequivocal Second Coming is supposed to happen, someone will start to twitter the "end of the world."

With a snicker, of course.

There will be a countdown. A pose of being "written from the edge of the end," like a parody of one of those Walker Percy novels that were never very good. There will be suggested playlists of ironic choices (R.E.M.: It's The End of the World as We Know It; The Doors: The End; Britney Spears: Dance Until the World Ends; etc.), and maybe pictures from hip apocalypse parties on urban roof tops. There will be --obligatorily -- jokes about who can have whose stuff after a rapture.

The whole thing, of course, will be a big laugh.

And why not? The gnostic, numerological reading of the Bible is more than a bit unorthodox; the certainty with which the end is being proclaimed is wild-eyed, and goofy.

I have to wonder though, if some of that laughter, our laughter, isn't oddly aggressive. I mean, really, why do we care?

There are lots of groups of people in the world, and they believe lots of different things. This one, it's different for us. For them too, of course, but for us. I'm trying to think about us, because, I guess, I'm finding our reaction weird: Why is it we take such delight, such evident pleasure, in the idea of a really ridiculously small group being wrong? Aren't we a little too interested -- or at least to cavalier about not looking at why we're interested or why we're laughing the way we are?

None of the attention seems to be self-reflexive, or self-referential. No
one seems to have asked, why do we care?

As we've approached May 21, 2011, and as I've been reading all the stories about Harold Camping, and Family Radio, and We Can Know, and those committed to this most recent expectation of the rapture and apocalypse, I've been trying to think about what it means to be a spectator to the predicted end of the world.

I noticed, for example, that most of the stories written about these people include, often high in the story, a line or so about how much has been given up. They all start in some way with this declaration of commitment: saying how money, life savings, good jobs, government jobs, family and friends, everything, has been sacrificed for this belief.

Sacrificed to such an extent that, as one of these true believers told NPR, "There is no Plan B."

As the publicist for the predicted judgment said, everything comes down to this, and for him and for those who believe, it's this -- the end, the rapture -- or it's nothing. He said, "if you boil everything down it’s really trusting the Bible. If you can’t trust the Bible, then you got nothing. There’s no truth.”

To a large extent, of course, this move that's made in all these news pieces functions only to give weight to the claim that these people believe. As Camping, who started all this and gives voice to all this, insists that he believes and he's absolutely certain, saying, e.g., "God has given sooo much information in the Bible about this, and so many proofs, and so many signs, that we know it is absolutely going to happen without any question at all," these acts of sacrifice give weight and gravitas to what he's saying. What has been given up acts, in the story, to guarentee that this is serious, and not just an ad campaign or a fundraising effort.

These anecdotes act to answer the question about whether they really believe, which acts, then, to give a reason for the stories.

What this does, though, in showing us how these "true believers" truly believe, in presenting us with their certainty at that which we find completely implausible, is create an at least a momentary question. We end up having to ask, in the story, if they're so sure this is happening, how I can be sure of what I'm sure?

This is where, I think, our laughter comes out a little nervous.

When we come into contact with people who hold to a reality radically different than our own, that can provoke in us a question, an uncertainty, about the reality we view and hold as so natural, so obvious, so just there.

In the terms of Peter Berger, our reality is real to us because of our social context. That which is true and real feels that way to us because of our surroundings. It is reiterated to us and made real in that reiteration that happens in so many small and subtle ways: conversations, newspapers, passing buses, church, and so on. When there's a chink in that reiteration of that which is taken for granted, that chink opens up for us the possibility of being wrong -- wrong about the most basic things, and about everything.

A cognitive minority -- "a group formed around a body of deviant 'knowledge,'" Berger says, which is the best description you could give for those predicting the end on May 21-- upsets or unsettles that which is taken for granted, in that the majority's social condition of having what it believes it knows fed back to it in a seamless loop is disrupted. What it takes as 'knowledge' is challenged out of nowhere.

For comparison, think of how epistemological uncertainty comes into the narrative Rene Descartes gives in Meditations on First Philosophy. Why does Descartes say he starts to question (obvious) reality, that, for example, he has a body like he thinks he does, and that, generally, he knows what he knows? It's not that he comes to doubt all the sudden, like a revelation, or that he pulls it out of the ether. Rather, he comes to it because of the pluralism of his own society. That is, he begins to question how he can be sure that he's sure of what he's sure he's sure of because he comes into contact with people who are certain of the obviousness of their own, alternative realities.

He comes into contact, for example, in the story he tells, with a person who knows his head is a pumpkin, and a person who knows his body is glass. Descartes knows their knowledge about themselves is wrong, but then has to ask how does he know that his own beliefs, his own knowledge, is any better than theirs?

Of course, normally, in our lives, we do sometimes come into contact with people who take as obvious totally radically different conceptions of reality and knowledge, but we normally have ways of marginalizing them and their knowledge and not taking it seriously. We say something like, the people who think their heads are pumpkin are probably mentally ill. The guy shouting about the end of the world at the bus station is probably in need of medical attention.

What's particularly odd, though, and particularly unsettling for us, with these people who are sure, absolutely sure, that the world is going to end, who don't just think or believe, but know that the Bible says Jesus will come with earthquakes on May 21, at 6 p.m. in every different time zone, is that they're not the most dismissible of people.

An employee at Homeland Security ...

