Thursday, January 09, 2014

Preparing for the Coming Viral Apocalypse (Please Retweet!)

More than 30 years ago, I was involved in the preparation of an anthology called The Apocalyptic Premise, which was edited by Ernest W. Lefever and E. Stephen Hunt and published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  The book gathered 31 essays about the then-current nuclear arms debate.

In an introduction, Lefever and Hunt define what they mean by the anthology's intriguing title, noting that, in public policy debates, "some ideas obscure desirable ends and confuse the means for reaching them."  They go on to say that

One such influential idea is "the apocalyptic premise," which has always flourished in times of trouble and uncertainty.  Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have vivid apocalyptic passages portraying how the world will end for both the righteous and the unrighteous....

But in current secular usage, an apocalyptic event is one that spells doom for a nation,  a civilization, or the human race itself...  In the nuclear era some secular apocalyptic prophets proclaim that the world will be destroyed by fire and brimstone unless their particular prescriptions for avoiding catastrophe are adopted.
In the context of the early 1980s, apocalypticism -- if I might coin a word (or not) -- dealt almost exclusively with fears of an imminently (immanently?) impending nuclear holocaust.  (See, for instance, my commentary on the ABC-TV movie, The Day After, which was broadcast the same year as The Apocalyptic Premise was published.)

End-times hysteria is nothing new.  It spread across Europe like hellfire in the years before the turn of the first millennium (around 1000 A.D.).

More recent years have seen a slew of end-times prophecies that have come and gone.  In 2011, for instance, radio preacher Harold Camping predicted the Rapture would take place on May 21 and then, when it didn't happen, said his calculations were off and the end of the world as we know it would instead take place in October.  Disappointed that the world did not end as he prophesied, Camping withdrew from public life and died a few weeks ago.

On January 9, Gon Ben Ari wrote about some recent apocalyptic predictions for The Jewish Daily Forward:
This may seem odd, but a surprisingly large chunk of the Western World believed we wouldn’t get to see 2013, purely because that’s what the Mayans thought. Most of these people never did anything else that Mayans did — never ate human flesh, for example, or at least never offered to pay for it. So why did they rush to embrace that specific bit of Mayan faith? Eschatology proves to be a human urge, just like hunger, sleep or love. We need to know that there’s at least a hint of a chance that the world is in danger, perhaps because it is too hard to care for anything that isn’t, or because it is easier to believe in a disaster that is inflicted on the planet from above than to admit to the one we cause daily. Secular media is fueled by eschatology — the Y2K bug, meteor scares, terrorist threats — with Hollywood blockbusters competing for the chance to feed it each summer. Who by fire? By water? By zombies?

If there is one thing in common among all the conflicting beliefs in the world, it is the belief that the world will come to an end. Hindus count down to the completion of Kali Yuga; Muslims await the arrival of Mahdi; Christians fear the Day of Wrath. Jewish participation in “hisuvei kitzim” — “end calculations” — is as harshly forbidden as it is widely practiced. Every great rabbi has an end date: The Vilna Gaon, Rashi, Maimonides. In 1927, Rabbi Avraham Yalin published a book in which he claimed that Zionism would be the end of the world and that it would reach its goal in 1948. He died in 1934 and never got to see which part came true. The Gemara itself claims that the world will get to be only 6,000 (Jewish) years old. In Gregorian Calendar time, this means 2,240.
Ben Ari went on to note that a prominent 18th-19th century rabbi prophesied that the end of the world would come in the Hebrew calendar's year 5775, which begins in September 2014.

In other dire warnings, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church last year said that permitting gay people to marry will either (depending on your interpretation of his remarks) be a sign of the apocalypse or will hasten the world's end.

