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The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about Americaby Mathew Barrett Gross, Mel Gilles
During the first dozen years of the twenty-first century, apocalyptic anticipation in America has leapt from the cultish to the mainstream. Today, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that the events foretold in the book of Revelation will come true. But many secular readers also seem hungry for catastrophe and have propelled books about peak oil, global warming,
During the first dozen years of the twenty-first century, apocalyptic anticipation in America has leapt from the cultish to the mainstream. Today, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that the events foretold in the book of Revelation will come true. But many secular readers also seem hungry for catastrophe and have propelled books about peak oil, global warming, and the end of civilization into bestsellers. How did we come to live in a culture obsessed by the belief that the end is near?
The Last Myth explains why apocalyptic beliefs are surging within the American mainstream today. Demonstrating that our expectation of the end of the world is a surprisingly recent development in human thought, the book reveals the profound influence of apocalyptic thinking on America’s past, present, and future.
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-Thom Hartmann, Bestselling author and international radio and TV show host
"The Last Myth is an important and moving analysis of the apocalyptic impulse that impels this culture toward its destructive ends. It is an even more important and moving exploration of what we can and must do about it."
-Derrick Jensen, Author of Endgame
"The ability to distinguish between genuine perils—like climate change—and less fearsome ones is as key a skill as there can be at this tough moment, and this book has some truly interesting thoughts about how to do it."
-Bill McKibben, Author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"The Last Myth is a book of ideas born out of this moment in time. Rapture. Rupture. Climate change. Change of heart. It is in our nature to live against the edge of apocalypse. Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles show us in intelligent and provocative prose that the gift of presence is all we have. This book is one that should be brought to the dinner table for lively and transformative conversation with family and friends. At a time when so much separates us ideologically, these ideas can unite us in our understanding that the only end of the world we really need to fear is the end of our imagination."
-Terry Tempest Williams, Author of When Women Were Birds and The Open Space of Democracy
- Prometheus Books
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Read an Excerpt
THE LAST MYTHWHAT THE RISE OF APOCALYPTIC THINKING TELLS US ABOUT AMERICA
By MATHEW BARRETT GROSS MEL GILLES
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2012 Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Apocalyptic Decade
Few of us can clearly make out the form of history until it is well behind us. The current events that preoccupy us, which we imbue with so much meaning in our daily lives, are often found years later to be of little consequence. The past has another pattern, as T. S. Elliot wrote—and while we look elsewhere or speak of other things, history manifests itself in the wings of the stage. The subplots become the main narrative, and what we perceived as the central crisis of our lives is often later revealed to be a minor and slightly flawed scene, the terrible acting of which is quickly forgotten.
Only in retrospect do the more lasting images and themes of an era reveal themselves. We think of flappers and fur coats and a youthful decadence when we think of the Roaring Twenties. Goose-stepping newsreel fascists in Europe carry the banners emblazoned with our memory of the thirties, segueing into the ticker-tape victory parades of the forties. A cloistered conformity has defined the fifties; hippies, the sixties; self-indulgence, the seventies; and greed, the eighties. Yet while history is happening—while the present is slipping into that inevitable and simplifying parody that soon enough becomes the past—few of us can correctly identify what will later be seen as the dominant cultural icon of our era. A housewife in Peoria in 1967 had little comprehension that her decade would be remembered not for any of the things that consumed her daily life but for the kids who had just driven past her house in a VW® Bus, leaving a scent of grass and patchouli in their wake as they turned down the next block.
That we are blinded to history by our own proximity to current events helps us understand why we still have not settled on a common name for the decade now receding behind us. "The Aughts" never caught on, in part because "aught" as a reference to "zero" remains largely alien to the American vernacular. "The Zeros" is too dreary—too steeped in self-abnegation and too reminiscent of what became of our 401(k)s as the decade came to a close—for even the most maudlin among us to choose it. Some have suggested "The Terror Decade" for obvious reasons, but such a designation fails to encompass the full spectrum of events that influenced the receding decade's mood.How others will look back on this time is beyond our knowing or influence, of course, but future historians would do well to ascribe to our time a name that encapsulates not just the events of the past decade but the way in which we as Americans have come to view the world and our place within it. Such a name might be the Apocalyptic Decade or, perhaps, the Apocalyptic Era—for it is not over yet.
It was during the last decade, after all, that the belief in the end of the world leapt from the cultish into the mainstream of American society. Ours is an era bookended by the widespread belief in the impending collapse of society: at one end we had Y2K, the largest and most expensive mass preparation for a secular apocalypse in the history of the world; at the other end we have the growing expectation and belief that December 21, 2012—the supposed end date of the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar—will herald either a radically transformative or utterly cataclysmic global event. Between these two bookends are pages upon pages of apocalyptic anxiety, a decade-plus-long collection that tells the tale of an America that has grown very afraid of the future.