An insurance adjustor ...

Someone with life savings ...

A mother with a small child, and another on the way ...

A UC Berkley grad with a degree in civil engineering ...

And then add to that what they've given up, that this is serious, that they really do think they know what they know. Add to that that they hold this prediction of the end not as a speculation, an opinion, a private taste, but as something they know.

This is not our picture of fanaticism. These are not the sort of people whose knowledge we routinely and regularly dismiss or don't take seriously, and we have to pause, on news of the commitments they've made, at least for a moment, as we watch the approaching of the predicted capital-E End, pause in the uncertainty of the knowledge that we feel sure.

Which is why, I think, this moment occurs in all these stories. They grab us -- this moment grabs us. And this is why, I think, in all the snickers about the end of the world and the rapture jokes and the "looting parties," there's maybe just a tremor of a question. A nervous moment in a look at the clock as the countdown gets twittered by a would-be Walker Percy.

It's just a moment, of course, and maybe it too fleeting, too fast to receive any real attention. It's underneath there, though.

Our certainty, our sureness of reality, that that world which we take for granted was here when we were born, and before, and will continue on in the morning and the next day and the day after that, it flickers, for a moment.

Maybe just for a moment, but still.

It returns in the stories, of course, which re-establish the implausibilities of these weird and wild beliefs by noting without fail that Harold Camping had some similar prediction before, in 1994, and that the Jesus says "no man knows." Though, really, these stories don't take the context of either of those things into consideration, or recognize, even, that those "true believers" predicting the end of the world know what Jesus said and what Camping said too. They've already taken those things into consideration in what they know they're sure of. But the news stories trot out the claims anyway to reassure us that these people are crazy, that they're not to be taken seriously, or no more seriously than is necessary for the reading of a story.

There's almost always a mention, too, of The Great Disappointment of 1844, and the prediction the Millerites made. That is the closest parallel, historically, of course, but it's not like the reader is expected to know anything about William Miller and Joshua V. Himes, or if the two predictions are the same or why they thought what they thought or what.

They never go into, for example what happened after the rapture didn't happen, beyond the designation of the media-buzz name. It's ostensibly "context," but it works, more than that, to confirm for the readers that, not only are they right, they have always been right: these people are crazy.

Our certainty of our reality returns, reasserts itself. And there's a joke. And a countdown.

It's not that we ever, I think, seriously considered this alternative reality. Any more than I think Descartes ever really thought his head was a pumpkin. But we enjoying being right, and more than just being right, it feels good to have the rightness confirmed. With our certainty unsettled just a little, by the news of these "true believers," we get the chance to reassert how right we are. And reassert it with a vengeance.

Maybe, for example, part of why everyone has latched on in disbelief to this moment -- 6 p.m., May 21 -- is that it will provide some kind of evidence or actual confirmation of their own rightness. We will get, for once, to be unequivocally right about something, and then we can force others to admit that we are right. Something that, frustratingly, never happens in politics, or religion debates, where the losers really have to grovel and give it up: you're right, you were right all along. This will be a chance for that, though. There will be no doubt.

Except, upon reflection, isn't that move exactly the same as the one the end-of-the-world predictors are making?

Maybe just a little self-reflection is called for.

Really, this prediction of the end gives us a once-in-a-lifetime chance (?) to prove that we're right, to test that we're right. Granted, the people that we're disproving when the world doesn't end is a small, tiny group of unorganized people who are desperate for something, but, nevertheless, we'll have been right. It's a little scapegoating. A little self-affirmation. A little confirmatory discourse.

Which is fine, as far as it goes, but I'm trying to think about how that works. What are we getting out or our spectating at the predicted end of the world? Why do we care as much as we do? Why are we as eager as we are to come up with a clever, end-of-the-world one liner?

Isn't it slightly strange, for example, how unanimous everyone is condemning this group and dismissing them? Even Nazis have more defenders than this. Christians and atheists, ministers of all different persuasions, those who believe in some sort of coming end of the world and those who don't at all, all of them are united against this one guy, his radio station, and some listeners?

I suppose I want to offer a partial, modified defense of the May 21st-ers just because they're such a minority. And also, with all the pointing and the joking, I'm thinking I'm not really sure how different we, normally, actually really are. We like to be right. We like to know stuff. We like to commit ourselves and have our rightness confirmed with earthquake-sized confirmations.

I am trying to think, too, of this guy in New York City who's given up all his money, his life and his family. He's spent his life's savings to pay for ads announcing the apocalypse, which he knows is coming, even though he doesn't know and isn't sure he'll be raptured.

I was trying to think of what will happen at 6 p.m. What will he say? Will people jeer?

Will he cry?

He'll assume, maybe, that it did happen, this event of the end, and that he missed it. He'll try to explain to the crowd, but they won't listen as they've never listened to him.

He'll be in that moment like Noah, watching his boat float away.

He'll think in that moment that God gave him the knowledge about the end of the world, but not the salvation needed to escape it. He'll think that, in that terrible moment, he's been condemned like the whole world has been condemned, but he's the only one who really knows.

But then I try to turn around, in my mind. What happens with the crowd? How do they respond if he cries? What's on their faces?

How do they react when the clock strikes 6 and their world is confirmed and his is crushed. How do I? What is it we want? What are we here for? And why?

How does that work, being spectators to the predicted end of the world?