Patriarch Kirill stated in a cathedral sermon:
This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything in our powers to ensure that sin is never sanctioned in Russia by state law, because that would mean that the nation has embarked on a path of self-destruction.”
To take a current example that expresses our contemporary apocalyptic premise in a single word, Lou Dobbs, a popular and sometimes controversial TV host on Fox News, has written a new book published this week and called Upheaval, in which he argues that
the chief threats to the stability of our social order and economic well-being, indeed the very essence of our American way of life, go well beyond leagues of nation-states and ideologues who mean us harm.  The greatest threat of upheaval is a combination of those nation-states, ideological extremists, religious zealots, and the confluence of internal forces that are weakening our notion of who we are, diminishing our confidence in the American dream itself, and leaving many of our citizens and many of our leaders questioning American exceptionalism, our way of life, and our relationship to one another and to the world itself. The very idea of America is under great stress, from within and without.  The prospect of a great upheaval rises with each passing day that we decline to examine the consequences of the choices  we are making as a people and as a nation.  And these forces are allied, not in conspiracy, but in their contemporaneous array against us, our ideals, our values, and our nation's future.
Amidst this climate of dread and apprehension, even a possible shortage of Velveeta processed cheese within weeks of Super Bowl Sunday is being called a "cheesepocalypse," either mocking or reflecting the eschatological mood of the country.

The obsession with the apocalypse and the foreboding end of the world as we know it came to the attention of a Charlottesville financial advisor, David John Marotta, who described in last Sunday's Daily Progress how an off-hand remark on one of his blog posts ended up being distorted in a game of Internet telephone and, because of this distortion, ended up with a link to his post on the Drudge Report, bringing him a cascade of traffic and new visitors to his web site.

Marotta's December 11 blog post about preparing for possible emergencies is what stirred this apocalyptic pot. As he explains it,
Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner picked up the story first in his Dec. 26 Washington Secrets column titled, "Be prepared: Wall Street advisor recommends guns, ammo for protection in collapse."

Three parts of the headline are misleading.

I am not a Wall Street advisor; I am in Charlottesville. My only connection to Wall Street is having my photo taken at the Bull and eating at the Deli. The article does mildly clarify, describing me as a "Wall Street expert" — true if that means investment advisor. However, future articles referencing Bedard's article were misled by this description.

Furthermore, I did not exactly recommend guns and ammo. I suggested that two-dozen items on the list are more important. This is mentioned in the article when Bedard quotes me as saying, "Firearms are the last item on the list, but they are on the list."

I did not suggest there would be a collapse. I had written in the first of the series, "There is the possibility of a precipitous decline, although a long and drawn out malaise is much more likely."

Bedard was accurate in stating, "Marotta said that many clients fear an end-of-the-world scenario. He doesn't agree with that outcome, but does with much of what has people worried."

The very popular Drudge Report picked up the story next and featured it above its banner: "Wall Street advisor recommend guns, ammo for protection in collapse." The original Washington Examiner article was also copied on multiple sites without comment. Over three days, we had a record 30,946 unique visitors to our two sites.
After suggesting that the viral nature of his otherwise non-descript blog post may reveal something about the changing mood of the country and a reversal of traditional left/right political roles, Marotta said the solution to this apocalyptic thinking may simply be to reduce the size and scope of government. This, he asserts, will have a calming effect on political tempers:
Moving in a more libertarian direction blends the concerns of the right and the left on the abuses of governmental involvement in everything from marriage to spying. A smaller government could focus on what we all agree is its rightful purpose.
Journal of Civil Defense - April 1981
The lesson I take from Marotta's experience isn't that I should emphasize libertarian ideas more. After all, I've been doing that for years, especially since the launch of this blog in December 2004.

Instead, I think I should draw more on my years in the civil defense movement -- years in which I rubbed shoulders with fallout shelter-builders, survivalists, nuclear physicists, and even TV's Ben Cartwright himself, actor Lorne Greene -- and write more about how to prepare for the coming apocalypse.  If I could do it in the 1980s, why not do it today?

Scary headlines that say "Grab your guns and gold and run for the hills!" may stimulate the kind of blog traffic that Marotta experienced, and -- one would hope -- a corresponding increase in advertising revenue (and maybe a few cray-cray comments to enhance our entertainment value).

The end of the world as we know it is more than just a song title. It's a way of life.

So -- grab your gas masks, stock up on Bitcoin, and bunker down in the nearest mountain. Rediscover your inner Boy Scout ("Be prepared!"). The eschaton is imminent and it begs for your enthusiastic participation.

And please don't forget to leave a tip for your blogger and share this article on social media.

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