Ours is a country whose optimism and can-do spirit won two world wars and put a man on the moon during the twentieth century; a nation that has given humankind, in the space of less than a hundred years, the dream of flight, the wonder of electricity, and the power of the Internet. And yet today, Americans of all beliefs and backgrounds are turning increasingly to apocalyptic scenarios to explain and understand a world and nation that look radically different from just a decade ago. This turn toward the apocalyptic is understandable. After all, the headlines of our age read like a horrific disaster novel, with the first chapter titled 9/11; the second chapter, Hurricane Katrina; the third chapter, the Great Recession; and on and on. Nearly every news story—from those dealing with terrorism to climate change to a global economy coming apart at the seams—appears to point to an impending end of the way of life that we have known.
The news looks bad, to be sure. Yet Americans have faced bad news and great challenges before, while largely managing to keep apocalyptic despair off the airwaves and out of presidential press conferences. How have we come to interpret nearly every event through the prism of the apocalypse?
THE END OF HISTORY
To answer that question, it helps to first remind ourselves that we haven't always thought as apocalyptically about world events as we do today. American history is filled with extended periods when the nation looked at the challenges it faced not with despair but with optimism; times when we felt with certainty that the country was not only on the right track but was traveling with great speed toward what would surely be a glorious destination. Such periods are not relegated solely to the distant past. Indeed, though we often forget it, we experienced an extended period of such optimism a little more than twenty years ago, when the Cold War came to an end.
As the Soviet Union collapsed and our four-decades-long fear of nuclear annihilation receded, a heavy burden was removed from our shoulders, and a new sense of levity arose around us. On the pop charts, British rock band Jesus Jones sang about the joy of sitting before the television set as history appeared to come to an end. This was, as another song went, the end of the world as we'd known it—and we felt fine. The long struggle between Western democracy and communism hadn't ended in a nuclear conflagration but instead with the opening of a McDonald's in Moscow. The music at Bill Clinton's inaugural gala in 1993 perfectly (if somewhat embarrassingly) captured the mood of the adolescent decade: yesterday was gone, indeed.
The sense of historical emancipation felt during the early 1990s is best exemplified by American philosopher and political economist Francis Fukuyama's influential essay "The End of History?" Fukuyama borrowed his title from Karl Marx (who had, in turn, borrowed it from Hegel) to argue that the end of the Cold War signaled the triumphant end to human progress. "What we may be witnessing," Fukuyama wrote of the current events swirling around him, as the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Europe broke free of Soviet influence, "is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history." Like Hegel and Marx before him, Fukuyama viewed history as a struggle between competing ideologies—in Fukuyama's case, between Western liberal democracy and the authoritarianism of fascism and communism. The collapse of the Soviet Union, in Fukuyama's mind, marked "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the long struggle of history had finally come to an end: democracy and capitalism, empowered by rapid advances in technology, had won the global battle for the hearts and minds (not to mention the pocketbooks) of humanity.
The assertion that there would come a time when there would "be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions," as Fukuyama put it, "because all of the really big questions will have been settled," had been long anticipated in Western philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology. Others had made similar proclamations of the arrival of a new Golden Age in the past. What was remarkable about Fukuyama's pronouncement at the start of the 1990s, however, was the readiness of America's academic, economic, and political elite to embrace the idea that a post-historical era had finally arrived. On Wall Street, Fukuyama's assertion that we had been emancipated from the trials of history soon morphed into the irrationally exuberant belief that the "new economy" of the dot-com boom marked a liberation from the fundamental laws of economics.
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, the notion that we had reached a point where the supremacy of democratic capitalism was indisputable reverberated around the corridors of the nation's capital and echoed in the inner sanctums of both political parties. The concepts of Fukuyama's book The End of History rang through the philosophical justifications for the policies of free-market globalization pursued by President Bill Clinton, who argued that globalization was inevitable—"an economic force of nature" that would lift people in third-world countries (or those who were still "mired in history," as Fukuyama put it) up to our own level of post-historical prosperity. At the other end of the political spectrum, Fukuyama's ideas were cribbed by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the neoconservative think tank whose members and leadership included Fukuyama himself, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, and William Kristol. PNAC's vision of a new Pax Americana—in which the United States would "build up material wealth at an accelerated rate" through the securing of global resources and maintain its ideological preeminence through military might—would become the philosophical and strategic basis for the Bush doctrine of preemptive war following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
There were shortcomings to this new glib Golden Age of the 1990s, however. In retrospect, it relied too much on the pronouncements of financial analysts and academics, who loudly repudiated the laws of economics and the lessons of history. America was on top, they promised, and would be forevermore. Soon, we would all be able to cash in our Yahoo! stock and retire poolside to while away the days in an eternally blissful Margaritaville. If such statements now seem hyperbolic, it's worth remembering the ink that was spilled in the early 1990s by journalists and commentators who wondered what effects the end of the Cold War and the surging NASDAQ might have on our once-pioneering spirit. Fukuyama, for example, feared that the end of history would prove a "sad time" because its luxuriously soporific victors would lack a sense of meaningful struggle. What lay ahead for humankind were "centuries of boredom" in which we in the West risked being emasculated by the "satisfaction of ... consumer demands." We would become Nietzsche's vision of the Last Man, made despicably effeminate by the absence of any real challenges. The best eternity had to offer those of us who had inherited the post-historical world, Fukuyama lamented, were the distractions of the television set and the computer screen. The Golden Age would be, regrettably, rather dull.
Looking back on the post-historical rhetoric of the early 1990s arouses feelings similar to those elicited when one reflects on the naïveté of one's youth—for the decade that followed would prove neither dull nor particularly golden. Yet it's important to remember the earnestness of the delusion that we had escaped history—a delusion that spread from Washington to the NASDAQ to the Top 40 charts—for it represents the starting point in our bipolar shift in consciousness toward apocalyptic despair. Our exuberant optimism would soon boomerang back at us. From the highest hopes come the deepest disappointments.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
All of us remember the apocalyptic anticipation that surrounded Y2K and the approach of the new millennium. But few of us draw the right lessons from it.
Concerns first emerged in the early 1990s that a design flaw in the binary method that computer systems used to store and understand dates would cause widespread computer malfunctions when the year 2000 arrived. These malfunctions, experts predicted, would have real-world impacts, with the potential to wreak havoc on the nation's computer-reliant infrastructure. A series of government and industry reports confirmed that the "Y2K bug," as it became known, was real; failure to address the problem, the experts warned, could have an unforeseeable but potentially catastrophic impact on the nation's financial, electrical, and distribution networks.
In response to the perceived crisis, the US government and US industries began investing massive amounts of capital in upgrades to their computer networks by the middle of the 1990s. Yet despite these precautions, worry over what the year 2000 might bring soon began to spread from IT departments and corporate boardrooms to mainstream media and Main Street, USA.
We all remember what happened next. Nearly every American journalist, it seemed, secretly had an inner science fiction nerd just waiting to get out—and the idea of Y2K soon sent their imaginations running wild. "At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999," one journalist wrote in the San Jose Mercury News in May of 1998, "the 'Y2K' bug will strike. Some of the big computers that run corporations and governments, and some of the tiny computers that run appliances and industrial equipment, will suddenly freeze or go crazy." The evening news teemed with breathless reports speculating on the innumerable catastrophes that could befall a world at the mercy of these insane computer chips. Banks might lose all records of your checking and savings accounts, in effect swallowing the nest eggs of millions of helpless Americans; the computerized flight controls of modern jetliners could go haywire, sending passengers plummeting to the earth; the national power grid could shut down, plunging the nation into freezing darkness in the middle of winter; computer-controlled dams could open their floodgates, releasing a biblical deluge on American cities and towns; and the launch systems of American and Russian ICBMs could activate, raining nuclear holocaust down on the world in what would surely have been the most egregious technological screw up in history. And on and on and on, an endless invocation of technological mayhem, large and small: your car refusing to start; mass starvation arising as the food distribution system comes to a halt; your toaster defiantly refusing to brown your bagel. Anything—and everything—could happen.
The American people responded to the approaching disaster as they responded to nearly every crisis that has confronted them since the end of the Second World War—by shopping. Manufacturers of portable generators couldn't keep up with consumer demand, despite massive increases in production, and sales of everything from freeze-dried food to first-aid kits skyrocketed. As the countdown to apocalypse approached, the stocked pantries of families who had prepared for disaster became a staple of local television news. While the media's coverage of those who had gone to the furthest extremes in their preparation—selling their houses in cities and suburbs and moving to a rural acreage in anticipation of a calamitous regression to preindustrial life—tended toward the bemused, a majority of Americans followed the advice of both the federal government and the American Red Cross, who urged the stockpiling of food and water as part of their "Y2K Preparedness" bulletins. By the time New Year's Eve 2000 arrived, Americans had spent millions of man-hours and more than $300 billion for what was (to date) the most widespread and expensive preparation for a potential apocalypse in history.
And then—nothing. As the shadow of the 1990s receded across the globe and the sun rose upon the new decade, reports came in from Sydney and Tokyo and Beijing that the future had arrived not with a bang, nor even a whimper, but with an overwhelming and remarkably uneventful indifference. Americans breathed a sigh of relief—or uttered a curse of chagrin as they shut down their overpriced backup generators—as each time zone entered the new millennium without even a minor catastrophe to vindicate a cupboard full of dehydrated beans.
Excerpted from THE LAST MYTH by MATHEW BARRETT GROSS MEL GILLES Copyright © 2012 by Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Mathew Barrett Gross rewrote the rules of presidential politics as the director of Internet Communications for Howard Dean’s groundbreaking 2003–2004 presidential campaign. Highly regarded as a new media strategist, he has consulted for numerous political campaigns, advocacy organizations, and global NGOs, and has been profiled in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Fast Company. A former rock drummer and river guide, he lives in Moab, Utah.
Mel Gilles is the cofounder and director of Sol Kula Yoga and Healing in Moab, Utah. She served as a nonprofit director and consultant for over a decade. Her writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and blogs nationwide; her essay "The Politics of Victimization" went viral, appearing on MichaelMoore.com and BuzzFlash and reaching more than two million readers around the world.
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